Situational Awareness: Targeting Spring/Summer Stripers

I’m a pretty fickle person when it comes down to my favorite species to fish for. Usually I’m having so much fun catching whatever I’m after, that in the moment you’ll probably hear me say things like “these brown trout are the best” or “man, there’s nothing like steelhead.”

I guess I never grew out of that stage as a kid where each fish I caught made me deliriously happy. However, there is something very different and unique that happens to me every spring when I hook into the first striped bass of the year.

For one, it’s an aggressive form of angling compared to say trout or pan fish. There’s a hunting element to it. Because you’re stalking a predator, you also start to think like a predator. You study your prey, learn their habits and patterns, learn the highways that they travel (currents, points, coves, trenches, etc…) and you even plan out the specific times of day that they will be more likely to come close enough to throw a fly at them. You start to think things like “if I had to ambush my food in order to eat today, where would I hide?”

Stripers are not like stocked trout. They are a wild, sea-run fish that fight daily for survival. The fact that they make migrations spanning hundreds to thousands of miles every year means that they learn to be wary and aggressive all at once. It’s a big coastline with a lot of water, and they must make the most of every feeding opportunity they can.

This notion sometimes leads fly anglers to think “all I need is a chartreuse/white Clouser, and a floating line.” These same people often come back to the fly shops saying that they don’t like stripers on the fly because they never catch anything and it seems like too much work for too little fish. This is where situational awareness comes in. Yes, there are many times when the Clouser on the 8 wt. floating line will work. However, there are greater opportunities available the more you study these fish and the coast around you.

The first situation I wanna cover is what the stripers do when they first show up. They’ve just migrated up to New England from places like the Hudson River, The Chesapeake Bay and North Carolina. It’s a long journey for a 20-inch schoolie. The bigger bass that are ready to spawn stop and hold in their spawning grounds before heading north to our waters. That means that for those of us in Massachusetts, the first schoolies are showing up in the last week of April or the first week of May (approximately). Fish may show up earlier on the southern side of Cape Cod. The larger post spawn bass tend to show up in late May or early June.

When the schoolies arrive, they head for the warmer waters of the estuaries. The ocean fronts are still cold, and the fish seek shelter and food in rivers, marshes and flats. The larger bass will follow this same pattern when they arrive in our waters after the spawn.

Each estuary can be different so far as what the prominent bait will be. Certain rivers host herring and shad runs, and the stripers will more likely be keyed in on big fly patterns, such as a larger deceiver or a five- to six-inch Game Changer. Other estuaries will be havens for grass shrimp, sand eels, small baitfish or crabs.

Just yesterday I was fishing a sand flat, throwing small flies that I thought would be likely food sources(small clousers in black and dark olive, small white deceivers). Then I saw the gulls, terns and ospreys whip into a feeding frenzy. After watching them for a bit, I saw that they were grabbing large silver looking baitfish. While I couldn’t identify the exact food source they were targeting, I knew that the bass in that moment were going to be eating whatever the birds were eating. After carefully walking up to a flock of diving seagulls, I tied on a six-inch white feather Game Changer, cast it as close as I could to the action, and saw a fish swipe and miss it!

I aggressively made a slightly shorter cast quickly and began to work the fly in a slower, more wounded kind of motion. BAM!  There was a big swirl of sand, and my line drag started singing! Observing my surroundings and and the current situation led to success!

A nice striper from the sand flats

Tides and moon cycles are also a big part of striper fishing, and being aware of how the bait and stripers respond to the changing water caused by the moon cycles is crucial. This sounds more complicated than it is. A good rule of thumb for moon cycles is that bait moves on the new and full moons, and they stage on the half moons. That means targeting points and highways for baitfish on the full moon and targeting coves and inlets where bait will stage on the half. A simple tide chart app on your phone like Tide Alert will tell you the moon cycles as well as the tide times.

As far as tides go, bait tends to move with the tide. An incoming tide will bring bait with it, and an outgoing tide will flush bait out. Stripers are aware of this and they are much stronger swimmers than the prey they hunt. On a flood tide, I like to target areas that when flooded, have structure like boulders or muscle shoals. Stripers will often use these spots to pin bait against the shore or the structure and trap them there while they feed. In summer, bass busting on silversides can become like clockwork on the flood tide for weeks.

Other places to target on the incoming would be rivers/marshes, especially in May and June. Water systems like the Parker River completely fill up at high tide and for six hours bait and stripers have been pouring in and following the current upstream. The same logic applies here about trapping bait. Look for points that jet out into the river and also fish the small coves between these points. The bass will be looking for any place they can get an advantage over their prey.

This bass was caught at the Parker River on an incoming tide

Use the same principles on the outgoing tide, but understand that the bass will change their position and location.  Look for river mouths with structure where bass can hide and ambush the food that is flushing out of the estuary. In a strong outgoing current, swinging big streamers on an intermediate or sink tip line, like you would for Atlantic salmon or steelhead, can be a really fun and productive way to get some fish on the line.

Sometimes the outgoing tide can be a little murky from all the sediment washing out of the estuary, so it’s always good to carry some chartreuse patterns that will show up well. My favorite flies to swing for stripers would be either all white or chartreuse/white hollow deceivers. Any kind of spey profile pattern will probably work. Just keep in mind that there may be a food source that they are keyed in on that your spey style pattern doesn’t match. Always be willing to adapt and change flies.

Caught while swinging flies through a strong current at the end of an ebb tide

The next situation I want to talk about is fishing the surf. This is probably my favorite way to target bass when conditions are right. Stripers will come right up to the shore chasing disoriented bait that has been caught in a crashing wave. This could be waves crashing on rocks or even sandy beach fronts that look lifeless at first glance.

I see a lot of fly guys avoiding fishing pounding surf conditions because it seems daunting, but with the right gear, flies and knowledge, it can be a heart pounding experience! My first tip is to wear a wading jacket if you don’t wanna get soaked.

My second tip for fishing crashing waves is to use a short sink tip line. I use the Orvis Hydros Bank Shot Sink Tip for this kind of situation, and it performs really well. The sink tip is fast sinking but only 10 feet long, which makes controlling depth and avoiding snags easier. It has a powerful shooting head taper that pushes through the wind, and it really eliminates the need for false casting(which I believe is one of the best ways to spook fish or get a Clouser stuck in your neck). The sink tip cuts through the wave quickly, and the rest of the floating running line makes mending easy.

For flies in the surf I actually tend to not match the bait, but instead I’ll use big buoyant attention getters with lots of herky jerky movement. I’ll often use a Tabory snake fly, slider patterns, dragon tails with spun deer hair heads, or game changers. The sink tip line cuts through the wave, and the buoyant fly pushes water and keeps the fly riding high to avoid snagging. It can take a little while to get the hang of fishing this way, but it’s pretty exciting to see your line go tight into a vertical wave!

Another tip for surf fishing is to fish the wash. That’s where the disoriented bait is after the wave crashes. Sometimes I’ll hold out on casting and wait for the wave that causes the most disturbance. Stripers will wait for the opportunity to rush in and attack in the wash when prey is easy to grab. It can be really fun and really productive!

Fly fishing the surf can be exciting and intense!

The last topic I wanna touch on is casting and line choice. It cannot be overstated how important it is to practice and master the double haul cast. I think it’s another reason why so many guys get discouraged quickly with saltwater fly fishing. They haven’t developed their casting ability, and as such are unable to get their fly to the fish.

Learning how to haul on a cast isn’t just for saltwater or long distances. I even use a haul when I cast my tightline set up for trout. It’s simple physics that tells us that the resistance on the line created during a haul generates more energy that releases into the shooting line. More energy means more speed, which means more accuracy and distance. This requires practice, practice and then even more practice.

Now that you’ve got the double haul down, it’s important to pick the right line for the job. All of my streamer fishing, salt or fresh, is done with a shooting head taper. Even my floating and intermediate lines. A great line to start with is the Rio Coastal Quickshooter Intermediate. It’s a very powerful line that helps get big or small flies where you need with accuracy. As I mentioned above, I also really like the Orvis Hydros Bank Shot in sink tip and floating versions. Keep in mind though that these quality lines will make a good cast better, not a bad cast good!

Saltwater fly fishing requires experience in order to become proficient and successful. However, the only way to get experience is to get out there and spend as much time in the salt as you can! I can promise that failed attempts to catch stripers on the fly will teach you lessons that will ultimately lead to catching lots of bass.

This season, be mindful of your fishing situations, study your water and catch more fish!

Best of luck, everyone!

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