The other guy is not old, but he is old school. Forties maybe. I see him multiple nights a week because we fish the same stretch of coast and park our trucks semi-legally on the same narrow spit of road. I don’t know his name and he certainly doesn’t know mine. A true surf rat, he communicates in half-waves and grunts, and in the soft pings of chew hitting the inside of a Diet Coke can. We have exchanged human language precisely once.
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It was a June night, just past 11 PM. The ocean was white violence. A hard south wind was throwing rain sideways and had kicked up a deafening surf. When I pulled in behind his truck, he was already geared up. To my surprise, after countless nights barely acknowledging my presence, he shouted something, so I rolled down my window. “This is what it’s about!” he yelled. A wolfish grin spread across a face I didn’t realize could smile. He then melted into the dark.
He was right, of course. This was what it’s about. Hunting striped bass from the ledges of northern New England is one of the great pleasures of surfcasting. In a storm, it is a singular experience. That night, the mansions of the summering rich were lost to the rain and swirling dark and for a few hours, I stood alone at the edge of a cliff, punching three ounces of lead and white deer hair into the teeth of a wild sea. It was the kind of night I read about and couldn’t believe was happening to me. Screaming drag. The heartbreak of braid meeting barnacled rock. The rush of a child-sized brute finning in the wash, attached to my line as if by a miracle. When the tide slacked out, I walked off the rocks, battered, salt-blasted, and still buzzing with adrenaline.
Back at the pull-off, my usually silent compatriot was peeling off his wetsuit. He had the unmistakable, ragged look of having been into fish. I must have looked much the same because he jabbed a finger in my direction and said, “I told you so!” Apparently, there is something about fishing ledges in big water that can make even the most tight-lipped surfcaster giddy.
It’s not hard to see why.
Ledge-studded coastline offers rich rewards to the dedicated fisherman—namely, trophy-class linesides and a taste of adventure—but this terrain can also be intimidating to the uninitiated. While there are innumerable books, articles, podcasts, forum threads, and seminars devoted to fishing boulderfields, jetties, or sand beaches, there is far less information available about how to approach the ledges and cliffs that dominate in places like Newport, Rhode Island, Northern Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine. The old salts and Swamp Yankees who haunt such territory usually aren’t talking either. Though there are no shortcuts to success, knowing the basics and having a sound strategy can help you bend the ledge learning curve in your favor. And, there is no better time to hit New England’s ledge-laden coastline in search of super-sized stripers than during the fall run.
All Ledges Aren’t Created Equal
In many parts of the striper coast, ledges stretch as far as the eye can see and these miles of rambling rock can all look the same to a novice. The first problem an aspiring ledge-rat must confront, then, is narrowing down their search. Surfcasters who frequent the boulder fields or who earn their keep pounding sand know that getting dialed in to a location requires identifying the small details that make a spot productive. It might be an eddy that forms on the backside of a Volkswagen-sized rock or a barely noticeable hump of sand that breaks up an otherwise monotonous flat. Ledges are no different, and those same principles applied to open beaches or boulder fields still apply here.
The process begins by looking for large-scale changes or pieces of structure that break up ledge-strewn coastlines: points, cuts, coves, reefs, etc. These are the same kinds of areas that are likely familiar to even the most casual fisherman. Northern Massachusetts sharpie Steve Gallant also advises paying attention to what is going on under the water. He recommends keeping an eye out for submerged reefs and places where rock transitions to sand within casting range.
Though it may surprise some anglers who assume that ledges are productive because they provide access to deep water, in my experience, the truth is a little more complicated. Deep water can be beneficial, particularly in late summer when the water is warm, but my ideal ledge spot is a piece of shallow-water structure that provides a quick escape route to the depths. In fact, the majority of my ledge fish—and the vast majority of my ledge fish over 40 inches and nearly all my fish over 30 pounds—have come after dark from 10 feet of water or less. Usually much less.
If you have spent any time around a grizzled surfcaster with serious years under their belt, you have no doubt heard the phrase, “The fish are at your feet.” Nowhere is this truer than the ledges, where large striped bass will come within inches of a ledge’s face–even in shallow water–in order to snack on an unsuspecting, surf-tossed prey. One memorable night in August, I glimpsed what looked like the flash of a fin and tail cutting through a moonlit wave as it rushed into a tide pool, not five feet from the ledge on which I was perched. Certain that my sleep-deprived brain was conjuring stripers out of shadows, I still pitched a black Slug-Go toward the white water where I had seen the swirl. Moments later, I found myself tethered to the business end of 43 inches of very angry bass.
This brings me to my next point…
Chase White Water
When fishing the ledges, white water is king. Its presence or absence is going to determine both your strategy and your chances of a successful night. While there is great variety among the kinds of ledges you are apt to encounter in New England (the flat-rock shelves of Rhode Island, the sheer cliffs of Cape Ann, the great, steplike ledges of coastal Maine), what they all have in common is that they generate frothed-up water that attracts feeding bass. As Gallant puts it, “As soon as you get a little bit of white water, it changes a striper’s mood entirely.” In fact, you should not think of ledges as structure. You should think of them as a structure system: a system that is defined, in this case, by the interaction of hard structure (ledges and cliffs) with soft structure (white water).
Striped bass are ambush predators that are always looking for places to stage that will simultaneously conceal them from predators and provide ready access to prey. A good ledge spot supplies both of these: a nearby deep-water security blanket into which big stripers can retreat, and a shallow zone of white water in which they can take advantage of baitfish being tossed about by wave action. While there are no absolutes in fishing, a good rule when working the ledges is that bigger water is generally better. The reason is simple: heavy surf creates extended zones of white water that expand a big striper’s hunting grounds. As with most surfcasting, nighttime is generally the right time. However, during the fall run, storms or large surf that produce a sufficient amount of agitated water can supercharge the bite even in the middle of the day. This is especially true during the first big storm or two of September’s hurricane season. If the forecast calls for wind, heavy rain, and big swell, it’s a day to call off work.
Though it is hard to overstate the role of wave action, it is important to keep in mind that pulling ledge slobs from the suds is not as simple as hitting the rocks during a big blow and casting into the foam. Some spots will generate good white water only at specific stages in the tide cycle, often for very brief windows.
Take a trip out to the ledges during the day and look around. You’ll observe that one stretch of ledges is consistently foaming with seductive-looking white water while another section only 20 yards away is generating hardly any wave action at all. If you hang out for a while, you’ll begin to notice that certain ledges turn on and off as the tide advances or retreats, creating white water for 20 or 30 minutes before giving way to a period of calmer surf that might last the rest of the tide cycle. If you keep going back day after day, you’ll realize that these patterns hold relatively consistent—the same spots generate white water at the same stage of the tide. A surfcaster who knows his or her hunting grounds well can link up a number of these micro-spots, moving with the tide, so that they are constantly fishing a productive piece of white water and avoiding those periods of dead surf. However, it isn’t enough to know where and when to find the white water, you also need to have a plan about how you approach it.
I’ve been making the case that you should think of white water as an active feeding zone that contracts and expands depending on surf, wind, and tide conditions. During a nor’easter, white water might stretch toward the horizon. During a flat-calm summer night, that white water is probably going to extend only a few feet from the ledges, creating a narrow band of froth where sea meets rock. If your goal is to keep your plug in the strike zone as long as possible (and this should be your goal), how you place your casts needs to change as conditions change. While fan-casting can be productive when the wind is ripping and the ocean is foaming at the mouth, on most nights in most conditions, you are going to find fish feeding in the white water tight against the ledges. This is doubly true when fishing ledges that drop swiftly into deep water.
Dennis Zambrotta, a living legend and veteran surf rat of Newport’s rocky coast, reports that one of the most common mistakes he sees surfcasters making is to approach ledges like an open beach, bombing casts into unproductive water that is far deeper than they realize. “There are those oddball days where you throw a popper out into a hundred feet of water and fish happen to be in the upper water column,” he concedes, “but, generally speaking, if thirty feet out it’s thirty feet deep, and five feet out it’s ten feet deep, that’s the edge I’m working. Tight to the structure.”
As Zambrotta correctly notes, when you cast perpendicular to the shoreline, launching your plug 75 yards into water deep enough to float an aircraft carrier, the bulk of your cast is out of the strike zone. If you instead cast parallel to the ledges, you keep your offering in that white-water feeding zone for the majority of your cast, drastically increasing opportunities for a hookup. This is where large offerings that can be presented slowly—like 9- and 12-inch weightless Slug-Gos, 13-inch Gravity Tackle Eels, big gliders like the ERC Hell Hound, slow-sinking needles, and bulky paddletails—can really shine.
In rougher or deeper water, big plastics on jigheads and heavy needles have their place too. Again, conditions should dictate cast placement, but regardless of whether the sea is seething or silent, the game is to keep your plug in the white water for as much of your cast as possible, particularly at night when bruisers are cruising in close.
Caution on the Cliffs
Late last September, I was on an epic fall-run bender. The bite ran day into night and back into day for the better part of a week. I was dragging, running on fumes, equal parts desperate for it to end and determined to take advantage of what could be one of the last pushes of big fish before the season wound down. It was a weekday afternoon, overcast and raining gently. Quiet surf. I had landed a low-40-inch bass that I was trying to unhook and release surreptitiously without a nearby fisherman noticing. I turned my back to the cliff I was on so that my body concealed the fish from prying eyes. Then I heard it … the sickening sound of too much water. The wave hit me at shoulder height and for a moment I couldn’t see, then I was floating. My feet touched ground and I found myself in a deep tide pool some 20 yards from where I had been standing. My fish was gone; so was my hat. Plugs bobbed in the water beside me. I had lost my rod, though by some miracle, it had become trapped, unscathed, by a nearby boulder.
Earlier, I said the primary takeaway from this article should be about the importance of white water. I lied. The main takeaway from this article should be that ledges are among the most dangerous pieces of real estate from which a surfcaster can ply his trade. Let me be even more blunt: ledges can kill you.
Part of being a good ledge fisherman means never turning your back on the ocean, even on a calm day, and prioritizing your own safety, even if it means missing out on fish. The kind of modest 3- to 4-foot waves that might pose little danger on a gently sloping beach are an entirely different animal when you’re on the edge of a rockface that drops into 15 feet of water. There are rich rewards to be had when the sea is rocking, but those rewards come with an equal measure of danger. Fish with a buddy when you can, and always remember that your goal is not just to catch fish today, but to be able to continue catching fish tomorrow.
Being safe means more than keeping your eyes on the sea and your head on a swivel; it also means having the right gear. Unless it is extremely calm or you’re fishing shallow-water ledges, my advice is to leave the waders at home. At night, I fish in a wetsuit. Where I live, a 5/4mm suit in late spring and fall and a 4/3mm suit in the summer are the answer. Try a 3/2 if you overheat quickly.
A wetsuit has a number of advantages over waders: it won’t fill up, it’ll help you float if you find yourself in trouble, and it will cushion your fall if you take a tumble on the rocks. During the day, you can get away with shorts or splash pants with a light surf top like the Stormr Nano or Phase Gear’s sElement jacket. When it’s too cold for shorts but too hot for a wetsuit, both Dennis Zambrotta and Steve Gallant recommend neoprene bottoms (like NRS’s 0.5mm Hydroskin pants). Shorts or pants can be worn over the top of these. Boots with studs—whether traditional Korkers or a pair of your favorite wading boots with aftermarket add-ons like Grip Studs or Rock Grabrz—are non-negotiable.
Although often overlooked on the safety checklist, you should also think of your rod and reel as a piece of safety equipment. You need a setup with enough power to handle a large fish in heavy surf and to steer it to a location where it can be landed without risk to you or the bass. I use an 11-foot ODM DNA rated 1-5 ounces paired with a VSX 250. Others, like Gallant, prefer more manageable rods in the 9-foot range. What matters here is not length, but power. Whatever rod you pick should enable you to dig your cleats into the rocks and put the screws to a large bass, ideally steering your fish directly into a nearby tide pool. While it is often possible to land a fish by using an incoming wave to slide it onto a ledge, it needs to be a spot very close by where you can get into the water with the fish to revive it. Tide pools and cuts between ledges are perfect for this. If there is not a safe place to get a good release that’s safe for you and the fish, you shouldn’t be fishing there in the first place.
Fishing ledges is not for everyone. The bass can be capricious … ravenous one night and lockjawed the next. A single 100-yard stretch of coast can take an entire season to crack. The surf is often unpredictable and most days you will walk back to your truck unintentionally soaked. But during the fall run, when our quarry turns its eyes southward and begins its long journey home, there is no place I would rather be than the edge of a cliff, surrounded by a thundering sea.