The Baffling Stripers

I am totally baffled by the fishing this year.

Based on last year’s abundance of smaller fish 16″ to 18” long, and a lot of fish in the 23″ to 27” range, I expected all of these fish to be about three to four inches longer this year and to show up in force.

Instead, what I’ve been seeing is very spotty fishing with no fish in what are usually productive areas and mostly strays picked up on the fly or by trolling between our stops. There have been few situations where you catch five to 10 fish in one area and none with 10+ fish like what we have found in the past, particularly last season.

So, I’m mystified!

I’ve talked to some other local guides, and they say that their fishing, on the Cape and in the Merrimack and Plum Island areas, has been spotty but with plenty of fish, especially large ones that are very hard to catch.

Now, my fishing is virtually all in an estuary where the water temperatures have risen to 70 °F to 75 °F, which is way too warm, especially for the larger fish which cannot dump heat as efficiently as the smaller schoolies. That might explain the absence of fish.

But, on July 4, with the water temperature at 75 °F, there was a massive swarm of very big stripers that came in past all the boats in the river and onto one of my favorite flats on the early incoming tide, literally thousands of them, and they were definitely not taking anything.

I threw crab flies, large herring flies, silversides and sand eels, and all sorts of other stuff at them (fish I could clearly see all around me in astonishing abundance) for an hour or so without a touch. It was crazy.

You’d have thought that one of them would have taken one of these flies, if only out of annoyance. But, no way.

Just after we gave up on them, a couple of jerks on jet skis came down over that flat, doing wild turns with that obnoxious whine, throwing up water and trashing the whole area. I was glad I had no weapons of mass destruction in my canoe, as I might have been tempted to use them on these jerks.

I fear most of the fish fled the river in short order after that experience. And, I suspect these fools had no idea that there was a really big swarm of fish on that flat during their antics! Of course, they wouldn’t have cared. They were having FUN!

Enough. I shouldn’t get started on the clueless behavior of so many motorboat people out on the water. I know fly anglers and kayakers tend to be far more aware of their surroundings than the typical boaters.

There’s something about having a powerful outboard or a roaring jet ski that encourages people to be unaware of their impact on their environment. Instead, I should stop bitchin’ and report on the five fishing trips I have taken since my last post.
 

JUNE 22, 2018
It was a mostly sunny day, with far too much light for good striper fishing, with a NE wind of nearly 10 knots shifting around through E to SE and finally from the S, throughout the trip.

This was an off-peak trip, with high tide at 7:23 am @ 9.7 feet and low tide at 1:08 pm @ 0.6 feet. The water temperature in the river was about 67 ⁰F on the ebbing tide.

I took out my friend Patrick, and we were on the water by 9:15 am. Patrick got a fish trolling to our first stop at the island, where he picked up two more small fish of around 18″. I caught two, too, at around 20″.

Our next stop at the Rock Garden found no hits at all, but Patrick got one more striper well above the dock at our next stop, while I had no hits.

We then went down to The Rock, and fished the whole stretch and then the top end again, with not a single hit between us! So, we headed downriver to Hog Hole, where I had three (one at 20”), and Patrick got two small fish there as well.

We then headed home the back way and tried some stretches on the Essex River with no hits. After a bite to eat, we headed for what I call “The Kitchen” and fished that stretch from what used to be Split Rock (it must have split into two over the winter, as I no longer see it there) up past Lunch Rocks.

Patrick found a “meathole” down near Split Rock and camped there for most of the time we were fishing that stretch and caught eight small fish there, while I fished the entire quarter-mile Lunch Rocks bar without more than a few short strikes from small fish.

The wind had come up by then, and Patrick was throwing a 9′ #9 rod with a white streamer fly that I would have said was too large for these small fish, but the fish showed me wrong!

In any event, we finally were driven off that stretch by the rising tide and tried one spot just upriver from there where there were some rocks, and Patrick caught a nice 20” striper there and I got two, one 20” and the other about 22”.

By then, there was enough water to get back over to the other side, and we got there early enough to fish Osprey Flat, where Patrick fished the point while I fished down the flat.

Patrick said that he could see a mess of big stripers swarming the flat, but they wouldn’t touch his fly. Shortly thereafter, as I fished down the flat, I had 10 very large fish swirl within six feet of me, which was really startling!

But, they wouldn’t take any flies, and the water was sufficiently turbid that I couldn’t see them very well. They were obviously all over the place and just as startled to see me on their way down that flat.

Neither of us caught a fish there or at the island where we went after that. So, we headed upriver at around 5 pm and were on the dock at about 5:30 pm after a good day on the water.

Tally: Patrick caught about 15 fish in all, including one of 20”, while I had only seven fish, including three of 20” and two of 22”. A day of tough fishing with enough fish to keep it interesting!
 

JUNE 24 2018
Two days later, with a high tide at 9:22 am @ 9.3 feet and low tide at 3:08 pm @ 0.4 feet, it was mostly cloudy with a few showers at the end of the trip. The wind was forecast at about 10 knots from the SE, but it started out SW (a direction I like) and then shifted around through SE to S by the end of the trip. The water temperature was approximately 65 ⁰F during that trip.

This was an interesting day, as I took my friend Geoff (who is also a fishing guide, mostly in freshwater) with three other friends and clients. We took both canoes, and I went in the smaller canoe with Joe while Geoff took the larger canoe with his friend Adam and an old friend of his father’s, Art, in the “King Tut” seat in the middle (though Art and Adam traded positions for the paddle home).

What was interesting is that Art had only one hand, having lost his right hand in high school in a machinery accident, so casting for him was a bit of a challenge, but he managed impressively well with that challenge having not tried this before.

They had fished freshwater the day before, so he’d had a little practice, but this long-distance casting for stripers was a whole new challenge! His attitude was great throughout the trip; we all had a good time together, and Art caught some fish trolling but I don’t think he got any casting, but he sure put in a great effort doing so while we were there! I was very impressed.

OK. Here’s how the whole trip went….

We met at 11 am and were on the water by about noon, as Adam was a bit late to our meeting. Joe got two fish trolling to the island, while I got one fish on our way there. Art got one and lost another in transit to the island as well.

I was the only one to get a fish at the island, though Joe had a hit but none of the others had anything there.

At our next stop at The Dock, Geoff got one fish but no one else had any hits at all. So, we headed down to The Rock, where I had one fish right at the start and I placed everyone else high on the flat where often some fish hold while I fished the rest of the half mile down the flat without a single touch.

After that, they brought the canoes down to where I was and we all went to Hog Hole, where I got two fish on the left side and another on the right side while Geoff got one there, too. At around 4 pm, we went down to Channel Bar where we stopped for a bite to eat that Geoff had prepared for us, and I tried fishing there without any luck.

So, we trolled from there all the way up past The Rock and The Dock and ended up at NOB Point, during which passage Art, Joe and I each had one fish trolling.

We got nothing at NOB Point, so we headed back to the island.

Joe and I fished Osprey Flat, where Joe got two fish at the point while I fished down the flat and caught two fish and lost a big one that broke me off after a 50-yard run, though I’d not been pulling on it that hard (maybe it rubbed me off on a rock, as big fish sometimes do; they don’t get big without learning some tricks)!

The other three fished the island, and I don’t recall whether they had any hits or fish there on that stop. We quit at about 6:30 pm and were back onshore by around 7:00 pm.

Tally: Joe had six fish, Geoff had two fish, Art had three fish trolling, and Adam had two fish. I had 10 fish in all on a slow tough day during which cloudy conditions should have made the fishing a lot better than it was. Where are all the fish?
 

JUNE 30, 2018
This was a “peak dawn” trip where I had higher expectations! High tide was 1:09 AM @ 10.2 feet, with a low tide at 7:31 AM @ 0.2 feet. It was supposed to be cloudy but was sunny for almost the entire trip, but there was almost no wind for most of the trip, but for a light SW wind at times, except for our paddle home, which was in the face of a SW wind of 10 knots. The water temperature on both the ebbing and rising tide was 70 ⁰F.

I went downriver with my friend Andy; we met at 3:15 am and were on the water by 4 am.

Andy got five fish trolling on the way to our first stop at the island, while I got two fish in transit. Andy and I each had a fish at the island, after which we headed for The Dock, where we had only a few short hits.

So, we headed for The Rock, where I had one fish right off and then no hits the whole way down the rest of the half-mile flat! Andy had nothing at the top end, but leapfrogged me with the canoe and then caught three small fish at the lower end of that stretch.

Then, we went to Hog Hole, where Andy had three fish, and I had a few short strikes. On our way out of there, we tried fishing a deep hole most of the way down The Channel, where I had one hit and stalked one other fish that I couldn’t get.

We also saw some moving fish in the shallows that were so spooky they were very hard to catch.

After a bite to eat at Channel Bar, we tried there, and I got a fish at the end of the ebb and a few other strikes as the tide turned. We then fished from Orgy Corner all the way up well past the Rock without a single touch, so we went to the Dock where I finally had one nice 21” fish that was the only strike either of us had in that stretch until Andy fished down through into the lower end where he got a few more fish after I had fished through that stretch without a hit.

But, these fish are always moving, and you have to be there with your fly in the water when they come by to get hits or catch them! Location and timing count in this fishery….

We then tried NOB Point, where I fished through the whole stretch twice with only a few short hits and no fish, while Andy went through there and got a few small fish in the best part of the water there. After that, we quit at about 11:20 am and headed upriver.

Tally: Andy kicked my butt! I love that; it keeps me humble. Andy caught about 18 fish while I had only six fish, including one nice 21” striper. This was a tough day, with few fish showing. Where are these fish?
 

JULY 4, 2018
Happy Holiday! This was an interesting day, in spite of very tough fishing.

High tide was 3:57 am @ 9.6 feet (so, we were just post-peak), with low tide at 10:15 am @ 0.7 feet. The trip was under mostly sunny skies, with a very light wind from mostly NW at the start, shifting through N and ending with a NE wind of 10 knots. The water temperature was 75 ⁰F which is very warm for these fish.

I met my friend Mark, who had not been out with me before, and we were on the water by about 6 am. We each got one fish trolling to the island, and then I got two fish there, but Mark got none.

We decided to try an experiment and head around the back way on the ebbing tide, and I got one fish at Dean Rocks and another nice 20” fish at Dean Point. After that, we paddled down to Lunch Rocks Bar that was just beginning to show at the very top end, where we stopped and anchored the canoe.

Mark caught a fish there by the canoe on his very first cast, and I got 2 fish there, too. Then, we fished down all the way to Lunch Rocks with no hits, until we got there, and Mark caught two more fish, and I got five more in that stretch as well.

About when Lunch Rock was starting to show, I hiked back up the flat to the canoe where I got another nice 20” fish but no other hits there. So, I paddled down and picked up Mark, and we headed into Hog Hole through the back way at the upper outlet thereof.

We had no hits at Hog Hole, and I had a follow at the upper outlet channel from a visible fish that wouldn’t take my fly. So, we headed down to the main river and stopped at about 10:30 am for a bite to eat at Channel Bar while we waited for the turn of the tide.

We had no hits at Channel Bar and trolled up through Minnow Cove and then crossed to Orgy Corner, where we saw some big fish coming over Orgy Shelf. We quickly beached the canoe. What followed was the most awesome fishless hour I think I’ve ever had on this river (which I’ve fished regularly for more than 65 years)!

For the next hour, there were swarms of fish moving around on a long half-mile long flat all the way from Orgy Shelf to The Rock, and, at any one time, you could see dozens of big fish within 50 feet of you while standing in waist-deep water.

I cast everything I could find in my flybox without a single touch from even one of these fish. I tried crab flies, a large herring fly, sand eels, silversides, my special “Shameless Hooker” that is my “go-to” search fly that almost always reliably works, and everything else except for a surface popper (which I probably should have tried too)!

Unbelievable.

We worked our way up the flat, fishing down-current on the rising tide and/or standing in the canoe, seeing hordes of big fish at every moment that just wouldn’t touch our flies. You’d have thought that at least one of them, perhaps just because they were pissed off, might have taken at least one of our flies, but no luck there.

It was exhilarating to be fishing right over so many big fish, but they were clearly suffering from lockjaw as if someone had stapled their big mouths shut (which a few people have on occasion threatened to do with me)!

Well, it was still a thrill, in spite of the frustration of it all, too. So, eventually we abandoned the effort and trolled upriver and crossed to NOB Point. While we fished there, two jet skis came upriver and roared around right over that flat where we’d seen all those big fish, completely clueless about their presence, doing turns and throwing up big plumes of water, probably scaring all those beautiful fish right out of the river again. They were lucky I had no weapons aboard.

Those jet skis, and the attitude they encourage, are a real menace!

In any event, we had no hits at NOB Point, so we headed home at around 2 pm, stopping momentarily over a flat I call The Food Chain to try for some busting fish. I had one hard hit and Mark hooked a fish that broke him off while he was trying to put down his paddle, as we had started trolling by the time that fish hit.

We were home a bit after 3 pm. We had had no fish (and almost no hits) on the entire rising tide that day, in spite of seeing all those humongous fish coming in on the early incoming tide over Orgy Flat. That was the highlight of the trip.

Tally: Mark caught 4 fish, and I had 13 fish, including two 20” fish. We also had a great trip, in spite of the slow fishing.

It was a nice day, the conditions were good, and we saw more fish in one trip than I think I had ever seen before.
 

JULY 7, 2018
It was another bright sunny day, with virtually no clouds over us for the entire trip. High tide was at 6:26 am @ 9.1 feet and low tide was at 12:19 pm @ 1.2 feet.

The wind was very light for most of the trip, from out of the NW at first and then shifting around to N and NE and then through E to end up out of the SE.

The water temperature was 69 ⁰F at the beginning of our trip, and then after the flats had baked in the sun, during the rising tide it rose to about 75 ⁰F.

I took out Andy again, with whom I had fished the previous Saturday (who cleaned my clock on that trip, and almost did so again on this trip. Bravo, Andy!), and we met for breakfast at the Agawam Diner and were on the water by about 8:30 am.

No fish trolling downriver to the island, and, then, Andy got one small fish on his last cast before we left the island after fishing it hard on both sides and above it a bit with almost no hits, though I had one small fish on very briefly before the fly pulled out.

We trolled down along the left bank and past the Boathouse and through The Rock Garden and in front of NOB Point without a hit, and, then, crossed to The Dock.

Andy started high in that stretch and got two small fish up there, while I fished the lower half of that stretch without a touch. So, we went down to The Rock, and I started Andy high in that stretch, and I fished from the Rock down all the way to Orgy Corner. Andy fished from well above me down about a quarter mile without a single touch, after which he kindly went back up to get the canoe and bring it down to where I was, so we could go further downriver.

We paddled up into The Channel but then decided to head out the lower outlet, which he and I had tried before and seen some fish in that stretch, and sure enough, in spite of a mess of bathing and wading kayakers at the lower end, we saw nice fish.

So, we got back into the canoe and saw some more of them on our way out, and then crossed an area I call The Holy Ground (which has a big flat with a lot of deeper holes and gullies that often hold ranging fish) where we saw only a few moving strays, and stopped at a place I call Bypass Hole (but, its entire channel has shifted around in a totally new direction over the past few winters).

I had one strike there, and I put Andy in the best-looking stretch where he had hooked a nice fish during our previous visit to this hole, and he had a strike right off, and then hooked a fish that he lost when his fly pulled out, and then landed a nice 20” striper. Nicely done, my friend!

After that, we paddled over a shallow flat to Conomo Hole, which I had not visited for several years, and we saw some fish in the shallows there that we couldn’t catch (though we tried). I got my only 3 fish of the day at the very top of Conomo Hole, including one about 20” long, and Andy got a fish there, too.

We didn’t get any more as we fished our way halfway up through that hole, so we left there and headed around through the boats toward The Kitchen, which Andy had not fished before.

After a bite to eat, the incoming tide was starting to flow pretty well, so we went up to Lunch Rocks Bar and fished our way through that stretch without a single hit. Then we tried Dean Point, with no hits there either.

By this time, there was just enough water to head back through the access channel. We did that, only having to get out once to drag the canoe over a shallow bar, and the wind was coming from a good direction to try Osprey Flat, so, that’s where we next stopped.

I put Andy on the point, and I fished down the flat. I don’t think Andy had a hit on the point, but then had one short strike near the top of the flat as he started down. I had had a hit up there when I started too, and then a few more hits at the lower end, but neither of us hooked a fish.

These small fish seem to do a lot of short strikes, as if they’re just whacking at the fly without trying to eat it! In any event, we then crossed to try The Island, where Andy had a hit right away, but I fished the whole front side without a single touch.

I lost my shooting head when my line stuck on the bottom. Instead of breaking at the fly, the knot between my shooting head and my flat mono running line broke, leaving me wondering whether the line wrapped around something as my tippet should have broken first.

Ah well, another rod in the “rod hospital” in need of further attention! I liked the line I was using on that rod. I hope I can duplicate it!

In any event, we finally quit fishing at around 5:00 pm.

Tally: Andy got five, while I had only three. It was a tough day, but every one of these days out on the river presents its own challenges.

Andy is also a great fishing companion, because he “gets it” with regard to this style of fishing and is consequently very helpful in the way we approach it together. It’s always a special pleasure to fish with someone like that!

But where are all the fish that we saw last year? Are they just somewhere else? After the abundance of last year, we should be seeing lots of fish between 16” and 20” and a mess of fish between 25” and 33” as well.

That horde of fish that came into the river on July 4th was very encouraging, but most of them have departed again, perhaps thanks to those clueless jet skiers scaring the living life out of them.

But, maybe the water temperature of 75 ⁰F wasn’t helping either. But why were those fish so unwilling to take? What were they doing in the river, if not feeding? Where have they gone?

We saw a few big fish on Saturday, but nothing like what we saw on Wednesday. That was truly spectacular, and a privilege to see. Will they come back, feeding this time? Will they return in September, after most of the boats have gone and the water has cooled a bit?

One never knows. But, we’ll be out there, looking for them in my canoe, hoping for a better shot, trying to learn what we can. You can’t figure these things out by just sitting at home…

Tight lines, my friends. I hope your fishing is good. And, give me a call if you want to try this. It’s very different from most people’s salt water fishing: no motors, light tackle, and the things you see when you can search with the proper stealth.

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2 thoughts on “The Baffling Stripers

  1. Great write up, sounds like fun and I’d love to try those sometime. I’ve been fishing different areas but agree it has been slow. We seem to be entering the dog days of striper fishing.

  2. Great write up Fred. I want to get into striper fishing on a fly at some point. I hate jet skiers and recreational boaters with a burning passion. Next time, I would send a heavily weighted clouser minnow in their general direction.

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