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Saltwater Fly Fishing in the Surf
by Capt. Jim Freda
Shore Catch Guide Service

ow that the months of November and December are upon us most people are eagerly preparing for the holiday season. Whether it is running around to shopping malls, drawing up Christmas wish lists, or preparing gourmet meals, a buoyant enthusiasm seems to permeate our daily endeavors. For the saltwater fly fisherman the feeling is the same but not for the same reasons.

November and December provide the greatest opportunity for the fly fisherman to hook into the largest fish of the season. Stripers and blues of truly trophy proportion will travel along the beaches on their annual migration run to the south. This is the time of year when the cows arrive, the female stripers as they are called, heading down from our northern New England waters.

It is hard to predict whether the migration route will be directly along the beach close enough to shoot a line into the suds, or whether the fish will stay to the outside offshore. Each season is different so you will need to be out there to actually see where the fish are being caught.

One tell-tale sign that fish will be coming in close along the beaches is whether or not the bait is present. If so the chances are excellent that the bass and blues will zero in on them. The predominant bait to look for at this time of year is the sand eel.

The sand eel, also referred to as the sand launce, or lance, is an inshore species not related to the common eel. Its scientific name “Ammodytes americanus” literally means sand burrower, a typical behavioral pattern of the sand eel when it is fleeing from a predator or resting.

Sand eels are recognized by their slender body with a pointed snout. They have a long dorsal and anal fin and are deep blue green to bronze on back with a white belly. They can grow as long as fifteen inches but are commonly found in the four to six inch range. The sand eel is found in shallow waters less than ninety meters with a sandy composition and comprise one of the most important staple foods for the striped bass and bluefish.

For the saltwater fly fisherman a variety of sand eel patterns are an essential part of his arsenal at this time of year. Fishing these patterns will result in hook-ups even though there may be literally thousands and thousands of sand eels in front of you.

Many times I wonder why is it that a bass will zone in on my fly from amongst the multitude of naturals that are present. There are several reasons why I think this may be so. Maybe the slightly different color or hue of my pattern stimulates the interest of the bass and causes it to strike. Or this stimulation may be one in which the bass interprets as a threat and lashes out at the fly as a result. At other times the right size and hue will resemble an injured baitfish when retrieved with a slow jerking motion. The type of retrieve that you use will send out different vibrations through the water column which hit the ever so sensitive lateral line of the bass. Bass and blues will home in on this vibration and strike out at the fly that they are interpreting as a weak member of the population. Finally, maybe it is just by sheer luck that the bass or blue takes your fly. The odds are in your favor at this time of year because the fish are voracious and migrating. These factors contribute to diminishing their selectiveness.

The saltwater fly fisherman will find that they will be able to out fish the hardware, plugs and metal, because of the ability to match the sand eel pattern with remarkable similarity. If you buy your flies over the counter look for Lefty’s deceivers, Clouser minnows, or Popovic’s surf candies in olive and white with silver or green krystal flash or flashabou tied in. If you tie your own you will find that the sand eel is a very easy silhouette to imitate simply because it is long and thin. Here are some hints on four effective patterns that have worked well for us over the past several seasons.

Half and Half (Half Clouser/Half Deceiver)
This fly is effective during the day when the fish are hanging deeper in the water column. Sand eels feed on copepods which are zooplankton. During the day these copepods are found lower in the water column and not near the surface. This is in direct response to a toxin that is produced by phytoplankton during photosynthesis. The phytoplankton will be found on the surface as close as possible to the available sunlight.

Since the zooplankton migrate downward during the daylight feeding sand eels will do the same. As a result this is where the bass will be looking for them. The nickel dumbbell eyes of this pattern will bring you fly to the bottom and put it in the strike zone. When sinking and bouncing bottom this fly will resemble a sand eel fleeing back into the sand.

The fly should be tied on hook sizes between 4-2/0 and should be tied anywhere between two and six inches depending on the size of the sand eels in your particular area. The fly should be tied sparse so it emulates the thinness of the naturals’ body shape. Chartreuse/white, olive/white/, and black/purple are the most effective color patterns.

Epoxy Head
The epoxy head is a very effective pattern to use at night when sand eels are on the surface. Since the vertical migration pattern of the copepods is upwards towards the surface at this time this is where you will find the sand eels. If you shine your flashlight into the water you will literally see hundreds of sand eels milling around on the surface. This fly is best used when sand eels are small and the water is shallow and calm. Patterns tied up to three inches will work effectively. The undulating action of the tail of this fly will entice bass at pauses between your strips.

Geno’s Jersey Flat Wing
This fly modifies the version of the rhody flat wing. It was originated by one of our guides, Gene Quigley. This fly has taken very large fish from the surf. The fly’s effectiveness is due to its ability to move side to side in the water while being retrieved slowly with a two handed strip. The fly should average anywhere from three to six inches in length and is best fished with intermediate lines in water up to six feet. The stacking of the feathers on top of the bucktail is the secret to this fly’s success. Contact us and we will be glad to give you the complete tying instructions.

Morrison’s Tubed Eel
This fly is a modified version of a Clouser like fly in that it uses weighted eyes to bring the fly near the bottom. From here it deviates to include a body that is tied with tinsel tubing with the added addition of a woven tail. The tubing replicates the slender body pattern of the sand eel and the woven tail increases the undulations of the fly upon retrieval. Indelible magic markers are used to color the fly’s tubing. The head of the fly is given a slight coating of epoxy. This fly was developed by our guide Greg Morrison.

So there you have it . Four patterns that will no doubt put you into fish. A word to the wise however. When you fish these flies make sure that you are holding your rod tightly under your arm and be ready for that distinctive rip of a trophy fish. End

Copyright © 1998 - 2014 Jim Freda, All Rights Reserved

Articles by Captain Jim Freda

Capt. Jim FREDAEmail Captain Jim Freda

Jim Freda is a highly respected charter captain, author, outdoor writer, seminar speaker, and photographer. His first book Fishing the New Jersey Coast, has been a best seller and received the “New Jersey Center for the Book Award” as one of the most notable NJ books. He co-authored a second book Saltwater Fishing a Tactical Approach, A Guide for Northeast Beach and Boat Fishermen, with his Shore Catch associates Capt Gene Quigley and Shell E. Caris.

Jim has weekly fishing columns that appear in the Bergen Record, NJ's second largest newspaper and the Coast Star and Ocean Star newspapers of Monmouth and Ocean Counties. Nationally, Jim is a contributing editor for Fly Fishing in Saltwaters magazine and also writes for Fly Fisherman magazine, Saltwater Sportsman, Eastern Fly Fishing, Big Game Journal, and Regionally he writes for On the Water magazine where he has is own monthly column, The Fisherman magazine and the NJ Federation of Sportsman Clubs newspaper.

As a seminar speaker Jim is featured as one of the celebrities on the Saltwater Sportsman National Seminar Series, as one of the “Stars of the Show” at the Fly Fishing Show in Somerset, NJ, the Northeast’s largest fly fishing show and is on the National Pro Seminar slate at the Toyota Saltwater Expo also in Somerset. He is also regularly featured each year at many of the local fishing clubs in the surrounding area including the State’s two largest clubs the Hudson River Fishermen’s Association and the Saltwater Anglers of Bergen County. Capt Jim has also been a guest speaker at all the Trout Unlimited Clubs in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Jim has also been a special guest speaker at the Bloomberg Network in New York City.

He is a member of the National Factory Pro Team for St. Croix Rods and pro staff for Fins Fishing Line, AVET Reels, Spro, Gamakatsu, Hogy, Korkers, Costa Del Mar, Columbia Sportswear and Aquaskinz.

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