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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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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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. 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.