Cape Stripahs

Up at the Cape this weekend for my son’s soccer tournament, but they don’t play at night…so I did.

Saturday I hit two spots. The tides weren’t ideal, but I wanted to see how one in particular looked on the incoming (I’ve only fished it on the outgoing). Last year, same time, it was lit up like a Christmas tree. This year it was dead as Julius Caesar. I gave it 45 minutes of due diligence, then headed to a second mark. First cast, my line got all discombobulated. After I straighten things out, I pulled it in for a re-cast. Wait. Was that pressure a fish or some weeds? The answer was fish. I proceeded to get into a batch of micro bass, and one of their bigger brothers. Fished a three fly team and took fish on all three flies. Both the air and the water on the incoming tide were cold! I wished I’d brought my neoprenes.

Sunday met old UK pal Mike who got the outing off to a proper start by taking a bass on his first cast. We had schools of stripers, mostly 1-2 year-olds, come through in waves, so the action was either red hot or non-existent. There were a few larger — by that I mean sub-20″ers — in the mix. To cull these pipsqueaks, I tied on a 7″ Eel Punt on a 3/0 hook. (I should mention at this point that I’d forgotten my headlamp, so I did all this dancing in the dark). So while I still had bumps, I was spared the tedium of stripping in trout-sized bass. Meantime, the Meatballs showed up with their 40,000 watt headlamps lighting up the ocean, and — my personal favorite — into my face when I was playing a fish. I’d like to tell you I was sorry when they left, but that would be a lie.

I finally connected with a sub-legal fish that had aspirations of going on the reel, but I had other plans. A catch, a photo, a release, and a good way to end the festivities.

I haven’t fished an Eel Punt in years. This striper reminded me why it’s such a good fly, especially on the swing on a dark, mysterious night.

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Block Island report: Three steps forward, one giant leap back

Block Island used to be the the place I’d go to restore my faith in the ocean. The late spring striper fishing in Connecticut would inevitably fade, and mainland Rhode Island would become a crap shoot. But Block Island would be as reliable as sunrise in the east.

Over the course of a week, I could expect between 60 and 100 bass, with a healthy percentage of legal fish in the mix. Many were the years when my largest striper would be a summer resident of the Block. And while there might be a night of skunking, the Island would always quickly repay me with an off-the-charts outing. (I still fondly recall the night in the mid-two thousand oughts when my friend John and I encountered a school of 15-25 pound bass within casting range. John took a striper on 11 consecutive casts — work that out in your head — and I managed the largest fish of the night with a junior cow that went nearly 40 inches. I don’t think the drags on our reels were ever the same after that.)

Then came 2011. I landed eight stripers over the course of a week. Incredibly, 2012 was worse: four bass over seven nights. 2013 was much better, albeit spotty, 2014 better still and more consistent, and then last year I surpassed the 75 fish mark without a single skunk.

Sadly, the resurgence was short-lived. A paltry ten bass this year, four in one night. (This  indicates a dearth of schools of feeding bass. Instead, you get lone wolves, which means you need to be in the right place at the right time. Certainly some of that is calculable, but much of it is left to the whims of chance.) I had to work my butt off for those stripers, too — a typical night had me bouncing around the island hitting multiple spots. On of my two single-fish nights, my striper came on the last cast. I saw less than a dozen sand eels all week. The family goes to the beach nearly every day, yet I could only find one bass cruising the shore break. Even more telling was the hardcore-wetsuit-plugger who relayed his tale of woe. Fishing on his favorite boulders from the southeast to southwest sides, he managed a single bass over four nights.

My local spies tell me that the beach bite never materialized this year (the second half of June/first half of July is typically prime time), and the boat bite has likewise been poor. The big question is: why? For one, no bait, indicated by a paucity of shore birds scavenging the beach on the receding tides. Some locals are pointing to the wholesale wanton slaughter of larger bass at the Ledge over the last half-decade as a contributing factor. Meanwhile, Cape Cod has been en fuego this year. Could it be that for some reason, large numbers of bass ignored the right turn to the Block and continued on to the cozy confines of Chatham?

One thing is certain. A new normal for fly fishing Block Island from the shore has been established. And it is:  you pays your money and you takes your chances.

Good times on the first night. This fish was part of the only school (if you can call a half dozen bass a school) of actively feeding fish I found all week. What he lacked in size — this is a 24-incher — he made up for in ferocity. My presentation was short strips across a slow current, and he hammered the fly with such power that I put him on the reel. The Big Eelie in various color schemes accounted for all my bass. One constant on Block Island remains: the remarkable clarity of the water. 

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Iron meets water and air. Oxidation ensues. Taken on the northwest side.

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Darkness falls across the land. (And sea.) I took this shot while perched on a rock as the waves rolled in at my feet. I was sure I was going to score a 15-pounder here — there was a nice rip line moving across the current — but I blanked. A bit of a tricky wade as this flat is a weed-covered boulder field, so I was thankful to make it back to shore on the incoming tide.

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I saw you, feeding noisily near that boulder pile. The best striper of the trip, and my only keepah. I had to reposition myself to properly present to this fish. On the second cast, bang! What? I couldn’t believe I missed him. So I ripped my line in to make another cast. In the moment it took to raise the rod tip, slack formed in the line. When I lifted the line off the water, the fish was on. To reiterate: I’d rather be lucky than good.

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Things to do in your Jeep during an electrical storm

I had a brilliant plan for last night’s striper expedition. Really. It would have been perfect. Unfortunately, Mother Nature decided to fire up some major thunder and lightning action just as I pulled into the spot. Not wanting to be a statistic, I cooled my heels in the truck with a Liga Privada No. 9 Double Corona (a cigar of immense depth and power) while the storm raged overhead. I turned on the Mets game, and since they were murdering the Cubs, it made the 90 minutes of prime lost tide slightly more bearable. I decided to amuse myself by trying some artsy no-flash-in-the-dark selfies. Here’s a trippy Jimi Hendrix acid light show rendering of your humble scribe:

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As soon as the storm passed, I raced to the beach where I managed two stripers in the last gasp of the outgoing tide.

A reminder that no fish is worth chasing in an electrical storm. Please get off the water and take cover when you hear thunder.

 

Back on the striper night shift

Last night’s striper adventure returned me to some favored waters along the Sound. There were grass shrimp and mummies, and as the tide began to pull back toward the sea, the estuary suddenly came alive with the random staccato of carnivores on the prowl. The assembled diners were only in the 12″-18″ range, but what they lacked in sized they more than made up for in gusto — and in eagerness to jump on the fly.

I fished a three fly team last night, and caught stripers on all three patterns (top dropper = sz 10 Deer Hair Shrimp, middle dropper = sz 6 pink Crazy Charlie, point fly = 2″ Orange Ruthless clam worm). The bass favored the top dropper and point fly. I caught them on the strip, the swing, and the dangle.

We went low budget (but thoroughly enjoyable) on the cigar, a JR Cuban Alternate Cohiba Esplendido.

Now begins the internal debate: do I get a good night’s sleep tonight? Or do I venture out into the very wee small hours again?

Droppers are the fastest way to find out what the fish want.

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How to tie a dropper rig for stripers. (Just in case you missed it the first time.)

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First stripers. First EnCon encounter.

Yesterday evening was raw and windy and and at times rainy, but there were a few stripers out and about. It always feels good to break the seal. I even played around with surface flies (deer hair head and the good old Gurlger) after I witnessed a wake behind my fly on one retrieve. There’s nothing like the hysterical leap of a striper as it flails at a topwater presentation. Fishing partner Bob Griswold had an equally splendid time.

Speaking of firsts, EnCon was out checking licenses at dusk. I’ve never had that happen to me in nearly 50 years of fishing. Here’s a reminder to make sure your license is current, and that you’re carrying it on your person.

My apologies for no outing photos. Here’s one from the archives.

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Another fun Saturday at the Compleat Angler

Many thanks to the Compleat Angler in Darien, CT, for once again being such gracious hosts. A comfortable, well-lit setup, and Scott and crew know how to keep a tyer happy (turkey, provolone, lettuce and a little bit of mayo on a hard roll). If you’ve never been to the shop, it is very well-stocked, from rods and reels and lines, to books and tying supplies. Highly recommended.

It goes without saying (but we’ll do it anyway): thanks also to everyone who took the time to come watch and ask questions. You made my day an enjoyable one.

Implements of destruction and the resulting construction. Clockwise from bottom left: Orange Ruthless, Soft-hackled grass shrimp, Ray’s Fly, September Night, Herr Blue, Big Eelie.

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Beware of the Casting Police

The Casting Police are as vigilant as ever. You’ll find them in breachway parking lots, along beaches, and especially internet forums.

They flash their badges at the first suggestion that you cast differently from the rest of the pack.

It does not matter if you like to cast that way.

It does not matter if you catch hundreds of stripers a year.

What matters is that there is The Way. The way of the double haul. Practice it not, and you shall be — if you’ll pardon the expression — cast out. Banished forever from their imaginary kingdom.

Fortunately, the Casting Police have no real power over you, me, or anyone. You may cast and fish as you like. There are many, many ways, and you are free to explore the wonders of all of them as you see fit.

Ray Bergman wrote, “You may gather from this that I am not particularly interested in perfect form casting, and that is very true…it is best to concentrate on the other points rather than on form, and the casting will usually take care of itself.”

I think I’ll use that Get Out Of Jail Free Card now.

He even looks like a heathen! Fortunately, all casters are equal in the eyes of striped bass.

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Late November Stripers

Make that singular, for one bass was all I could manage. But it was, as someone once wrote, a perfect fish. Twenty-inch class, dime bright from the sea, with sharply contrasting lines and the attentive eyes of a predator on the hunt. Taken on the third cast. A sharp tug on the retrieve, then some willful bullrushing against the substantial moon tide.

I only fished for an hour (switch rod in two-hand mode, full integrated sink tip line, three-foot leader of 20# nylon) but that too was perfect: air temperatures in the mid-fifties, winds from the southwest, bottom half of the drop.

Both sky and angler were positively glowing on the walk back.

Today’s fly was a pink, olive, and chartreuse soft-hackled flatwing, just about sparse enough to read a newspaper though.

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“The Streak” in the current issue of The Flyfish Journal

Catching a striped bass on the fly from the shore for twelve consecutive months takes determination, fortitude, and luck. It also takes you to some pretty strange places.

At long last, “The Streak” has arrived in Volume Six, Issue Three of The Flyfish Journal. “The Streak” is about my second attempt to go twelve-for-twelve, January through December. How it ends really isn’t important. It’s all about making the attempt.

Let me know if you get the chance to read it.

The Streak. Read all about it in the current issue of The Flyfish Journal.

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Whether they admit it or not, every outdoor writer likes seeing their work in print. When it’s in “fly fishing’s coffee-table bible,” it makes it even sweeter. In addition to the words, I have two photos in the book. I’d also like to give a shout out to my brother David, who earned a full page for his beautiful time-lapse night shot of the SoCo shoreline. David also took the photo of yours truly for the Contributors page.

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Fly Fishing for Striped Bass on Lighter Tackle, or: A Good Night For The Five-Weight

This article originally appeared in the July 2013 issue of the Mid Atlantic Fly Fishing Guide under the title “A Good Night For The Five-Weight.” Many thanks to MAFFG for allowing me to share it here. Those of you who are familiar with how I fly fish for stripers know that I often fish like other people don’t — or won’t. Fewer things get my adrenaline pumping stronger than the thought of using my five-weight to present a ten inch-long herring flatwing to striped bass that might be best measured in pounds.

When I tell people I like to fish for stripers with a five-weight rod, I get a lot of strange looks. Some of their comments are even more pointed.

“Oh, your poor rod!”

“Doesn’t that void your warranty?”

“You’re only stressing the fish and adding to the mortality rate.”

I can’t say I blame them. Ours is the culture of the nine-weight rod for stripers, and deviations from that norm are looked at with jaundiced eyes. Their reactions stem from fear – and the unknown. I know, because when I first thought about using my five-weight for stripers, I was terrified that I would break my rod. And that I wouldn’t have the first clue about how to play and land a big striper on such tackle. As it turns out, our 32nd President was right. The only thing I had to fear was fear itself.

All five-weights are not created equal.

Before you head out, make sure you’re using the right tool for the job. My striper five-weight is a nine-foot, fast-action blank, flexible in the tip and stiff in the butt. It is a beautiful beast of a five-weight. I can upline the rod, and easily cast larger flies up to 12 inches long – as well as dropper rigs of three flies. The stout butt section gives me the power to battle bigger bass (I’ve taken fish up to 33 inches) and turn them, even in swift moon-tide currents. I never feel under-gunned, and my only complaint with the rod is that it doesn’t have a fighting butt. Many rod makers put fighting butts on their six-weight models, so you may want to look into one of those.

You could use a lower weight rod – I know an angler in Rhode Island who loves his three-weight for stripers – or a slower action stick if that’s your preference. Many things are possible with unconventional tackle for the adventurous angler. And it’s not limited to striped bass. Do an internet search for the short film, “Salar, The Leaper” to see Lee Wulff land a 12-pound Atlantic salmon on a 6-foot, 1 ¾-ounce midge rod.

Don’t be afraid to upline.

If you’re going to catch stripers on lighter tackle, you’re going to have to break a few rules. One of them involves uplining, also known as overlining. When you upline, you use a line weight that is greater than the one specified for the rod. This is often the source of great consternation among purists on internet forums, but have no fear: the casting police have no real power over you. Besides, stripers don’t care what line you use with what rod.

Why upline? In two words: Comfort. Necessity. I use a line that allows me to effortlessly load the rod with one false cast, and to overcome the air resistance of a large flatwing or dropper rig of three flies. The line that mates perfectly with my rod and slower casting style is a nine-weight, weight forward integrated shooting taper. The head length is 37.5 feet, and it sports a hefty weight of 375 grains.

As an angler who puts a premium on presentation, my preference is for floating lines. But you should use whatever kind of line works best for you. If you can, it’s a good idea to try different lines with your rod before you buy. When you find the one that makes your rod sing, you’ll know it.

When I upline my five-weight, even long flies like this 11-inch Herr Blue flatwing are easy to cast.

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The beauty of a good reel and a stout leader.

School bass in the 12 to 20 inch range are terrific fun on a five-weight rod, especially in current. You can easily hand-strip those fish in. However, once you get into keeper-size territory (28 inches in my home state of Connecticut), you’ll appreciate having a reel with a reliable drag. That’s because you fight those bigger fish with the butt of the rod and the reel – not the tip.

That’s where a strong leader system comes into play. My typical leader is 7 ½ feet of 30-pound monofilament – more than enough to handle any striper I’m likely to hook from the shore. If you consider striped bass to be a precious resource, you want to make sure you don’t overplay the fish. Once you hook a striper, the combination of a 30-pound leader and your reel puts you squarely in charge of the situation.

Fighting bigger bass on lighter tackle.

Many anglers wax poetic about how a powerful striper took them into their backing. It makes for good storytelling, but I’d rather not have the fish take that much line. I like to ratchet the drag down tight, especially when I’m fishing with my five-weight. In fact, I’ve never seen my backing with that rod, even on chubby, well-fed bass up to 15 pounds.

Here’s a typical fight scenario. I’m presenting a big flatwing on the greased line swing. Suddenly, I feel a build of pressure – the bass taking the fly into its mouth – then the water erupts as the fish turns and realizes it is hooked. I can tell it’s a bass over 28 inches from the size of the boil and the power of the initial thrashing. I come tight to the fish by quickly reeling in the slack from my shooting basket, or letting the fish take the line through my fingers.

At that point, the striper may begin its first run. But sometimes there’s a quick grace period where the bass will sulk in the current. I use that time to my advantage by re-setting the hook. I point the rod and line straight at the fish, and, with my arms outstretched, give one or two hard thrusts straight back toward my gut (now you see why I like 30-pound test). That fish is now well hooked. From this point on, she’ll be fighting a losing battle.

There’s another good reason for re-setting the hook. Stripers have tough, rubbery mouths. Many years ago, I lost several substantial fish due to poor hook sets. Since I added this simple arrow to my quiver, I have not lost a single fish over 28 inches.

Once I’ve re-set the hook, I’ll play the fish with my rod held somewhere between a 30 and 45-degree angle. Remember, on lighter tackle your power comes from the bottom one-third of your rod. You want to feel the fight not at the rod tip, but down in your hands. There is absolutely no loss of sport with this technique. A good fish in current will put a tremendous bend in your five-weight. The battles are exhilarating, and will test your tactical know-how as well as your physical abilities.

If the bass is holding in the current, I’ll start to reel. When the fish wants to run, I’ll let her, because she’s not going very far with that tight drag. What’s more, her runs will burn a tremendous amount of oxygen, tiring her out and making her easier to land. Most of the bigger stripers I’ve caught are good for a couple long runs, maybe another shorter one once I bring the fish into the shallows. But by then, the fish is beaten, and my goal is to get the striper to hand, remove the fly, and send her off on her merry way.

This keeper striper fell for the charms of a Rock Island flatwing, fished on a greased line swing.

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Those who practice catch-and-release – and I’m one of them – have a responsibility to land the fish as quickly as possible, regardless of tackle. I’ve seen plenty of anglers with traditional striper rods overplay sub-legal bass to the point of near death. If it’s taking you more than a few seconds to revive a striper you’ve just fought on lighter tackle, you need to work on getting that fish to hand quicker. A.H.E. Wood wrote that he expected his rod to earn its keep. Do likewise. Don’t be afraid to push your five-weight. It’s a lot stronger than you think.

When and where to use lighter tackle for stripers.

Of course, you can fish your five-weight any time you like. But there are certain places where lighter tackle shines, like sheltered estuaries and salt marshes; back bays; salt ponds; and harbors. For me, the determining factors are: How far do I need to cast? Do I have limited room behind me? What’s the wind doing? Are waves an issue? It helps to look at these not as independent variables, but rather in conjunction with one another.

For example, if the wind is blowing at 15 knots in my face, I might still take the five-weight if I’m heading to a well-lit dock where the bass will literally be right at my feet. If my destination is a wide river mouth where I will be making casts well over 50 feet, I’ll be taking my big two-hander instead. Same call if my plans include the outside of a breachway or a beachfront with surf over three feet. Fishing is supposed to be fun, and fishing with the wrong tackle for the conditions is a sure path toward a miserable outing.

If you upline your rod with a weight-forward shooting taper, you can still cast a fair distance with just a little line in the air. This makes your five-weight a great choice for fishing in areas loaded with obstructions. One of my favorite spots for the five-weight is dock that is cluttered with overhead wires, light poles, and assorted wooden structures. There’s no room to get off a big back cast – but it’s not an issue because I can load my rod with less than thirty feet of line. Similarly, I fish a breachway between two salt ponds where a standard back cast would hit the rock seawall directly behind me. My setup allows me to easily get my fly out where it needs to be.

Consider bringing a landing net if you’ll be fishing off a dock. School bass under 18 inches are easy to heft out of the water. A twelve pounder, not so much. Some docks are several feet above the waterline, especially on an ebb tide. A landing net will make life easier for you – and your fish.

Sheltered estuaries like this one coursing through a marsh are ideal places for lighter tackle.

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Tripping the light fantastic.

The best way to learn the nuances of any fly fishing setup is to go out and fish with it. Nothing beats time on the water. Start with smaller school bass until you get your sea legs. In time, you’ll have the confidence to take on stripers you never dreamed were possible on lighter tackle. And the time will come when you’ll land a bass that will be measured in pounds, not inches.

That’s when a good night for the five-weight becomes a great one.