Thank you, Connecticut Surfcasters!

Many thanks to this swell group of dedicated anglers. I think we all had a fun time. It was good to reconnect with some familiar faces, and of course, to meet some new ones. I have to admit I was a little nervous about how a fly fishing-based talk would go over with a largely spinning crowd, but you all made my job a pleasant and easy one. Plus, I got to treat myself to a delicious fried scallop dinner at Lenny & Joe’s.

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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Block Island Stripers From The Shore

 

“Block Island Stripers From The Shore” first appeared in the October/November/December 2016 issue of Mid Atlantic Fly Fishing Guide — sadly, the last issue of this regional gem. I consider Block Island to be sacred fishing ground. Some of my favorite fly fishing memories have been created along its shoreline.

My grandparents had an old map of Block Island in their basement. To my young eyes, it looked like a pirate treasure map from a story book. (I wasn’t too far off – the notorious Captain Kidd was known to frequent the island and its waters.) Then, there was the curious name. Why Block? It was shaped more like a pork chop than a cube. (I would later learn the island was named for Dutch explorer Adrien Block.) It was small enough to be charming (7 miles long and 3 miles wide, situated 13 miles off the coast of Rhode Island) yet substantial enough to have been around since the last ice age.

Then there were the magical names of its shoreline and landmarks: Pots and Kettles. Rodman’s Hollow. Black Rock. It all sounded like a fanciful netherworld inhabited by wizards and elves.

The wondrous reality is that from May through November, Block Island is home to Morone saxatillis. And if the year, moon, and tides align, you can reasonably expect an unforgettable encounter with a striped bass on the fly from the shore.

A feisty Block Island school bass taken on a dead drift using a small, sparse sand eel pattern.

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Where to fish. Finding a place to fish on Block Island is a good news-good news scenario: many possibilities, ample public access. You can find most of these spots on an online map. Note that there is no camping on Block Island, and no sleeping in vehicles.

Crescent Beach stretches several miles north from the ferry landing in town to Mansion Beach. The sandy bottom makes it a popular place for sight fishing. Some people bring ladders, but most anglers are content to walk and wet wade. Mornings – the beach crowds start building around 11am – and late afternoons are the best times to try your hand at stalking a cruising fish. If you see a substantial number of bass during the day, it usually means they’ll be around at night, too.

You’ll find structure, waves, and current like this along much of the island’s shoreline.

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Sandy Point is the spit that juts out from the northern tip of the island. Currents from Long Island Sound and Cow Cove smash together, creating the dangerous – and sometimes deadly – North Rip. This is the place where Block Island angling legend Ben Lubell lost his life in the early 1980s. Take a lesson from Ben, and never wade in the North Rip. Stay out of the water and the wash at Sandy Point.

Those same lethal currents can also make for great fishing, acting as a conveyor belt that delivers helpless bait to waiting mouths. Local historians will tell you that Cow Cove got its name when the island’s first settlers forced their cattle to swim ashore there. Noted author and fly tyer Ken Abrames says with a smile that the name really comes from the size of the stripers that have been taken there over the years.

The Great Salt Pond was once a brackish, landlocked lake. A channel was dug in 1895. The pond offers the fly fisher a rich diversity of angling opportunities, from shallow flats to deep water drop-offs to pinch-points to river-like currents. The channel at the Coast Guard Station, also known as the Cut, is the most popular fishing spot on the island. However, popular doesn’t always mean best, and parking is often limited.

West Side. Charlestown Beach runs along the middle of the west side of the island. When it’s on, gird yourself for a bad case of striper thumb. The largest blitzes I’ve experienced on Block Island – both in numbers and pounds per fish –have taken place along Charlestown Beach. The West Side is also home to Grace’s, Dorie’s, and Cooneymus Coves. All are rocky bars that are in fly rod range at high tide.

South Side. The stretch from Black Rock Beach to Mohegan Bluffs features the kind of rocky structure that stripers like to frequent. However, both surf and prevailing winds can be a challenge to fly casters.

Some final words of advice and caution: never fish an area you’re unfamiliar with at night. Reconnoiter it first in daylight at the same tide you’ll be fishing. Don’t venture out in rough surf. And fish with a friend.

Flies and gear. Sand eels, squid, and silversides are the predominant inshore baits, so bring plenty of flies that match their action and profile. Sand eels start out small – 2” or less in early June – and grow as the summer progresses. I favor sparse, impressionistic patterns like Ken Abrames’ Eelie and Big Eelie. I tie the Big Eelie in a wide range of color combinations, from the original white/yellow/olive/blue to blue/black/purple. I make them about 4 ½” long, and stripers relish them all. It’s hard to go wrong with any simple, slim-profile baitfish pattern.

I’ve caught more Block Island stripers on the Big Eelie than any other pattern. This is the fly’s original color scheme.

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It’s not uncommon to find both smaller (2”-3” long) and larger squid in the Great Salt Pond. And while I’ve never done very well using big flies on the Block, I always bring some foot-long eel patterns, because one day I’m going to find that 50-pounder. Crab and shrimp flies designed for bonefish will also work quite well on Block Island’s flats.

Bring your favorite one- or two-handed rod. As with any island, expect windy conditions, and match your rod accordingly. The water I fish is typically 2 to 8 feet deep. A floating line gives me the option of presenting from the surface to the bottom in most places. I always bring my full-sink integrated line in case it’s insanely windy or I want to fish a deep channel.

Waders and studded boots are essential gear for navigating the rocky shores and jetties of Block Island. Lightweight and comfortable boots will make that one-mile slog down the beach a little more endurable. Keep in mind that Block Island is surrounded by cool water for much of the summer; you’re probably going to need a jacket at night. Use a personal flotation device and carry a compass – Block Island can get Transylvania horror movie foggy.

And for those rare nights when the wind lies down and the air is still, make sure you have a generous supply of effective bug spray. The no see-ums on Block Island are torturous.

When to fish. Every year is different, and as east coast striper stocks have ebbed and flowed, so has the fishing on Block Island. In the previous four years I have caught as many as 75 bass over 8 nights, and as few as 4. There’s no way to predict which island you’re going to get.

While you can certainly catch Block Island stripers in daylight, Ray Charles put it rather eloquently when he sang, “night time is the right time.” Because most of the water I fish is shallow, I favor the dark of the moon or cloud-covered nights. Of course, the best time to go fishing is when you can. Catching or merely fishing, Block Island is a unique and beautiful location – and you’ll quickly understand why it was named by the Nature Conservancy as one of the “Last Great Places.”

Why I love fishing at night. This striper was part of a school of 10 to15-pound fish that set up on a shallow cobble-bottomed bar to ambush bait.

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No stripers. Nonetheless, a Good Friday.

Good Friday means it’s time for the traditional, annual currentseams striped basstravaganza. Simon Peter was, after all, a big fisherman. Absent any finned cooperation, one still has the comfort of reacquainting with Ye Olde Striper Emporium. Rust is scraped off the two-handed casting form. And if there’s an EP Carrillo Golossus sending plumes of savory smoke across the water, so much the better.

So, I fished for 90 minutes without a touch. It was a little early in the tide, but in the last half hour I was able to reach the edges of what was a very nice seam along the main current. Water was lightly stained and 47 degrees. Mostly overcast, and only the slightest of breezes. Three other anglers. We all blanked.

Hopefully, this year will be better than last.