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Spring Tactics - Trophy Stripers on the Fly
by Captain Gene Quigley
Shore Catch Guide Service

f you fly fish in Saltwater here in the Northeast, eventually you will come to grips with the lure of catching large stripers on the fly. Sure, catching stripers of any size on fly tackle is enjoyable, but what if I was to tell you that you could catch the striped bass of a lifetime next Spring on the fly. Would you still rather catch schoolies? I don't think so.

Before we get into the tactics and techniques of how to catch big linesiders on fly tackle during the Spring, lets define the meaning of “large”. I am sure various anglers would classify the words “trophy striper” differently. So what constitutes a large or trophy striper on fly tackle? Is it ten pounds, fifteen pounds, thirty pounds? For me it is any fish over 20 lbs.

First and foremost, it is important to first understand that you will not catch as many big stripers in the Spring on the fly as you will smaller fish. If you are in it for the numbers then this type of fishing is not for you. The simple rationale is that there just aren't that many big fish around anymore. For that reason you will need to think and act more like a hunter rather than a casual angler. If you are serious about catching large stripers on fly tackle in the Spring months, here are some proven tactics and techniques that are sure to put a stiff bend in the long rod this season.

Go Big
Yes, it is true that elephants eat peanuts, and there are times when larger stripers feed on small baits. The fact of the matter is that big striped bass prefer large baits. In looking at our Spring fishery here along the Jersey Shore and New York Bight, we know that most of these bigger fish do not experience regular feeding patters during the winter months. Once Spring arrives, and water temperatures begin to warm these trophy stripers will follow, hunt, and stalk large adult bunker and herring here in our local waters during their northerly Spring migration. With this in mind you will want to fish long, broad baitfish flies that range in length from eight to twelve inches.

There are three flies that I carry in my arsenal when I want to target bigger bass. The first is Bob Popovics's bucktail deceiver. This fly is tied with a 4/0 long shank hook and is constructed entirely of bucktail that starts with long hairs in the back tie, and is then tapered shorter with each tie in separate series toward the front of the hook. What I like most about the bucktail deceiver is that the materials are distributed 360 degrees all the way around the hook to give the fly a more three-dimensional look in the water. Nothing breathes better than bucktail, and it is for this reason that the bucktail deceiver is my number one choice for a larger herring imitation, especially when fish are chasing baits in the upper water column.

The second fly that I use is a super long half & half with larger ¼ oz dumbbell eyes. This fly uses a combination of long thin saddle hackles and bucktail with lots of flash running right down the center. The Half & Half is mostly used when a deep presentation is required and acts as an injured baitfish bouncing erratically just of the bottom.

The third fly in the arsenal is a larger “high tie” bunker pattern that has a deep profile. Capt. Dino Torino of Fin Chaser Charters in Staten Island was one of the first captains to start using this pattern and his success rate with big fish in the New York Bight was astronomical. Dino uses synthetic materials such as Kinky Fiber and blends in lots of flash to make up one of the most effective bunker flies I have ever seen.

It is important to ensure that the hooks you use are extra strong and super sharp. I prefer the Varivas 990 4/0 and the Tiempco 600S 5/0 and 6/0 hooks for the Half & Half flies, Tiempco 911S 4/0 long shank for the bucktail deceiver, and Gamakatsu® Big Game Fly Hook in 8/0 for Dino's magnum bunker fly.

Color variations for these flies will vary; however early in the season I have found that these greatest results are yielded with bright fluorescent colors like chartreuse over white, yellow, and pink over white.

Fish Deep
Chances are you will not see the brutish stripers roaming around on the top of the water column unless they are chasing large bunker or herring up in the shallows, or, on the surface itself. For the most part, these larger fish will hold deep in the water column. Because we are targeting these fish in the springtime, your main focus should be in and around the back bays and tidal rivers. One of the key factors in finding these large stripers in the backwaters is to identify and locate structure that will hold them.

There are two types of structure that will hold fish along our coast in the Spring. The first structure is that of the more obvious. Be it a jetty, bulkhead, or piling, these man made types of structure are generally highly visible and built to impede water flow. When fly fishing these perceptible structures you will first need to know the water depth in which they lie.

The second type of structure is much less obvious, and usually has the greatest amount of potential for holding large linesiders. This structure is the natural underwater environment. Steep drop offs, sod banks, deep holes or channels, and sand bars all make up a world of fish holding locales that need to be explored in order to score big.

Striped Bass are for the most part lazy feeders. The bigger they get, the lazier they get. Because these bigger fish tend to lie deep in the water column it will be important to use a fly line that will present your bait to the level in which the feeding occurs. As a general rule I will always start to look in areas that have a steady current through deep water or a steep drop off. For these situations 400 to 700 grain-sinking lines will be the lines that are most frequently used. Choosing between a 400-grain line and a 700-grain line will all depend on the exact depth and the immediate current speed. When extreme deep-water presentations are needed, a better choice will be a 30 foot sinking head of Cortland® LC-13 or Rio® T-14. These lines sink incredibly fast and should be reserved for water depths over twenty feet or in shallower waters where fast currents are present. Work your fly slowly in the currents and allow it to swing back into the strike zone. I like to use a short erratic one-handed retrieve as the fly moves through the currents.

Big Tackle for Big Fish
There is an old saying "Never show up to a gunfight with a knife." This holds true when targeting trophy stripers. Make sure that you use sturdy equipment. Strong graphite ten and eleven weight fly rods should be the weapons of choice. Your fly reel should have a smooth drag, be saltwater corrosion resistant, and hold at least 150 yards of backing. Striped bass are not known for their long runs. Rather, what you can expect are explosive busts with a consistent, powerful headshakes. The critical part of the equipment equation lies with your leaders and the knots that connect them.

Starting at the fly line, I prefer to use a loop-to-loop connection to the leader by making a small loop in the fly line by using a double nail knot. Your mono leader should form a loop in the butt section by using a triple surgeons loop or a Bimini Twist. I have found that leaders will fewer connections do not fail as often as leaders with multiple connections. Therefore, I use a straight six to eight foot shot of twenty or thirty-pound monofilament tied directly to the fly. All of your proven knots, such as the Improved Clinch, Uni knot, or loop knot, will work fine as long as they are tied well. Always leave a short tag end left on the knot to allow for stretch in the mono. Constantly look for nicks or flaws in your leaders. The smallest bur or flaw in the leader could end the fight before it even starts.

Winning the Battle
Fighting big stripers on fly tackle requires a cool head, patience, and common sense. The first challenge at hand is to ensure a strong hook set. I like to really drive the hook home. Doing so will make sure your hook penetrates the stripers “sandpaper” like jaw. Use the line to set the hook rather than the rod. I like to perform a series of short, sharp strip strikes to drop the hook in. Keep the rod low and slightly off to the side, then, pull the fly line tight and repeat until you can feel a good set up.

Once the hook is set let the fish run and apply pressure by keeping a good bend in the rod low and off to the side. At no time during the fish's run should the rod come over your head unless you have to clear an obstacle such as a jetty rock or a bulkhead. Bringing the rod tip over your head drops slack in the line and could allow the fish to come loose. Try not to bear down too hard on the drag. Rather, use a lighter setting and apply pressure with your palm should the fish need to be slowed down. The fight will go back and forth, and you will need to have patience by letting the fish tire before you try to land it.

Depending on where you are standing you will need to think about the landing spot before the fish is even hooked. If you are on a jetty, look for an escape route where you can easily get to a flat rock that is low to the water in order to land the fish. From the surf, figure out where you plan to beach the fish once it is ready. If fishing from a boat make sure that you have a partner or a large net handy to boat the fish. Most fights are lost at the end by making careless mistakes. Taking your time by looking for or waiting for the best opportunities to make the landing. This will without doubt pay off in the end.

Sure, its not going to be every day that we go out and catch trophy stripers on the fly. Take a shot next Spring after you get your fill of schoolies. You never know where that fish of a lifetime might be lurking.

Copyright © 1998-2006 Gene Quigley, All Rights Reserved

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