Fly Tying: Assassin Shrimp
July 24, 2015
Striped bass subsist on a wide array of forage. By weight, they consume baitfish more than any other food source, and fly fishers take the majority of their fish on various types of baitfish imitations. But stripers can be acutely selective, and they routinely defy anglers who exclusively fish baitfish flies. This is particularly true on the flats, where stripers turn their focus to crabs, juvenile flounder, and shrimp, perhaps 60 to 70 percent of the time. Based on numbers of prey consumed, shrimp are most important for inshore-feeding bass, especially during the warmer months of the season—anglers equipped with a good shrimp pattern are prepared for these picky fish.
Shrimp are arguably the single most important forage species for all inshore gamefish. Species such as tarpon, bonefish, striped bass, permit, redfish, seatrout, and squeteague are all prized by saltwater anglers, and they all feed on shrimp.
Not surprisingly, there have been several well-designed shrimp patterns developed by notable tiers and guides, including Chico Fernandez, Jack Gartside, Bob Popovics, Capt. Nat Ragland, and others.
Most shrimp flies, however, are designed to be fished near the surface, riding with the hook point down. Notable exceptions are the Clouser Minnow (when tied in shrimplike colors), Peterson's Spawning Shrimp, and the Gotcha—all weighted patterns designed to ride deeper, and with the hook point up.
The Assassin Shrimp is an addition to the genre of weighted shrimp flies. It's quick to assemble at the vise—with five simple steps, it's a lightly weighted, versatile shrimp fly that has proven highly effective for striped bass in the spring and summer, particularly in shallow inshore waters, such as estuaries, bays, and salt ponds. But this pattern has great potential with other popular gamefish, notably northern weakfish (squeteague) and spotted seatrout throughout the Southeast and in the Gulf of Mexico.
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The Assassin Shrimp calls for simple tying techniques and common materials. Unlike some more complex designs, even beginners and intermediate tiers can construct this pattern with ease. The use of soft hackle for the tail (which is actually the head of the backward-swimming shrimp) gives the fly a lifelike pulse when retrieved. This facet of the Assassin Shrimp differentiates it from "stiff" shrimp flies constructed of synthetic materials and hardened epoxy. Further, the bead-chain weight, rather than lead or other dense material, yields a fly that settles slowly with hook point up, so you can to fish this pattern on a sand bottom in shallow water less than 3 feet deep, or fish it in slightly deeper waters from 3 to 6 feet deep—lush eelgrass beds, often laden with juicy shrimp, are ideal for this presentation.
Sand shrimp (Cragnon vulgaris) and grass shrimp (Palaemonetes vulgaris) are abundant throughout Northeast sand flats and grass beds during the warm months of late spring and throughout the summer. For most of the season, shrimp are homogeneously scattered throughout these fertile inshore waters, however, studies indicate an inclination for spawning during the weeks surrounding the summer solstice (June 21). During these spawning events, adult shrimp concentrate over select areas of sand flats and within the grass beds themselves, and that's when selective bass often key on them. But stripers may feed on shrimp at any time from May through September.
When tailing fish are encountered over shallow sand flats (a common occurrence early and late in the day) it's wise to present a bottom-working shrimp fly a few feet ahead of these fish, nudging it gently with intermittent pauses. Tailing fish often don't spot a fly resting on the bottom till they "come off tail" and resume looking ahead in a horizontal posture. When their tails disappear, be ready for a sharp tap, which indicates a strike.
The Assassin Shrimp's light bead-chain weighting makes it ideal for stalking tailing fish in skinny water—it lands softly, stays on the bottom, and rides hook point up.
When blind-casting this fly within grass beds and along their edges, I prefer to fan-cast the area, retrieving the fly with or across the tidal flow—never swinging the fly, or stripping into the current. I like a snappy "wrist-turn" retrieve, interspersed with two- or three-second pauses. The strike usually comes during the pause and it's often just a tap, as when feeding the fly to a tailing fish on sand.
Alan Caolo (alancaolo.com) is the author of Fly Fisherman's Guide to Atlantic Baitfish & Other Food Sources and Sight-Fishing for Striped Bass.