I love stripers. It had been almost a year since I hooked up with one, but my recent annual family trip to Block Island, RI, reminded me how fun they are. Striped bass, stripers for short, are a migratory fish that inhabit the coastal waterways of the mid-Atlantic and northeast. Stripers have a range from North Carolina to Maine. They are aggressive predators who fight hard and can grow quite large. Their annual migration pattern along the most heavily populated part of our country inspires fisherman up and down the eastern seaboard. Strict commercial and recreational restrictions and limitations have brought the fishery back from near extinction in the 1980’s. You can catch stripers all year long; however, the prime time is May-October.
Pursuing stripers on the fly just might be my favorite type of fly-fishing. I don’t think any other fishing gets my heart racing like seeing a striper blitz occur on the surface. Any decent trout angler expects to catch trout every time they hit their favorite river; it is just a matter of size and numbers. This is not true with stripers, and even the best are fooled and puzzled by this amazing game fish. Chasing stripers is a great way to break into saltwater fly fishing without having to pay the big bucks needed in tropical environments pursuing bonefish, tarpon, or permit. Other game fish, such as bluefish, flounder, false albacore, and bonito, also inhabit the same vicinity as stripers, and they are just as fun to catch. My blog post today is intended to help the newbie saltwater fly fisherman get started chasing stripers.
Rod: Medium to fast action 8-9 weight rods in the 9-10’ length. You want a rod that will turn over large flies and not tire your arm out. You will also need a stick that can mend and reach over crashing waves.
Reel: Large arbors with a decent drag system. A solid drag will help you tame the powerful bursts of energy that the stripers can display. A large arbor reel will also help you pick up line more quickly when fighting a fish.
Line: Intermediate. This line will cover 99% of all your striper fishing. I also think this is the most important part of your setup, and I highly recommend paying top dollar on this piece. Get a quality coldwater salt line like RIO’s Intermediate Outbound. Also, you should have around 150-200 yards of solid 30lb. backing attached to your fly line. All saltwater species will push the limits of your tackle.
Stripping Basket: This is the second most important piece of equipment, in my humble opinion. It will keep your line in one place, help you easily shoot casts, and fish more efficiently. You can buy these from any online fly fishing retailer; however, I made my own about 4 years ago with material from Walmart for a total cost of $10.
Leader: I have three different leaders I use given the conditions.
- For the crashing surf, heavy rips, or rocky turbulent structures, I surgeon loop both ends of a 2’ strip of 50lb. mono. Then I attach one end to my fly line, the other I will loop to loop connection to another 3’ foot section of 25lb. mono.
- For calmer back bays, salt ponds, or tidal creeks. I take the leader mentioned above, and then I will blood knot another 3’ section of 15lb. fluorocarbon to the end of 25lb. mono.
- For the flats or extremely picky stripers, I will switch to a store bought 9’ 12lb. bonefish leader.
Flies: Deceivers, Half and Half’s, Snake Flies, and Saltwater Poppers. These flies will get you into the game and as you progress you will branch out. However, the most important thing to keep in mind is size, color, and shape. Use these three characteristics and then work backwards. For example, at Block Island, the main bait or forage in the area are sand eels; moreover, this calls for slender, long, olive/green/chartreuse patterns, i.e. a skinny Half and Half. In New Jersey, menhaden are the main bait, and this calls for large Deceiver style flies with more colors, such as blue and pink.
Match the hatch and use your brain just like you would for trout. Also, in regards to color, the standard dark sky/ dark fly rules apply, so have some all black flies for dusk, dawn, and night. Finally, I always use a non-slip uni-knot to connect my fly to my leader. Lefty Kreh has called this the best way to attach a saltwater fly.
This might be the most intimidating thing for a freshwater fly fisherman to wrap their brain around. When you get to the coastline, your jaw might drop and wonder how you are going to locate fish in this entire ocean, especially if you are fishing without a boat like me. Here are some rules to help guide you and increase your chances:
- Stripers love structure, just like any other predatory fish. Structure creates competing currents, eddies, and rips. This creates a natural trap for bait and easy pickings for stripers. When you get to your coastline, look for jetties, sandbars, rocky outcrops, and tidal coves. Anything that can create an ambush spot is game.
- Break everything down. Attack these structures in segments like you would any trout stream. Be methodical, and take casts on the face of a clock working from 9 to 3 o’clock. Work the drift, and let the currents present your fly in a natural manner.
- Know your tides. Tides create moving water. This adds more character to the structure you have already located. When fishing on foot, I find the two hours before and after high tide to have the greatest chance of hooking up with stripers.
- Dusk and Dawn. I find these two times of day most productive. There is less boat traffic to put fish down, and predatory fish hunt during these low light conditions.
- Hand over hand. After I have cast and when I am starting my retrieve, I put my rod under my armpit and do a hand over hand retrieve stripping line into my stripping basket that is around my waist. This position will seem unnatural to most fly fisherman; however, in my mind, it is the most efficient way to fish by foot along the Northeast Coast. It also allows for constant connection of you to your fly so you do not miss any strikes. You don’t have to worry about your line tangling around your feet or rocks. And it adds distance to your casts.
- Do your homework. There is plenty of information out there on striper fishing and spots to hit up. These two books are my favorite and will cover you from New Jersey to Maine. Fly Fisher’s Guide to the Northeast Coast and Fly Fisher’s Guide to the New England Coast: Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine
- Stay positive. Saltwater fly-fishing is a pure dedication. It’s a little frustrating watching a guy a next to you cast a plug 200 feet out on a convention surf rod. As a fly fisherman, casting distance may seem like a huge handicap; however, I view it as an opportunity. The 20-40 foot range is where most of my hookups with stripers occur. Conventional guys are too concerned with getting their plugs out a country mile that they never fully work the close structure. This is where you can shine. Your biggest pro will be that you can present a more life-like fly (besides live bait) to these fish. Conventional guys say stripers are not picky. I say that is bull. I had a great view one calm morning this past week as 5 different stripers followed and then refused my fly. These fish are not stupid. Measure success not only in fish landed, but also in fish that you rolled on your fly or any missed strikes. Kelly Galloup says if you can get the fish to roll on your fly, you are doing everything right. There will be plenty of skunks, but one successful day will make up for it.
It took me over a year to land my first striper. Looking back, I didn’t have a clue to what I was doing that first year. But I eventually, got my bearings and learned through the school of hard knocks. I even had my best trip to Block Island this past week with 8 stripers and 3 bluefish landed, breaking off another 3 fish, and about a dozen and half missed swipes/rolls/refusals on my fly. My time hitting the salt has been paying off.
This post is not the end all of fly fishing for stripers; however, it is merely intended to cut down the learning curve that I experienced. Once you feel the power of the strike, the pull of the fight, and the joy of landing a striped bass. I promise you will be addicted.
For further inspiration, read The Blitz: Fly Fishing the Atlantic Migration. It’s a great book of two fly fishermen who for one year followed the entire Atlantic migration from North Carolina to Maine. They documented the places they went, the people they met, and the fish along the way. Here is also a link to their ten-minute you tube trailer of the book.