Fly anglers are always looking for the next best thing. Especially when it comes to fly patterns. But often, “new” doesn’t translate to “better.” Some of these patterns are decades old, but they still get eaten because the stripers haven’t gotten any smarter. So if you want to see what’s in my fly box this fall — and at the end of my leader — read “These Old-School Striper Patterns are Still Deadly During the Fall Run,” brought to you by our good friends at Field & Stream.
You can read my newest piece, “8 Flies Smallmouth Bass Can’t Resist,” right now at Field & Stream online. Even if you’re more of a trout person, I’d recommend giving it a read as many of the patterns translate to the Salmo family. Naturally, I’ve included a few of my own bugs, like the August White and the Countermeasure. Besides, it’ll give you something to do while waiting for all this water to recede…
The best system for organizing your fly tying hooks and beads is the one that works for you. In the case of my ever-growing collection of such stuff, that means storage compartment boxes. But not just any boxes. They need to be adjustable, stackable, and easily transportable. Since I’m not fishing this week, I’m using the time to organize the disaster area that is my tying space. I thought I’d share my process of sorting and storing hooks and beads with you.
Let’s start with the storage boxes. I’m a big fan of the 3700 Series Plano Prolatch(TM) Stowaway(R) and 3600 Series Deep Prolatch(TM) Stowaway(R) bulk storage containers. I’ve been using them for years. You can find them at many hardware and big box retailers, and you can also order them directly from Plano. They’re very reasonable priced, and they’re a quality product. I like these boxes because they allow custom configuration; you can create numerous different-sized compartments within each box. The boxes stack neatly atop one another. And if I’m doing a show or a class on the road, I just latch the box and toss it into a larger container for transport. (Plano offers many more options in the way of fishing hardware/lure storage — it’s worth browsing their site if you’re looking for ideas.)
I can’t tell you how to organize your boxes –that’s up to you — but I can tell you how I organize mine. I have one box for beads and dumbbell eyes, sorted by color and/or material. For example, I have one compartment for brass copper beads and another for tungsten copper beads. But there’s only one compartment for gold beads, regardless of material, because I don’t have a lot of gold beads. There’s a box for freshwater streamer hooks, and a box for saltwater streamer hooks. My smaller hooks box is organized by hook type, with compartments for light wire hooks, heavy wire hooks, shrimp/scud hooks, heavy steelhead hooks, egg hooks, etc. Again, there may be many sizes and different makers within a compartment, but I can easily find the right hook for a size 14 North Country Spider (light wire hooks section) or a size 12 Dark Hendrickson winged (heavy wire hooks section). Easy-squeezy.
In his classic Stripers and Streamers, Ray Bondorew serves up an unimpeachable truth: fly tyers tend to overcomplicate things. Nowhere is this more true than in striper fly tying, where realism is king. Sand eels, also known as sand lances, are pretty basic — slender body, pointed snout, lighter on the bottom, darker on the top. Yet, as Ray observed, “Many sand eel patterns have been devised over the years, and many seem to involve much work to copy such a slender, simple bait. Complex bodies with Mylar tubing, Corsair, and epoxy have evolved. Several patterns require tandem hooks.” He doesn’t mention my pet peeve: eyes, which do a fantastic job of catching anglers. But I digress. I’ll let the man continue.
“I have always thought,” Ray said, “that there must be a way to formulate a simple, quickly tied, and effective pattern, especially for sand eels less than four inches long.” So Ray went forth and prospered at the vise. Ray’s Marabou Sand Eel is another favorite of mine, along with Ken Abrames’ Eelie, for imitating small sand eels, three inches long or less. Like Ken, Ray has some very specific thoughts on how best to tie this pattern.
“The trick here,” he says, “is to use as little marabou as possible.” Any thicker than a paper match width is, as Ray calls it, “overdressed.” Wet your fingertips and run them along the length of the completed fly to see if you’ve achieved your goal. Those who channel their inner sparse, impressionistic fly artist shall be rewarded with fat, cantankerous stripers.
Tying notes: As with Ken Abrames’ Eelie, I use the Eagle Claw 253 or other light, wide gap hook. No monocord for me, so I use Olive UNI 6/0. Leave a 3″ tag of thread near the hook bend; use this tag to bind down the wing. (Ray says if you choose to go the non-bound wing route, the pattern makes a fine silverside fly.) The pearl flash should extend beyond the wing by 1/2″. Use high quality marabou quills, and keep it sparse. What’s pictured here is as heavily dressed as I go.
Many of you know that Ken Abrames’ Big Eelie is my favorite sand eel fly. I use it primarily when the bait is at least 3″ long, or when I’m fishing an open beach or need a sand eel searching pattern. Oh, did I mention that it’s my favorite fly for Block Island? But smaller bait requires a smaller fly. Enter Ken’s Eelie, little brother to the Big one. The Eelie is basically a Big Eelie minus a saddle and the soft hackle. I rarely tie the Eelie longer than 4″; 3″ seems just about right. I love this fly as part of a three fly team; that’s how I most often fish it. Like the Big Eelie, the Eelie lends itself to all manner of color variations (try white, chartreuse, and olive, with a chartreuse body).
The Eelie is an exercise in sparse construction (some bucktail and a few hackles), simplicity (it’s a fast, easy tie), and impressionism (no eyes). The key to the Eelie is its thinness. I’ll quote Ken from Striper Moon: “The secret of tying effective sand eel flies is how thin you make them. Sometimes, an eighth of an inch thick is too heavily dressed.” You’ve been so advised by the master himself.
Tying notes: Ken’s original recipe is listed above. I make a few changes when I tie the Eelie. For years, I’ve been using the Eagle Claw 253 1/0 and some smaller hooks from brands like Gamakatsu; the key is to find hooks that are short shank, wide gap, light and strong. I match thread color to body color (here I used UNI 6/0 white). Instead of tubing, I use pearl braid for the body. Follow Ken’s instructions for thinness, and you’ll make the bass — and yourself — very happy.
I received so many comments and emails about my recent post on my striper fly box that I thought it deserved a follow-up. Having taken to the vise, my next step was to fill in the blanks. The box is sand eel-heavy, and that’s by design since I like to fish summer marks where sand eels are the primary forage.
I fished a different section of the lower river yesterday, from late afternoon into dark. The water was clear, cool, running at 460cfs — just about right. As is my my custom, I arrived rigged for wet fly, anticipating a typical very late spring pre-hatch wet fly bonanza. ‘Twas not to be. The early evening hatch never materialized. Well, it did if you count three sulphurs and four spotty rises in 90 minutes. But I was sorely disappointed with the lack of activity. I managed a measly four bumps, and only one of them resulted in a hookup. (Then again, the prime wet fly water in the run was occupied.)
At 7:30 I re-rigged for dry fly. It took a while for things to happen, but when they did, it was fast and furious. Observed: sulphurs size 16, tiny BWOs, Isonychia size 12, dark gray stoneflies size 12, and mats of midges. I focused on the yellow stuff, and threw Magic Flies, Usuals, and Catskills Light Cahills, all of which were eaten. Noteworthy: the world’s longest refusal (drifting over a gravel bank into a drop-off, and this guy rose and shadowed the fly for a good fifteen feet, nearly taking it several times before saying no); an epic 50-foot drift where I had three(!) different trout commit to the fly with a splashy take, none of which resulted in a hookset; and a comical take where a brown blasted the fly like it was going to hurt him, which, as it turns out, it did — in his haste to dine he fouled himself in his pectoral fin.
I was fishing in some fairly technical water, which I often prefer with dry fly because of its challenges. (We’re talking longer leaders, precision mends, and tricky drift management.) I didn’t connect as many times as I would have liked to, but I did hook fish from as far away as 45 feet and a close as a rod’s length. The frenzied feeding really didn’t begin until 8:30, and when I dragged myself away at 9:15, I’d just hooked a trout on a drift I couldn’t see.
A strange but pleasant evening. The first outing with the cane pole is always a treat.
This one’s worth repeating. There comes a stage late in the hatch where trout are feeding on both duns and spinners. Then, it transitions solely to spinners. You don’t need to stress about which stage they’re eating if you’re using a Catskills style dry like this Light Cahill. Trout will eagerly take it even when they’re on spinners. Every year, some of my biggest dry fly trout come on this pattern when the only feeding tell is the gentle, subtle spinner rise ring. Pro tip: you can upsize the fly so you can see it in the gloaming.
Another year, another appearance in On The Water magazine‘s “Guide Flies” column, written by Tony Lolli. You’re familiar with he concept of a guide fly — a pattern that is typically simple to tie and is a consistent producer. I’d like to introduce the Grass Shrimp Solution as Exhibit A: some bucktail, a few wraps of braid, palmered wet fly hackle, and then you’re fishing. You can see the wet fly influence in its construction. I like this pattern at night when the grass shrimp are forming mating swarms, and are being carried out of an estuary on current. Make it part of your three fly team, and hang on! This pattern was originally published in the old American Angler magazine, Nov/Dec 2015, “Soft Hackles For Striped Bass.”
Here’s a pdf of the article:
As many of you are already aware, my favorite caddis soft hackle, the Squirrel and Ginger, is featured in the “In The Vise” column of American Fly Fishing (May/June 2021). You get my narrative, materials list, and step-by-step tying instructions. Please support publications like American Fly Fishing, one of the few remaining fly fishing magazines.
Last week, while you were asleep — certainly some of you were, as the tide widows crept into the wee hours — I was banging around several marshes and estuaries looking for stripers feeding on grass shrimp. I found substantial numberqs of grass shrimp in every mark I visited, and varying numbers of bass. Grass shrimp are present year round, but they spawn when the water warms, and it’s getting to be that time of year. You can find grass shrimp swimming around if you shine your light in the shallows, but they mostly prefer to skulk along the bottom. They’re translucent creatures, so they’re not as easy to see as, say, a green crab. Their eyes reflect your headlamp beam, so that’s an easy way to spot them.
I almost always fish the grass shrimp swarm with a team of three. The patterns vary, and sometimes I’ll throw a clam worm like the Orange Ruthless into the mix, but last week I fished a deer-hair head on top dropper, a black General Practitioner on middle dropper, and Micro Gurgling Shrimp on point. I took fish on all three flies, although I was intrigued that I only caught bass on the black GP on the one night when I had bright moonlight. (The lessons are never-ending.) The fish weren’t very large — 20″ was the best I could manage — but I could tell from some of the feeding pops that there were bigger bass around.