Ken Abrames Catches a Big One (a Currentseams exclusive)

The striper grandmaster talks about setting the hook, playing big fish, the effects of pressure, and fear.

Ken Abrames is one of the most revered names in saltwater fly fishing. He is the creator of the modern flatwing streamer, presentation-style flies that can imitate everything from clamworms to menhaden. His books Striper Moon and A Perfect Fish belong on the shelves of anyone who is an aficionado of traditional New England striped bass fly tying and fishing methods. Besides being a world-class angler, Ken is also a rod designer, author, poet, and artist.

I have the good fortune to be able to talk fishing with Ken on a regular basis. He is funny, candid, a good storyteller, and highly experienced. Here is an excerpt from one of our conversations.

Ken Quonny

Currentseams: I remember you once telling me the story of how your father taught you, “You gotta set the hook.”

Ken: I was a little kid, eight or nine years old. We were fishing off Poppasquash Point in Bristol (RI). There were a lot of fish in those days, and very few fishermen. It was a hazy day in May. We were fishing with plugs. I was reeling and popping, and all of a sudden a big fish exploded on my plug. It was like someone had thrown a Volkswagen in the water. And the fish started running like crazy, the rod was bent over, and the reel was screaming. It was like heaven. And the fish just ran and ran and ran – and then he turned to the right and the plug popped out. It was devastating to me. So I started to reel in, and my father looked over at me and said, “You gotta set the hook.”

Currentseams: (laughter)

Ken: It’s so hard to set the hook when a fish is screaming off line. People think they’re hooked up. But the fact of the matter is, you need to set the hook. And if you don’t, as soon as he makes his first turn, it’s over.

Currentseams: That is exactly what happened to me this spring. I had a big striper blow up on a flatwing and I didn’t set the hook. So if you don’t get a good initial hookset, you have nothing to lose by trying to reset during that first run.

Ken: That’s right.

Currentseams: When you first started teaching me, you drilled into me, as a fundamental part of fly fishing for stripers, the practice of hitting that fish multiple times.

Ken: If you hit him three times, sometimes you still lose him. If you hit him four times, sometimes you lose him. If you hit him five times, you won’t lose him.

Currentseams: Tell us what you mean by “hit him.”

Ken: You grab your line, and you punch him. And then you punch him. Even though you think everything is going to come apart, you want to punch him, and punch him, and punch him. You’ve got to hit him at least five times with a very, very sharp hook. And if you have a dull hook, it doesn’t matter how many times you hit him. Because you’re not going to catch him. (laughs)

Currentseams: Talk about a sharp hook being the single most important thing in fishing.

Ken: Well, it is the single most important thing. Because all those things you hear – the fish struck short, the fish were playing, there’s too much bait in the water, those little taps are small fish – those are just excuses people make up because they don’t understand why they’re not hooking up. And the only thing that is necessary is a needle sharp hook. Once you have that, once you feel the pressure of the fish, the hook has already started in.

Currentseams: You’ve also used the phrase, “sticky sharp.”

Ken: Think of the inside of a striper’s mouth as your fingernail. You take a hook and you run it across the back of your thumbnail. If it doesn’t stick in, or stick to your nail like a piece of scotch tape, it’s not sticky sharp. And the same thing will happen inside a fish’s mouth. A hook that isn’t sticky sharp will slide right out.

Currentseams: Let’s talk about those little taps.

Ken: When you feel that little tap, that’s a fish. He just sucked in your fly. If you’re used to casting and retrieving, like with a spinning rod, you expect a big yank. But the fact of the matter is that it is often just a tiny little touch, or even just a change in pressure. And to be aware of that is one of the most important things you can learn. You have to develop it as a skill.

Currentseams: If you’re taking a simple cast-and-retrieve approach to fly fishing, when you feel those little blip hits, and miss the fish, are you just simply pulling the fly out of the fish’s mouth?

Ken: Yep. You are. Fish don’t make mistakes.

Currentseams: Fighting a 30-pound bass is different from fighting a 10-pound bass. Let’s talk about that.

Ken: The first thing is to not be afraid that you’re going to lose the fish. The other thing is to not try to stop him when he runs. Say you’re a sprinter, and you’re running the 100-yard dash. What’s the first thing your body does when the race is over?

Currentseams: You’re exhausted, you hunch over, go limp…

Ken: That’s what the fish does, too. At that moment when the fish reaches the end of his run, that fish is exhausted. Now I know this is true because I have caught so many fish in my life, it’s ridiculous. When I fished commercially for stripers, I would hook a fish, and he would run, and I would run my boat right after him. At the end of the run, the fish would come up near the surface on his side. He was exhausted. It would only take about three minutes. Didn’t make any difference if he was thirty pounds or fifty pounds. You understand?

Currentseams: Yes.

Ken: OK, so now a guy hooks a big fish, it runs like hell, and he wants to stop the fish. And he puts pressure on the fish, and he thinks he’s going to turn it. That’s ridiculous. Take the pressure off the fish and it will stop (laughs knowingly). You have to learn this. Fish don’t read books about what they’re supposed to do and not do. They do all kinds of things besides what I’m saying. When the fish stops running, you reel in nice and steady, keeping the pressure the same, and the fish will come in like a dog on a leash. It’s like you hypnotize him with that steady pressure. If he wants to run again, back off the handle and let him.

Currentseams: Some anglers overplay stripers.

Ken: They don’t put any pressure on the fish because they’re afraid something bad is going to happen. Fear is the deciding factor. As long as you’re afraid, you’re not going to learn anything, and you’re going to make the same mistakes over and over again.

Currentseams: So some things that help you be less afraid are sharp hooks and, would you say, strong leader?

Ken: Oh, absolutely. Throw away all these ideas about fish seeing leaders and all that crap. Some people think I’m speaking heresy, but it’s not heresy. It’s the truth.

Currentseams: I haven’t used anything other than thirty, twenty-five, and twenty-pound Worldwide Sportsman mono for years now.

Ken: Of course. If you’re worried about leaders, you’re going to have a built-in handicap. You’re going to catch a hell of a lot more stripers on thirty pound than you are on eight.

Currentseams: I’ve found very few situations where I felt my leader color or size was the reason I wasn’t catching.

Ken: The leader isn’t an invisible connection. It leads the fly. You’ve got to match the size of the leader to your fly so it will swim right. You want the fly to be presented in a certain way. The leader is about the mechanics of presentation, not invisibility. You know that mono you’re using? That’s the original mono. The first one that was ever made. Do you get it?

Currentseams: I think so.

Ken: They haven’t improved it. But they’ve found millions of ways to sell other different kinds.

Currentseams: Do you keep your drag ratcheted down tight?

Ken: I use my hands. My hands are my drag. I don’t want anything between me and the fish. I just keep my drag tight enough so that the reel doesn’t over spin.

Currentseams: Too many anglers let stripers take them into their backing. I’ve only gone backing with three or four stripers in my life.

Ken: This is a true story. And it was witnessed by two people. I was fishing off Watch Hill in a boat for false albacore with a seven-weight rod and a fifteen pound leader. I hooked a fish, let him run, then held him and held him until the leader popped. So I said, oh, okay. I tied on another fly. Then I caught forty-two albacore. And not one of them got into my backing. Not one. Because I knew exactly how hard to push.

Currentseams: That’s impressive.

Ken: I kept ten of them, and told people they were good to eat – even though everyone says they’re not – and I lied, because I wanted to find out if they were good to eat. Everyone was disappointed (laughs).

Currentseams: (laughter)

Ken: I don’t care about the rules, and about what everybody else does. I always want to find out for myself. I also caught a couple of false albacore that day on my spinning rod. Know what I caught them on?

Currentseams: No, tell me.

Ken: Plastic crawfish with blue claws (laughs).

Currentseams: I have this theory…

Ken: I have no theories. I’m just talking about experience.

Currentseams: …the more line or backing that’s out, the more things can go wrong.

Ken: Well, yeah. The only thing you want to do is break the fish’s spirit.

Currentseams: What about swinging your bent rod from horizon to horizon to keep the fish off balance? I’ve done that with steelhead, and sometimes stripers.

Ken: You can absolutely change the direction of a fish by moving your rod. If you put your rod down close to the water, you let the line cushion your leader. You can change a fish’s direction by backing right off the pressure. If the fish runs downstream, you can dump line into the current, and let it get below the fish. Then all of a sudden the fish feels the pull from downstream, and he’ll start swimming up, dragging that line right behind him. I’ve done that hundreds of times.

Currentseams: That seems counterintuitive: if you take the pressure off the fish, you’ll lose the fish.

Ken: The line in the water will keep it tight.

Currentseams: I get it now, but I worry when a fish runs downstream, then makes an abrupt turn and speeds upstream.

Ken: A fish running upstream means somehow the drag of the line got below him. The fish always goes against the pull. Mmm-hmm.

Currentseams: What are some of the bigger stripers you’ve caught on a fly rod?

Ken: Oh God…I’ve caught a lot of big fish. A lot of people have caught a lot of really big fish on flatwings, because they really are a big fish fly. And they’re castable, and they can imitate anything.

Currentseams: Are there any kind of basic strategies for targeting big fish?

Ken: Well yeah, there are, but you have to learn those things over time. And you can’t be listening to other people.

Currentseams: How about how to fight a big fish?

Ken: You fight the fish from the first guide closest to the reel. The rest of the rod is not important. That angle from that guide is the most power you’re going to get. And you use the rod to dampen that power – if you raise the rod, it lessens the drag and reduces the pressure. Reason can’t fish. You fight the fish with your gut – you don’t play it from your head. Most people have fear in their gut. And fear always comes from an idea.

Currentseams: I still have a certain amount of fear with any big fish, but it doesn’t inhibit me. Since I started resetting the hook like you taught me, I have not lost a striper over 28”.

Ken: Yep.

Currentseams: Sometimes people say to me, “Well, how do you know you haven’t lost one over 28?”

Ken: (laughs) I know what a big one feels like.

Currentseams: Yeah.

Ken: And that’s the truth. Some people just refuse to give up their reason. Everything has to have a cause and an effect. The fact of the matter is that the future is unwritten. You can’t get there by figuring out the past. It’s always now.

Dear Meatball*

Dear Meatball,

How are you? That was some wind last night. Cold, too, huh? The water was warmer than the air.

Technology is so cool these days, isn’t it? Cars, computers, phones…even headlamps. I remember the first one I bought for fishing. It was little more than a stubby flashlight attached to an elastic headband. Now, you get multiple LEDs with spotlights capable of throwing 45 lumens. Or more. You can see everywhere with those things.

But you already know that. You and your buddies sure got your money’s worth out of your headlamps last night. What’s on the shore? Let’s light it up! Gotta check my rig, or look at my reel? Light it up! Anything in the water in front of me? Turn on the high beams! Is that guy still fishing above us? Scotty, full power searchlights on him!

Here’s the thing: that guy was me. When I’m fishing on the dark of the moon, I want my eyes, which aren’t great in the first place, to adjust to what little ambient light is available. It’s tough enough wading around in the dark without stumbling over submerged rocks and gravel bars. Your 600 candlepower light bombs in my face aren’t making the job any easier. It’s also rude as hell.

What’s more, flashing bright lights in the water in the pitch black of night generally isn’t good for business. Scaring the fish and all that. Which is why I cannot put into words the extent of my delight when you and your Vegas light show packed up and left.

Once you were gone, a funny thing happened. I started to catch stripers. Sure, it could have been a matter of time and tide. Personally, I think it was not having your group trying to replicate the total aggregate wattage of Times Square. The bass came in nice and close, and took my Crazy Menhaden flatwing on the greased line swing with confidence.

Anyway, I just wanted to say thanks for leaving.

Your pal,


Red lights at night, gentlemen. Red lights at night.


*With apologies to Billy Lagakis, from whom I so shamelessly stole this wonderful descriptor.

The Crazy Menhaden Big Eelie Variant

It happens, if you’re lucky, once a season. It does not define you as angler. It makes no promise of future success. Like all glory, it is fleeting. But oh, does it make you feel like the king of the world. It is the moment after a wildly successful session when someone breathlessly approaches you with the words, “Excuse me, I’ve got to ask. What fly were you using?”

The first time I fished the Crazy Menhaden Big Eelie was a humid, overcast June night on Block Island. A substantial school of bass in the ten-to-fifteen pound range was feeding on sand eels near the surface. They had the bait pinned in a three-foot deep trough between the beach and a sand bar that dropped off into deeper water. For the better part of three hours, I took bass after well-fed, rotund bass. They relished the fly, even after it was reduced to two saddles and some frayed bucktail. As I began the walk to my Jeep, the angler to my right hurriedly reeled in his line and chased me down the beach, eager to pop the question.


As its name suggests, this fly takes the color scheme of Ken Abrames’ Crazy Menhaden and applies it to the template of the Big Eelie. Together, they create an insanely potent brew of form and function.

Hook: Eagle Claw 253 3/0
Thread: Tan
Platform: Orange and yellow bucktail, 30 total hairs, mixed
Tail: (All saddles pencil thin) Pink saddle, under two strands each of red and copper flash, under yellow saddle, under chartreuse saddle, under blue saddle
Body: Gold braid
Collar: 2-3 turns ginger marabou, tied in by the tip

Tying notes: As with all Big Eelies, make the saddles thin. Tie them in flat. I like this fly about four and one-half inches long. Treat the marabou as a veil, not an opaque blob.

Crazy Menhaden Big Eelie Rogues’ Gallery:

(Please forgive the fish-unfriendly photo. This was the only striper I beached to shoot. I lipped the rest).


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


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.

Steve Culton Tying Demo at New England Spey Clave II

I will tying at The New England Spey Clave II, Saturday, May 11, 2013 at Matthie’s Grove, People’s State Forest, Barkhamsted, CT. If you have any interest in two-handed casting, this is a terrific place to explore, with casting demos, instruction, rod vendors, and more.

Yours truly will be tying flatwings and soft-hackles for stripers…


…and more traditional steelhead patterns like this Ginger Spider.


Hope to see you there. Be sure to come say hi.

Last night, while you were sleeping…

…I was standing waist-deep in an estuary, searching for stripers.

33″ and well-fed. 15 pounds if she weighed an ounce. And a new personal best on the five-weight. She took a Striper Moon flatwing/bucktail hybrid about 8″ long on the dangle.


The Daily Double: Farmington River trout and LIS stripers

No Hendricksons Monday on the Lower TMA of the Farmington River. At least not in the two spots I fished. It could have been the cool, overcast day (there were small olives). Or, perhaps things are simply winding down. One of the nice things about the Farmington is that the hatches move upstream; two friends that fished Monday just below the upper TMA reported good Hendrickson action. I swung a team of wets (Squirrel & Ginger caddis on top of two Dark Hendricksons) and 2/3 of the fish I caught took the caddis.

Back to work and family responsibilities for the afternoon and early evening. Then off to find some stripers at night with Dr. Griswold. There were some signs of herring, and while there were no bangs and pops on the surface, we did find some hungry fish. Bob brought his two-hander, and I went with the five-weight. We didn’t get anything super big, but there were some legal sized fish in the mix. I fished my Rock Island flatwing, which the bass again found to their liking.

Dr. Griswold with a nice 31-incher on the two-hander. Smile, Bob.


Can’t let Bob have all the fun. A nice keeper bass on the five-weight for me.


A tale of two five-weights

All five weights are not created equal. I should know. I’ve got four of them. You may ask why I need four of the same rod. The answer is that while they’re all five-weights in name, they could not be more different. Each is a specialist in its field. The two I want to talk about here are my 6’ Fenwick glass rod and my 9’ TFO TiCr.

This all started with a steelhead trip I had planned with my ten year-old. We had to cancel due to weather, and we were were both a little bummed about it. But I told Cam that since we weren’t making the drive to Pulaski, we could spend the day fishing closer to home. I gave him options: trout on the Farmington, stripers on the Hous, or wild brook trout over the hills and far away. Cam decided on brookies. I thought that was a fine choice.

I’ve had the Fenwick for many years now. It’s a sweet 2-½ ounce stick that flexes down to the handle. A five-weight line works just fine on it, and like bamboo it’s an exceptionally easy rod to cast. Cam told me he wanted to do a little more of his own fly casting this year, and this would be a good starter setup for him. Unfortunately, the first stream we hit was turbid with runoff. So we hopped in the truck and took a little drive north. The second stream was in fine fettle, medium high, and clear as an aquarium.

 It took us several tries to hook this fish. She kept whacking the microbugger, but we couldn’t seem to get a good hookset. Classic haloes and Fontinalis fin.


Cam got to work with on the surface with a size 14 Improved Sofa Pillow, but we had no takers, even over some confidence-is-high pools and runs. Undeterred, I tied on a blackish micro-bugger with a chartreuse bead head. That did the trick. Whereas the brookies were bashful about showing themselves on the surface, they were more than happy to nip and tug as soon as the fly settled beneath the surface. We landed four nice brook trout with glowing blue haloes and dropped a bunch more. It was a tired and hungry but happy hike out of the mid-April woods.

Eight hours later, I was swinging flatwings for stripers with my TFO TiCr five-weight. Where the Fenwick is a flexible birch sapling, the TFO is one of those redwoods you could drive your car through. I mate this rod with a 9-weight Rio Outbound floating line, and even with that night’s ten mile-per-hour crosswind, casting an eight inch fly was effortless – provided I found that sweet spot where the shooting head met the running line. Not easy on a moonless night.

I was mostly greased-line swinging, my favorite presentation with bigger flatwings. Sometimes the takes are nearly subliminal – instead of a tug, you feel a minute change in pressure that exponentially accelerates into mayhem. On this night it was different. The fish were taking the fly moments after I had completed my mends (I was fishing a narrows that only allowed two) and the takes were an adrenaline-produced amalgam of pull, boil, and surface thrash. I took three stripers on the greased-line swing; two of them in the double-digits pound class.

 31″ of pure pleasure on the five-weight. She fell for my Rock Island flatwing, tied about 8″ long.


Both of those larger fish were quickly played and landed. Both tried to run upstream when I attempted to coax them onto the sandbar I was standing on, and the side pressure I applied with the butt of the rod easily dissuaded both.

Miss Cow never showed up. But she’s out there, somewhere. And one night, on a moon tide, she and I and one of my trusty five-weights are going to go for one hell of a ride.

Guten tag cows mit der Herr Blue flatwing

It’s getting to be that time of year: herring moving upriver with plenty of cow bass along for the ride…or at least a meal or twenty. A floating line, a greased line swing, a Herr Blue flatwing swimming broadside or just hanging there, hackles undulating in the current — I can almost feel the sensation of the strike.

To the fly: my nine-feather flatwing translation of the R.L.S. Herr Blue bucktail, tied about 11 inches long. I really like the colors on this one.

The Herr Blue Flatwing, nearly a foot long.

Hook: Eagle Claw 253 4/0
Thread: White
Platform: Ginger bucktail
Pillow: White
Support: White neck hackle
Body: Silver braid
Tail: 2 white saddles under 1 pink saddle under 2 strands pearl flash under 1 violet saddle under 2 strands silver flash under 1 pink saddle under 1 blue saddle under 2 strands light green flash under 1 orange saddle under 2 strands purple flash under 1 olive saddle under 1 blue saddle.
Collar: White and ginger bucktail, mixed
Wing: 20 hairs dark blue bucktail, 15 hairs olive green, 15 hairs grey, 15 hairs orange, mixed.
Cheeks: 3 hairs each of orange, chartreuse, pink, turquoise bucktail, mixed
Topping: 7 strands peacock herl
Eyes: Jungle cock

A closer look:


And a proven performer. Not quite a cow, but easily into double-digit pounds. The fly is same as the one in the top picture. This striper was taken last spring on a greased-line swing.


Steve Culton

The (Super-Sized) Magog Smelt Flatwing

It would be pretty fair to say that I’ve got a jones for the Magog Smelt. The Magog Smelt is a classic landlocked salmon streamer that originated in Maine. It sports a striking color palette: white, yellow, and purple bucktail. Silver flash accents. Flowing red marabou, offset with barred teal flank and iridescent peacock herl.

Up until a few years ago, I’d never heard of the Magog Smelt. Then one day I was having a conversation with Ken Abrames about old time striper flies, and he told me the Magog Smelt was his father’s favorite fly for Rhode Island bass. So I looked up the pattern and tied a version based on the Ray’s Fly design. The first time I fished that that fly was at night in a breachway, and when I caught a striper on it, I could almost picture Ken’s dad standing on the shore, nodding in approval.

I started playing around with the color scheme of the Magog Smelt in different formats, from soft-hackle to single feather flatwing. They all worked in the salt. Then I got ambitious and tied up a 10” long, nine-feather flatwing. A substantial morsel to tempt the stripers when the big bait is in. Bold. Daring. More of a caricature of a herring than a formal portrait.

And here it is.

The Super-Sized Magog Smelt

Hook: Eagle Claw 253 3/0
Thread: Black
Platform: White bucktail
Support: White neck hackle
Tail: 3 white saddles, under 2 strands pearl flash, under one yellow saddle, under 2 strands pearl flash, under 2 yellow saddles, under 2 strands silver flash, under one lavender saddle under 2 strands silver flash, under one lavender saddle under 2 strands red flash, under one lavender saddle under 2 strands purple flash.
Body: Silver braid
Collar: a 2/3 veil of long white bucktail one hair thick
Throat: Full tip of red marabou
Wing: 30 strands purple bucktail
Topping: 7 long peacock herl strands
Cheek: Teal flank feather tip
Eyes: Jungle cock

A closer look at a fly that fishes big, casts small.

Tying notes: Since I didn’t have the darker purple the original calls for, I used lavender saddles and some deep purple bucktail in the wing. There’s something magical about the effect created by placing the jungle cock over the teal flank cheeks. This fly is tied Razzle-Dazzle style with the flash about an inch longer than the saddles.

You can see the stiff, white neck hackle I’m using for a support along the arm of the vise. A properly constructed big flatwing like this will not be prone to fouling.