Mulling over a striper puzzle

I received this question this morning, and it’s a good one to share. It comes from an angler who is just starting out with a floating line for striped bass.

Q: Last night I fished the last 3 hours of outgoing with a friend. We fished a nice little rip with schoolies feeding. Same fly as my friend, about 20′ apart on my left.  (A spin guy on my right). My friend caught 2 with the same fly as me. Spin guy struck out. My friend has an intermediate sink  line, me and my floating. So I’m thinking is my line doing something completely different or independent from what my leader is doing down below?  It was a can’t miss scenario, they were feeding for about 45 minutes. I’m thinking the line up top is doing one thing, and the leader (about 9′, 20#, 15# tapered) is doing something different in the rip below.   

These were my thoughts:

Ok, let’s break this down unemotionally. Fish actively feeding for 45 minutes, yet in this “can’t miss” scenario, two out of three anglers did, and one of you managed the massive amount of…. two fish. It would be significant if the spin guy caught 20 and your friend caught 20 and you caught nothing. But you’ve got one angler catching all the fish, all being relatively few. None of you did particularly well for can’t miss.

It’s difficult to armchair quarterback a situation when I wasn’t there. But one thought is that your friend had the best angle of presentation. That happens all the time in fishing, from trout to steelhead to stripers. Or, he was simply lucky. (That also happens.) Or, he chanced upon two of the village idiots. Let me explain that last one.

I don’t know how both of you were presenting your flies, but you describe a rip. That means current.  I can tell you what his intermediate line was doing the moment it hit that current. It was starting to drag. His line formed a large “C” shape and his flies followed that path at a high speed, even faster if he was stripping. So he caught two fish that were willing to chase. If you had a floating line, and you weren’t mending, your line was doing the same. Given identical flies, both flies were in the same relative position in the water column. If you were mending, your fly was moving slower, and depending on its weight and the speed of the current, probably higher in the water column.

The concept of line and leader behaving differently is a core principal of line management. When nymping at a distance, a trout angler may have his line flat on the surface — that is, when it’s not airborne because he/she is throwing a series of upstream mends during the presentation — while the leader is at a right angle to the surface with the flies bouncing along the bottom. Line and leader are doing very different things. In a greased line swing, the line is being moved in an upstream arc in a series of mends, while the leader and fly remain perpendicular to the current as they move downstream and toward the angler’s side of the river. Line and leader doing very different things. It’s called line control. Presentation. And it’s the difference between fly fishing and treating your fly rod like a glorified spinning rod.

You weren’t not catching fish because you were using a floating line. None of of you did well because you weren’t presenting a fly or lure that matched what the fish were feeding on in the manner they were feeding.

What’s the bait? How are the bass eating it? What flies do I have that match that bait, and how can I deliver that fly to make it easy for the bass to eat? Answer those questions correctly, and you’re on your way to catching the fish that not everyone can catch.

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Striped Bass Podcast in the can

Or so they’d say in the days of film and reel-ro-reel tape. I guess the proper term now would be “on the drive.” Regardless, last week we recorded material for a podcast(s) about fly fishing for striped bass with a floating line, flatwings, sparse flies and other traditional fly fishing methods. There are over two hours of material to sift through — thankfully, not my job — and unfortunately, I don’t have a release date. But hopefully the editor will hop to it and we’ll have something fun and informative to listen to on long drives or — shhhh! — while goofing off at work. When I have more information on a completion date, I’ll let you know.

The boys are back from summer camp, so my three weeks of hedonistic binge fishing are over. Not to worry. I have brilliant plans for sneaking out to the water…

I haven’t been in ten days, but my spies tell me the Farmington continues to fish well. Plenty of cold water has the trout fed, fat, and happy.

As always, thanks for reading and following currentseams.

Flatwings. Floating lines. Traditional presentations. You too can learn the secrets of catching stripers that are measured in pounds instead of inches. Coming soon to a podcast near you.

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Housy Smallmouth Report 8/10/17: Questions 67 & 68

When I’m teaching or speaking, I often tell people that I don’t have all the answers. This isn’t false modesty. I really don’t. But I do have many questions. And so it goes with the 2017 smallmouth season. So, to quote the Polish Prince, I’d like to know…

Where are the bigger fish this year? Last summer’s bronze bully bonanza stands in stark contrast to this year’s onslaught of sub-6″ fish. It’s not so much that I mind the action, but I’ve managed only one bass this summer in the foot-long class. Dusk, last year’s magic time when the double-digit inchers came out to play, has been largely pipsqueak heaven.

One theory I have is that last year’s uber-low water concentrated the fish into runs and holes that provided enough current and cover; when the dinner bell rang, the alpha fish in any given spot took charge. This year, with significantly more (and cooler) water, the bass are more spread out. Still, that doesn’t explain why I wouldn’t at least have chanced into a larger fish.

Which leads to my next question: why has the dusk-to-dark surface streamer bite been so slow? Last summer, I’d have bass hammer my deer-hair head/rabbit strip tail bugs the moment they hit the water. This year, my flies remain largely unscathed. (This may speak to the preponderance of small fish, since the bug in question is 4″ long.)

Obviously, more research is needed. I’ll be curious to see how the bite plays out in this watery laboratory for the rest of August.

Notes from last night: water at 270 cfs. I fished two runs from 6pm to 9pm. The first was TeQueely territory. Lots of action, although there is a structure-laden frog water section next to current and a deep hole that continuously, mysteriously fails to produce. I’m going to have to re-visit at dusk. White flies are just about done — in fact, there were far more sulfurs on the water last night. Also small tan caddis, and the ubiquitous black caddis. The two fly team of white fly soft hackle (I’m calling it the August White) on point and Black Magic dropper continues to shine. I’m swinging wets far more than I did last summer, mostly pre-hatch, and the bass just can’t keep away. Multiple doubles last night, and the Black Magic out-caught the August White 2:1. I’m targeting active feeders, swinging through and across current seams, but I’m doing boffo box office on the dangle with a slow hand-twist retrieve. Best fish last night, 9″, came on this last presentation (Black Magic).

From one year ago to the date. I know you’re out there. Somewhere. 

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Housy Smallmouth Report 8/9/17: No big deal

I’m a creature of habit, and that includes fishing. So every once in a while I need to force myself to switch things up, get out of my comfort zone, and try something different. That’s how I found myself last night in what’s probably the most popular pool on the river.

My evening began way above the covered bridge in some snotty rapids. One 6-incher on the TeQueely and done. I moved downriver to reconnoiter some new water. Didn’t like the looks of it, so I headed to my beat for the evening.

I hadn’t fished this run in a few decades. There’s a lot to like about it: substantial riffles that dump into a long pool, good current, ringed by both deep and shallow frog water. It’s fishy as hell.

Alas, it was infested with dinks. Even after it became difficult to see the fly, I was still hauling in pipsqueaks. OK, I was fishing on the wrong side of the river. But I didn’t see many of those telltale big fish bulges. On the positive end, I did boffo pre-hatch business with a Black Magic North Country spider dropper and a white fly soft hackle on point. They loved the flies on the dangle, rod tip raised, with a very slow or hand-twist retrieve. I had a few doubles, but mostly the bass were keyed on one fly or the other. I was intrigued that I would get several bass on the black — consecutively — then 2-3 bass on the white. (You may have heard this before, but droppers are the quickest way to find out what the fish want.)

Finally, you’ll want to know about the white flies. The answer was no. Very weak hatch, maybe a 2 out of 10. This pool is upriver from where I’ve been fishing, so I can’t make an intelligent scientific comparison other than to say it sucked. Black caddis were out again.

Good to meet everyone last night, and thanks as always for sharing the water.

Black Magic was featured in the color plates of Robert Smith’s book The North Country Fly. It works as well on eastern freestone river smallies as it does on English chalk stream browns. Black Pearsall’s silk, peacock herl, black hen.

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Housy Smallmouth Report: White flies on the wane?

I fished from 5:30pm to 9:00pm. The hatch was decent enough, but nowhere near the numbers I saw last Thursday. Here are some of the lessons I’m learning.

Spot A was an area I’ve never fished before, below the 4/7 concrete bridge. A big, gnarly riffle that dumps into deep pool, then an even deeper pool, before transitioning into a placid run. I was disappointed to hook only one bass. I can’t imagine that there aren’t a lot of fish living in that stretch. Spot B was within the TMA. I tossed my TeQueely into some frog water on the edge of a riffle. The bass slammed into the fly the moment it penetrated the surface membrane. Best hit of the year, any species. Always investigate that transition water between current and frog.

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Think a Housy smallmouth might like a white fly soft hackle like this? (Size 10 hook, cream hackle, fibers, and white Pearsall’s.) You betcha. Trout, too. I took a pretty foot-long brown on this fly (no picture — quick landing and release), as well as numerous bass. Fishing a team of wet flies pre-hatch is sound in practice, but it can get problematic with smallies. I was fishing a team of two and had to cut one fly off due to excessive doubles. Same problem with the soft hackle I had dropped off my White Wulff and Convertible dries: too many doubles. I know, life’s tough.

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White flies get all the juice, but let’s not neglect their smaller photo-negative, the black caddis. Swarms of these flies everywhere. I even took a dozen home with me in my Jeep. Going to tie up some Black Magic soft hackles, about a 14-16.

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Last year, the bass would attack a streamer even if they were feeding on something small on the surface, and especially as dusk made its way toward night. Not so this year during the white fly hatch. So maybe smallmouth are more trout-like than I give them credit for. I was targeting one bigger fish that kept rising in some shallows — I got him to bump the streamer, but it was at best a half-hearted attempt. This dude came to net on a White Wulff size 12. 

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Farmington River Report 8/4/17: “To play him long is to play him wrong.”

The quote is from Stu Apte. Before we get to its relevance, a quick Farmy report.

I fished the Farmington from 8:15am to noon, dedicated to the nymphing cause. The action was spotty. I started on the lower river, and the first run produced two trout. Spot B was a blank. Up to the permanent TMA. Same deal: the first spot was a two fish pool, the second run a blank.

But why I remember most about the outing was the gross overplaying of a trout I witnessed within the permanent TMA.

I was wading into position when the angler across from me, who was nymphing, hooked the fish. My first notion that this was going to not go well was when I realized that several minutes had passed and he still hadn’t landed the fish. So I set my watch and began timing. Nine minutes later — that’s an accurate time — and the fish had still not been landed! The longer you play a fish, the more things can happen — and most of them are bad. This manifested during minute ten of the timing when the fish popped free. The end result was two very frustrated anglers — and very likely, a dead trout.

Clearly, this gentleman was ill-equipped to battle a large trout. (I saw it at one point, and it appeared to be a brown in the 20-inch class. Big, but certainly manageable and landable.) So, enough criticism. What would I have done differently?

  1. Don’t let him breathe. (The fish, not the angler. Though I was tempted.) This guy spent extended periods with his rod tip high in the air and the trout lounging in the current. All a Mexican standoff does is give the trout a steady supply of oxygenated water. I repeat, don’t let him breathe. If the fish wants to run, let him. When he stops, crank that reel.
  2. Find a better LZ. This guy chose to play the fish in the hot water where it was originally hooked. He completely ignored the plentiful frog water below him, which was a much better place to attempt to net the fish.
  3. Fight the fish with the butt and the reel. The angler had his rod way too high the entire time. Get the fish off balance by arcing the rod in a plane from side to side. That can help move a stubborn fish.
  4. Use a tippet you trust. I never nymph with anything less than 5x. That’s strong enough to handle anything I’m likely to hook.

Finally, keep cool. Fish can’t think. You can.

Housy Smallmouth Report: White Nights

I fished the Hous last night from 6pm-9pm. Things began slowly. The water was up (300cfs and lightly stained) and I’m not sure if that meant the fish were a little more spread out or just hanging on the bottom. I covered some prime runs, long since out of the sun, and only found a few dinks willing to eat. Even once the sun was well below the hills, there was very little surface action, and even fewer fish willing to jump on a surface/film bug. At 7pm I saw two white flies in the space of five minutes. Perhaps the start of something good?

I kept thinking that the pool would light up around 7:30pm. 8:00pm passed and still nothing, nada, bupkis. Then, the first rise ring appeared. I fished a size 8 Convertible on the surface with a size 12 Partridge and White dropped off the bend. The bass liked both flies: dead drifted, swung/waked, and very slowly retrieved. By 8:30 the air was alive with bugs, the water surface cluttered with fluttering white masses (as a fine contrast, there was also a good showing of black caddis, size 16.) I took my last fish at 8:45, and shot the video from the previous post on the wade out.

Some notes: the bass were keyed solely on the hatch. I could coax no interest in a surface bug or streamer. Also, the mosquitoes were fierce once my cigar went out. Bring bug spray or an extra stick. With warming and dropping water levels, I would expect tonight’s action to be excellent.

Best bass of the night, just over a foot long. He took the soft hackle as I performed a slow hand-twist retrieve in some frog water. A really good battle from this fish — he sounded after hookset, bulled and raced, and I didn’t see him until he reached the net.

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