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.
Stripers love finger mullet, and I love this finger mullet fly. You’ll find the September Night pattern in Ken Abrames’ classic Striper Moon, and now right here. (And, of course, in my 2015 American Angler article Soft Hackles For Striped Bass.) I was already planning on making this post today, and when I spoke with Ken an hour ago he — unprompted — mentioned that it was indeed September Night time. To the bench!
Hook: Eagle Claw 253, 1/0-3/0; Thread: white 6/0; Tail: 30 gray bucktail hairs, then two white saddle hackles tied in flat, then two strands silver Flashabou; Body: silver braid; Throat: sparse, long white bucktail tied as a 3/4 collar, both sides and bottom; Collar: white marabou, folded or doubled 3-4 turns; Wing: 30 long white bucktail hairs, then 15 purple bucktail hairs, then 2 strands blue Flashabou, then one natural black saddle hackle.
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.
Happy Birthday to the United States of America. I hope you’re have a safe and fun Fourth of July; maybe you’re getting together with family, or perhaps you’re out on the water. To help you celebrate, here’s bonus from the archives: the Olive Fireworm Big Eelie variant. This is my traditional 4th of July favorite sand eel pattern. Tie some up, and let the fireworks begin!
Boom. Ooh. Ahh. Ohh.
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’m pleased to say that I’ve completed and submitted my chapter to Dennis Zambrotta’s followup to Surfcasting Around The Block. I like what I wrote. Dennis likes what I wrote. I’m hoping you will, too. You’ll have questions, of course, like when’s the book coming out (don’t know) and can you tell us what you wrote about (nope, you’ll have to wait, but it’s a really good story). Speaking of writing about stripers, I just finished a piece for Surfcaster’s Journal magazine. It’s something I wrote a very long time ago, revisited, re-wrote (about 10 times), polished up, and now you’ll finally get to read it. It’s another good one (he said modestly). Now, if I can only find some time to fish…
As I continue to pore through Gary LaFontaine’s masterwork Caddisflies, I’m reminded of the sheer volume of universal concepts that apply to fly fishing. So, even though he’s talking about fishing for trout that are feeding on caddisflies, LaFontaine could easily be talking about stripers feeding on sand eels or grass shrimp. A true maverick, he isn’t afraid to think or act differently, to challenge conventional wisdom, or conduct experiments to prove his theories. (Listen to the science. You’ve heard that one before) The more you fish for trout and stripers, the more you begin to see patterns and similarities between the species and how you should be fishing for them. Here are three themes in Caddisflies from which I think striper anglers and fly tyers who want to dramatically elevate their game could benefit.
Realism is the least important factor in fly design. I don’t have the actual stat, but I’m comfortable in saying that nine out of ten striper baitfish patterns feature glued on, ultra-realistic eyes. (Other than on these pages, when was the last time you saw a squid fly without big googly eyes?) If realism, from eyes to full-bodied profile to opacity to exact coloring, etc., is so important, how come my baitfish flies (and yours, and everyone else’s) continue to catch stripers long after they’ve literally been ripped to shreds? It’s a rhetorical question, but I’ll answer anyway. It’s because the bass are keying on certain bait or environmental characteristics that serve as bite triggers, and those triggers are still present in the remnants of the fly. LaFontaine knew that making a favorable impression on the fish — by showing them at least one primary feature or action that identified the fly as something that looked like what they were eating — was far more important than rendering a carbon copy.
Energy efficiency is the reason for selective feeding. Fish, especially bigger ones, are essentially lazy. So when they’re glommed onto grass shrimp in a feeding lane, you can engage in the futile activity of ripping and stripping a big fly past them, or deliver what they’re eating to their waiting mouths. This is why there is no one-size-fits-all “go-to” striper fly — and why learning presentation with a floating line is so important. Match the hatch, learn its nuances, make it easy for the stripers to feed, and you’ll catch more bass.
Fish are not intelligent. There is no such thing as an educated striped bass. Fish cannot reason. They are programmed for survival, and these primal forces have nothing to do with fly fishing or why you can’t fool that lunker. The fish is simply doing what’s it’s doing, and it’s up to you to crack the code.
I’m not in the habit of counting fish. But steelhead, being what they are — well, they’re just different. Trying to catch them is also different. I’ve been through all this with you before: you can do everything right and drop the fish. You can do (most) everything wrong and land the fish. Life isn’t fair, and neither is steelheading. The conditions you’re fishing in can be demanding, if not downright brutal. So when you get a decent flow and warm sunshine and bluebird skies and, most of all, a little luck, you thank the steelhead gods very much and you certainly don’t question any of it. I’d been stuck on steelhead #97 since November — my March trip was a blank — so here I was a month later, hoping something good would happen.
Tuesday April 13. I got to the river around 3pm. My float trip was scheduled for the next day, but I figured I should take advantage of the opportunity to fish. I hit a popular mark on the lower end of the river, one I was familiar with. As I was walking down the path, I saw an angler playing a steelhead, so this gave me hope. That was short-lived. For the next two-and-one-half hours, a total of eight anglers on the run hooked zero fish. I had a touch at one point, but my hookset didn’t even produce a head shake. I decided to save my chips for the next day, so I left disappointed, but clinging to the hope that sooner or later my lousy luck had to change.
Wednesday April 14. At first I thought it was the bottom, but it didn’t quite figure. No head shake, and I came away with air, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that it had to be a steelhead. A dozen casts later, indicator down, hook set, fish on. It was a nice-looking drop-back, holding in some faster water, and now ripping line off the reel. True to form, the fish stopped at the bottom of the pool. I regained line, then another run and some aerials, too. Line regained, process repeated, and now this fish is whipped. Reel cranking, cork upstream, rod bent, steelhead just about 20 feet from the boat, Jim with the net ready. Here comes number 98. Doink! There goes number 98. This is the type of loss that vexes me no end. I had a good hookset, and I played this fish no differently that the last 50 I’ve landed. A few four-letter words provided only a moderate salve to this grievous wound. Is this how today is going to be?