There has only been one state where I have not caught a fish on my initial trip. Admittedly, I did “catch” a fish when I went out the first time, but it was a minnow snagged through its back that so happened to swim across the path of my Clouser fly and be speared by a hook twice its size. Needless to say, I did not constitute skewering the fish as “catching it on the fly.” Storms that led up to our trip rendered the conditions extremely poor for fly fishing, and sometimes, that is the way it goes. There are certain variables you cannot control, most especially the weather, such as wind, grass on the water, murky water…you get the point. Yet had I not scratched on our first go around, I may never have been exposed to the epic fishery we were to experience during Mom’s and my return to Rhode Island.
If you have fly fished in Rhode Island, you have likely crossed paths with Captain Aron Cascone of the Constant Angler. Aron can be found wearing some variety of bucket or Bermuda hat and low-cut deck boots—he rocks the look. I was excited to see him in this usual form with a big smile on his face when we pulled back into his driveway to go give the fishery a second shot. Aron had fished us a year prior, working hard to put us on fish despite the conditions of our first outing together. This time, we were going to get it done.
Aron has uncovered an amazing fishery in his home waters on the coast of Rhode Island. He grew up with a rod in his hand, having fished his entire life with his father, who was a deep-sea captain. He has developed a variety of tactics for fishing the striped bass, blue fish, and other species that inhabit New England’s coastline, following the fish across seascapes with the seasons. He chases them from inland estuaries and shallow ponds to the rocks and breakers along the shoreline, and even over white sand flats, hunting cruising stripers like bonefish. For Aron, fishing is a constant, year-round pursuit—hence, the “Constant Angler.” There is no doubt that he has them dialed in.
We launched his poling skiff and headed out into one of the ponds near his home. It was late May, which brought the annual return of the cinder worm hatch, a prolific mating ritual of thousands upon thousands of tiny, red worms. During the late spring, stripers move into shallow marsh ponds to gorge on these worms as they “hatch” from the bottom of the estuary, rise through the water, and swim around on the surface. Much like freshwater bug hatches, the worms follow a yearly schedule. However, specific dates and conditions for the hatch remain unpredictable. Many of the hatches happen only at night, though some begin in the late afternoon and evening. When the miracle does occur, thousands of red and brown worms leave their year-round homes in the mud of shallow salt marshes, swim to the surface to spawn, and then die—what a life.
When it happens, the bass are all over it. Upon the yearly cycle of the hatch, the stripers go ballistic, consuming the worms en masse as they squirm erratically on the surface. It is a remarkable sight to behold. As the sun drops and throws shadows over the water, the surface comes to life. These little critters slowly writhe to the surface a few at a time before the full-blown hatch covers the water with thousands of them swimming around and spawning. As soon as the fish catch wind of the event, a massacre ensues. The water begins popping and exploding as the bass blow up on the defenseless prey. The sun begins to set, throwing pink and purple reflections across the glassy water; a serene background for the chaotic food frenzy.
Beyond its impressiveness as a natural phenomenon, it presents an incredibly unique opportunity to fly fishers. As the worms are small—an inch to three at most—they are best mimicked by a small fly, tied with a rabbit strip, rubber band, or yarn. The gluttonous activity makes catching fish seem misleadingly simple. To actually feed the bass a fly can be surprisingly and frustratingly challenging. As they are exploding all over the place, they have no lack of options to choose from, so they are picky. I learned from Aron that the bite is sometimes best in the day leading up to and following the peak hatch because of the lower density of worms to compete with the fly. I definitely experienced this difficulty, though my frustration was dwarfed by awe at the impressiveness of the feed.
We fished the afternoon and evening and spent the early afternoon poling for sight fishing shots at bass. My previous flats experience was on the bow of skiffs chasing tarpon, redfish, and the occasional bonefish, so I was surprised to find myself in New England hunting a fish that I previously thought was always fished in the surf or with sinking lines. Though we did not get many shots in the afternoon, it was so amazing to pursue stripers in this way.
As the sun lowered toward the horizon, we high tailed it to the worm pond. I had spent all afternoon asking about the hatch, hearing stories, and building anticipation toward the opportunity to witness the frenzy. It did not take long for the magic to happen.
I stepped back on the bow, rod in my right hand and the shank of the worm fly clasped between the thumb and index finger of my left, gazing across the surface in hopes of seeing a fish roll. As I peered into the water, I noticed the little creatures corkscrewing up from the depths below, swimming in circles as soon as they hit the top. Once it started, the entire mass of worms showed up. Like me, the fish had been waiting.
In what felt like just a few minutes, the bay was transformed into a turbulent mosh pit of activity. Fish were rising all over the place, and worms scattered in a craze across the surface, appearing as little lines spagettied with water and floating sea grass. The bass were bubbling.
You could have told me they were brown trout sipping mayflies, and apart from the location I would not have thought twice. That is exactly the scene that played out before me, only these fish were many times bigger than the average river trout. I wet my line, casting and retrieving in zones where I perceived the most activity, shooting the fly around rolls and boils. I was shocked by their obstinance to my squirmy little pattern, but then again, they had an endless menu to choose from. However, it did not take long for a fish to stop me mid strip, crushing the fly and turning his head to the side to rip the line back out of my hand. Those fish can run! After a few minutes, we landed our Rhode Island fish.
We released the fish and were surprised to find that the peak activity seemed to have passed. We tried for a bit longer as the hatch died off and the fish settled down with full stomachs. But we still had light, so we kept fishing. Aron ran us around the marsh to a big, open flat. We cut off the cinder worm and tied on a gurgler for some real top water action. As the sun peaked over the horizon and the last bit of light began to fade, fish were eager to crush straggling worms or other critters they found on the surface. We scratched out a few particularly feisty fish, one of which missed the fly twice before finally sucking it down. It took a lot of restraint to keep from “trout setting” the fly out of his zone. He sure wanted to eat! I am always grateful for a fish that will give me a second (or third) chance.
I felt amazingly relieved to have come back and checked off the box of Rhode Island, but more so, I was grateful to get a second day on the water with Aron and to be able to experience a truly phenomenal fishery during the cinder worm hatch. Fly fishing, particularly, has an amazing way of exposing anglers to some of nature’s astonishing processes in truly breathtaking settings. I would certainly hope to return someday for a late May evening in the salt marshes of New England and once again lay eyes on this miracle of fishing.