Night Fly Fishing for Stripers, Part 4

TIDE, WEATHER, AND MOON EFFECTS ON NIGHT FISHING

Moon Superstitions Demystified

Many people are superstitious about moon phase productivity for striper fishing. What I have found looking at my log for the last several years of night fishing is I have no substantial difference in catch rate on a new vs. full moon.  I also tend to catch fish on the smaller side when fishing from shore on quarter-moon phases, but that is not an absolute.

There are areas I fish where big fish are usually around, but getting at them with fly gear on strong currents is impossible. So, the weaker quarter-moon tides allow me to take a shot at them near deeper structure for a longer window of time.  The key point to all of this is you have to adapt to the conditions you are presented with.  My personal opinion is people are slow to adapt and that is why one “moon” phase or another is “bad” for them.

What is true about each moon phase is that light levels and tide movement are constantly changing. If you apply the same strategy during a quarter moon vs. a new moon, you will get varying results because the conditions are very different.  Where I am usually fishing near Boston on a new moon, the night high tide might be 12.5 feet, but on a quarter-moon tide is only eight-feet high tide. So, whole areas that would be open to a fish for feeding on a new moon are high and dry on a quarter moon.  More water moving equals more current, so certain areas need certain current speeds to really turn on.  These different tidal conditions drive your fishing “strategy” and the different light levels should only drive your fishing “tactics.”

I define my fishing “strategy” as big picture. What specific area will I choose to fish based on tides? What types of bait do I think are available? Do I think the striped bass will be keyed in on a specific bait or feeding opportunistically, and this will drive the fly gear and fly patterns I will bring on trip.

Here is a good example. I see high tide is only going to hit nine feet about two hours before dawn.  I know that there is a certain spot the herring will stage at high tide to out-migrate, but bass cannot access them unless it’s over 10 feet of water.  So, instead of fishing the upper end of the estuary where bass would try to hunt herring on a higher tide cycle, it’s time to switch gears.  Therefore, I will look for the location where bass will set up in ambush further down the estuary and wait for herring to make a break for ocean as the tide drops.

I define my fishing “tactics” as fine tuning my fly selection, adjusting how much stealth is needed to approach fish, fine tuning the depth I chose to present fly pattern, and, last but most important, SAFETY considerations for each spot. For example, on a very bright full moon, I will fish a natural color fly instead of a black one, but on a pitch black night, I will throw all black.

So, in closing if you find an area that looks very promising, it probably has potential to produce quality fish on many different moon phases, but you are going to have to put a lot of work in to realize the specific conditions that fishing turns on. My best advice is to fish that area hard through an entire moon cycle.  Forget any superstitions or preconceived notions, and let the fish tell you when the best moon/tide phase is to fish that location.  Some of my best patterns were complete surprises and found only through grinding it out at a spot that looked like it had potential until the big fish pattern revealed itself.

Light vs. Dark Nights

As mentioned previously, I do let the light levels on each particular night help dictate my fishing tactics.  I use it to help select my fly pattern, my depth of presentation, my level of stealth when approaching a fishing area, and if I will blind fish or attempt to sight fish.

On fly patterns, the more ambient light there is, the lighter and more natural the color selection I will use.  For example, with eel flies, I generally prefer black, but on a full moon night, I will fish a yellow and olive fly to better imitate the natural color of an American eel.  The darker the night is, the more I will focus on flies that push a lot of water, have a double rattle (my flies either have no rattle, single rattle, or double rattles), and I may add Pro-Cure Super Gel to the fly.

On a bright night, I prefer a much subtler fly with no rattles, a medium wake producing head, and I rarely use scent unless there is major bait density.  Stripers are scent selective at night when large densities of bait are in a small area.

On a full moon, I am also more likely to throw a multi-fly rig in the dark with a smaller fly in front of the large trail fly.  This is purely because I can see better and keep the rig from getting fouled.  On full moons, I find large bass will take a smaller offering at night, so something in the five- to seven-inch range for the lead dropper fly and a more normal 10 to 12 inches for the trail fly.

The more ambient light, the closer to the surface your presentation can be.  My favorite nights for surface fishing is full moons with no clouds.  I want to tick the bottom on a new-moon night.  Of course, certain types of fishing location will dictate depth and the amount of light will have little impact on how the fish feed there.  When talking about depth and light level, I focused more on estuaries and beaches with low to moderate surf.  I personally believe the bass are looking up more when there is better light for doing so.  What I know for certain is its much easier to effectively fish a surface pattern at night when I can see what is going on with my fly.

Moon and Tide Effects

The biggest changes that the moon phases cause are the tides.  My experience is that boat fishermen probably don’t favor certain tides as heavily as shore fishermen.  It’s all about access for shore fishermen.  Many pieces of prime deep structure probably have quality stripers hanging around them all the time.  A boat fisherman can access that structure whenever they want.

As a shore guy, I may only have a short window where I can get close enough to fish the structure on a particularly low tide during a new or full moon.  So, if you are boat fishermen you may not care about this section, but for people wade fishing I am going to lay out some very important things I have learned about impacts of tides on my fishing.

Inshore Flats: These are potentially very dangerous areas.  You must scout these very thoroughly in daytime for each moon phase.  Up where I am and in Cape Cod Bay, the tide movement can vary substantially, so you have to know at what point it’s safe to wade through any channels to access the flat bar systems.  On a big tide on the incoming, you are gaining six inches of water every 15 minutes.  That’s two feet of water in an hour, so you have to be religious about knowing at what point on an incoming tide you should leave and walk back to higher ground.  I have an alarm set 20 minutes before, 10 minutes before, and five minutes before the posted tide height.  No matter how good the fishing is, I will leave.  You need to figure this out and stick to it because a fish is not worth dying over.  If you push the envelope, you have a very high chance of drowning.

For me, I like extremely low tides around the new and full moon, as they help concentrate bait to the very small arterial channels out on the flats.  Under the cover of darkness, striped bass will come into these shallow narrow areas and gorge on the densely packed small bait.  Dropping tide through slack can be excellent and, with the extremely shallow water, hunting fish by sound is much easier.

Honestly, if you really want to master night flats fishing, using a shallow running kayak is the best approach.  It allows you to get out to areas when there is more water and channels cannot be crossed safely any other way.  Also, the boat allows you to stay in a side channel that has a bait density well past when it would be unsafe to stay on a incoming tide.  For incoming on foot, I find that, once slack ends, I am better off making a big move back inshore along the flat structure and setting up at a major channel intersection.

I wait for the tide to carry bait and stripers to that area, then I fish it hard and later make another big move to the next major inshore bar and channel intersection point.  In general, I fish only two hours before and two hours after low tide because on foot for safety reasons that is most feasible time window to wade fish.  With a kayak or boat, that equation changes substantially, and you can hit a lot of different tide window options.

Inlets/Bridges The more I fish inlets and bridges, the more I find that each one has its own unique tide window that yields the biggest fish.  One thing to consider is that I have started to gravitate to quarter-moon phases to fishing dropping tide windows for certain inlets because the lower peak high tide results in less debris in the water during the drop.  Some inlets are almost unfish-able due to weeds and other debris in the water on a moon high tide.   In general, the outgoing tide has a stronger peak current than incoming, so I find the quarter moon still has enough peak current speed on drop to produce big fish, but lacks the debris that makes fishing hard.  Conversely, I gravitate to moon tides for the incoming tide because there is less of a chance for debris issues on the incoming, and you need a bigger tide to generate the peak current on the incoming that can drive the big fish to start feeding.  For the incoming, the higher the high tide and greater the peak current the better.

Other than the general guidance above on inlets, I am wary of giving any hard fast rules about tides because each different inlet location is so different in character you really cannot make broad statements.  Therefore, what I will do is layout examples of tide windows that produce well at different inlets and bridges.  This will give you some ideas of what types of scenarios could produce for you:

  1. A peak current on the outgoing tide is often a trigger for the big fish bite to turn on in an inlet, but just because it’s peak current does not mean fish are feeding throughout the inlet. They will still be keyed in on prime structure in the current flow.  This tends to be near the bottom, and the outgoing peak current can represent a substantial challenge to a fly fishermen trying to get their offering near that bottom structure.  Choose a fast-sinking and relatively foul-proof fly pattern paired with a fast sinking line to fish this window.  This is very challenging and will take a lot of effort to find success.  Sometimes you just end up realizing its impossible to get deep enough so don’t be surprised to find a lot of frustration pursuing this method.  However, the reward is truly large bass in the 40-inch or larger class, so keep that in mind and keep grinding away at it until you hopefully solve it.
  2. Slack low tide is often ignored at inlets by many fishermen, but two years ago, after reading John Skinner’s Striper Pursuit, I started using live eels during slack tides with good success. I decided that I felt a proper eel fly with some Pro-Cure Super Gel was actually the closest match to the motion and presentation of live eels. So, I started fishing scented eel flies during the slack window at inlets just like I would a live eel.  It produced surprisingly well and, honestly, the fly that works in this scenario would be very difficult to get down during a running current anyways.  I like a floating slider eel pattern that is 13 to 14 inches long, fished on a  fast sinking 400 to 500 grain line to imitate the motion of the live eel trying to swim down to the bottom.  There is a lot of fan casting and searching along edges of structure at the dead tide.
  3. The first three hours of the incoming tide is a favorite for me at larger inlets or bridges. This is because I am starting as close to the bottom structure as I can get at the low tide point.  Also, I find that at bridges it’s just easier to get at the prime structure with a fly rod during this window.
  4. The last two hours of incoming tide is a preference for smaller inlets to salt ponds and sections of upper estuaries. These are food-rich areas that are not accessible to big bass except on big moon tides and in the very upper part of the high tide window.  I find the bass feed more heavily on the initial entry to these zones hence the end of incoming out produces the start of the outgoing.

Estuaries/Bays: I have found that these large areas can be productive at all stages of the tide. You just have to figure out which areas are accessible at which stages of the tide.   These are the areas I tend to go when there is no peak tide window I want to fish that night.   By remaining mobile and stalking by sound when conditions permit, you can find active fish in these areas if you put in the leg work.  When I say “leg work” I mean a lot of walking and stopping to listen for distant feeding fish.  Some nights I may walk over five miles in three hours, with probably only one hour of total fishing time once I find the feeding fish.  Large fish are always moving through these systems, and it’s just a matter of putting your fly in the water as much as possible at good structure.  Because these areas can be productive on so many different stages of the tide, I highly recommend them as a place for beginners to learn fly fishing for stripers.

Weather Effects:

Weather impacts on fishing are very specific to a location and region, so figuring them out takes a lot of angler effort.  Anglers who master figuring out weather conditions that can cause a spot to turn on with big fish have logged hundreds of hours fishing at a minimum.  Instead of trying to relay actual patterns, I am going to give some overall considerations that you should keep in mind in how weather can impact fishing.

  1. The type of wave action or surf created can have a big impact on beaches, boulder fields, or rocky points. Wind direction, wind speed, tide movement, and swell play together in complicated ways.  But, when you find the conditions that create the right kind of waves and sweep, you often find they bring in big fish, especially during the migratory periods in spring and fall.
  2. Spring warming patterns consist of when we get multiple days of warm weather and bright sun. Understanding which areas in estuaries and back bays warm first will drive the entire food chain activity.  It can trigger worm spawns, herring migration, silverside migration/spawning, and grass shrimp spawning.  Knowing where and at what water temp these phenomenon happen will help you find concentrations of stripers in the early season.
  3. Fall dropping temperature patterns can lead to amazing action, but similar to spring you need to know how quickly the cold weather pattern will impact the water temperatures. The falling water temperature can trigger mass exodus of bait-fish towards the ocean and create ideal feeding conditions near inlets and along beaches near bays or inlets.
  4. Wind can drive current which pushes weaker swimming bait-fish into certain areas and against shore bringing stripers into a fly anglers range. The difficulty is often the area where the bait gets concentrated will have headwind casting conditions.  You will need to develop adequate casting skills to manage these challenging conditions and go to a heavier setup.  I like 425 to 500 grain heads maximize my ability to effectively deliver a fly into the wind.

This is the last of the four-part series on approaching night fishing for striped bass (the other posts are here, here, and here).  I hope this has been informative to any fly anglers interested in pursuing striped bass.  Once again welcome to the “Dark Side” where large fish are possible from shore no boats required!

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