The word leaked out as it normally does. We heard about fish caught by Rhode Islanders in the early 80s living on Block Island or traveling back and forth, drawn by the number and size of the fish. Fifties and at least one 60-pounder had our group and others checking how to get there and back.


     Our first trip was in the summer, arriving by day, catching blues by day, little at night save for small bass and lots of bug bites, but we saw enough of the structure to return in the fall, at first renting a small house down the street from the post office then a much bigger place near Southeast Light. It had a wonderful picture window with a glorious view of an orange sun rising over a pale blue ocean. We returned to the island every spring and fall until about 1988 when word of the fishing so swelled the ranks that shouting matches and fist fights took the fun out of it when too many casters were crowded into too small an area. Gradually our group disbanded and Block Island went into the history books.


     We learned by hard trial and error, up and down cliffs, missing the fish at first then seeing what we missed when an islander would pull into the airport, his truck full of big bass, causing us to shake our heads and try harder. In time we got the lay of the land, thanks in part to the friendship and help of some of the natives who told us where and how. It was schooling worth its weight in 50-pounders. Much has been written about the success during this time but I add we had more than our share of blank trips or lousy nights, walking and casting in a dreary, dismal, misty rain or huddling through the second night of a high pressure cold front, the moon high and bright, the catching as awful as anything you ever dreamed about. But the rewards were there too.


     The 7-inch plastic swimmer, with or without dropper, was hot on our first trips. Sand eels were the main forage and that plug was t-h-e way to get it done. Live eels took their share right through the whole time. Five-inch plastic swimmers, fished with spin rods and lighter leaders had some moderate success when worked slowly on nights with ultra-clear, ultra-calm surf. Then, along came the needlefish plugs. Our first exposure to one was at Southwest Point, we scoring a couple in the 30s, when fireworks started going off above us. A father and son team, fishing out of a light blue Suburban landed their first 50, cause for the celebration. They showed us their plug, a thin job from some place in New Jersey, looking like a pencil with hooks. Phone work followed back on the mainland, calling sources, locating a supply from a shop near Seaside Park, NJ. They were weak looking things with screw eyes instead of wire-through. Bass hit them and also pulled the screw eyes right out of the wood or mangled the 1/0 hooks they came with. Our guys started using epoxy to hold the screw eyes in place then started tinkering with their own, homemade versions. Lure makers took note as sales increased, offering better versions after many were beat up and broken by bass over 30 pounds. Some wire-through models began circulating, those bought right away, often in bulk, while others experimented with single-hook lures, the idea being to cut off the leverage so fish couldn't mash 3/0 trebles with the consistency they did.


     The 80s were the decade of the needlefish, or needles as some nicknamed them. All had their own killer favorite as bass anglers are wont to do. Here's but a sample of what they fooled. Silent George made his own plugs then used one at the Snake Hole on a 54-pounder, weighed that night on the scale outside Charley Dodge's tackle Shop. Steve Mckenna showed me the first wired-through model I ever saw then used it that night at Southwest Point for a fish that went slightly over 50 on the hanging scale outside out first rental house. Pat Abate found a needlefish on the beach and used that for a 50. Jersey George caught a 50 and found out when he got home his wife won a new car in a raffle. When you're hot you're on! This writer used both a wired-through model to land two 40s and two 50s in a night. A year later, almost to the day, the single-hook plug caught three 40s and a 60 before highs seas from an incoming tide drove even those big fish out of the rocky bowl. Dr. Frank Bush landed seven fish one night, all over 45 pounds. He kept a 52 for the scale the next day and estimated two other fish over 50 released before a lightening storm and dying battery on a borrowed Jeep drove him to shelter.


     Before we showed up in the 80s, Block Island had a reputation for bass over 60 pounds. Years back a manufacturer of metal lures ran a photo of a 67-pounder from the island's beaches. The International Game Fish Association record book long had a 61-pounder from the island as a Line Class record. During the late fall a party boat angler seeking cod with clams caught a 60 in deeper water off the south side. Maybe the biggest fish of which there is documentation is an 86-pounder landed by Colonel Francis Wayland Miner before the dawn of the 20th century. The year I caught my 67, there were three others in the 60s caught: a 61 on a homemade needlefish at Grove Point, a 64 from behind Ballards and a 63 from Southwest Point. The largest bass landed during this period in striper history was the 70-pounder caught by Joe Szaebo on a live eel on wild night at Southwest Point. That fish is now the Rhode Island state record, no easy feat in a state known for the skill of his striper anglers. I'm convinced the largest bass in the ocean swims by Block in the spring and again in the fall. Whether or not it comes within range of a surfcaster's lure depends on Mother Nature and her many moods.

     It was hard fishing, hoofing up and down the cliffs, sometimes dragging the fish of a lifetime behind you but all who took part will never forget those years. Today many of us in on the rented house are at or over the big Six O with the resulting creaky bones, bad knees and sore backs. A few of us still make runs to the Block but it will be a turn or two of the clock before the place once more produces monsters like it did in the 1980s.


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