June At Block: Sand Eel Bottom - The Fisherman

June At Block: Sand Eel Bottom

The presence of early-summer sand eels around Block Island brings thousands of striped bass and many other species to these fertile waters.

Sand eels fuel the early-summer ecosystem in the waters surrounding Block Island.

There’s a lot we don’t know about sand eels: how long they live, how fast they grow, where they go in the winter, how abundant they are. But what we do know is that when your fishing spot has clouds of sand eels on it the whole vibe of that spot changes. I suppose the presence of any bait will change the energy a spot has but with sand eels the effect can be spectacular.

June at Block

I spend a fair amount of time fishing the south side of Block Island. I like the whole span of it from the SW Corner to the SE Corner right out to the edge of rock bottom south of the Wind Farms. It’s a great bass and bluefish spot, great bottom fishing. You can run into anything. June is my favorite time to be here. This is when we see our big pushes of sand eels. This is when that vibe can really change.

In June you have a full press of seabirds, shearwaters and petrels flying low over the swells. These birds are just arriving from their long migrations, and we often see them coming in long lines, one after the other, their wing tips inches above the water. The shearwaters have an incredible ability to smell, more so than a bloodhound. What I think they smell are the sand eels. Amongst the shearwaters are the terns and the gulls. Usually, the birds are the ones that tip us off.

In June, on any given day, you can often see birds searching for bait just about anywhere on the south side. It almost doesn’t make sense to chase them. But then you’ll see the birds start to group up, or you’ll see a consistent group of them not moving, just staying tight to one area, circling.  This is worth a look.

Recently, I was talking with Dave Hochman, a charter boat captain out of Point Judith. He runs free-dive spearfishing charters and has for decades.  He spends an enormous amount of time underwater looking around. With the subject on sand eels he said, “When you’re in a cloud of sand eels that’s all you’ll see. Millions of them. You can’t see your hand in front of your face. But around the sand eels will be the bass and blues. I’ve seen fluke feeding on sand eels 40 feet off the bottom. It’s incredible.”

Sand eels cloud these waters by the billions in June and July.

No Structure Required

This open water show doesn’t last all summer. By mid-July the big schools of sand eels have slid off and gone elsewhere. Many will still linger but the true abundance of them will be gone. “I have two thoughts on sand eels,” says Point Judith charter boat captain Rick Bellavance. “One is that there is a constant presence of sand eels around Block Island and two, there can be boom cycles of them. Sand eels are a big deal baitfish to us.”

Fishing around sand eels has little to do with finding structure. Often the best bite will be well off your favorite boulder field. Sand eels like depth. Some of my best June striper and blue fishing will be over sandy bottom outside of 70 feet. The fishing can be from the surface down to the bottom. It’s common to be marking the bait almost top to bottom. You look over the rail and see thousands of little undulations. This is prime for the jig. Small jigheads with rubber bodies do well. I cast up-drift and let it fall. Then do a slow reel back to the boat. The hits can come at any time.

It also doesn’t take long to see the real genius of the old-school Montauk-style umbrella rig, with those twisting tubes. Simply deadly, however much scorn you may have about it. If I can avoid trolling I will. But when I do, I find that you don’t need to set a lot of line or wire out. I set about 150 to 200 feet of wire. Trolling is good when the schools aren’t thick but you feel like you’re in the company of sand eels. You search while trolling. If the rod gets hit, then other people can drop down jigs while the person fights the fish on the trolling set up. Sometimes if the sand eels are small, around 3 inches, you need to drop down a little in lure size.

There is a lot of guesswork with sand eels. No one really knows what the fish are up to. No one knows for sure where the bait comes from. They just arrive. They arrive in the spring, but they also just arrive and disappear on individual tides. I’m sure the same thing happens on the Nantucket Shoals, around Muskegut Channel, the backside of the Cape, Georges Bank and Stellwagen.

It’s easy to see why the twisting tubes of an Umbrella Rig are so effective when sand eels are abundant.

Beg, Steal & Burrow

“We don’t really know about sand eel migrations” says Dave Richardson a senior researcher at NOAA. “What we do know about sand eels is that they burrow. Burrowing is what sand eels do.”

I really just learned about the sand eels’ habit of burrowing into sand. I knew in a vague way that they do this. I’ve seen them burrow on tidal flats. But I didn’t know the full extent of it. I think the trick to fishing around sand eels is knowing where they burrow and when. For instance, do the sand eels burrow when the tide really starts to crank?  And is this why the tuna fishing is often good at slack tide when the sand eels emerge? Also, if sand eels burrow at night, then is this why the tuna fishing and striper fishing is good at dawn? Do the predators just cycle over the sandy bottom waiting for them to come out?

“Sand eels can burrow over a huge range of time scales from hours to months,” says Richardson. “They will burrow to escape predation. They will burrow at night, but we don’t know if they burrow every night. We don’t know how far south they swim. They could just burrow.”

Even trophy class linesiders will gorge themselves on sand eels.

Vacuum Feeding

Years ago, I used to work on a gillnetter. We would target big skate off Block Island. The prime months were May and June. These skates aren’t the little bait-sized skates that lobstermen use in their traps. They’re much bigger, thicker. We called them raja. We’ve all caught these skate before while fluking in deep water on a slow-drift day. They’re the ones that feel, at least initially, like the doormat of your dreams.

We were catching these fish for the seafood market. Skate wings with brown butter and capers are delicious. Anyway, what was interesting is that these skates, these rajas, were full of sand eels, stomachs bulging like bluefish bellies.  The whole deck of the gillnetter would be slick with sand eels. None of us think of a skate as a predator. Nothing like a bluefish, bluefin, or humpback whale—your classic sand eel predators. But these skate were on that bottom because the sand eels were on that bottom. I originally thought the skates were hunting down the sand eels, pursuing them like a fluke would. I think I was wrong. Now I think the skate were exploiting the burrowing habits of the sand eels, vacuum feeding at night.  Tell this to any bluefin tuna fisherman and all they will do is nod their head in full agreement, saying tuna do the same, as will whales.  I’m sure fluke and stripers do as well.

There Must Be Sand

Sand eels favor a certain kind of sand. Not too fine, not too coarse. They don’t like mud or rock. You’ll find the bait over rock bottom but usually there will be sandy pockets nearby. The sand eels want to have an escape plan at the ready and that plan is straight down into the bottom. They use their sharp snouts to burrow in. If you look at a chart of the south side of Block Island, you’ll see tons of acres of sand and gravel. My guess is a place like Chatham or Provincetown have great sand eel habitat too. The sand eels will concentrate over this bottom and with them will be a parade of predators. The one advantage the baitfish has is sheer numbers.

“When herring numbers are low – and right now they have been – sand eel numbers can be very high,” says Richardson. “With our larval fish surveys sand eels will be the most abundant larval fish we encounter.”

Even well south of the island, in places like the Dump and Tuna Ridge, sand eels play an important role in sparking the offshore tuna fisheries.
Running charters, fishing the area day after day, I have a few choice baits that really get the job done when sand eels are the main feed.

Bridgeport Diamond Jig – I kind of have a ‘thing’ for jigging and using old school tackle. The Bridgeport Diamond Jig is about as utilitarian as you can get for jigging. But that shiny tin gets down into the strike zone easily and will catch any fish that eats sand eels.

Flat-Fall Jig – When the fish are deep and they seem to be extra finicky I’ll switch over to a Shimano Flat-Fall Jig. These perfectly balanced baits lay horizontal on the descent and a lot of times, that little change is all it takes to turn on a finicky bite.

Straight-Tail Plastics – No lure we have at our disposal looks and acts more like a sand eel than a straight-tail plastic. The Ron-Z is a very popular option but there are many others that will fit the bill as well; like the Game On Jerkbait, Slug-Go’s or Zman Streakz. Threaded onto a light jighead, they do damage at Block, the key is matching the size.

Paddletail Plastics – Sometimes you need a little extra action and slender paddletails can make it happen. Try the Zman Swimmerz, Game On Duratech Paddletails or any other slimline paddletail in the 4- to 6-inch size. Sometimes these need a little more lead because the tail slows down their descent.

SP Minnow – A favorite among surfcasters, the SP Minnow can be a secret weapon when gamefish of any species (except tuna) are chasing sand eels at the surface. These plugs cast very well and feature a frantic swimming action that’s consistent with the fleeing sand eels and drives fish wild.

Umbrella Rig – Scoff if you must, but umbrellas with 5-inch tubes slay when sand eels are around and work as a fishfinder when stripers and blues are widespread—hook up on the umbrella and immediately deploy other methods. They’re also great for less-experienced anglers who just want to catch fish.

Has the great recreational tuna fishing we’ve seen recently in southern New England all been because of the sand eel? I think most would say the sand eels are critical in that whole equation. Remove them and the whole fishery lessens, shifts, or even falls apart. Enjoy it. I got out there a few times myself. It was worth going just to see the ecology. It’s obvious ecology, the kind that any kid would openly understand. That everything is there because of a slender fish shaped like an eel, a fish that science barely understands, a fish with huge angling importance.

John P. Lee runs JL Charters out of Point Judith, RI and has been writing stories for The Fisherman and other publications for the better part of two decades.



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