Ray Bondorew’s Marabou Sand Eel

In his classic Stripers and Streamers, Ray Bondorew serves up an unimpeachable truth: fly tyers tend to overcomplicate things. Nowhere is this more true than in striper fly tying, where realism is king. Sand eels, also known as sand lances, are pretty basic — slender body, pointed snout, lighter on the bottom, darker on the top. Yet, as Ray observed, “Many sand eel patterns have been devised over the years, and many seem to involve much work to copy such a slender, simple bait. Complex bodies with Mylar tubing, Corsair, and epoxy have evolved. Several patterns require tandem hooks.” He doesn’t mention my pet peeve: eyes, which do a fantastic job of catching anglers. But I digress. I’ll let the man continue.

“I have always thought,” Ray said, “that there must be a way to formulate a simple, quickly tied, and effective pattern, especially for sand eels less than four inches long.” So Ray went forth and prospered at the vise. Ray’s Marabou Sand Eel is another favorite of mine, along with Ken Abrames’ Eelie, for imitating small sand eels, three inches long or less. Like Ken, Ray has some very specific thoughts on how best to tie this pattern.

“The trick here,” he says, “is to use as little marabou as possible.” Any thicker than a paper match width is, as Ray calls it, “overdressed.” Wet your fingertips and run them along the length of the completed fly to see if you’ve achieved your goal. Those who channel their inner sparse, impressionistic fly artist shall be rewarded with fat, cantankerous stripers.

Ray’s Marabou Sand Eel. Thread: Light green monocord. Hook: Eagle Claw 254 size 1 or 1/0. Body: Pearl braid. Tail: Several wisps of long white marabou over which are tied two strands pearl Flashabou and a few wisps of olive marabou. Wing: A few wisps of olive marabou topped by 2-3 strands of peacock herl.

Tying notes: As with Ken Abrames’ Eelie, I use the Eagle Claw 253 or other light, wide gap hook. No monocord for me, so I use Olive UNI 6/0. Leave a 3″ tag of thread near the hook bend; use this tag to bind down the wing. (Ray says if you choose to go the non-bound wing route, the pattern makes a fine silverside fly.) The pearl flash should extend beyond the wing by 1/2″. Use high quality marabou quills, and keep it sparse. What’s pictured here is as heavily dressed as I go.

If you tie Ray’s Marabou Sand Eel and it looks too thin, you probably tied it right.

Ken Abrames’ Eelie: the sand eel pattern where thin is in

Many of you know that Ken Abrames’ Big Eelie is my favorite sand eel fly. I use it primarily when the bait is at least 3″ long, or when I’m fishing an open beach or need a sand eel searching pattern. Oh, did I mention that it’s my favorite fly for Block Island? But smaller bait requires a smaller fly. Enter Ken’s Eelie, little brother to the Big one. The Eelie is basically a Big Eelie minus a saddle and the soft hackle. I rarely tie the Eelie longer than 4″; 3″ seems just about right. I love this fly as part of a three fly team; that’s how I most often fish it. Like the Big Eelie, the Eelie lends itself to all manner of color variations (try white, chartreuse, and olive, with a chartreuse body).

The Eelie is an exercise in sparse construction (some bucktail and a few hackles), simplicity (it’s a fast, easy tie), and impressionism (no eyes). The key to the Eelie is its thinness. I’ll quote Ken from Striper Moon: “The secret of tying effective sand eel flies is how thin you make them. Sometimes, an eighth of an inch thick is too heavily dressed.” You’ve been so advised by the master himself.

Ken Abrames’ Eelie. Hook: Eagle Claw 254 sz 2-1/0. Tail: White bucktail, then a white saddle, then pearl flashabou, then a yellow saddle, then an olive saddle. Body: Pearl mylar tubing. Wing: None

Tying notes: Ken’s original recipe is listed above. I make a few changes when I tie the Eelie. For years, I’ve been using the Eagle Claw 253 1/0 and some smaller hooks from brands like Gamakatsu; the key is to find hooks that are short shank, wide gap, light and strong. I match thread color to body color (here I used UNI 6/0 white). Instead of tubing, I use pearl braid for the body. Follow Ken’s instructions for thinness, and you’ll make the bass — and yourself — very happy.

For sand eel flies like the Eelie, thin is always in.

Happy Independence Day (with some bonus fireworks)

Happy Birthday to the United States of America. I hope you’re have a safe and fun Fourth of July; maybe you’re getting together with family, or perhaps you’re out on the water. To help you celebrate, here’s bonus from the archives: the Olive Fireworm Big Eelie variant. This is my traditional 4th of July favorite sand eel pattern. Tie some up, and let the fireworks begin!

Boom. Ooh. Ahh. Ohh.

Re-stocking the summer striper box

I received so many comments and emails about my recent post on my striper fly box that I thought it deserved a follow-up. Having taken to the vise, my next step was to fill in the blanks. The box is sand eel-heavy, and that’s by design since I like to fish summer marks where sand eels are the primary forage.

I populated the third row with small stuff like clam worms, shrimp, and mostly small baitfish and sand eels. The second row gets all sand eels, from left to right: Eelies and Eelie variants, Ray’s Marabou Sand Eel, and the Golden Knight bucktail. Those flies are all 2 1/2″-3″ long. The big-eye hooks were gifted to me by some friends in Europe; I’m not sure of the name or size, but they look strong, have a wide gap, and are very light.
To the main event! Big Eelies get top billing since they are my workhorse (and favorite) pattern. The original is far left, followed be all kinds of variants: Olive Fireworm, Crazy Menhaden, a couple as yet un-named, L&L, Bruiser. (You can find recipes for most of these on my site.) Spares will go on the right side, along with squid and some experiments I’ll be test driving this summer and fall.

Reorganizing and replenishing the striper box

I’ve been meaning to do this for a good, long time. I started by taking out every fly from the left side of my box — this is the working side that gets the most use. I returned a few of the smaller bugs to the lower slots, but the others, mostly sand eels, got straightened out (flies tend to get gershtunkled after years of non-use) under a running hot water bath, followed by a hang drying on corks, and then finally laid out on a sheet of paper. From there I took inventory to see which patterns needed replacing and replenishing. So, right now I’m in the middle of a massive sand eel tying blitz. And did I mention squid? Golly, I ‘ve got to tie a few more of those. And then my experiments! I’m going to be playing around with some Gurgling Sand Eel variants this summer. To the vise! To the water!

The Big Eelie featured in On The Water’s “Guide Flies”

This is my third (I think) year participating in On The Water magazine‘s “Guide Flies” column, written by Tony Lolli. You’re familiar with he concept of a guide fly — a pattern that is typically simple to tie and can be relied upon to produce day in and day out. (Or night after night, as it were.) The Big Eelie delivers the goods. Developed by Ken Abrames, this pattern imitates larger sand eels. Part flatwing, part soft hackle, the Big Eelie is understated elegance at its finest. I think what I like most about the Big Eelie is that its template — four pencil-thin saddles and a marabou collar — lends itself to as many color combination as your inner artist can conjure up. My Rat a Tat Big Eelie, based on Ken’s larger flatwing, is just one example. Have at it and hold on tight!

Here’s a link to a PDF of this page:

Fourth of July Follies, or: Don’t Drunk Dinghy

This past Fourth of July was a memorable one. For starters, I’d been battling a waxing gibbous moon for days — and it was only getting brighter. But on this night, heavy cloud cover was forecast over Block Island. I couldn’t wait to hit the beach to celebrate my independence from that bite-killing light.

Now, if you watched the old Hee-Haw TV show, you probably know the “Gloom, Despair, and Agony Oh Me” sketch — in particular the line, “if it weren’t for bad luck, I’d have no luck at all.” I was thinking of this as I realized a most cruel twist of fate: there was a large group of people partying right where I wanted to fish. Three large families. Bonfire, music, fireworks shooting over the ocean, general drunken loudness, and specifically cackling moms after one too many hard lemonades. Sure, it’s fun, but dammit, why at this mark on the only night I’ve got significant overcast and the tide is perfect?

Since the three families weren’t practicing anything that remotely resembled social distancing, I decided to head to what I thought was a safe distance from the mayhem. Despite the racket and light show, the bite was on. I began taking bass after bass. Little did I know the real hijinks were about to start.

It began rather innocently. One of the kids noticed me amid the glowing spray of a fountain firework. She must have been around eight. Little Miss Precocious addressed me from the shore.

Who is that?

(Silence from me)

Who’s standing in the water!?!

(Maybe if I ignore her, she’ll go away.)

What are you doing there?!?

(Aren’t the parents seeing or hearing this? I’d never have let my kids wander down the beach at night unsupervised like that. Oh, wait. Right. They’re all drunk.)

Why won’t you answer me!!!!!?!

OK. I’ll play.

I turned around and faced her. “Well, hello there! I’m Mr. Culton. Who are you?

(Long pause while she processes, not being sure what to make of this new data…)

(still sounding unsure) …Samantha…

And with that, she turned and scampered back to the festivities.

That alone would make for a good enough story. But wait. Here comes the best part. A few minutes later, the dads decided that what with the receding tide (and their increasing intoxication) they should drag their dinghies a little further down to the water line. Except one of them forgot a cardinal rule of boating: always make sure your anchor line is secure. Five minutes later, I’m aware of a large oval shape drifting past me. About the same time, drunk dad recognizes his mistake, and runs helter skelter into the surf to retrieve his watercraft. After a sudden moment of realization, he delivers the punch line:

“Oh, (expletive)! I forgot my phone’s in my pocket!

The moral of the story is that drunks and boating just don’t mix. And, after all, what is a man profited if he should gain some beach but lose his phone?

A near-legal 4th of July bass. I think he looks a little surprised, which I get, because I didn’t expect the action to be as good as it was. As tradition dictates, my Fourth of July fly is the Olive Fireworm Big Eelie Variant.

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Tying the Gurgling Sand Eel

By popular demand, I present the recipe for the Gurgling Sand Eel — a kind of love child of Ken Abrames, Jack Gartside, and Kelly Galloup.

Here’s the backstory. A couple years ago, the guys at Block Island Fishworks (either Hank or Eliot, I can’t remember, but I think it was Eliot) showed me a prototype of an articulated sand eel Gurgler at the Edison Fly Fishing Show. I was given one, fished it that summer, and I resolved to tie a few of my own.

Here’s the prototype from Fishworks. Their shank is a little shorter, and the stinger hook smaller. I used a longer shank and a bigger stinger hoping that they would discourage dink hookups; I’m pleased to say that that was the result during this summer’s field testing. They use a strategically placed double layer of foam; I went for the simplicity of one (although Jack Gartside’s Sand Eel Gurgler uses the double layer). I deemed the eyes unnecessary. And since I like the action of saddle hackles — think Abrames’ Big Eelie — I incorporated them into my variant.

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The Gurgling Sand Eel

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Thread: 6/0, tyer’s choice of color
Stinger hook: Eagle Claw 253 1/0 or Gamakatsu SC15 2/0
Tail: 30 hairs bucktail; next, a 4″ pencil-thin saddle; next, 4 strands Flashabou; next, two 4″ pencil-thin saddles; next, 6 strands Krystal Flash. Tyer’s choice of colors.
Body: Pearl braid
Front shank: Fish Skull 35mm articulated shank
Underbody: Medium Polar Chenille
Shell: 3mm fly foam trimmed 1/4″-5/8″ wide, tyer’s choice of color

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Tying notes: Tie the stinger assembly first. If you want to reinforce the thread wraps on the articulated shank, you can add cement. Start the shell just behind the eye, and bind down well. Attach the Polar Chenille near the butt end, and wind forward. Pull the foam over the top of the shank and secure with three wraps of thread just behind the eye.  Bring the thread underneath the lip and whip finish. Trim lip.

Yup. It works. I think the articulation adds another layer of action when you fish this with short, jerky strips. Bonus: it also works on the dead drift or on long pauses between strip sequences.

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Block Island Report: If you can say, “It’s a braw bricht moonlicht nicht,” then you’re not catching stripers.

Those of us who grew up with off-the-boat Scots grandparents know the song “Wee Deoch an Doris” well. For the uninitiated, as you have not heard it, I shall proceed to translate and offer context. The song is about having one more drink before you head home. “If you can say it’s a braw bricht moonlicht nicht” (if you can say it’s a good bright moonlit night), then you’re a’ richt, ye ken (not nearly as intoxicated as you may think). So, have another.

That also made me think of Chip Diller getting his paddling in the Omega initiation scene from Animal House.  I might as well have been saying “Thank you sir, may I have another,” to the moon this past week, because when it was out and braw and bricht I took a right spanking.

To misquote Starbuck, moonlight feels wrong. I lost the moon lottery big time — quarter going into full is by far my least favorite time to fish for stripers at night.

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I won’t bore you with the minutia, but here’s the story in numbers: Seven nights. Three skunks, including two in a row. The last time I took such a beating was 2012 or 2013. For context, I had one skunk in my last 15 Block outings over the past two years. I ran into an angler — I’ll call him “J” — whose response to me telling him that I hated fishing under the full moon was, and I quote, “you’re crazy.” Now, I appreciate J’s enthusiasm and confidence. And I desperately wanted to be proven wrong. But the fact is, whether flat or surf or dredging deep bottom, I scored a big, fat zero — not even a courtesy tap — on every night the moon was out.

To continue the kvetching, size — or lack of it — continued to be an issue. Used to be that I could count on Block to produce a high percentage of legal fish. Heck, in 2018, a third of the bass I landed were over 28″. This year, not a one. OK, so there were no micros in the mix, and a 24″ Block bass battles like a 30″er from the Hous…but the continued lack of bigger striped bass from the shore is disturbing, although not surprising.

Was it all misery? Heck, no! I had four fun-filled nights, three with double-digit numbers. I played around with my fishing schedule and was able to beat the moonlight — even this old dog can adjust. One night the weather gods appointed a magnificent cloud bank to shroud the Island. The stripers said yes. And I got in some seriously wonderful trout fishing for stripers.

I’ll tell you more about it soon.

Block Island All-Nighter X: The X Factor

You never know what you’re going to get on a Block Island All-Nighter. My tenth reminded me that I’m not young anymore. The spirit is willing, but after nine straight hours and no sleep, the body protests. The last time I did this was 2015 — I had to look it up — but the conditions were perfect in terms of tide (high at dusk), moon (new) and weather (consistent SW flow), so going was almost an imperative on principle alone. Besides, I’d have company, old pal Peter Jenkins, owner of The Saltwater Edge. So off we went aboard the 7pm ferry.

Logistics were a challenge. Be advised that fewer ferries are running and passenger numbers are limited. We couldn’t get a car reservation, and taxi service on the Island was deemed spotty due to the current situation. That meant renting a Jeep, which worked out just right. Here’s Jenks doing some leader prep as we sail past Crescent Beach. I like a simple 7’6″ straight shot of 25# or 30# mono. Block bass are not leader shy.

Jenks

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Angler traffic was light throughout night, as a few hardy souls came and went. The bass traffic was similar: not here. Then here. Then gone. No large schools or consistent feeding. But the fish that showed came to eat. I had the early hot hand with a half dozen bass by midnight. Then Jenks caught fire. No keepers in the mix — I had bass in the 20″-24″ range with a couple 26″ers thrown in. What the fish lacked in size was made up for in pugnacity. Here’s a scrapper from early on. 

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I’m often asked, “How do you figure out what the bait is?” I suppose by now I qualify as a old salt, and old salts know that this time of year on Block it’s sand eels, sand eels, sand eels. You can feel then plinking and ploinking against your waders if you shuffle your feet. And sometimes the answer can be found in a photograph (look along the lateral line).

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The Big Eelie is a high-confidence pattern for me on Block. I fish it on a floating line on a dead drift, or with very short (6″) erratic, drunken strips. It doesn’t matter what color I choose (and I fish everything from dark to lighter fluorescents to dull hues) — it’s a profile and action pattern. And, as you can see, the bass love it. This used to be a beautiful Crazy Menhaden Big Eelie. Now it’s missing two saddles and most of the marabou collar. I was still catching on it when I switched it out at false dawn for a…wait for it…Big Eelie in RLS False Dawn colors.

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We did some surf fishing on the west side after midnight and again at sunrise. Conditions were about as good as you could hope for: a moving tide, moderate surf, and best of all, no weeds. Fish were present both times: stripers in the dark, and bass, bluefish, and shad in daylight. Here’s one that went bump in the night.

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There comes a point in the wee hours — for me, it’s usually around 2:30-3:00am — where the gas tank nears empty and the boilers almost out of steam. That’s when I take five (literally). It may seem counterintuitive to introduce a central nervous system depressant into the equation, but after closing my eyes I poured a wee drap of Highland whisky (Old Pulteney Navigator, which seemed highly apropos). I re-slogged out to the beach just before false dawn, and wouldn’t you know? I had hits on my first four casts. Never underestimate the mojo of single malt and a cigar! 

WeeDrap

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7:00am. Breakfast at Ernie’s. Hungryman Special: two eggs, two pancakes, bacon, and toast. (Thank you, Jenks, for being such a swell fishing partner.)  It feels amazing to have your first real meal in 12 hours. That hard wood bench on the ferry is going to feel even more amazing. I was lights out before we left the harbor. I don’t remember if I had any dreams, but right now I’m drifting off to a place where that sharp tug tells you the bass has committed to your fly and the ensuing battle is a bulldogging fight that only a Block Island striper can produce.

Ernies