May 26, 2003
A Memorable Day Aboard a Canoe on the Flats
Frank G. Dwyer
May 26, 2003
I’m sure it looked strange at first but most of my neighbors became accustomed to the sight as I’d done it many times before.
At the time, I lived two blocks from the seawall in Newburyport, which fronts Joppa Flats and in the distance, the entrance to the Merrimack River. I had purchased a 1973 fiberglass Mohawk canoe several years before moving to Newburyport to provide better access to the trout ponds I frequented in Middlesexx County. Upon my move north, I turned the canoe into a saltwater vessel outfitted with rod holders and a powerful electric trolling engine.
With the canoe balanced on the portage wheels, I wheeled the canoe out of my driveway and rolled it down Madison Street to the boat ramp at the seawall. While my wife Tami enjoys fishing, on this evening she was along for a relaxing ride along the flats and even brought a book. I was armed with a fly rod and a lightweight spinning rod.
It was a beautiful evening with a light breeze when we put in. I paddled out towards Plum Island Point when I noticed swirls on top of the water, usually signaling the presence of fish. Casting my 9-weight floating line with a blue and white popper, I picked up three quick schoolies. (Juvenile striped bass)
Just as I was releasing the third fish, I noticed a cloud of birds working the surface of the water about 500 yards off my bow. I dropped the trolling motor and headed towards the huge mass of diving birds. When we were about 300 yards from the feeding birds, we found ourselves smack-dab in the middle of the loudest striper feeding frenzy I have ever been lucky enough to witness.
The fish were slapping; slurping and leaping clear out of the water as they devoured the baitfish they were chasing. In a full 360 degrees around the boat, near and far, the fish were everywhere and louder than I had ever heard. Tami forgot about her book and we landed a fish on every cast for over 45 minutes. These fish ate everything we offered from poppers, deceivers and clousers on the fly rod to metal, plastic and poppers on the spinning rod.
We landed several fish over the 28” limit with one of the heavier one’s really stressing my 10-pound test line. In fact, the fish bent the hook almost straight on the lead headed jig I was using.
As is often the case when one comes across a blitz like this, at least for me, Murphy’s Law or some other force in the universe causes some problem with your gear. While the evening ended with both Tami and I landing many fish, early on I was punished with a frustrating tangle of knots in my fly line. With fish popping all around, untangling a line can seem like a very cruel punishment.
The combination of the feeding frenzy and the fly line tangle caused Tami to ask one question: “You call this relaxing”?
As a follow up to an item in a column a few weeks back, the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries has indeed raised the recreational limits on striped bass, effective this month. The new regulation stipulates that a person may keep two (2) fish over 28 inches per day. For the record, I’d prefer to see us back to one (1) fish per day, over 36 inches.
Fishing has truly begun to pick up, albeit a week or so later than many years past. I fished on Thursday, Saturday and Sunday this past week and Sunday was by far the best of the three.
I managed to get the boat in the water for the season on Wednesday evening and was out before work on Thursday morning. I fished the bottom of the incoming tide ---from about 5:45 to 9:00 am. I first tried around Carr and Eagle Island, above the Route 1 bridge, with no luck. I continued to work down under the Route 1 bridge, still no signs of life. Motoring out towards Joppa Flats, I saw terns and seagulls circling and diving in the distance, but there were no fish evident on the top. Just below the Ice Breaker, I started casting among the diving birds and ended up with five fresh striped bass in 40 minutes. The largest was fat 24" fish and it was great to have landed the first fish of the new season. All fish were landed on a blue/white lead head jig with a 4” white sluggo.
The temperature on Saturday when we left the dock was a balmy 37 degrees. It was quite cold without the wind, and with the wind it certainly did not feel like May. I won’t get into the gory details, but in 4 hours of fishing between two people, two small fish were landed.
Sunday again saw chilly weather in the upper 30’s as I left the frost covered dock. Unlike Saturday, this morning saw clear skies for sunrise and things warmed up nicely as the morning progressed.
I motored directly towards Joppa Flats and was rewarded with several small striped bass as I drifted just below Half-Tide Rocks. These fish all took a chartreuse and white clouser minnow on a fast sinking fly line.
The action on Joppa slowed so I headed out towards Plum Island Point to see what I could find. I found a very productive drift over a “hump” where the water quickly went from 24 feet to 7 feet and back to 25 feet. Drifting over the shallow water area each time typically yielded a decent sized striped bass in the 20” to 26” range. I spent a solid hour in this pattern and was rewarded with many fish. The current was ripping, so with limited time in the “strike zone” I left the fly rod in the rack was using a 6 foot spinning rod with an assortment of buck-tail jigs on ten pound test line.
Reports from Rock’s Village have shad and striped bass being caught with more frequency. It seems those in boats are out-fishing shore bound anglers.
Kay Moulton at Surfland reported good catches from both the oceanfront and the river over the last week. One gentleman who stopped into the shop reported landing 40 fish from the sandbar in the river on buck-tail jigs, with six fish coming in over the 28” minimum.
George at Captain’s Fishing Parties on Plum Island reports steady early-season fishing, with trips running Monday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday. The winning Pool fish on Sunday was a 40-pound cod, while on Monday the winning fish was in the high teens. In addition, Haddock in the 7-pound range have also been being caught.