By Capt. Mike Hogan
The fantastic striper fishing along rocky shorelines of The Elizabeth Islands has lured anglers from both close and a far for literally centuries. Cuttyhunk, the Western most island of the chain, was once home to The Cuttyhunk Bass Club, an elite basing club in the 1800s with an impressive history of trophy sized fish and members even included the likes of Theodore Roosevelt. Though Cutty hunk receives the most notoriety amongst striper anglers, the entire chain of the Elizabeths is a very fishy place. Each year numbers of 40-50 even 60lb fish are taken along the rocky shores. Cuttyhunk is the only public island of the chain, so shore fishing is limited to just the one island. Otherwise, fishing the Elizabeths is primarily a boater’s game and a bit of a run from wherever you hail from but well worth it. Although you have to put your time in (as always!) for a trophy, your odds go up exponentially if you’re “down the islands…”
In years gone by, anglers at The Cuttyhunk Bass Club would use fresh lobster for bait, which as a seafood lover, it is just too hard for me to imagine. I love striped bass, but hey! Obviously times have changed and so have the methods but striped bass have remained opportunistic feeders. As a result, they just can’t help themselves when a slinky eel makes its way through the rocks, especially at night. It’s not hard to imagine why using live eels has been a mainstay for so many anglers down the islands. But live bait isn’t for everybody. For some anglers, the thrill of tricking a fish on artificials is worth the angling efforts, for others, the mess and the hassle of bait gets in the way of using the real deal and sometimes, well, you simply run out! So, for you eel free anglers, let’s take a look on how to effectively replicate eels in some of the fishiest water the east coast has to offer.
Late Season Cows
School sized stripers start to take residence each year by the third week of May but the larger bass become more consistent in June. Springtime fishing along the Elizabeth Islands is often a game of imitating squid and herring. However as the season progresses and migrations continue, eels become many anglers first choice. Throughout the summer as the water heats up, bass will move into deeper water by day so nighttime through early morning is your best bet. Even into the fall with the cooling water temps, I still prefer the darker parts of the day with the first few hours after sunset and the last two hours before day break being my first choices. Fishing can be productive through the first two weeks of November. In terms of catching a big cow, October would be my first choice.
The Lay Of The Land…
Before getting to involved with techniques and locations on the western portions of the Elizabeth Islands, it’s worth addressing the lay of the land.
My preference for tides down the west side of the Elizabeths will vary depending on where I’m fishing, and how. When fishing the shorelines on either Buzzards Bay or Vineyard Sound, I prefer 2 hours on each side of high tide as you can get in really tight to shore and fish the submerge boulders where bass will really take advantage of structure. If I’m fishing either Quicks or Robinsons Hole, I like the first hour each tide before currents get too heavy to effectively fish.
Tidal currents tend to move east and west and never more than a knot or so during peak tides. Winds in our area tend to prevail from the South West. That Said, I prefer an onshore breeze as I feel it pushes everything into shore. For that reason, I tend to fish the Vineyard Sound Side more often but that’s not to say the Buzzard’s Bay Side is not worth fishing. Many a big bass has been taken on both sides, so I’d recommend erring on the side of wind direction. Just watch out for rocks! They sneak up on you on either side. I also want to raise another word of caution, especially as I write this in the middle of September, it is worth watching for storm swell as the Islands extend very close to the open Atlantic so you’ll be dealing with uninterrupted swells that can put you on the rocks very quickly, not to mention swamping your boat if your stern to.
The entire chain of the Elizabeths can be productive, but in later months, I prefer the west side, from Pasque to Cuttyhunk, with plenty of “fresh” cooler water moving through. But like many areas you might fish, some areas are more productive than others. Specific spots aside for the moment, you want to look for structure. Big boulders, especially those near moving water but also keep an eye out for clusters of rocks that are barely visible which can be key fish producers. Ridgelines that protrude from shore will likely continue under water and will often hold fish on either side. You may even notice a rip line that forms.
Casting with BIG Soft baits
When I think live eel imitations, big soft baits are the first to come to mind, especially when it comes to casting. By big soft baits, I’m talking 10” and up. The longer the soft bait, the slinkier the action will be. Big soft baits actually have some advantages over the real thing. For one, you can control where your bait is in the water column. With soft baits, you are not limited to the whims of an actual eel; rather you can dial in your techniques in to “crack the code.” A live eel will swim where it wants to, usually down. Comparatively speaking, when it comes to soft baits, you can control where you are in the water column based on how you rig. You can fish soft baits unweighted, with insert weights or on jig heads in deeper water. You can fish them fast, slow or in between. I prefer to fish my soft baits fast, much faster than that of live eels, imparting lots of short twitching motions as I retrieve. I find bass are more willing to commit on a faster moving bait and hook up ratios seem to go up with a little speed. In terms of rigging, I do favor tandem rigging on larger soft baits to further fortify hook up ratios.
Another factor to consider is color selection. Live eels only come in one color: eel. But sometimes, color makes a big difference, most noticeably during daytime conditions. Sometime attractor colors are the most effective. I actually have more confidence in a 14” Bubble Gum Soft bait in bright conditions than a live eel! I also find that amber is an excellent sunrise and sunset color. It neither a dark nor light color in the orange light. Otherwise, I favor black and red wine at night following the old adage, dark colors for dark conditions and bright colors for bright conditions… Don’t be afraid to change your colors, even if they don’t mimic an eel.
When casting with soft baits, I prefer a relatively fast action 8’ Rod as it helps with casting distance but the longer rod also helps with working the baits. On my charters, I use the G Loomis Surf Series rod because it has just enough of a soft tip to cast bug soft baits but plenty of brawn when it comes to turning a big fish. Between all the rock formations and lobster pots, braid is a must when fishing the Elizabeths. I find the 40lb braid has the proper balance between smooth casting and enough abrasion resistance. I use at least 30lb fluorocarbon leader that I connect to the braid with a uni to uni knot. If I’m into bigger fish, I’ll switch over to 40lb test for its abrasion resistance.
As the owner of Hogy® Lure Co, I will disclaim that my opinion is biased, that said, I prefer the 14” Hogy® for casting along the islands. It’s just long enough so that you have an incredible “S” pattern that recoils through the bait, but also, it’s not so long, that it’s hard to manage. In terms of casting with big soft baits down along the west end of the Islands, my first choice would be the stretch along Pasque, the Island between Quicks and Robinsons. There is no “one” specific spot that I’d recommend over the other as the fish move from spot to spot. The key is to work the shoreline. Be very, very mindful in this area. I painfully know first hand that every rock isn’t on my GPS, so its well worth a few daytime visits to get the gist of things. Color-wise, I tend to stick with black, red wine and purple at night. On the west side of the islands, I use bubble gum colored soft baits about 90% of the time during daytime conditions. It could be my imagination, but bubblegum is extra effective all the way down to Cuttyhunk.
Drifting with Big Soft Baits
Although soft baits are most commonly associated with casting, drifting with big soft baits is an excellent deep water strategy; with Quicks And Robinsons Holes quickly coming to mind. When drifting with soft baits, high modulus 7’ 10” graphite musky rods are my favorites as they are so sensitive that you can feel just about everything that is going on. Furthermore, since they are designed for casting, you can easily use the same outfit for through baits as you do drifting. Similarly to that of my spinning outfits, I prefer 40lb braid with at least a 30lb fluorocarbon leader. With the lightness of the braid, it is easier to tend bottom with less weight and consequently you’ll have more sensitivity. In terms of rigging, a three-way rig, similar to how you’d rig for fishing with live eels, is my favorite method for drifting with large soft baits. To set up, I connect the braid to a three-way swivel on the top eyelet, the soft bait to about 24” of 30lb test fluorocarbon leader, and finally I attach the sinker with about 6-12” of 20lb mono so that it will break away if it snags. Weight will vary based on where you’re fishing. The tide can run upward of 3kts in each of the holes which can call for up to 6ounce of weight.
I feel that the softness of the bait does 90% of the work as far as presentation goes as it slinks its way through the water. But short twitching motions certainly don’t hurt and at the very least will help guide you as to here you are relative to the bottom, where you’ll want to be.
If I were to pick on favorite place to drift with soft baits, it would be in Robinson’s Hole, just east of the channel. Be careful as the reef, also just inside the channel comes up fast. Regardless, the deep bowl of water before hand is incredibly productive. You’ll notice big, fish holding boulders on your fish finder.
Trolling With Big Soft Baits
The biggest soft baits available (that I know of) are the 14”Hogys® that are very well suited for trolling. I’ll even go so far as to say that I’ve been in a number of situations where I out fished a tube and worm with a 14” Hogy®. One major advantage with this technique is that when you take the boat out of gear to drop down on some fish you’re marking on your fish finder or over known structure, the bait will have a natural movement in the water as it descends, which in turn leads to a number of strikes.
I prefer lead cored line over wire it lighter, which means its less tiring and also happens to tangle far less frequently. Unless you’re trolling through Quicks or Robinson’s Hole, you’re never in much more than 30’ of water and often much less so the added sink rate of wire is unnecessary.
As far as my outfit goes, I am a big fan of graphite rods, again, for increased sensitivity. In fact, I use the same 7’ 10” Musky rods for trolling as I do for casting big and drifting with soft plastics. The only difference is (in addition to the lead line) is an 8’ 60lb fluorocarbon leader. With a lightweight reel, such as the Penn 320, you can hold the outfit in one hand. Unlike tubing and worming, I work the baits in the same jigging fashion as I do with parachute style buck tails. Lots of short snapping motions… Oddly, the worm doesn’t seem to be necessary unlike a trolling tube, which adds for convenience.
In terms of trolling, Sow and pigs reef is hands down the most famed trolling spot along the Elizabeths, but due to its treacherous nature, is the subject of an article of its own and is best left to anglers who are very familiar with the area. That said, the stretch between Pasque all the way around Cuttyhunk is extremely effective water. A good general rule of thumb is to hug the 20’ contour line. I frequently make loops in tight to shore and loop out, paying close attention to my fish finder, frequently taking the boat out of gear as I pass fish on my recorder. Often, I’ll switch to trolling as daylight has taken full effect in the morning due to the ease of which I can keep my baits in deeper water, where stripers will often go due to their sensitive eyesight. I also appreciate the ability to cover a lot of ground if the fish seem spread out.