Big Eelies and Banana Squid, or: striper soft hackles galore

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.

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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.

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Hook: Eagle Claw 253 3/0
Thread: Black 6/0
Platform: 30 hairs grey bucktail
Tail: Three white saddle hackles tied in flat, then four ginger saddles (I used golden tan) to veil the white saddles, then sparse purple Krystal flash on both sides, then a short badger hackle on both sides, then a webby grey saddle tied in flat, then a full plume of amber marabou
Body: Purple braid tied to 3/8″ from the hook eye
Collar: A sparse layer or yellow bucktail one hair thick to extend to the end of the amber marabou, then a sparse layer of blue bucktail one hair thick, then a sparse later of red bucktail one hair thick
Hackle: Brownish marabou tied in near the butt of the stem, then wound and doubled 3-4 turns

Block Island All-Nighter IX: It’s Father’s Day…and I got my cake!

We dip into the obscure 80s movie vault for that opening. But if you remember the first segment of Creepshow, you know from whence I quote. And it couldn’t have come at a better time. The first day of summer comes riding in on a white charger to banish the memories of the miserable spring that was striper fishing from the shore in Connecticut.

This was my first-ever solo BIAN (Block Island All-Nighter, for the uninitiated). A couple last-minute cancellations saw to that, and I couldn’t take Cam this year because he’s recuperating from an injury. You never know what you’re going to get on the BIAN. But there’s only one way to find out.

Getting ready. Big Eelies are a high-confidence pattern for me on the Block in June and July. The bass don’t have a color preference — it’s a profile and presentation fly — so I like to play around with different palettes. Crazy Menhaden colors on the paper, False Dawn on the cork. The entire top row left of the box is assorted other Big Eelies.

Block Island All-Nighter Flies Big Eelies

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I was sitting in my Jeep in the ferry lot. It was tropical for a June in Point Judith, so I had the door open. A squadron of passing gulls (if you’ll pardon the expression) evacuated their bowels over my position; most of it ended up on the truck, but a good tablespoonful got me square on the left leg. I took this as a sign. Yep. It was going to be a good night’s fishing.

Block Island All-Nighter bird poop

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Over the course of the night, I bounced around to several spots and found sand eels and stripers everywhere. I started fishing at 8:30; by midnight I had caught more bass than I had the entire spring in Connecticut. Plus, it was Father’s Day. That called for a celebration. A wee drap of Highland Park 12 year-old paired with a Gispert Churchill. (Sold separately.)

Block Island All-Nighter Wee Drop

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My first encounter of the night was with bluefish — it did not end favorably for my leader or my fly. After that, it was bass after bass after bass. The vast majority were scrappy pugs in the 20-24″ class, but there were a few keepers in the mix. It took me until June 22 this year (my longest stretch since I started fishing for stripers) to catch a legal fish. He she is, about to dash off to freedom. Note the curious observer to the right of her gill plate.

Block Island All-Nighter first keeper

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My best fish of the night, twenty pounds, just shy of 37″. She surprised me when I started hand stripping her in. The next thing I knew, line was hurtling through my fingertips and noisily chattering off the reel. The power of these larger bass is almost irrational, although they have a distinctive flight pattern: head for deeper water, and, failing at that, swim at attack speed in a broad half-moon arc. I’m trying to be as photo-friendly as I can with fish these days, and that translates to keeping them in the water as much as possible, even if it means not getting a classic hero shot. I encourage you to do the same.

Block Island All-Nighter 20 pounds

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Stripers often feed like like trout taking emergers or sipping spinners. I witnessed both rise forms. Here’s the back end of a spinner sip. Look in the foreground for worried water and a caddis-like leap by a sand eel. That spot erupted moments after I took this photo.

Block Island All-Nighter tailer

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The beer I had for breakfast wasn’t bad. But I did not have another for dessert. That was reserved for Ernie’s. Scrambled eggs, bacon, pancakes and toast, my first real food since those sublime fried scallops at Finn’s twelve hours earlier. 

Block Island All-Nighter Beer 

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You know the fishing is good when your fly ends up like this. In it’s heyday it was an L&L Big Eelie. Now it’s a testament to the potential of primal carnage and a top-ten-ever night of fly fishing for striped bass.

Block Island All-Nighter destroyed fly

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BIAN IX is awarded the official Currentseams seal of approval.

Block Island All-Nighter striper thumb

“The Little Things” in the July/August 2015 of American Angler

In case you didn’t know, I have the cover story in the current issue of American Angler, now available at your favorite fly shop or news stand. The piece is called “The Little Things,” and it’s about seemingly small adjustments you can make in your fishing that can have a large impact on the outcome. I have a followup — Son of “The Little Things” if you will — and several other pieces coming up in American Angler.

Read all about it.

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Not a picture of me. But a good photo nonetheless. I love guides who can multitask and make it look easy. 

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Partridge and Light Cahill soft-hackle

Some more production tying last night at currentseams HQ. Partridge and Light Cahill soft-hackles. So simple. And so effective during an emergence of the creamy mayflies we get on late spring evenings on the Farmington. A size 12 or 14 will do nicely. Hold on, now. Trout get reckless during this hatch.

When I started tying wet flies, I made two full rows of Partridge and (insert Pearsall’s Gossamer Silk color here) in my box. Later, on a whim, I bought some Uni Light Cahill thread and tied up a few of these soft-hackles. They sat unused for at least one season. I don’t remember the exact circumstance, but I do know that the first time I fished this fly, I cleaned up. I still have one of those original Partridge and Light Cahills; I fished it last spring, caught a trout on it, then retired it. It barely had any hackle left, but it still worked.

Such is the power of the impressionistic soft-hackle.

Filling corks with Partridge and Light Cahill soft-hackles. These are tied on a 1x strong, 1x long size 14 hook.

Partridge and Light Cahills

Introducing Currentseams Q&A

I get a asked lot of questions about fly fishing: from clients on the river, people in forums, club members I speak to, followers though email, etc. I’m happy to answer them, and flattered that someone thinks I might be able to help. In the spirit of help, I’d like to introduce Currentseams Q&A. When I get a question that I think might have broad appeal, I’ll post it and my answer here.

We’ll kick things off with a striper question.

Q: I finally will be getting to fish salt a few mornings next week up in Maine.  It’s an area I’ve fished a fair bit, but most often, using fairly substantial 5-8” flies – like the Grocery Fly (a harbor Pollack imitation), bigish deceivers and clousers and my favorite, a big Ray’s Fly.  How big?  6-8” on a 2-3/0 gami hook. That said, normally I’ve gone out a few times and have some hands on “data”… this year… no luck.  So, my “research” has been scanning surf talk threads in the maine/nh forum… which results in what looks like a likely ticket right now – 3-3.5” sand eels. So, I humbly ask…  Big Eelies and variants or small bucktails/deceivers, or even small “candy” like flies? If you’re open to it, I’d love to hear your thoughts on solid flies in smallish sizes. Point blank, for some reason in the surf I have a brain block on tossing little stuff… It’s a big ocean man, how will they see it?

A: Stripers are not humans. What you or I might find hard to see can be a billboard to a striper. I couldn’t possibly count how many striped bass I’ve caught on 1-2″ long grass shrimp flies (in murky water) or sparse (30 bucktail hairs and couple strands of flash) sand eels tied on #8 hooks. Bass also eat things like crab larva and isopods that are a fraction of an inch long. They find them just like you’re able to find M&Ms. The Big Eelie is a good bet, as is anything that is sparse and thin and matches the profile. Try Eelies: two thin saddle hackles over 30 fine bucktail hairs and a braid body. 2-3″ long. Maybe a couple stands flash. Small Ray’s Flies to match the bait. Play around with colors: the stripers will always tell you what they like. Ray Bondorew has a small sand eel fly made of marabou. Simple. No eyes. And effective. I fished hard/epoxy/tube bodied sand eel flies for years. I caught fish on all of them. But they all seemed to me like they were trying too hard to be an exact replica of the bait, right down to the detailed eyes. I haven’t fished a sand eel fly with eyes in years. Impressionism is more my style and energy, and I like to fish flies that don’t give the bass credit for being anything other than the primitive animal they are. (Thanks to Bill McMillan for that last line.)Have fun, experiment, and fish with confidence.

Here’s a sparse sand eel I call the Golden Knight. Two-and-a-half inches long, 30 fine bucktail hairs, a few strands of blue flashabou and black Krystal flash. This one is tied on a hook for small streams; for stripers, I use a TMC 7999 Atlantic salmon hook. This is a very effective fly to imitate small sand eels; I like to fish it as a team of flies near the surface, suspended between a corkie and a floating fly like a Gurgler.

Sparse Golden Knight

L&L Special Big Eelies. No matter what colors I tie the Big Eelie in, stripers love it.

L&LBIg Eelie

Things you can catch on sparse sand eel flies. This girl is nearly 40 inches long. Look at that tummy spilling over my right hand! Also dig the Jimi Hendrix guitar-on-fire psychedelic halo. The bite was incendiary that night.

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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.