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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

Striped Bass Podcast in the can

Or so they’d say in the days of film and reel-ro-reel tape. I guess the proper term now would be “on the drive.” Regardless, last week we recorded material for a podcast(s) about fly fishing for striped bass with a floating line, flatwings, sparse flies and other traditional fly fishing methods. There are over two hours of material to sift through — thankfully, not my job — and unfortunately, I don’t have a release date. But hopefully the editor will hop to it and we’ll have something fun and informative to listen to on long drives or — shhhh! — while goofing off at work. When I have more information on a completion date, I’ll let you know.

The boys are back from summer camp, so my three weeks of hedonistic binge fishing are over. Not to worry. I have brilliant plans for sneaking out to the water…

I haven’t been in ten days, but my spies tell me the Farmington continues to fish well. Plenty of cold water has the trout fed, fat, and happy.

As always, thanks for reading and following currentseams.

Flatwings. Floating lines. Traditional presentations. You too can learn the secrets of catching stripers that are measured in pounds instead of inches. Coming soon to a podcast near you.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

 

 

Big Eelies and Banana Squid, or: striper soft hackles galore

I went on a wee tying binge, and when the feather dust settled I was left with an 8-pack of Big Eelies. Some are old favorites, and a few sport new color combinations. That’s one thing I love about this pattern: it lends itself supremely well to all manner of color experimentation, and the stripers almost always seem pleased with your work.

Big Eelies hot off the press. Clockwise from lower left: pink/chartreuse/olive, grey/olive, Crazy Menhaden colors, Olive Fireworm colors, black/chartreuse, pink/olive/brown, then the two of the original classic. I can already feel that forceful tug at the end of a twitching strip.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

~

The Banana Squid, another classic from Ken Abrames. It’s different from most other squid patterns, and it looks nothing like what books would lead you to believe  a squid should be. Add the magic ingredient of water, and it transforms into a living, breathing organism than looks good to eat. Fished slowly and deliberately, it relies on organic movement and impressionism to fool the fish.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Hook: Eagle Claw 253 3/0
Thread: Black 6/0
Platform: 30 hairs grey bucktail
Tail: Three white saddle hackles tied in flat, then four ginger saddles (I used golden tan) to veil the white saddles, then sparse purple Krystal flash on both sides, then a short badger hackle on both sides, then a webby grey saddle tied in flat, then a full plume of amber marabou
Body: Purple braid tied to 3/8″ from the hook eye
Collar: A sparse layer or yellow bucktail one hair thick to extend to the end of the amber marabou, then a sparse layer of blue bucktail one hair thick, then a sparse later of red bucktail one hair thick
Hackle: Brownish marabou tied in near the butt of the stem, then wound and doubled 3-4 turns

Why I love fishing for stripers with big flatwings on the greased line swing

After three very slow springs, things turned around a bit in 2017. It wasn’t as good as the old days. (Is it ever?) But the skunks were few, and the keepers more plentiful than in recent years. I wish I could say the baitfish were making a comeback. Sadly, I saw precious few swirls of mating herring. But enough with the negative. This is a celebration  of elegant flies fished with a traditional method — and the brute force of striped bass that can be measured in pounds.

The Rock Island flatwing saw plenty of swim time. It may not look it, but this is a legal fish, one of three I took that night.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

~

Another old favorite, the Razzle Dazzle. The Razzle Dazzle is responsible for my biggest striper on the fly from the shore, 30 pounds. This one is a wee bit less than that. Still, a good keeper bass on the long pole.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

~

We’re getting there. 15 pounds of power. I landed her at 1:00am after two hours of fishing without a touch. Since it was raining, I decided to end on a high note. A JR Cuban Alternate Cohiba Robusto was lit in celebration, and smoked on the long walk back to the truck.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

~

I don’t handcuff myself to the dogma of black flies at night. But occasionally, I do fish them. This spring I prototyped and tested a large, mostly black multi-feather flatwing (patience — recipe and photos to come). My intent was to have a big fly to silhouette against the dark of the moon sky in stained water. Here are my test results — all 20 pounds of it.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

~

Following the tides is a tough job, but some damn fool needs to be out while the rest of the world is sleeping.

401AM

 

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

 

That’s AM. Very AM.

Getting home from a fishing trip when the birds are just starting to sing is significant.

It can mean the fishing was so good you lost track of time. It can also mean you were stupid enough to leave your home before midnight and stay out long past where good sense should have compelled you to stop.

And sometimes it’s a little of both.

A bleary camera eye stares blankly at the microwave oven clock. 

VeryAM

We’ve been working the striper night shift here at currentseams for the past three weeks. While it’s been a mixed bag, it has been better than last year (pretty much a blank repeated ad nauseum), with only one skunking in the mix and my first keeper of the year. Most of the fishing has been wonderfully meditative greased line presentations with large flatwings. And I’ve had the chance to reconnect with my beloved five-weight.

The best striper of the spring so far, a 30-incher who found my Rock Island flatwing to her liking. I was lucky to catch this fish — she came at the end of the drift on my last cast of the evening, and saved me from the dreaded polecat. Loads of fun, and quickly landed on the five-weight.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

Salmon Fishing for Striped Bass

Salmon Fishing for Striped Bass first appeared in the October 2014 issue of Mid Atlantic Fly Fishing Guide. Many thanks to them for allowing me to share it on currentseams.

Most striper fly anglers have never heard of A.H.E. Wood or the book Greased Line Fishing For Salmon. That’s a pity, because Wood’s greased line swing is one of the most elegant, pleasing – not to mention effective – ways to fish for striped bass in current.

Wood fished for Atlantic salmon in Scotland over a hundred years ago. Greased Line Fishing for Salmon, a technical how-to based on his extensive letters and notes, was first published in the 1930s. It was re-issued in 1982 by Frank Amato Publications with “[and steelhead] “ added to its title. While the writing style is a bit moldy, the content will transform the way you fish for stripers. You may never approach an estuary or a breachway the same way again.

The greased line and the fly rod.

Before the advent of the modern floating line, anglers were compelled to use lanolin dressings (grease) to keep their silk lines on the surface. Why grease the line? A floating line allowed them to mend. Mending meant they could harness the power of the current, rather than have the current dictate the fly’s path. As Wood wrote, “The basic idea is to use the line as a float for, and controlling agent of the fly; to suspend the fly just beneath the surface of the water, and to control its path in such a way that it swims…entirely free from the pull on the line.” It is a concept, Wood observed, “entirely opposed to that of the normal sunk fly procedure.” If you fish for stripers but don’t use a floating line, here is your chance to break free from the shackles of the sinking line – and use your fly rod as a fly rod, rather than a glorified spinning rod.

You can perform the greased line swing with a standard-issue nine-foot rod. But a longer rod makes mending a delight instead of a chore. And mending is at the heart of the greased line presentation.

Open wide. That’s about all this fifteen-pound Block Island striper had to do to eat my sand eel fly.

Mouth

Why greased line swing?

Like their salmonid cousins, striped bass love current. They will take up feeding positions, holding on station, moving no more than a few lateral inches while they dine. Often, the stripers will not chase a stripped fly. Why would they? The current is conveniently delivering their food. All they have to do is rise to meet each morsel with an open mouth. Those morsels can range in size from minutia like crab larva, to inch-long grass shrimp, to more substantial fare like mullet, menhaden and herring.

And therein lies the genius of the greased line swing. Regardless of the size of your fly, you are sending it on a pathway to a hungry striper’s mouth. She doesn’t have to work hard to eat. What’s more, during much of its drift, the fly is presented broadside to the fish. This gives the predator a full profile of what’s for dinner, rather than a fleeting glimpse of a tail or head.

 Presentation flies like these Crazy Menhaden flatwings are an excellent choice for the greased line swing.

Crazies

Performing a simple greased line swing.

Use the greased line swing in tidal rivers, breachways, sand bar rips – any place stripers hold in current to ambush bait. Make a cross-current cast with your floating line. The moment the line hits the water, begin throwing a series of upstream mends. Be sure to mend the entire fly line, from the rod tip to the line/leader junction; half a mend is no mend. While you are mending, the fly will be travelling downstream at the natural speed of the current, while appearing to slowly swim toward the shore behind you. When the fly is nearly two-thirds of the way down and across from your position, stop mending, and hold the line so the fly can complete its journey with a wet fly swing. Keep the fly in the current below you for a few moments, then retrieve and cast again.

Obviously, if you see signs of an actively feeding fish, be sure to present your fly over its feeding lane. The greased line swing is also an excellent searching tactic. “Backing up a pool,” another traditional presentation method, involves working a stretch of water by moving upstream. Backing up a pool with the greased line swing allows you to cover a tremendous amount of water.

To execute the greased line swing, cast cross-current and throw a series of upstream mends (A-C); hold the line so the fly makes a wet fly swing (D); at the end of the swing, retrieve and re-cast (E).

Culton_Greasedline_Currentseams

Hooking stripers on the greased line swing.

The take of a big striper on a greased line swing is sublime. Rather than the blunt force hit with a stripped fly, the angler initially feels only a presence – a mere building of pressure. This is the striper acquiring its target, flaring its gills to suck the fly into its mouth. You might be tempted to set the hook at this point; but that would be a mistake. You’ll pull the fly right out of the striper’s mouth. Instead, let the bass hook itself. It is feeding with confidence, and does not yet sense that it has been deceived. Simply hold the line, and let the bass come tight as it turns away with the fly in its mouth. All this happens in a matter of seconds, or less. The hook point (of course, you constantly check your hooks to make sure they’re sticky sharp) will find purchase in the corner of the striper’s mouth, just like your father taught you it should.

When you present on the greased line swing, the stripers you catch will be neatly hooked in the corner of the mouth every time.

Culton_Greasedline_2

You may be thinking, “But I like the way that big hit on the strip feels!” Not to worry. The adrenaline rush you crave is coming.

Now, the striper realizes that this baitfish bites back. The water erupts as the fish’s primal reflexes of fight and flight kick in. This is where you set the hook. Point your rod directly at the fish, hold the line tight to the rod handle, and thrust rearward with conviction. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of a solid hook set. If you’re fishing with a strong leader – mine is always twenty, twenty-five, or thirty-pound nylon, substantial enough for any inshore striper I’m likely to encounter – you can dictate terms to the fish. From this point, the striper will be fighting a losing battle.

And you’ll have Arthur Wood to thank.