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Get'em with Sand Eel Imitations
by Capt. Jim Freda
Shore Catch Guide Service

hen the month of December is 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.

December provides the greatest opportunity for the fly fisherman to hook into the largest fish of the season. Stripers of truly trophy proportion will travel along the beaches of the Jersey Coast on their annual migration run to the south. This is the time of year when twenty, thirty, and even forty-pound female stripers, the cows as they are called, head 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 the presence of bait. If the bait is there chances are excellent that the bass 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 have wondered why 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. During the daytime, one may be that the slightly different color or hue of my pattern will stimulate the interest of the bass and causes it to strike. At night color would not be a factor. Another reason may be that the bass interprets this somewhat different stimulus from my pattern as a threat and lashes out at the fly as a result. At other times "matching the hatch" with the right size and color 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 that hit the ever so sensitive lateral line of the bass. Bass will home in on this different vibration and strike out at the fly. They will interpret this action as a weak member of the population. Finally, maybe it is just by sheer luck that the bass takes your fly. The odds are in your favor at this time of year because the fish are voracious and migrating. These two factors contribute to diminishing their selectiveness.

At this time of year the saltwater fly fisherman will find that he will be able to out fish the hardware, plugs and metal, because of his ability to match the sand eel pattern with remarkable similarity. If you buy your flies over the counter look for epoxy sand eel patterns, Lefty's deceivers, half and halfs, Clouser minnows, or Popovic's surf candies and jiggee flies.

Olive and white with silver or green krystal flash or flashabou tied in are the appropriate colors. Black is also a good color to choose. 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 tips 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 surface phytoplankton during photosynthesis.

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 night 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 strikes at pauses between your strips.

Geno's Jersey Flat Wing

This fly modifies the version of the Rhody flat wing. It was originated by Shore Catch guide, 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.

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 Shore Catch guide Greg Morrison.

So there you have it. Some suggestions for effective 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  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 StriperSurf.com. 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.

For more information, please go to Shore Catch Guide Service www.shorecatch.com

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Saltwater Fishing A Tactical Approach Fishing the NJ Coast