Stripers from the surf

Better late than never goes the saying. So last night at 11pm I was walking with a skip in my step as I headed toward a jetty somewhere in SoCo. The SW breeze was light and warm coming off the water (it was much chillier in the interior of the salt pond I visited later) and I began casting into the pocket formed by beach and rocks.

I thought I felt a bit of odd pressure on a drift, but it wasn’t until I felt a sharp tug a few casts later that my suspicions were confirmed. Once I realized I’d left my Korkers in the car, I walked the bass along the rocks and landed it on the beach. I wasn’t up for doing that all night, so I waded into the surf proper and had at it, casting parallel to beach break and mending my line over the sets. Sure enough, there was a school of two-year olds in close. What they lacked in size they made up for in ferocity. I was fishing a three fly team of a clam worm on top dropper, a small sand eel in the middle, and a Magog Smelt soft hackle on point. They liked the two baitfish flies.

It would have been nice if they were a little bigger, but I hadn’t caught a striped bass in the surf in Rhode Island in years. So these schooligans were a treat.

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Why I like cheap (but good) cigars for fishing. Known among the cigar cognoscenti as canoeing, this is what happens when the wind is at an unfavorable angle to your stick. 

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A lousy photo of a peanut bunker bait ball. Stripers were darting in and out of its shape-shifting mass, picking off strays at will.

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Back on the striper night shift

Last night’s striper adventure returned me to some favored waters along the Sound. There were grass shrimp and mummies, and as the tide began to pull back toward the sea, the estuary suddenly came alive with the random staccato of carnivores on the prowl. The assembled diners were only in the 12″-18″ range, but what they lacked in sized they more than made up for in gusto — and in eagerness to jump on the fly.

I fished a three fly team last night, and caught stripers on all three patterns (top dropper = sz 10 Deer Hair Shrimp, middle dropper = sz 6 pink Crazy Charlie, point fly = 2″ Orange Ruthless clam worm). The bass favored the top dropper and point fly. I caught them on the strip, the swing, and the dangle.

We went low budget (but thoroughly enjoyable) on the cigar, a JR Cuban Alternate Cohiba Esplendido.

Now begins the internal debate: do I get a good night’s sleep tonight? Or do I venture out into the very wee small hours again?

Droppers are the fastest way to find out what the fish want.

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How to tie a dropper rig for stripers. (Just in case you missed it the first time.)

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Fear and loathing in fly fishing

Legendary ad man Bill Bernbach once handed each of his employees a card printed with the words Maybe he is right. The idea was to encourage his staff to give new or foreign ideas a fair shake.

I think fly fishing needs an equivalent. Especially striper fly fishing.

The populist culture is that of the nine-weight rod, the intermediate line, the rapidly sinking single fly, and the cast-and-strip presentation.  Deviate from those paths, and you are greeted with alarm by the collective. Conformity is encouraged. It is your safety net. Without it, you’ll be sorry. You’ll see.

This pack mentality is frequently observed on internet forums. Mention fishing for stripers with more than one fly, and you can almost see the eyes glazing over and the heads spinning. Tangles! Hard to cast! Is that even fly fishing?

Thankfully, striped bass don’t read internet forums. Unlike people, they are immune to fear (it won’t work) and loathing (I’ll look stupid).

There are so few absolutes in fishing. There are, on the other hand, many, many ways. So if you don’t aspire to fish like everyone else, open doors. Ask questions. Find out. Try new things. How does that guy fish? Does he catch a lot? Does it look like fun?

Maybe he is right.

No wrong answers. Only the right ones for you. On this night, the striped bass repeatedly picked out the middle dropper, a chartreuse and olive Eelie between 2″-3″.

Block Island Bass

Currentseams Q&A: Multi-fly striper rigs

Q: Just wondering how you rig to balance strength on the dropper and still allow movement in the fly?  Blood knot with a long tag?  Or surgeons knot with a long tag towards the tippet end? What do you think your hook-up ratio is for the front fly versus the trailing dropper?

A: I think you’re referring to a tandem rig; when I fish multiple flies for stripers, it’s usually a team of three. I build all my multi-fly teams with 20, 25, or 30# Worldwide Sportsman camo mono. The mono size depends on where I’m fishing and what flies I’m using. For example, crystal clear water or small flies would have me leaning toward 20. If I’m feeling lazy, I’ll use a triple surgeon’s knot to form the droppers. If I suspect larger fish may be in the mix, I’ll use a double uni knot. I had a “bad” experience many years ago with a school of high 30s bass — if I hooked two, the bottom fish would pull the triple surgeon’s knot right out from the top dropper. Now, if I’m targeting larger stripers, I go with a single fly.

If I am fishing multiple baits ( i.e. grass shrimp, peanut bunker, silverside) the fly that gets eaten most is usually the one that most closely matches the naturals the fish are feeding on, regardless of position. One night a small peanut bunker fly saved my bacon. It happened to be the middle dropper. It still worked when I re-rigged with a single fly.

If I know what bait is present, I’ll hedge my bets. This June I fished two small grass shrimp droppers with a small clam worm on point. The water was infested with grass shrimp. 3/4s of the bass I caught came on the shrimp patterns.

My three-fly team from early June 2014, top to bottom: Grease Liner variant, pink Crazy Charlie, Orange Ruthless. The bass liked all three flies. These tags are about 5-6″ long.

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In early July, small sand eels were on the menu. I rigged a dropper system of two sparse sand eels suspended between a corkie and a Gurgler. This setup was fished in barely any current at a dead drift. Even though the bass were keyed on the sand eels, I still took one on the Gurgler (the point fly) while it was just sitting there.

This Golden Knight is tied on a small freshwater hook, but on an Atlantic salmon hook, it’s the kind of fly that I like to have when I’m fishing multiple sand eel patterns.

Sparse Golden Knight

A shrimping I did go

It’s hard to improve on Ecclesiastes — let alone the Byrds — so I won’t even make the attempt. To every thing there is a season. And this is time of year I like to fish for stripers who are feeding on grass shrimp.

The grass shrimp swarm to the surface in brackish waters by the tens of thousands. Diminutive (about an inch, inch-and-a-half long) translucent creatures with eyes that reflect ambient light. From a distance, their mating dance looks like so many tiny raindrops. Then the surface boils from below, followed by a resounding pop! I get goose bumps just thinking about it.

Because there’s so much bait in the water, I like to up my odds by fishing a team of flies. Not only will I be presenting the bass with more targets, I will also be giving them a choice of patterns. Stripers never lie. They always tell you what they do — or don’t like. This weekend, I fished a three fly team consisting of Grease Liner variant on the top dropper, a pink Crazy Charlie on the middle dropper, and an Orange Ruthless clam worm on point. Of course, I am using a floating line should I need to throw a series of mends to fish the flies on a cross-stream dead drift.

Shrimp. It’s what’s for dinner. This fly is a variant of Harry Lemire’s classic steelhead fly, the Grease Liner. A little rabbit fur, a little deer hair, and you’re fooling fish.

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I made two trips this weekend under the cover of darkness. The tides were in that weak quarter moon netherworld, but what the place lacked in current, it made up for in splendid isolation. Not another soul in sight, both nights. It amazes me the things you notice when you’re sitting alone on a rock in the dark and the air is completely still. You see the reflections of an airplane’s lights in the water long before you hear the distant drone of its engine. The sound of the building tide seems to increase exponentially. And the reports of feeding bass travel quite well over water.

Friday night was the slower of the two; instead of bass, I hooked and landed several hickory shad. After an hour, I moved upstream to see if creatures were stirring at a bottleneck; they were, but out of casting range. Resigned to trespassing, I did so with the rationale that what goes unseen remains harmless. I can’t tell you exactly where  I was fishing, but let’s just say that between structure and trees, any form of traditional casting was out of the question. I could, however, dangle my flies in the current a rod’s length away. You can get really close to a fish that is holding on station, feeding as the current brings food to his waiting mouth, as long as you exercise caution and keep movement to a minimum. Twice, I hooked the striper that was chowing down ten feet away from me. Twice, I was unable to set the hook.

As I drove home in the wee hours, I was already plotting my return.

Saturday night, the tide hadn’t quite topped out when I reached the spot. I was pleasantly surprised to see the place was empty. The shrimp were already doing their dance, but otherwise it was quiet. Once the tide turned, the game was afoot. I saw a delicate swirl forty feet out. A few casts and a mended swing were ignored. Then, off in the distance, I began to hear the pops of feeding bass. Since the fish were in spinning rod range, I switched tactics and started dumping fly line into the current, all they way to the backing, and then some. Let the flies come tight, plane up, and swing around. Whap! Fish on. I could tell from the way it was fighting that it was another shad, until I brought it into the murky shallows and saw it was a foot-long striper. That made me happy.

I caught a bunch more in the 12 to 16-inch range, most on the dangle and swing, a few while stripping the whole smash back in. It wasn’t easy fishing; far more presentations were refused than taken, which is the way it should be when you’re fishing the grass shrimp hatch. But, now I had to return to the scene of Friday night’s robbery. By the time I got there, the current was just beginning to crawl toward the Sound. I lit a new cigar to keep the mosquitos at bay. I waited. Nothing. No micro swirls or dots painted on the surface by the bait. No earth-shattering pops. I decided to get my flies in the water anyway. You know, just in case.

Finally, a pop, though it was well out of casting range. To combat the boredom — and to create some wakes on the surface — I began manipulating the rod upstream and side-to-side. Still, nothing. And then, with the flies just sitting there, a building pressure on the line, then a series of sharp tugs. Seemingly out of nowhere, I was on. Bass for sure. Yes. Eighteen inches, the king of the weekend’s haul, taken on the clam worm.

By the time I got back to the truck, I still had enough cigar to keep me busy all the way home. But I decided to extinguish it. I kept the windows rolled down, and the air on this warm summer night tasted sweet as it coursed through my mouth and filled my lungs.

Droppers are the fastest way to find out what the fish want. I tied this one using 20 pound test World Wide Sportsman Camo mono.  I learned a few things on this trip. Top to bottom: 1) Harry Lemire’s Grease Liner is a darn good striper fly, even if it was created for steelhead. 2) Charlie Smith’s Crazy Charlie is a darn good northeast grass shrimp imitation, even if it was intended for bonefish in the Bahamas. 3) It is almost never a bad idea to include Ken Abrames’ Orange Ruthless clam worm fly on your team of flies, even if clam worms aren’t the predominant bait.

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