Ten Killer Striper Flies
by Frank Daignault
oo many fly fishermen who work the striper surf think that any standard Deceivers or “Clouserish” streamer patterns will be good enough to take stripers. It seems a universal given that salt-water gamefish will eat whatever is thrown at them. Wrong. I wasn’t the first angler to fly fish for striped bass, but I go back far enough to claim time-in-grade somewhere between the Little Rhody Flyrodders and Joe Brooks -- 40 years give or take of experience. I have seen a lot of flies work, yet they have all taken their turn at being the wrong one. Still, in the end I have ten favorites that have really turned some striper heads. Here, with some background, folklore, and solid familiarity are the ones I want in my survival kit.
SAND EEL FLY
This simple streamer is our old and first Cape Cod bread and butter fly for use when sand eels dig in and take up residence. We first used this pattern as a dropper or teaser with a plug for casting weight. Later, when we began to gain interest in fly-fishing there, it was our first choice of fly. It caught more stripers fly-fished than it ever did as a teaser and produced the biggest striper I ever caught fly-fishing – 43 pounds. Other monsters followed between 28 and 40 pounds. Our early versions were four to seven white saddle hackle feathers lashed to the throat of the hook. We used fewer feathers on the smaller sizes and up to seven on the 3/0 versions. For greater realism, you can gradient colors to green on the sides, black on top, but all white is fine.
If you tie off this wispy pattern at the throat with a riffle hitch, it will ride the surface creating a subtle wake and will draw more attention from stripers.
If you are ever witness to a juvenile worm hatch, you will want a fly that resembles the small darting worms, which hatch out in estuaries by the thousands. Stay small with either #1 or 1/0 hooks to best match the forage size. My pattern is the same as used in trout leaches. Tie a bright red or orange under body. Add a tuft of marabou wing and pin it down on the hook shank in bumps to simulate the undulations of a worm moving along. I add a collar of black hackle for a more buggy/wormy look. With all the competition from wild worms, you might want to riffle this fly also as with the sand eel fly. It takes a lot of casts to fool a striper with a million worms around so you might want to rig up with two worm flies.
I remember clearly the first time I ever saw a Clouser in use. The fellow fishing with it was catching 10 schoolies to my one. It was not until I tied on the black model he gave me that I began to match his action. This fly’s distinguishing characteristic is the barbell eyes lashed on to the top of the shank. These add weight to the fly causing it to ride in the water more like a jig a little deeper and hook up. Regulars utilize all sorts of Deceiverish hair and feather with color variations. Barbell choices depend upon hook size and desired depth penetration.
OWENS VELVET EEL
Utilizing the Clouser standard of barbell eyes, the velvet eel’s body is composed of velvet worm tubing lashed to the hook with white chenille to maintain color harmony. This pattern also rides hook up and slightly deeper. With white models you can darken the back with black markers and pantone the sides in green for a more natural effect. We used this natural version for years with success until we met the originator, Brad Owens, who said that black was better than white and he was right. I put these together in 1/0, 2/0 and 3/0 and swing them under tension in the current and have really gotten attached to this pattern, especially in black.
This is our go-to juvenile bunker fly. We used this in Maine and Narragansett Bay with outrageous results. Again, our discovery was a case of other patterns not catching stripers and the baby angel cleaning up. There was no evidence of bunker around but the bass just wanted them. They are even better when the small menhaden are in.
Everybody who is anybody knows Bill Catherwood the famous North Shore fly-tier who came up with this pattern. His herring fly is perfect for when either herring or bunker are in evidence. This is a little larger than the aforementioned baby angel and more suitable for imitating the larger baitfish. I would not want to use a fly any larger than this one because the wet weight of larger flies makes them less than suitable for fly-fishing. Late summers, when snapper blues are scooting around the estuaries, with bass chasing them, this is a real killer.
Tsunami makes two sizes of small holographic eel in molded rubber that are too small for light spinning and can only be delivered with fly tackle. Bass yum on them and blues clip them. They are a cheap offer that can be bought in packages of six or 10. Just put an under-wrap of thread on a 1/0 to 3/0 34007 hook and Superglue the hook in place. Eel bodies have glass eyes and look realistic enough to turn striper heads.
Anybody who has ever caught back pond stripers and examined stomach contents knows that grass shrimp are a staple for all sizes of lineside. We routinely catch bass up to 18 pounds on shrimp flies. The key to making shrimp flies work is that they are a good size imitation at one inch in length. These are a difficult fly to tie but are offered in many fly shops, which tells me that there is demand for their use. Out of desperation I put a few together with deer hair and they all worked. I have never had a shrimp pattern that did not. Stay small at 1/0 max; these are not colossals for dinner parties.
Crabs are another of those examples that keep coming up that even a seasoned regular does not want to believe. I first heard of crab flies being used by the flats charter skippers fly-fishing Monomoy. Then I cleaned a Narragansett Bay striper that had a stack of small crabs in its gut. Two summers ago while visiting our daughter in Maine we cleaned a fish with a crab in it about the size of a quarter coin. How much evidence do you need? Then one night in Rhode Island shining my light in the shallows I found little crabs there. In an outflow where we were hearing bass but not catching, I tied on a crab from a fly shop and dead drifted it by casting across current and letting it swing under tension. Don’t add any action; just fish it like a piece of meat and it will be duck soup. The only crab patterns that don’t work are the ones I tie myself, so I buy them.
Sliders, while they may look like poppers, are intended to float on the surface, thus creating a wake while under tension. The principle in their use is similar to riffling where the creation of a wake is attention getting to gamefish. Because they are best worked in current, I allow my sliders to swing until directly downstream and then bring them in with long stripping motions. These are nothing but cork cylinders with a tuft of deer hair for a tail and painted on or decal eyes. Resist the temptation to pop these in spite of their popper appearance. Phil Farnsworth, who used to clerk at Rivers End in Old Saybrook, rarely uses anything else and has a lot of time fishing the Connecticut River with this pattern. I like this fly at dawn if the fishing has been good during the dark. It gets their attention.
Copyright © 1998 - 2014 Frank Daignault, All Rights Reserved
Frank Daignault is the author of Striper Surf, Twenty Years on the Cape, Striper Hot Spots, The Trophy Striper, Eastern Tides and Fly Fishing the Striper Surf.
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Articles by Frank Daignault