Portsmouth, NH: Boat Beaches, Stripers, and Island Hopping
Updated: Aug 11, 2018
Portsmouth sits on the Piscataqua river, known for its strong tidal current which can run upward of 5kts mid-tide, and is a well known home to 100+ restaurants, watering holes, ice cream parlors, and theaters. It's also an incredible place to visit by water, and one doesn't have to venture far to enjoy a wide variety of scenery and atmospheres.
Here's a typical weekend for this local, with a few suggestions for how a visitor can get the most out of a visit to this incredible place:
It's Saturday morning and we head to our slip on Badgers Island, ME. If we haven't had breakfast at home, we'll grab coffee and a croissant or breakfast sandwich from Lil's Cafe in Kittery or Breaking New Grounds in Portsmouth. Badgers is easily walkable from downtown, one of the reasons we feel lucky to keep the boat here (it's a short drive from home, too!). As Is typical of many places in the area, Badgers Island has a place in American history, as it was the construction site for USS Ranger. Built by John Paul Jones, Ranger was the second American warship to be saluted by a foreign navy, in 1778.
Isles of Shoals, 6 nm from the mouth of the Piscataqua is our mid-day destination. Running out the Piscataqua we'll pass between Portsmouth Naval Shipyard on Seavey Island, ME to our north and the island community of New Castle, NH to our south. A derelict naval prison looms large on Seavey Island before we pass Whaleback light and make a heading for Gosport Harbor at Isles of Shoals. We keep an eye out for breaking stripers, seals, and the occasional whale as we exit the river. Entering Gosport Harbor we choose a mooring, knowing we may be asked to move if the owner comes calling, before enjoying our picnic lunch. Afterward, mom decides to take a nap on the boat while dad takes the kids into Star Island for ice cream. You'll see Star Island Launch staying busy on Saturdays and Sundays throughout the summer; a quick call on Ch. 9 and a donation once on board and we're off. Burgers and sandwiches are available on Star Island, but we prefer the ice cream, available at the snack bar in the main hotel building. We grab a few cones and then hit the playground or stroll around the island taking in the sweeping views. Besides the ice cream stand, our favorite stop is the marine lab where we find all sorts of local species swimming and slithering in tanks. The staff loves answering questions and sharing their enthusiasm for the place and I love the way the lab reminds me of boyhood camp. After a quick launch trip back to the boat and confirmation from mom that our few-hour stay on the mooring brought no complaint from the mooring's unknown owner, we're headed back toward the Piscataqua for some fishing and dinner afloat.
One nm outside of the mouth of the Piscataqua we stop at buoy 2KR and jig with sabiki rigs for mackerel. We usually find macks around 28 ft in 55-65 ft of depth. Once we're loaded with 8-12 mackerel, we head into the entrance of Little Harbor, just to the south of the main mouth of the Piscataqua. Depending on tide, we'll either grab a vacant mooring in Little Harbor or scoot under the bridge next to the Wentworth Marina and find a fishy spot in the New Castle back channel. Kids get their hands dirty chunking our macks or rigging livies, after which we generally we don't wait more than 15 minutes for our first hit. We fish into the evening while we grill some dinner before heading back to the dock for some rest so that we can hit it again tomorrow.
Sunday starts much the same way, but today we're heading to the "boat beach" on the south side of Little Harbor. This laid back spot is popular with local families and beach bums who mostly arrive by water. It's much less crowded than nearby spots that are easier to reach by car. We anchor near the edge of the mooring field; the bottom here is grassy so we've learned not to use a danforth-style anchor which is prone to false sets followed by lots of excitement. A quick dinghy ride into the beach with our shovels and cooler and we're happy. The day melts away while kids dig, swim, and walk through the trails that border the beach. In the event we've decided not to bring lunch along, a dinghy ride across the harbor to the Green Bean at the Wentworth Marina is a convenient way to grab a few sandwiches or a salad.
We say goodbye to friends at the end of the day and head home; the work week awaits before we do it all over again.
Here are some other tips and favorites:
- Brave Boat Harbor, located 4 NM north of the Piscataqua River, is an incredible spot. You'll need to time the tides right and visit in a boat with no more than 2.5ft of draft. An early-to-mid afternoon low tide is ideal; arrive while the tide is falling. Once inside the mouth of the harbor, hook around to the north and put your bow into the shallows. Drop a hook off the bow and stern and watch a massive sandbar appear. Stay for the afternoon and head home once the tide rises to the point you're comfortable heading out. A perfect Brave Boat day is a 10.
- On those days where it's just a few degrees too cool to be comfortable at the beach, head toward Great Bay where temps are usually ~10 degrees warmer. There isn't a beach in the bay, but Little Bay is a wonderful spot to drop an anchor and enjoy an afternoon. Watch your chart carefully once past the I-95 bridge; there's plenty of water in the channel but it gets shallow quickly outside of the marked channel. Depending on the wind we like the west side of Little Bay or just inside the Oyster River. Lexie's Landing at Great Bay Marine is a great burger spot for lunch or dinner.
- Our favorite restaurants in Portsmouth (for nights without kids) Row 34 (raw bar & seafood), The Black Trumpet (American / Mediterranean, atmosphere +++), and Cava (Spanish tapas, atmosphere ++). The Pointe, on the west side of Badgers Island offers the single best sunset view and is a perfect spot for a cocktail before walking into Portsmouth. Generally speaking I agree with the top restaurant lists on Yelp;
- Prescott Park Arts Festival puts on concerts and a family friendly musical several times every week and is a killer way to spend an afternoon if the weather or mood isn't suitable for water-borne adventures.
- Transient dockage is available at Prescott Park through the City of Portsmouth and is an easy walk downtown, though space is limited and the aforementioned musicals and concerts can be noisy. Sound dies down by 9, but I want you to know about it beforehand. If Prescott Park doesn't sound like your scene, the Wentworth Marina generally has space and is a quick cab or Uber ride to Portsmouth.