" "

Falling for Block Island

By Tom Richardson
Block Island Southeast Light. Photo Tom Richardson

A little over a week ago, cameraman Halsey Fulton and I traveled to Block Island to film a new episode of ENE TV. Thankfully, the weather cooperated, and we were treated to two days of sunny weather with temperatures in the low-70s—ideal conditions for a fall visit to Block Island. Early to mid-fall truly is the best time to visit Block if you want to experience its natural beauty while being able to find a few open restaurants and hotels. The crowds of summer have dissipated, the waters are warm enough for swimming, the fishing is at its best, and the streets of Old Harbor are uncongested.

Kim Gaffett of The Block Island Nature Conservancy with a warbler about to be released.

After disembarking from the Block Island Ferry in Old Harbor, Halsey and I headed north on Corn Neck Road for a meeting with Kim Gaffett of the Block Island Nature Conservancy at their Lapham House property—home to the Conservancy’s bird-banding station. October is prime time to observe birds on Block, as many migratory species visit the island to rest and refuel for the remainder of their southerly migration. Kim’s main job at this time of year is capturing and banding as many birds as she can, and we got to film her at work as she checked the mist nest that are strung throughout the Lapham trails. Birds become entangled in the nets as the travel at night, so Kim needs to check them several times each day. On our visit, the nets were empty save for a single yellow-bellied sapsucker. Kim gently untangled the woodpecker and placed it in a small bag, which calms the bird once it’s deprived of light.

Kim Gaffett of the Nature Conservancy prepares to release a freshly banded Nashville warbler.

Back at the Lapham House, we filmed Kim banding some birds she had captured earlier that morning and recording their weight, size, and fat content. She told us that she often recaptures birds she has previously banded, which is not surprising given that she has banded over 40,000 birds during her career, starting in 1981!

After the bird-banding session, Halsey and I drove to the Hodge Family Wildlife Preserve for a short hike with Scott Comings, Associate State Director of The Nature Conservancy in Rhode Island. This 25-acre parcel of protected land on the north end of the island features rolling meadows filled with wildflowers and native grasses, interspersed by hummocks of shrubs and trees. All of it serves as habitat for numerous bird species and the Block Island meadow vole. Wide, well-groomed walking paths lead down to a small freshwater pond, which hosts large flocks of sea ducks during the winter, as well as bittern, blue heron and egret during summer and early fall.

Following our short amble with Scott, we met Jessica Willi, Executive Director of Block Island Tourism, for a stroll through the “Labyrinth”—a public art installation aimed at promoting mindfulness. Jess also told us about the Glass Float Project, in which 550 hand-blown glass balls made to resemble the glass net floats once used by Japanese fishermen are hidden in public spaces around the island. The floats are numbered, dated, and stamped with the likeness of Block Island, and are considered rare collectibles. Jess revealed that people travel to the island from all over the country in their quest to find one of the floats.

A glass float lies hidden among the flowers.

The next morning, we rose at 5:00AM to meet with local fisherman Hank Hewitt, who led us to one of his secret surfcasting spots. I first met Hank in 2020, and his infectious enthusiasm for all things fishing continues to amaze! After casting Hank’s handcrafted plugs for two hours with only a few strikes, we moved to a different spot on the southeast side of the island. However, more hours of hurling plugs failed to produce a single striped bass or even a bluefish for the camera. As we packed up to leave, Hank suggested we change tactics and try for false albacore, which had been feeding inside the inlet to Great Pond. We were game, but it would have to wait until we completed our next mission—filming at Southeast Lighthouse.

Southeast Light peeks above the foliage.

This well-known beacon was built in 1875 and remains unique among lighthouses in terms of its architecture and design. In 1993, the entire brick and granite structure was moved 300 feet north from the eroding bluffs to save it from tumbling into the sea. All this and much more we learned from docent Jim Milner, a font of lighthouse lore! Jim showed us around the recently restored interior of the lighthouse keepers’ quarters, featuring exhibits and artifacts on daily lighthouse activity before the light was automated in the 1930s. He also showed us the tower and lantern room with its massive first-order Fresnel lens.


Docent Jim Milner discusses Southeast Light on the catwalk outside the lantern room.

With our lighthouse tour completed, we had just a few hours to complete the fishing segment before our ferry left for Point Judith. So we raced to New Harbor and met Hank at the Coast Guard Station parking area. Wasting no time, we rigged our fly rods and headed to the nearby beach that borders the inlet to the Great Salt Pond. A school of false albacore erupted close to shore as soon as we arrived, and it seemed as if the stage was set for success; however, repeated casting over the next 90 minutes proved fruitless. Then, just as we were about to pull the plug on the whole operation, a pod of albies popped up 20 feet from where I stood. I flipped the fly into the fray and immediately hooked up. Some 10 minutes later, I slid the six-pound albie ashore, removed the hook, and sent it back into the channel. It was my very fish “shore ‘core.”

I’ve learned from past episodes that you can’t expect fish to cooperate for the camera. But sometimes, if you’re lucky or try hard enough, or both, it all comes together. In this case, I’ll chalk it up to perseverance, hope, and the magic of fall on Block Island! You will see it for yourself when the episode premieres on December 11 on NESN.

ENE host Tom Richardson fishes for albies in the Great Salt Pond channel.
Explore New England