What do you see when you look out onto Narragansett Bay? Waves, boats, a few sea birds. If you happen to catch some movement out of the corner of your eye, it might be the splash of a fish or bird chasing some prey. Overall, it’s usually a pretty tranquil scene.
Beneath the surface, however, the bay is alive with marine life, including more fish than some veteran anglers have seen in their lifetime. So, if you’ve never dipped a line in the waters of the East Bay or chartered a boat to chase stripers from the Mount Hope Bridge to Fort Adams, you’re missing out on what some are calling a new golden age for saltwater fishing in Rhode Island.
“Narragansett Bay is the cleanest it has been in 100 years,” says Captain BJ Silvia of Flippin Out Charters, who’s been fishing the Bay since his mother gave him his first rod and reel as a child, and has been running rental boats or charters from Portsmouth for more than a decade. “Fishing here is something really special, but people don’t know it. It gets better and better every year.”
The East Bay can be fished year-round, although it’s a chilly proposition to get out on the water during the winter months. Most anglers wait ’til spring, when the squid and bait fish like menhaden (also known as bunker) arrive — with striped bass, the Bay’s most popular game fish, and other predators in close pursuit beginning in late April and early May.
“Things change every year, but I’ve never seen big fish like these in the Bay so early before,” says Silvia, who reeled in a 38-pound striper on May 1 this year.
The tautog and stripers tend to head deeper into the Bay in the spring, then retreat back toward Newport as the bay waters warm up in the summer. “Fishing in the Bay is very dependent upon temperature,” says Steve Medeiros, president of the 7,500-member Rhode Island Saltwater Anglers Association. “Generally, the best fishing is before the water warms up around the Fourth of July. In October, it changes again — the fish come back in, and the tautog and stripers follow the menhaden and other bait fish” that have gone up the Bay to spawn.
The charter boats pursue the menhaden both to use as bait themselves and to catch the big fish that are feeding on them. “There’s more bait fish than I have ever seen in my life,” says Silvia. Experienced anglers know to keep an eye out for ospreys, which also target menhaden and are “the best fishermen on the Bay,” says Silvia.
In the fall, bluefish, black sea bass, tautog, and stripers — some grown up to 80 pounds by now — swim further up the Bay, providing another bonanza for anglers on boats and onshore. “You can still catch striped bass on Thanksgiving Day,” says Medeiros. Powerful false albacore tuna (“albies”) and bonito also move in, both large predators beloved by the big-game fishermen who come to Rhode Island from New York, Connecticut, Delaware, and beyond.
Prime fishing grounds in the East Passage vary from year to year, but some standard hot spots include the waters around Prudence and Rose islands, under the Mount Hope and Newport bridges, and Halfway Rock, a popular hangout for schools of bluefish. Coddington Cove is well-known for tautog. In the fall, “any pier will hide fish,” including the one at the former Melville navy base on Aquidneck Island, says Silvia.
The Bay’s ample wrecks also provide habitat for big fish, although Silvia is coy about revealing his favorite places to hover over with his stealthy trolling motor.
Fishing in the East Bay can range from casual to challenging, whether you’re casting a light rig baited with small crabs for tautog or fighting to land a fiesty albie. Boats like the 25-foot Flippin Out — equipped with advanced Hummingbird side-imaging fish finders — can accommodate any skill level.
“We are rigged up to serve anyone who wants to fish, including those who have never fished in their life,” says Silvia, who says that novice women often catch the biggest fish on his charters. “That’s because women listen to directions, and men don’t,” he says with a laugh.
A lot of what you can catch in the Bay you can eat, and charter crews are usually happy to clean and filet the fish you catch or show you how to do the job yourself. Baked tautog, grilled striped bass, smoked bluefish pate — all can be rewards of a half or full day.
Recreational fishers are limited to keeping one striper (28-inch minimum) per day and three to five tautog (16-inch minimum) and three to seven sea bass (15-inch minimum), depending on the season. If you like the strong, oily flavor of bluefish, you’re in luck: you can take up to 15 blues of any size per day.
“I get a ton of people who want to throw everything back and some who want fish for their freezer,” says Silvia, who encourages his customers to release large female game fish —which are often full of eggs — in the interest of preserving the fishery.
Chartering a fishing boat isn’t cheap — rates on Flippin Out are typical at $550 for a half-charter, and $850 for a full day, with some discounts in the spring. Split between four or five friends, the cost becomes more reasonable, but for those who can’t afford a charter, there’s always the option of fishing off a dock, surfcasting, or even casting off from a saltwater fishing kayak.
Medeiros says Rhode Island has “shamefully few” public fishing piers, but fortunately some of the best are in the East Bay, including the seawall at Fort Adams (popular for scup and sea bass). Colt State Park in Bristol, Barrington Beach and the Haines Memorial State Park in Barrington, Brenton Point State Park in Newport, and Fogland Point in Tiverton, along with various locations along the East Bay Bike Path, are excellent for beginners.
Other locations that attract experienced shore fishermen include Ocean Drive in Newport, Sakonnet Point in Little Compton, and Sachuest Point in Middletown. Fishing kayaks can launch from the Kings Beach Fishing Area in Newport, or pretty much anywhere with shore access on the East Passage.
Will you catch a fish during your day on the water? “When we go out on the ocean, it’s almost a guarantee,” says Silvia. “But in the Bay, I never guarantee it, because the fish move around too much.” Still, the abundant fish found in Narragansett Bay from spring to fall makes the odds pretty good that you’ll get some home with at least one selfie-worthy trophy.
Fishing gear and bait can be found at shops like Lucky Bait and Tackle in Warren, Bristol Bait and Tackle in Bristol, and The Saltwater Edge in Middletown. With a fishing license costing just $7 for residents and $10 for nonresidents (available at local bait shops, some coastal town halls, or online from the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management), there’s no better time to cast a line and try your luck at a sport that contributes more than $322 million to the local economy each year.
“There are so many rivers and estuaries where the bait fish spawn in the spring, from the Palmer River to the Barrington River to the Providence River, and they’re all dumping out into the East Bay in the fall,” says Peter Jenkins, owner of The Saltwater Edge. “If you find the bait, you’ll find the fish — that’s what makes the East Bay such a great place to fish in the fall.”