I had a rare Saturday night to myself so I ventured out to points salty. I won’t bore you with the details of the first 90 minutes, although they were pretty eventful, featuring: wedding party songs I don’t like, fireworks in the distance, almost perfect conditions, that long slow pull mystery solved (squid, of course), not a touch from a bass, and finally, a parking ticket. Egad!
After all that excitement, I decided to amuse myself at a well-lit estuary. I find places like this highly addicting; my intention was to fish for 15 minutes. Over an hour later, I had to drag myself away. The action wasn’t that great — there was a decent amount of bait (silversides and juvenile menhaden), but predators (hickory shad and bass) were few and far between.
Which brings me to the point of this post. I was, of course, fishing a three-fly team — you do too, right? (If you don’t, you should read this short article on how to build a dropper rig for striped bass. You can thank me later.) Hits were few and far between, but every time I did get hit, I was doing one of three things: dead-drifting the team of three in the current, letting it dangle in the current, or performing a very slow hand-twist retrieve. I call this “trout fishing for stripers” because these are all traditional trout or salmon fly fishing tactics. Learn the art of presentation, and you’ll be able to catch the fish that everyone can’t.
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.
…and not much happens. Surfcaster extraordinaire Toby Lapinski and your humble scribe gave it the old college try last night for close to three hours. (Note the lack of large bass photos — heck, note the lack of any bass photos.) A couple small bumps for Toby and not even a courtesy tap for me. Although I did have a couple weird moments of pressure on the drift, my fly sweeping across a reef, no hooksets were forthcoming. It was probably something small. Light show: we were treated to a spectacular electrical display as a storm moved across western Long Island. Funny thing: that storm produced a sudden cold NE breeze and some raindrops on what was otherwise a calm night. So it goes. Round three to the bass. I gotta get some points on my card, so I’ll keep punching. This mark has yet to produce for me, but I believe it will. Then we’ll see some bass photos.
Fish Untamed is website that’s run by Katie. She is self-described as “obsessed with chasing fish” — so right away, we like her! Katie also does podcasts, and yours truly is the subject of her current offering. Or, more specifically, the broad concepts of what I call “trout fishing for stripers.” We talk about that and lots of other things. But enough rambling; you want to listen. Here’s Fish Untamed Podcast Episode 55: Trout Fishing For Stripers With Steve Culton.
Surfcaster’s Journal 68 is live right now — it’s an online-only ‘zine — and within its fantastic digital walls you can find my latest story, “Sensei Elmer & The 50-Fish Nights.” This is a piece I wrote a long time ago, revisited, rewrote, re-edited — and now, instead of hiding on my hard drive, it can be yours to read and enjoy. You get to see some decent photos taken by me, and some extraordinary shots from my immensely talented brother David . (You can see more of David’s work on Instagram @theplayoflight.) “Sensei Elmer” is about two memorable fly fishing nights I had one October. Or is it about something far deeper than catching fish?
Most of what I write eventually ends up here, but this piece won’t — so if you want to read it, you’ll have to subscribe to the Surfcaster’s Journal. It’s only $20 a year and you get six issues. Tell ’em Steve sent ya.
I’ve been meaning to do this for a good, long time. I started by taking out every fly from the left side of my box — this is the working side that gets the most use. I returned a few of the smaller bugs to the lower slots, but the others, mostly sand eels, got straightened out (flies tend to get gershtunkled after years of non-use) under a running hot water bath, followed by a hang drying on corks, and then finally laid out on a sheet of paper. From there I took inventory to see which patterns needed replacing and replenishing. So, right now I’m in the middle of a massive sand eel tying blitz. And did I mention squid? Golly, I ‘ve got to tie a few more of those. And then my experiments! I’m going to be playing around with some Gurgling Sand Eel variants this summer. To the vise! To the water!
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.”
I took Don out for a striper lesson this week. Rather than give you a “Dear Diary” account, I thought I would tell you about some of the striper lessons we covered.
Cast and strip is ultimately limiting. You will catch the aggressive, willing-to-chase fish with that approach. But eventually you will encounter bass that are holding on station, feeding on a particular bait, and cast-and-strip will fail you. Learn the art of presentation. Dead drifts, greased line swings, dangles and mends — all of these will serve you well when the going gets tough. If you want to learn presentation, and you value line control, you need a floating line. Period. Find the line taper and grain weight that’s best suited to your rod, how you cast, and how you want to fish. Hint: it isn’t necessarily what’s printed on the blank. You don’t need to cast far to catch stripers. I taught Don what I call the “zero foot cast,” and by using the current, you can delivery your fly to fish over 100 feet away. When the fish are on something small, droppers are your best friend. Multiple baits mean multiple catching opportunities. And as always, droppers are the fastest way to find out what the fish want. If you want to catch more stripers, learn how to read water. Just like you do with trout. And last but not least, alway scope out a new mark in daylight so you can see what’s going on.
…I was standing in a river, practicing my greased line swings with a floating line and a 10″ Rock Island flatwing. My casting was good enough. My presentations were spot on. The bass were…not there. At least not in any numbers. We saw some wakes and swirls made by herring, but nothing to suggest that they were present en masse. We heard a couple reports of bass crashing bait, but they were in the first 30 minutes of our 2+ hour session, and then nothing. So it goes. This is why it’s called putting in your time.
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.