Mulling over a striper puzzle

I received this question this morning, and it’s a good one to share. It comes from an angler who is just starting out with a floating line for striped bass.

Q: Last night I fished the last 3 hours of outgoing with a friend. We fished a nice little rip with schoolies feeding. Same fly as my friend, about 20′ apart on my left.  (A spin guy on my right). My friend caught 2 with the same fly as me. Spin guy struck out. My friend has an intermediate sink  line, me and my floating. So I’m thinking is my line doing something completely different or independent from what my leader is doing down below?  It was a can’t miss scenario, they were feeding for about 45 minutes. I’m thinking the line up top is doing one thing, and the leader (about 9′, 20#, 15# tapered) is doing something different in the rip below.   

These were my thoughts:

Ok, let’s break this down unemotionally. Fish actively feeding for 45 minutes, yet in this “can’t miss” scenario, two out of three anglers did, and one of you managed the massive amount of…. two fish. It would be significant if the spin guy caught 20 and your friend caught 20 and you caught nothing. But you’ve got one angler catching all the fish, all being relatively few. None of you did particularly well for can’t miss.

It’s difficult to armchair quarterback a situation when I wasn’t there. But one thought is that your friend had the best angle of presentation. That happens all the time in fishing, from trout to steelhead to stripers. Or, he was simply lucky. (That also happens.) Or, he chanced upon two of the village idiots. Let me explain that last one.

I don’t know how both of you were presenting your flies, but you describe a rip. That means current.  I can tell you what his intermediate line was doing the moment it hit that current. It was starting to drag. His line formed a large “C” shape and his flies followed that path at a high speed, even faster if he was stripping. So he caught two fish that were willing to chase. If you had a floating line, and you weren’t mending, your line was doing the same. Given identical flies, both flies were in the same relative position in the water column. If you were mending, your fly was moving slower, and depending on its weight and the speed of the current, probably higher in the water column.

The concept of line and leader behaving differently is a core principal of line management. When nymping at a distance, a trout angler may have his line flat on the surface — that is, when it’s not airborne because he/she is throwing a series of upstream mends during the presentation — while the leader is at a right angle to the surface with the flies bouncing along the bottom. Line and leader are doing very different things. In a greased line swing, the line is being moved in an upstream arc in a series of mends, while the leader and fly remain perpendicular to the current as they move downstream and toward the angler’s side of the river. Line and leader doing very different things. It’s called line control. Presentation. And it’s the difference between fly fishing and treating your fly rod like a glorified spinning rod.

You weren’t not catching fish because you were using a floating line. None of of you did well because you weren’t presenting a fly or lure that matched what the fish were feeding on in the manner they were feeding.

What’s the bait? How are the bass eating it? What flies do I have that match that bait, and how can I deliver that fly to make it easy for the bass to eat? Answer those questions correctly, and you’re on your way to catching the fish that not everyone can catch.

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The unimportance of casting

The casting discussions are seemingly endless: distance, tight loops, line speed, hauling, leader turnover, and more distance. Not that I’m surprised. But I do find it fascinating, especially since you rarely see these topics brought up on trout fishing boards.

I never wanted to be a great caster. I did, however, aspire to be a great angler. Maybe some day I’ll get there. In the meantime, I’ll just follow Ray Bergman’s advice on fishing, and let the casting take care of itself.

Striper fly anglers have a unique obsession with casting distance. Funny thing! My biggest striper this spring, best measured with a scale or a yardstick, came on a 30-foot cast that I pooched out in front of me. All I had to do was wait for the current to deliver the fly to her waiting mouth.

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Stripers en Espanol

Last week I had the pleasure of guiding Asier and Moncho. They wanted to learn more about linea engrasada (greased line) fishing for striped bass. What was remarkable about the session was that they came all the way from Spain to do it. I’d like to tell you we slayed legions of bass, but we saw only one fish caught in the two hours we were on the water.

But if there ever was an outing where catching was truly secondary, this was it. Moncho speaks limited English (and I know even less Spanish), so Asier served as an able translator. We talked fishing, greased line, Ken Abrames, asked and answered questions, drew diagrams in the sand, exchanged flies and hooks and cigars, laughed at our communication gaps — what an appropriate way to spend the the day after Thanksgiving.

Asier recently posted this in the comments section of my guide service link. I am both honored and humbled by his words. “We come from Spain to learn with Steve, we only spend two hours with him… much more than enough to convince me he is the kind of guide always wanted, the knowledge, the philosophy, attitude, positivism, and of course the way he teach… How much he teach us in two hours in the sea, I can´t imagine how much he can teach in the river…. I really would like to come back and…. let’s try… more!!!!! Thanks Steve, people like you make sense to fishing.”

Three amigos. Moncho is on the left, Asier on the right.

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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

Fly Fishing for Striped Bass: Meditations, Musings, and Observations

I don’t know about you, but when I’m out fishing I tend to get lost in my thoughts. Some of those thoughts involve the standard issue routine of life. Others, a problem that is currently in want of a solution. Most often, though, I’m thinking about fishing. I’m also doing a lot of observing — conditions, other anglers, how fish are feeding, what the bait is doing. You know. The truly important stuff. Recently, I was fortunate enough to spend eight glorious nights fly fishing for stripers. Here are thirty-six hours and nearly a hundred stripers’ worth of thoughts and observations wrapped up into six hundred words.

~ Stripers often feed like trout. Consequently, you should be prepared to fish for them like trout. Match the hatch (bait). Present your fly (or flies) to the bass in the manner the natural bait is behaving. Target specific rising fish.

~ If you use stealth and caution, you can get remarkably close to actively feeding stripers, especially at night. I have waded to within two rod-lengths of a striper that was rising in three feet of water, and caught him by dapping my sand eel fly in the film.

I love sight fishing on rocky flats at night. After I crept up on his position, I watched this bass feed for several minutes before making a cast. Taken on a chartreuse and olive Eelie.

Block Island Bass

~ Stripers will frequently chase and hit a rapidly stripped fly. The more you fish for stripers, though, the more situations you will encounter where they will ignore a rapidly stripped fly. If you want to catch those fish, you’ll need to have other presentation arrows in your quiver.

One of my favorite ways to catch stripers is by dead drifting a three-fly team. The point fly (in this case a Gurgler) and the floating line stay on the surface; the two droppers are suspended just below. I use this approach when there’s a lot of bait in the water, especially small bait like clam worms or grass shrimp or sand eels. The takes are sublime. Rather than a bull rush smack, the sensation is one of building pressure as the bass, feeding with confidence, sucks the fly into its mouth. The explosion comes moments later at hook set. It is a poetic and beautiful and — when bass are feeding near the surface — highly effective way to catch striped bass.

Sand eel dropper rig

~ A floating line allows you to present deep (and deep in current), on the surface, and all points in between, without having to change lines or tips or flies. You can mend a floating line over the tops of waves along the beach.

~ The notion that a weighted fly is all you need to fish for stripers is like saying that a Woolly Bugger is all you need to fish for trout.

~ Sticky sharp hooks. Always.

~ If stripers are crashing 2”-3” sand eels on the surface, do not be surprised if they ignore a 6” Black Bomber or dumbbell-eyed sand eel fly.

~ Striper fishing spots can be notoriously fickle. The moon changes, the weather changes, winds shift, tides move, bait moves, stripers move. If you’re not getting any action, go find the fish. Make note of the most favorable conditions for a given spot.

~ A fine, hand-rolled Dominican cigar is an effective (not to mention, delicious) way to keep the no-seeums away. Certain botanical sprays, not so much.

~If you want to catch more stripers, fish when other people don’t, fish where other people don’t, and, most importantly, fish how other people don’t.

Pay attention to the little things, and the results can often be measured in pounds.

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Striper Report: Walkin’ after midnight. Searchin’ for you.

I started on Monday and finished Tuesday. No moonlight or starlight. Rather, one of those misty, showery nights where the atmosphere is so dense it seems you could wrap your fingers around it and grab a handful. Mysterious. Striper. Weather. The five-weight with the new Rio Outbound line and a seductive 9″ Rock Island flatwing fresh off the bench, ready to swim. Hours of greased line swings. Rhythmic mending. The rise and fall of the fly in the current on the dangle. Short pulsing strips on the retrieve. Water haul, tip flexed, the line coils shooting from the basket through the guides. Ears cocked, listening intently in the dank as best you can for the sounds of a swirl or the pop of an open mouth. Nothing. Still, nothing. And more nothing. Just you, the rod, the fly, and your thoughts.

You may ask why I keep doing this when the repetitive result is neither fish nor hits. Because this could be the night I get my first 25-pounder on the five weight. Because the next cast might be the drift over a striper holding in ambush. Because you can’t catch striped bass while you’re asleep in your bed. Because I’m fortunate enough to be able to set my own schedule, and people like you send me comments and emails telling me that when you can’t go fishing, you enjoy reading about when I can.

Most of all, I do it because I love it.

I left home almost five hours ago. I fished hard and I fished well, so I fell asleep as content as an angler could be after a skunking.

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Striper mini-report: Our Blessed Lady of the 3/0 Shot

A quick zip in, zip out striper mission yesterday to see if anyone was around. They were, for a brief window. I missed the first 45 minutes (according to the other angler I spoke to — I didn’t get your name, but thanks for sharing the water). But for a half hour, it was nearly a Bass-O-Matic.

Hellooooooo down there.

Little guy big mouth

 

While the fishing wasn’t very technical, there was a key to success: getting the fly to the bottom where the bass were hanging out. I was fishing a floating line with a four-foot section of T-11 sink tip and a weightless soft-hackle about three-to-four inches long. Not deep enough. Once I added a 3/0 shot to the leader and threw some mends, it was bottom — and striper — city.

And then, like that, they were gone. I tried a few other rips (not easy to find with a 10-20mph SW wind disturbing the surface) but decided that when the local who fishes this spot all the time left, he knew something I didn’t. And off I went.

The tide comes in. The tide goes out. Leaving lovely sculptures in its wake.

Outgoing