There are several baits that give striper anglers fits: clam worms, grass shrimp, and truly tiny stuff (like crab larvae), just to name a few. You can also add sand eels to the list. I see the forlorn souls trudging off the beach, beleaguered and bewildered, always with the same mournful complaint: “There were all these fish feeding and we couldn’t catch them.” Sand eels might be the sulphurs of the salt. They’re a plentiful bait, easy to identify, the fish love to eat them — and most anglers approach the situation the wrong way.
I love fishing for striped bass that are feeding on sand eels. Some of my best nights of striper fishing have occurred during a sand eel hatch. Here are some things I’ve observed that will help you catch more bass that are feeding on sand eels.
— Striped bass are very much like trout. They like current, and they will key on certain food sources at certain times at the expense of all other menu options. What’s more, they will feed in a certain manner in a certain part of the water column. Sound like trout taking emergers just below the surface film? Good! Once you grasp this concept, you’re halfway home.
— When confronted with the scenario of stripers crashing sand eels on the surface, most anglers attack the problem with sinking lines and/or weighted flies. This is the equivalent of wading into a trout stream where trout are sipping Trico spinners, then tossing a tungsten cone head Woolly Bugger. (Sidebar: yes, stripers will root along the bottom for sand eels, then eat them as they shoot for the surface. Dredging the bottom with a weighted fly can be productive. But if you see the fish leaving rise rings or splashy boils, that should be your first clue that a floating line and an unweighted sand eel pattern is a good place to start.)
A floating line, a sparse, unweighted sand eel pattern, and a very happy angler. My friend John, who was fishing next to me, caught a bass in this size class on 11 consecutive casts.
— This is not rocket science. Recall Fly Fishing 101: What are the fish eating? How are they eating it? What do I have in my box that most closely resembles the bait (size, color, profile)? How can I present my fly to mimic what the naturals are doing?
— It’s almost never a bad idea to target an actively feeding bass.
— Aggressive feeders will take a stripped fly with gusto. I like very short (3″ or less) rapid strips. Wait until you feel the weight of the fish before you set the hook. Always strip set.
— There often comes a time in the hatch when the bass will no longer chase. The stripped fly is rendered useless. But the catching doesn’t have to end. The smart angler will change tactics. He or she might use a dropper rig, suspended in the surface, managing it like a dry fly presentation (dead drifting over a feeding lane) or every-so-slightly maintaining tension on the line (not so much a retrieve as it is a gathering of slack). The takes in this scenario will be sublime. Again, strip set.
If the rise rings become softer and the stripers won’t chase a stripped fly, try a dropper rig suspended in the film.
— Just because you don’t see stripers feeding on the surface doesn’t mean a) they’re not there, and b) they won’t take a sand eel fly at the surface.
— I like to shuffle into a beach trough or across a flat to see if I can roust some sand eels. On the dark of the moon I look for their biolume contrails, or feel for their crazy bounces off my legs. If I’m lucky, a nearby striper will ghost his position by stomping on the fleeing bait. Now I have a target.
— Confidence catches fish.
Find sand eel patterns that you have confidence in, then go forth and prosper. I happen to love Ken Abrames’ Big Eelie, shown here below the glasses and in the left side of the box. Note the vast array of colors; I’ve never experienced that stripers have a preference. I also like Ken’s smaller Eelie, and Ray Bondorew’s Marabou Sand Eel. And for the record, I haven’t caught a striper on sand eel fly that had eyes in over a decade.