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October 25, 2001

Strip in a Striper

Use these pointers to cash in on great Mid-Atlantic striped bass fishing.

Do, you want to catch stripers on fly? Well, in this day and age of doom and gloom about the health of many of our fisheries, your timing's great: The good ol' days are here again for striped bass fishing. It's so good that you can just about pick the time, place, method and even size of fish you want to catch.
Striped bass - also called rockfish - are more responsible for the development of flies, tackle and techniques than any other nearshore fish along the mid-Atlantic coast. They're most often the first target of saltwater fly-fishing novices as well as experienced freshwater anglers making the transition.
Happily, you can find stripers just about everywhere, from Maine to Georgia, because they adapt to a wide range of water conditions (fresh, brackish and salt) and inhabit surf, bays, marsh creeks and rivers. Although they can be found up to 100 miles or more from the ocean, they prefer inshore, sheltered waters, traveling and feeding close to the coast and therefore within range of small-boat and wading anglers. Structure-oriented, stripers gravitate to rocks and timber, often making them easy to locate. They often feed at or near the surface - ah yes, ideal fly-rod targets.
Their forage list includes silversides (spearing), anchovies, mullet, herring, menhaden (bunker), eels, crabs and shrimp, all of which can be readily and effectively imitated by artificial flies.
Linesiders suit a wide range of fly-angling preferences, too. You can cast tiny sliders into 2 feet of water or retrieve lead-core lines through 30- to 40-foot depths. Either method can net you a fish over 3 feet long. Perhaps best of all, the range from Delaware to the Carolinas is blessed with major spawning tributaries and wintering areas, affording more chances for rockfish on the fly over a longer period of time than anywhere else.
Add all these factors together and it's easy to see why fly fishing for striped bass in this region provides plenty of opportunities and lots of action.
Rods, Reels and Lines
It's tough to make general tackle recommendations, but a 9- or 10-weight rod of 9 feet or a bit longer with a medium-fast taper is as near to a standard as you can get. Of course, a heavier rod facilitates throwing heavy shooting heads or the largest flies, and a lighter rod makes catching smaller 2- to 5-pound school bass a lot more fun.
Reels used for bass and salmon fishing, and even large trout reels, will work just fine. Remember to wash them thoroughly after each outing to ward off the corrosive effects of salt. Of course, if you fall victim to a serious case of striper fever, you'll want something more reliable and durable. Mid-range ($150 to $250) and high-end reels ($400 to $500-plus) often represent more want than need, but they're worth the investment. Whatever reel you select, in addition to the fly line, make sure it can hold at least 100 yards of 30-pound Micron or Dacron backing for smaller fish and up to twice that amount for big fish.
For most scenarios, two fly lines will suffice. For shallow-water fishing, get an intermediate or floating line in standard weight-forward or saltwater-taper design (which has a shorter, heavier belly to facilitate throwing larger flies). Floating lines - adequate in many cases and a first choice for popper fishing - follow the contour of the surface and often create slack, leading to loss of fly control, bite detection and striking. Slow-sinking or intermediate lines get just below the surface, affording better line and fly control and more positive hooking. For your second line, choose a fairly fast sinker, preferably one of the shooting-head designs with permanently attached running line.

Leaders, Knots and Flies
You can follow the advice of your guide or knowledgeable tackle shop clerk about the proper leaders for striped bass, but here's one that will do the job for floating or intermediate lines: 4 to 5 feet of medium-stiff 30-pound mono such as clear Maxima, followed by 2 to 3 feet of 20-pound topped by about 2 feet of 10-, 12- or 15-pound tippet. However, I shorten my leaders as I fish deeper. When fishing a heavy sinking line in deep water, I may resort to only 2 feet of 20-pound leader. For large fish, particularly over rock structure, a foot of 50-pound-mono trace ahead of the fly provides insurance against abrasion from the structure or fish.
"Tie good knots or tie a lot of knots" makes for good advice. How well you tie your knots is infinitely more important than someone else's tests or recommendations. I whip a loop in the end of my fly line and use loop-to-loop connections where possible because they're strong, don't hang up on guides, attract less debris and make rigging changes easier. A few basic knots like the surgeon's knot, surgeon's loop and nail knot, plus the improved clinch or non-slip mono loop knot at the fly end, will suffice for most situations.
Striper fly selection provides a topic for endless discussion. We all have our favorites, and many can support our choices from ample on-the-water experience. Still, if you carry a small assortment of Clouser Deep Minnows in various weights and lengths (particularly incorporating some in chartreuse) and a range of Lefty's Deceivers (mostly white in sizes 2 to 3/0), you'll be ready for just about any striper conditions. Beyond that, add to your arsenal a few epoxy Surf Candies to imitate small spearing and bay anchovies, a few large bunker/herring imitations like the Groceries, Spread Fly or 3-D, and a few popping bugs. Vary colors and lengths from 2 1/2 to 8 inches.
One vital accessory deserves mention: a stripping or shooting basket. Buy a commercial model or fashion a homemade concoction. A plastic dish pan held around your waist with a bungee cord will even work. Strip your line into it when wading or fishing from a boat. If you don't need it, simply push it around behind you or take it off, but don't get caught without one: It makes it much easier to keep your fly line organized and easier to cast.

Presentation Protocols
Sometimes, stripers focus so intensely when feeding that they wallow in the wash or virtually bang the sides of your boat. More often, however, they'll require all the cast you can muster. When required to toss large, heavy, wind-resistant flies into a stiff breeze while balancing on a rocking boat, you may find your normal 70-foot cast will net no more than 40. Therefore, your practice sessions should include casting directly into the wind and quartering-wind shots.
In addition to working on distance, practice casting shooting heads and sinking lines; these are the stock in trade of a lot of striper fishing. The most important tip I can provide here is to use longer casting strokes, mainly rod/arm movements. Short wrist, hand and forearm motions may suffice for work on tiny trout streams, but that won't get the job done here.
Because of the wide spectrum of conditions under which striped bass are caught, develop a broad repertoire of techniques. Don't fall into the rut of using the same speed and strip length; vary them. Start with medium-fast 12-inch strips and modify from there. When imitating a menhaden or herring, use longer, sweeping, one-hand strips. At night, move your fly very slowly, even as slowly as an inch or two per second.
Learn to retrieve with both hands. I employ the two-handed retrieve for 80 to 90 percent of my striper fishing. As your cast lands, place the rod under your arm and pull the line in hand over hand, dropping it into your basket or on the boat deck. This gives you more options than always relying on the stop-and-go motion of a one-hand strip. If a fish takes, simply tug sharply on the line until you're certain the fish is hooked, then fight it with the rod.

Not Hard to Find 'Em
While stripers may be plentiful these days, as fly fishers we must expend the extra effort to locate choice fishing spots due to the limitations of distance and depth to which our tackle subjects us. Bridge abutments, piers or similar structures make ideal hiding places for bait, which in turn draw striped bass. Bruce Foster, a crack Chesapeake guide, taught me how to fish around concrete support structures, like those under the Bay Bridge near Annapolis. The trick is to cast well up-current and allow your sinking line to wash down into the eddies behind the columns. Bass lie just outside the turbulence, ready to rush in and feast on baitfish that become sucked into these pockets.
Jetties and sea walls also provide ambush spots for bass. Whether from water or land, fish all such areas tight to the structure. Cast right into the crevices of the rocks and swim your flies along them. Stripers prefer to press tightly against the cover where swirling waters tumble crabs and baitfish. Another tip for jetty fishing: Splat your fly down hard in the foamy white water around rock structure. I've had amazing success using Bob Popovics' silicone-coated Siliclone flies in such spots. You can get away with a shorter, heavier leader around rocks, since most strikes are quick and reflexive.
Seams marking the confluence of two currents can create a striper dining room. Once, on the Ogeechee River in Georgia, fish were particularly elusive. We managed to intercept them several days in a row on a falling tide where drainage ditches from the grass fields poured water into the main river, developing long seams where the two currents mingled. We anchored just inside the calm backwater and cast up into the tumbling, swirling eddies. Stripers like turbulence, and any scenario - rolling surf or a current flowing from a smaller to a larger body - often affords an easy meal. The bass can propel themselves through the same rough waters that rob baitfish of their agility.
Unless fish are feeding visibly at the surface, marked by swirls or splashes and often accompanied by wheeling and diving terns or gulls, locating stripers can be a matter of playing the odds based on feeding habits. Subsurface structure comes in many forms, such as troughs and gullies running parallel to beach fronts. Scout beach areas during low tide to pinpoint drop-offs and depressions in which fish will hold and feed during high water. Light intensity is another factor. As a rule, stripers like low light levels, so focus on the "change-of-light bite" at dusk and dawn. Night fishing is often more productive than daytime angling because fish apparently are less fearful of visiting the skinniest water - areas they usually avoid during the day.
Look for tell-tale dark patches revealing bait pods or nervous water caused by baitfish just under the surface. A good technique when you locate such a school, or when you see pods of bass, bluefish or gray trout (weakfish), is to cast a heavy sinking line and get under the visible fish. Large stripers will let the smaller fish chop up the bait while they wait below to gobble up the sinking goods.
Just such a situation occurred recently when I fished with Capt. Brady Bounds of Lexington Park on the west side of the Chesapeake Bay. Surface swirls indicated small fish feeding in a rip formed by an underwater ridge of rocks. After taking some of these little schoolies, Brady suggested we drag bottom with heavier lines to see if larger fish might be below the little guys. As it turns out, they weren't lunkers but distinctly larger than typical school fish.

Seasonal Hot Spots
In the mid-Atlantic region, consistent striped bass fishing starts by about the first of May, when water temperature climbs beyond the low 50s. Fish ascend rivers to spawn and then move down to the coast, most migrating northward (reversing the movement in fall). This virtual year-round fishery offers many faces as it stretches from the top of the Chesapeake Bay to the Bay Bridge Tunnel, then down the Virginia and Carolina coasts to the Georgia border. The sheer quantity of prime fishing venues can be daunting.
For numbers of fish in the 2- to 6-pound range, and lots of action, it's hard to beat the Roanoke River in the vicinity of Weldon and Roanoke Rapids in North Carolina, especially from April through June. Clouser Minnows, fished on sinking lines like 300- or 400-grain shooting heads and 8- to 10-weight rods, score big here. The rocky river can run pretty heavy during the spring spawning run, and a competent guide is recommended. In summer months after the spawning run, fishing slows a bit, but exciting popper fishing in lower water levels makes up for the decreased fish population. Other excellent rivers in the area include Neuse and Tar.
The shallow flats near Crisfield, Maryland, offer another ideal introduction to saltwater striper fly fishing. Here you can enjoy great shallow-water fly rodding among picturesque marsh lands, sod banks and creeks, using lighter 7- or 8-weight rods and floating or intermediate lines. Kevin Josenhans, who resides in Crisfield, specializes in this sport, which mainly involves retrieving Clouser Minnows over sunken cedar stump fields and such that harbor silversides, small crabs and killifish.
Late fall and early-winter action presents the best opportunities for taking trophy stripers on fly. Try the Bay Bridge Tunnel rocks at the mouth of the Chesapeake. Capt. Bruce Foster from Grasonville, near Kent Island, focuses on this area and explains why this is the prime venue for big striped bass: "The largest portion of East Coast stocks winter in this area. It also marks the northern terminus of important southern bait movements and the southern limit of migrating northern baits. The gathering of fish and forage at this time of year unquestionably affords your best chance at 20- to 40-pound fish." Be alerted, however, that this fishing can be rugged, big-water fishing with 10- to 12-weight rods and extremely heavy lines. Night fishing can be productive in shallower waters, and occasionally schools of large fish will show at the surface, but more often radical techniques are required to get down in the heavy currents in the rips, edges and holes.
Another excellent option at this time of year is the oceanfront of the Outer Banks in the vicinity of Oregon Inlet. Many expect new state records to come from this area. Capt. Brian Horsley of Nag's Head points out that these big fish feed on gray trout (weakfish) and croakers, requiring huge flies and advanced techniques like the water haul with heavy lines. However, the Outer Banks also offers plenty of shallow-water, light-tackle angling along its many sounds, beaches and rivers.
Consider warm-water discharges in colder months. A popular spot is the outflow of the Morgantown Power Plant near the mouth of the Potomac. I fished here once with Bounds in late winter, and as he maneuvered the boat, he instructed me to use a heavy sinking line, in this case a 700-grain Deep Water Express. I selected a large blue-and-white Popovics Spread Fly, cast up-current and let it wash down to a depth of 20 feet or more. The takes were soft, and I missed several on the slack line, but the first fish landed was a 10-pounder. He also practices a teasing technique on difficult fish, which he calls "pop and swap," attracting fish with a popping plug, then casting a fly to them. This works well everywhere. It pays to think, be resourceful and experiment with stripers.
Other hot spots include the flats near Havre de Grace at the mouth of the Susquehanna River, especially in spring; Baltimore Harbor; Virginia's James River up to Richmond; and the pilings around any of the spans along North Carolina Route 64 that heads east to the coast from Raleigh (such as Lindsay Warren and Mann's Harbor bridges). Mostly school fish, which tend to stay in these estuaries, can be caught all summer in waters ranging from brackish to salt.
It's hard to imagine better fishing for striped bass than now. Veterans of the long rod will enjoy plenty of close encounters with trophy fish while challenging their fish-finding and stripping techniques; newcomers can find many opportunities to hone casting and fish-playing skills. No matter your level of play, make plans to visit the coast of any mid-Atlantic state and enjoy striped bass fly fishing to its fullest.

Ed Jaworowski, a casting/fishing instructor who's caught nearly 100 species on fly around the world, writes articles for a number of fishing publications. He authored The Cast, widely regarded as the benchmark in fly-casting instruction, contributed to the Complete Book of Fly Fishing, and has two books in progress. Jaworowski is an assistant professor at Villanova University and lives in Chester Springs, Pennsylvania.