Why I love fishing for stripers with big flatwings on the greased line swing

After three very slow springs, things turned around a bit in 2017. It wasn’t as good as the old days. (Is it ever?) But the skunks were few, and the keepers more plentiful than in recent years. I wish I could say the baitfish were making a comeback. Sadly, I saw precious few swirls of mating herring. But enough with the negative. This is a celebration  of elegant flies fished with a traditional method — and the brute force of striped bass that can be measured in pounds.

The Rock Island flatwing saw plenty of swim time. It may not look it, but this is a legal fish, one of three I took that night.

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Another old favorite, the Razzle Dazzle. The Razzle Dazzle is responsible for my biggest striper on the fly from the shore, 30 pounds. This one is a wee bit less than that. Still, a good keeper bass on the long pole.

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We’re getting there. 15 pounds of power. I landed her at 1:00am after two hours of fishing without a touch. Since it was raining, I decided to end on a high note. A JR Cuban Alternate Cohiba Robusto was lit in celebration, and smoked on the long walk back to the truck.

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I don’t handcuff myself to the dogma of black flies at night. But occasionally, I do fish them. This spring I prototyped and tested a large, mostly black multi-feather flatwing (patience — recipe and photos to come). My intent was to have a big fly to silhouette against the dark of the moon sky in stained water. Here are my test results — all 20 pounds of it.

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Following the tides is a tough job, but some damn fool needs to be out while the rest of the world is sleeping.

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Ray’s Fly Featherwing: A simple, sparse flatwing

Many years ago, I was having trouble with some bass that were feeding on silversides in a Rhode Island breechway. The fish were active, but I couldn’t get them to bite. Ken Abrames recommended that I try the Ray’s Fly Featherwing, a dressed-down flatwing version of Ray’s Fly. I remember him telling me that it was, at the least, another arrow  in the fly box quiver.

That was a long time ago. I remember tying some up, but I don’t know what became of them. I know I caught stripers on them. I think I lost my last one to a bluefish.

Recently, someone on one of the forums asked about a “Ray’s Fly flatwing.” I think the Ray’s Fly Featherwing is the fly he was referencing. I haven’t tied in a couple of weeks, so I went down to the bench this morning and churned out a few. So simple. And sparse. I’d be as inclined to use these for a sand eel as I would a silverside.

All saddles are tied in flat — flatwing style, as they say. Note that the olive saddle is tied in at the head. All you need to do now is add water.

Ray’s Fly Featherwing flatwing

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Hook: Eagle Claw 253 1/0
Thread: White
Tail: 30 strands white bucktail under white saddle under 4 strands pearl flash under yellow saddle
Body: Pearl or silver braid
Wing: Olive saddle
Topping: Peacock herl

“Bill Peabody’s Flat-Wing Patterns”

A few years ago, Capt. Ray Stachelek gave me a copy of an article Bill Peabody had written in the May-June 1998 issue of Fly Fishing In Salt Waters. I mentioned it here, then mostly forgot about it. A few weeks ago, one of you asked if I could share the piece. With my Compleat Angler flatwing demo tomorrow, this seemed like a good time to do it.

Below is a pdf of “Bill Peabody’s Flat-Wing Patterns.” The quality is as good as I can make it, this being photos of a photocopy. I want to be clear that I did not write this piece. Bill Peabody did.  Enjoy!

Bill Peabody’s Flat-Wing Patterns

My rendition of Bill Peabody’s Flat-Wing Bay Smelt. The fly has not yet been shaped under water.

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Soft-Hackled Flatwings, Ready to Swim

Fresh off the vise and ready to be eaten. Grey dun/fluorescent yellow, pink/chartreuse/olive, and white/blue/mallard flank. Of course, endless color variations are possible. Sparse, yet full. These are all three-and-one-half inches long.

SH FW Hybrids

Here’s the basic template:

Hook: Eagle Claw 253 1/0
Thread: 6/0
Platform: 30 bucktail hairs
Tail: Flatwing saddle to match platform color, under 2-4 strands flashabou
Body: Braid
Wing: 30-45 bucktail hairs, under 10-20 hairs contrasting color, under 2-4 strands Krystal Flash or flashabou
Collar: Blood quill marabou, tied in at tip, 3-4 turns; 1 turn mallard flank (optional)
This is one of my favorite patterns for early season stripers.

The Greased Line, The Sparse Flatwing, and the Big Three-Oh.

This was a weird spring. It was cold. Rainy. I suffered from a debilitating case of tennis elbow. Without my switch rod, there’s no way I could have even fished for stripers. Things started late – I didn’t get my first bass till well into April. Most of what I was catching was in the sub-twenty-inch class. While that bodes well for the future, April and May of 2014 will go down as a complete vexation for courting the big girls. Two of my traditional big fish spots were depressingly unproductive. It was weeks into May before I even had a legal sized striped bass. But, oh, what a bass. Here’s how it went down.

I was fishing a new location that had big bass written all over it: current, structure, and the presence of herring. Attached to my floating line was a seven-foot length of twenty-five pound test mono. The fly was one I’d tied several years ago: Ken Abrames’ Razzle Dazzle. This particular fly was a veteran many striper campaigns. Its top two saddles were long gone, and over the course of the seasons, some of the bucktail had likewise gone AWOL.

For two-and-a-half hours, I fought the good fight: cast. Upstream mend. Another mend. Another. Swing. Pulsing strip. Let the fly fall back. Retrieve. Repeat. If nothing else, greased line for striped bass is meditative, so absent any hits, the routine was comforting and pleasant.

But, it was time to leave. A walk down-current to a different section, then ten more minutes.

The takes on the greased line presentation are usually either a sensation of building pressure, or a sharp pull. Hers was neither. Suddenly, she was simply there, rolling on the fly, taking line downstream. I had dropped a substantial fish the week before when I couldn’t get a good hook set. With that wound still festering, I drove the point home. Hard. She felt strong. But I didn’t have a idea yet of what I was dealing with.

Every big bass fight presents a unique set of challenges. As expected, her first run was downstream. She peeled line off the drag, but I was surprised by how little it was – probably about thirty feet. I pointed the rod at her and set the hook again.

She turned abruptly, and headed upstream. I was simultaneously delighted and horrified; the former because in this heavy current she’d be burning a tremendous amount of oxygen in her flight, the later because of the memories of all those steelhead who shattered my heart with relentless upstream runs and hook-spitting leaps. The challenge was to re-gather line as fast as possible, staying tight to the fish. She was faster than my hands, though, and I was sure I was going to lose her. I raised the rod tip. Still there. I lowered the tip and re-set the hook.

Now, she sounded. I’ve heard that big bass will try to rub their cheeks against the bottom to rid themselves of a fly. I don’t know if that’s true, but I do know that the bottoms of rivers and oceans and estuaries are vast depositories for nature’s junk. Who knows what multiple opportunities for snag hell awaited below? I pulled on the line. It didn’t move an inch.

Unbelievable. Stuck on the bottom. Another good striper lost.

But wait. Did the bottom budge? Yes. A little. I moved the rod tip back and forth in a 180-degree arc over the water, trying to stir the fish. It worked. Instead of ripping down-current, she ran uptide. Paused. I re-set the hook. Again. I decided it was time to try and get her out of the abyss and onto the gravel bar. She would have none of that. “Down goes Frazier!” Or, as I imagined it in my head, Cosell shouting “Down goes Culton!” She sounded a second time.

Again, I couldn’t budge her with a straight pull. The rod wagging thing worked once before, so I tried it again. Now she came up a little faster. I could sense she was tiring. Once I coaxed her out of the depths, she took advantage of the shallows, ripping off a series of short runs. But all that sprinting was taking its toll. I still didn’t know what I had. I was hoping for twenty-five pounds. I decided to try to land her on the beach.

I put the rod over my shoulder and walked her in close, then pulled her to the water’s edge. Now I could see the fish. My mouth fell open, searching for words. My pulse rate skyrocketed. After lipping twenty-inchers all spring, her mouth felt like that of some alien creature. Its opening dwarfed my hand. The flesh between my thumb and forefinger was substantial. I could easily see a small dog disappearing down that gaping maw.

I held my rod against her length. Her gill plates came about to the first guide on my two-hander, thirty-four inches away from the butt. This was a striper over forty inches. The big three-oh in pounds. A new personal best on the fly from the shore. She certainly had been eating well, with a distended belly that gave her a perch-like shape.

Wouldn’t you know that this was the one night all spring I left my camera at home? Fortunately, I had my phone in my pack. I took a couple hurried shots, and felt guilty about it, because I really wanted this fish to live. I took hold of her – good Lord, what an impressive mass – and guided her into the shallows. I was expecting a lengthy revival. But no. Almost immediately she felt ready to go. Just to be sure, I held on a few more seconds. As I was re-adjusting my grip, she thrust from my hands.

She slipped away into the darkness, leaving a gentle wake.

Miss Piggy. A thousand apologies for the sub-par photography. This is what happens when you forget your good camera and are reduced to using an iPhone wrapped in a ziploc baggie. But, you can get a good sense of the sheer mass of the fish. The bottom guide is 34″ from the butt, and her tail extends farther than you can see. Look at that belly full of herring.

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A better shot in terms of detail, but you don’t get the full length effect.

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The winning fly. An old Razzle Dazzle, missing two saddles and a fair amount of bucktail. Here we make the case for sparse and impressionistic. This fly is now retired. I may put it out to stud.

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Big Eelie Variant: The L&L

While I am loathe to use the phrase “go-to-pattern,” I beg to report that whenever there are large sand eels around, Ken Abrames’ Big Eelie is my go-to pattern.

The Big Eelie differs from 95% of other sand eel flies in that it is not an attempt to carbon copy the bait. Those legions of epoxy- and tube-bodied flies with eyes certainly work, but you can get away quite nicely with something far more impressionistic (if that’s your fancy) like the Big Eelie or Ray Bondorew’s Marabou Sand Eel.

The classic Big Eelie is a four-feather flatwing/soft-hackle hybrid; it’s colors are white, yellow, olive, and blue. I’ve discovered over the years that the Big Eelie works in all kinds of color schemes. One of my favorites is taken from Ken’s three-feather flatwing, the L&L Special. This tart mix of yellow, fluorescent yellow, white, and chartreuse shines on sand flats, day or night.

The L&L Big Eelie

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Hook: Eagle Claw 253 3/0
Thread: Chartreuse 6/0
Platform: 30 hairs fluorescent yellow bucktail
Tail: A white saddle, under one strand each of gold and silver flash, under two chartreuse saddles, under two strands purple flash, under a yellow saddle.
Body: Pearl braid
Collar: 2-3 turns chartreuse marabou, tied in by the tip.

Tying notes: Sand eels are a slender bait, so make your saddles about the width of a pencil. You don’t want a flaring broom shape for the platform, so likewise make it slim, and take the bucktail from near the tip of the tail. All the saddles are tied in flat. The marabou adds the magic here, as it veils the body when wet, creating movement and an almost glowing effect. Feel free to play around with different colors on this pattern; some of my favorites are blue/black/purple and white/pink/olive. Stripers love them all. I like to tie this fly about 4  1/2 inches long.