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:
Thanks to everyone who participated in last night’s Zoom session. We’ve been averaging around 50 people, which doesn’t suck. And all those tremendous questions! Keep them coming. At some point these Zooms will end — or go on hiatus — but for now we’ll plan on another Currentseams Zoom next week.
Speaking of Zoom, if you’re in charge of lining up speakers for your fly fishing club, why not consider hiring me for a virtual meeting? That’s exactly what the Candlewood Valley Chapter of TU is doing tonight. I’ll be presenting “Trout Fishing For Stripers” in its entirely. If you’re interested in booking me, you can find my presentation menu here.
We are on a major striper tying binge. Soft hackles and flatwings. These are part of a large order for a long-time customer. Clockwise from bottom left: classic Big Eelies, then sets of Soft-Hackled Flatwings (pink/chartreuse/olive, grey/fluoro yellow, white/chartreuse.) The compleat striper angler will, of course, have a comprehensive selection of soft hackles in his or her box.
Finally, guiding. The State of Connecticut is partially re-opening today. Charter boats can take out up to five anglers. For now, though, I’m playing this one conservatively, so I’m still not guiding. I understand that outdoor transmission is rare — nonetheless, this is the decision I’ve made. I’m hoping to be taking clients out sometime in June. Thanks to everyone who has been reaching out about lessons and guiding — I truly appreciate your patience.
Stay safe and be well.
Many thanks to everyone who attended last night’s Zoom (Pro Tips and Q&A). We’ve been averaging around 50 people (which does not suck) and I’m grateful for the enthusiasm you’ve shown — love all the questions! Stay tuned for details on the next Currentseams Zoom.
Absent any striper fishing (what strange times we live in!) I’ve been striper tying. Tasty snacks abound: clam worms, mullet, silversides, sand eels, isopods and grass shrimp. Dig in!
It’s more than just semantics.
It’s a matter of how you fish, and how bigger fish tend to behave.
I was reminded of this point during a couple of recent outings. Schools of bass were moving through with the tide. I was fishing a floating line and a Rat a Tat Big Eelie variant. When I stripped the fly, I hooked up. When I mended and dead-drifted the fly over the sand bar, I hooked up — but with significantly bigger fish. I have experienced this on numerous occasions.
Then there are nights during a sand eel feeding event where the bass are willing to chase the fly — but only to a point. A change occurs, and to catch fish, the angler must create the illusion that the fly is a helpless sand eel drifting near the surface. (Dropper rigs on a floating line are the perfect tool for this job. Read more about striped bass dropper rigs here.) If you are taking in any line at all, it is certainly more of a slow gathering than a strip.
So, the next time you strap that plastic tub around your waist, consider this: are you using it primarily as a line collection device — or as a line management and line shooting device?
Your answer is one of those little things that will make a big difference.
The feeders on the strip were school bass in the 20″-22″ range. On the dead drift, helloooo, keepah! Plus a few just short of 28″. Good stuff.
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.
Got back yesterday from a 36-hour Cape Cod stripers on the fly trip. I met a friend from England who fishes out there several weeks this time of year, and a couple other guys I knew from the SOL forum. Tuesday night we fished an outflow. I took a 20″ bass on my first cast, and I supposed that it was going to be one of those lose-track-of-the-count-after-a-dozen nights. Or not. That was my only striper of the evening.
Wednesday AM we fished the mouth of an estuary. I could sense almost right away that it wasn’t going to happen, and it didn’t. The most fun I had that morning was casting Mike’s (the Englishman who is also a rod maker) cannon of a two-hander. (Good Lord, I need one of those for windy days.) Or maybe it was breakfast. It was pretty tasty. I think I’ll go with breakfast. We headed for a bay to catch the last of outgoing, but with the wind in my face, a tired body, and the only bass around being in the stocked trout size range, I decided to save my chips for later.
Good call. The Wednesday dusk and night bite was off-the-charts good for numbers (not so much for size) but you take what the striper gods give you and offer thanks. Mike and I started by working a beach, and we ran into a good old-fashioned classic blitz, with terns dive bombing the bait and a striper on just about every cast-and-strip. We were fishing about 25 feet off the beach, walking down current, casting parallel to the shore. This went on until dark, and we fairly giggled about it on our walk over to where Chris and Chuck were fishing.
I loved this second spot: an outflow with stripers holding on station, unwilling to chase, feeding on something small. I was feeling lazy, but after Chris mentioned the deer hair grass shrimp he’d seen in my box the night before, I realized that the standard baitfish fly was going to be nothing but casting practice. While bass popped around me, some within a rod length away, I tied up a three fly dropper team with the shrimp on top, a 1.5″ saltwater Hornburg, and a Gurgler on point to suspend the rig. I generally avoid the phrase “that was the ticket,” but I beg to report that that was, indeed, the ticket. For the next hour, the skunk turned into a touch or multiple touches on just about every cast. The fish were small and hard to hook, and with the action winding down, I decided to end on a high note after I took a double.
Mike demonstrates the proper technique for serving tea in the field, taken directly from the pages of the British Commando manual. Tea and milk on the beach after a night’s fishing. How civilized! Yes, the weather was October cold.
Chris with the best fish of our 36 hours, taken in an outflow on a Big Eelie. A fine demo of proper catch-and-release.
With striper season in full swing — if you’ll pardon the expression — this seemed like the perfect time to share “Soft Hackles for Striped Bass.” Many of you know me as a devotee of soft hackles and wets for trout, but interestingly enough, I was using soft hackles and wet fly tactics for stripers years before I tried them on trout. This article first appeared in the Nov/Dec 2015 issue of American Angler. It features six patterns, three from Ken Abrames and three of my own doing. All of them are proven bass catchers. So get out your vise and your floating line and deliver these impressionistic wonders to a waiting, hungry mouth.
The world-famous Jimi Hendrix-trippy-acid-flash-light-show striped bass photo. Nearly 40″ long, Miss Piggy (look at that full tummy!) fell for the seductive nuances of the Big Eelie, a soft-hackled sand eel.
Are trout anglers smarter than striper anglers? I ask myself this question a lot. I don’t have a definitive answer, but I do know this: no other fly fishing endeavor gets by on a smaller corpus of knowledge than fly fishing for striped bass. As evidence, I offer the phenomenon of the go-to fly.
“What’s your go-to fly?”
You see it all the time on striper forums. It presupposes that there is a single fly solution for all saxatilus situations. Invariably, the usual suspects are rounded up. Now, the Clouser is a great fly (or jig, depending on your level of crustiness). In fact, there was a time when it was my favorite striper fly (really). But a Clouser is not going to serve you well when the bass are holding on station slurping grass shrimp. I go back to the night in Rhode Island when, after several hours of pounding up 10-15 pound bass on Big Eelies, another angler chased me down the beach to ask what fly I was using. He’d learned a hard lesson that sinking lines and weighted flies are a highly unproductive way to fish for bass crashing bait on the surface.
Now, ask a trout angler, “What’s your go-to fly?” If they’re any good, their answer will be, “For which hatch?” Or, “What time of year?” Or, “How am I fishing?” You get the idea. No trout angler worth his Catskills dries would ever approach the Trico spinner fall with a Woolly Bugger by rote.
If you want to catch less fish, fish the go-to fly. If you want to catch more, go to the fly that best resembles what the fish are feeding on — and fish it how the naturals are behaving.
I love my Big Eelies. But they stay in the box when I’m fishing for bass that are feeding on herring.
I went on a wee tying binge, and when the feather dust settled I was left with an 8-pack of Big Eelies. Some are old favorites, and a few sport new color combinations. That’s one thing I love about this pattern: it lends itself supremely well to all manner of color experimentation, and the stripers almost always seem pleased with your work.
Big Eelies hot off the press. Clockwise from lower left: pink/chartreuse/olive, grey/olive, Crazy Menhaden colors, Olive Fireworm colors, black/chartreuse, pink/olive/brown, then the two of the original classic. I can already feel that forceful tug at the end of a twitching strip.
The Banana Squid, another classic from Ken Abrames. It’s different from most other squid patterns, and it looks nothing like what books would lead you to believe a squid should be. Add the magic ingredient of water, and it transforms into a living, breathing organism than looks good to eat. Fished slowly and deliberately, it relies on organic movement and impressionism to fool the fish.