Notes from the Tackle Room: The Great Ponds

At dawn, anglers cast at Tisbury Great Pond opening.

It was late in the evening on June 4, 1955 and I needed a Vineyard fix, having not been on the Island since the previous autumn. After cashing in my chips at a college poker game in New Jersey, I drove through the night to Woods Hole, caught an early ferry, and asked Charlie Lima at the Mobil station in Edgartown if the fishing was any good. He stage-whispered that Tisbury Great Pond was open. No other news could have been so electrifying! The tide would start to flow out of the pond at midnight, and after a couple hours of sleep I made my way through a maze of dirt roads as close to the opening as a 1951 Ford coupe could navigate and then walked a mile or so the rest of the way. The payoff was three large bass up to thirty-five pounds on a blue Atom swimmer, the biggest stripers I had ever caught until then and more than ample reward for my journey. It was with great reluctance and a sense of scrambled priorities that I returned to college the next day to receive my degree.

The Vineyard’s south shore salt ponds are separated from the ocean by a barrier beach that is sometimes breached by storms and otherwise periodically opened by man in order to achieve the right level of salinity for the propagation of oysters, clams, and various fish species. This practice has been going on since the earliest colonial days and even before, when the Native American Wampanoags dug the openings by hand. When these ponds have been opened to the sea in springtime, the stage is set for some of the best fishing of the year as anadromous alewives – river herring – make their way through the openings to natal spawning grounds in the brackish waters and then drop back to the ocean. Herring are one of the favorite and most important foods in the striper diet, and bass gather at and near the openings for the feast. All of the ponds support this fishery if opened in the spring. The two biggest, Edgartown Great Pond and Tisbury Great Pond, are the most productive, but smaller Chilmark Pond, Oyster Pond, and Watcha Pond can also produce excellent fishing. By state law, a “great pond” is a pond or lake that in its natural state is at least ten acres in size, and it must be open for fishing and boating, including providing reasonable access.

The salt ponds are spectacularly fertile nursery grounds not just for herring, but also for a myriad of other species including sand eels, menhaden, white perch, chubs, blue crabs, flounder, fluke, and spearing. American eels and mullet also inhabit the ponds, and Tisbury Great Pond and Edgartown Great Pond both have significant shellfisheries for oysters and soft shell clams. Striped bass, bluefish, menhaden, and hickory shad enter the ponds to forage on the plentitude of bait and sometimes are trapped and spend the winter. I have caught winter-over stripers in Tisbury Great Pond in March, and Cooper Gilkes and others have taken them in Edgartown Great Pond throughout the winter.

Lures that imitate herring are the prime springtime tempters, but smaller metals, soft plastics, and flies fished near the bottom can work too, particularly early in the season before the bigger bass arrive, which usually happens by the third week in May or early June. Falling tides tend to be best, sweeping baitfish from the ponds into the ocean and vectoring bass and blues. Stripers are primarily nocturnal, but the early arrivals will often hit in broad daylight. One of my best days at Tisbury Great Pond occurred at midday on May 17 many years ago with ten big bass up to forty-two pounds. To my knowledge the biggest striper ever taken there was Francis Bernard’s sixty-three-pounder in 1975.

Comments (1)

Brad Burns
Falmouth, Maine
What a great story, it sure takes me back. My pal Phil Perrino and I had a terrific night there in early November maybe 30 years ago. There were baby herring coming out of the recently breached pond, and the bass were so close to the beach you could almost touch them. We caught them all night until we had to hustle off the beach to catch the ferry home to Maine. Some of the fish were huge, and though we hooked them right at our feet they nearly emptied the reels before we could turn them back to the beach. I'll probably never have a night like that again - but I'm very glad it happened.
May 16, 2016 - 4:12pm