August 28, 2015
I have fly fished Nantucket for many years, but always wondered how it measured up to other more famous New England fly-fishing destinations.
One warm, golden September evening, I looked out on terns diving near Great Point Rip. Under them were mixed pods of bluefish, striped bass, bonito, Spanish mackerel, and false albacore. My 9-weight was bowed against the heft of a 30-inch striper, and I then realized that Nantucket's May-to-October fishing is as good as any of the usual New England hot spots, but with fewer crowds.
Nantucket is a small island, little more than a glacial deposit 30 miles off Cape Cod, often draped in mist—hence the nickname "The Grey Lady." Save for the rapidly eroding bluffs of Sankaty Head, it lacks the high ground that characterizes Martha's Vineyard's western shores, and its inland soil is only slightly less sandy than the beaches that line it. But its gritty composition means that Nantucket is surrounded by sandbars, rips, and other fishy water.
Late summer and fall. Nantucket fishing usually peaks in mid to late September, but bass and bluefish are often caught into November. In the latter part of the season, autumn's strong cold fronts can invigorate the fish into wild migration frenzies or slow them with howling northerly winds and muddy water. But for the most part, the fishing is good, and after months of bluefish and striped bass, late summer and fall brings new and welcome diversity.
Depending on water temperatures, Atlantic bonito appear every year beginning in late July or early August. Capt. Tom Mleczko, who has fished Nantucket for more than 30 years, says that anglers ignored bonito for years but now they are well known, and Nantucket's "Bonito Bar" has become perhaps the most reliable spot in New England for these migratory speedsters.
Bonito Bar is south of the opening between Tuckernuck and Smith's Point and, on nice days in late summer or early fall, it gets crowded with boats. On an incoming tide, baitfish—mostly sand eels—get pushed up against the bar's outer edge. On good days, the usually clear water takes on a brownish hue from the massive clouds of baitfish.
The density of the bait can frustrate anglers because the predators—bonito, bluefish, stripers, and even small bluefin tuna—need not move out of their way for an imitation.
A pattern that stands out from the bait, such as a larger Clouser Minnow or Deceiver, often catches more fish. Bonito fishing is streaky, however, and patience is the key.
False albacore round out the fall fishing. The favorite of many New England fly fishers, the first false albacore of the season are usually seen greyhounding around the island in late August. On Nantucket's west end, albies pursue bait in the channel between Smith Point and Eel Point. Several pods often slash at the surface at different intervals, which can be maddening for boat anglers. Rather than running and gunning, it's often best to motor slowly, gauge the direction in which one particular pod is moving, and try to intercept it.
Shorebound anglers can catch albies from the tip of Eel Point where the channel comes within a few feet of shore. At times the fish can be as close as a rod length away, and a few minutes later they can be a mile distant. Many local anglers believe the fish move in a predictable pattern and often return to a spot where they were earlier.
Great Point and its surrounding shores are another albie hot spot. Terns and gulls often wheel over multiple pods of fish slicing and cartwheeling their way through schools of peanut bunker, silversides, and sand eels. These sessions in the heavy current of Great Point Rip are accessible only by boat. Shorebound anglers should not attempt to wade out from the point against the tide that cranks wickedly over the bar.
Wading anglers get their best shots at albies nearby at the Galls—the narrowest part of Great Point, where the Atlantic Ocean and Nantucket Sound are separated by only a few hundred yards of sand—particularly on the west-facing beach in the Chord of the Bay.
Spring. In late April, as New England shakes off the last shrouds of winter and water temperatures creep into the 40s and low 50s, bass feed aggressively in the cold water. Because it's the first chance to grip a fly rod in months, and there are few anglers, spring is my favorite time to fish Nantucket.
The first fish to arrive are small striped bass, some only 12 inches long. Nonetheless, they're feisty and fresh, their sides bright and dotted with sea lice that are indicative of their travels. As April turns to May and the weather and water slowly warm, larger stripers arrive. Usually by mid-June, bass of all sizes are in Madaket Harbor, Great Point Rip (probably the island's most famous fishing spot), and elsewhere along the north and south shores.
Nantucket Harbor provides particularly good fishing at this time of year, as its shallow, dark bottom warms the water quickly and bass stack up along its many points and sandbars. Anglers catch some of the year's biggest fish—up to 40 inches—in the harbor's fertile waters in May and June.
Springtime anglers focus most of their attention on bass, but also catch good numbers of bluefish beginning in late May. The first blues to arrive often cut your lines with their sharp teeth, indicating it's time to rig wire tippets. In June, blues are usually near the north shore, where easy-to-wade beaches and sandbars put anglers within casting range. Here, 4- to 6-pound fish take just about any pattern that moves.
Summer. Though stripers become less active and harder to find as the water warms in midsummer, night fishing along drop-offs and channels, like those near Jetties Beach in town, is productive for bass. Fishing for blues is fantastic in mid-June through August. Schools of fish ranging from 3 to 10 pounds surround the island, and there are many bluefish larger than that, particularly in August, when they are fat from a summer of feeding.
Nantucket's summer bluefishing is possibly the best anywhere. Capt. Shawn Bristow, a Nantucket guide, says: "You can argue that other places have better fishing for striped bass or albies, but Nantucket's bluefishing is in a class by itself."
For years, Capt. Tom Mleczko (probably Nantucket's best-known guide) has won bluefish tournaments by comically wide margins fishing off Nantucket while his competition stuck to better known—but less productive—grounds elsewhere.
These summer bluefish spend much of their time swimming lazily on the surface along the north and south shores like tailing bonefish. In a boat, it is possible to drift for hours through acres of basking fish. Wading anglers can also take advantage of these eager targets, particularly along the east and west sides of Great Point—the northernmost tip of the island—where the fish are often within casting range of shore.
When bluefish aren't in the flat water, look for them in the many rips and shoals. Great Point Rip, Miacomet Rip, and the countless edges and sandbars off the island's west end usually provide steady action for bluefish and bass. These rips, particularly those around the small neighboring islands of Tuckernuck and Muskeget, are tricky to navigate, and you should not underestimate their power. Only experienced and knowledgeable boaters should attempt to fish them, and even then, it is safer and more productive to fish with a guide.
Midsummer's other Nantucket treat is sight-fishing for big stripers on the flats off Tuckernuck. On a sunny day, the bright, sandy shallows resemble the bonefish flats of the tropics, and the tactics for fishing these waters are similar. Pole or drift shallow-draft boats across the flats and keep your eyes peeled for the purplish cast of bass cruising through the clear water. Some of the flats are shallow enough to wade.
Flats fish can be selective. They sometimes follow flies for yards with their snouts nearly in the tail feathers before they turn off—with their wide, flat tails waving goodbye. Mleczko recalls days when these stripers were a well-kept secret, when he and other anglers masqueraded as clammers, rod in one hand, rake in the other. The fish were admittedly easier to catch then, but today are still caught in good numbers. The sight of a 36-inch bass inhaling a 3-inch Clouser is not one quickly forgotten, nor is the fight that follows.
If You Go
Cape Air flies to Nantucket from Providence, Boston, New Bedford, and Hyannis. Island Air also flies from Hyannis. Hyannis is a one-hour drive from Boston and four hours from New York City—if traffic cooperates. US Airways provides direct flights from New York's LaGuardia Airport, and both Delta Air Lines and JetBlue recently began service to the island from JFK.
Ferry service is also available from Hyannis on one-hour ferries or two-hour passenger and vehicle boats. The Steamship Authority (islandferry.com) provides passenger and car service while the Hy-Line Cruises (hy-linecruises.com) serves only passengers.
Once on Nantucket, you have a wide range of lodging options, varying from rental houses to bed-and-breakfasts and hotels. None are particularly inexpensive, though you might get lower rates by booking in the off-season.
Cars are available for rent, as are 4x4 off-road vehicles, which are required to drive on the beaches to locales such as Eel Point, Great Point, and Smith Point. Beach permits are available from the Trustees of Reservations (thetrustees.org) for beaches north of Wauwinet and from the town (nantucket-ma.gov) for all other shores.
Alexander B. Duncan is a graduate student and summertime Nantucket charter fishing captain. He lives in New York City.