Fly Fishing Striped Bass
February 25, 2014
Striped bass are arguably the most popular saltwater fly-rod species on both coasts, and they are rapidly becoming a premier freshwater fly-rod target as well. Dozens of superb striper lakes and rivers across this country produce outstanding sport for anglers seeking large, strong fish that eat flies with gusto.
Striped bass are hardy, resilient fish that adapt to almost any environment meeting their basic needs. They quickly ascend to the apex of the food chain in any lake where they have been introduced, reaching weights exceeding 70 pounds provided enough forage is available and severe summer die-offs from exceedingly high water temperature don't occur. Unfortunately, summer kills of large bass occur on many lakes in the south and western desert regions.
Gear and bait anglers have caught fish surpassing 65 pounds. Fly anglers have landed specimens above 50 pounds such as Al Whitehurst's world-record 541/2-pounder caught in California's O'Neill Forebay, the equalizing basin lake for San Luis Reservoir, one of this country's top trophy striper waters. Sweetwater fly-caught stripers in the 20- to 30-pound class are fairly common throughout their range.Flies that imitate the bait such as Deceivers, Whistlers, and Sar-Mul-Macs fished deep catch the largest fish. Photo: Dan Blanton
Striped bass are broadcast spawners and require fresh, moving water with flows adequate enough to float their eggs above the substrate for 76 hours. Stripers cannot successfully spawn in lakes and reservoirs without rivers meeting this criterion. Accordingly, many impoundment striper fisheries must be maintained by stocking programs, of which there are many, especially in the south.
Striped bass feed fathoms deep in open water and in shallows, noses tight against the edges. They love rocky places and structure and herd baitfish over submerged humps and islands, over drowned trees, and in or near deadfalls. All good freshwater striper fisheries have an abundance of forage, and the best fisheries have two or more baitfish species, usually threadfin and gizzard shad. Without sufficient food, the numbers and size of introduced striped bass decreases.
Many lakes, especially those in Tennessee, have both stripers and hybrids. Hybrids, also called sunshine bass, are a cross between striped bass and white bass. Hybrids are even more aggressive and easier to catch than stripers. They are smaller than stripers and adults average from 5 to 15 pounds. They are usually sexually sterile and sustained by stocking programs.
Stripers seek out flats, shallow water ranging from 1 to 15 feet. Flats support a variety of structure that bass love including rocky banks, weedbeds, and trees and brush. Bottoms can range from rocky to sand to mud. From extensive flats to small, shallow spots along the shoreline, any change from deep to shallow water attracts stripers.
While you can wade-fish shallow flats with hard bottoms, the most effective approach is to drift them using the wind or an electric motor for propulsion. Except for when fish are busting bait on the surface, fast-sinking lines are better than slow-sinking ones. Lead-core or tungsten shooting heads with a smaller diameter running line help sink your fly to the deeper areas of the flats.
The most important aspect of fishing for stripers is to get the fly down fast and keep it at the feeding level of the fish. Count the number of seconds that pass before you begin your retrieve and systematically increase the time to determine the level at which the fish are feeding. I use the fastest sinking line the most effective retrieve permits. Since stripers usually respond to a rapid retrieve (except during winter), fast-sinking lines and heads can be used in fairly shallow water. When stripers feed near the surface, floating and intermediate heads or weight-forward lines are more effective.Most lakes have good numbers of small fish that take floating flies. Photo: John Sherman
Stripers are notorious for abandoning caution when the surface is lightly roiled and foamy, and some of the fastest fishing on a flat occurs in a slight to moderate breeze. The turbid water of wind-generated mud lines along the banks (both shallow and deep) cloaks the attack of marauding schools of stripers and hybrids. Fishing these mud lines is especially productive in coves.
While some wind can be a boon at times, you must modify your casting and fishing techniques. If the breeze is too stiff, your boat, float tube, or kickboat may drift too fast, ruining your presentation. A drag chain slows down a skiff or kick boat and, unlike a sea anchor, is less apt to tangle in your fly line. Using an electric motor to hold or slow the drift works too.
Cast as close as you can to structure on flats or along the shore, allowing the fly to sink as deep as needed. A single old piling or stump can hold bait and hungry stripers. Flies with snag guards and hook points that ride up are a necessity around fly-grabbing structure.
Striped bass can be consistently caught with flies to depths of 30 feet or more using a fast-sinking line. My favorite system for deep presentations is a 27- to 30-foot lead-core (Cortland LC-13) or Rio T-14 tungsten shooting head. I loop this head to a .020"- to .030"-diameter monofilament shooting line such as 25- to 30-pound Amnesia, Rio's clear intermediate shooting line in .030" diameter, SA's intermediate shooting line in .030", or Airflo's intermediate in .034". I join the head to the running line with 50-pound braided loops. If you don't like the conventional shooting head with running line setup, integrated shooting-head lines in the heaviest densities also work well.
The key to catching fish in deep water is getting down quickly and being able to throw a long cast—casts ranging from 80 to more than 100 feet. Use the countdown method to locate the strike zone. If you can find suspended bass, you can catch them consistently if you fish the right fly at their level.
Before you can catch bass in deep water you must find them. I begin by looking at the rocks lining the face of dams, rocky outcroppings, points, and islands. I look for bass suspended above structure such as rocky mounds or submerged treetops or below schools of primary baitfish such as shad. Sometimes I just use searching casts, counting the line down until I catch one. But most often I use a fish finder to locate bass, bait, and structure. Once I locate a school of fish in open water, I often drop a brightly colored marker float from the boat and fish in that area until the bass leave or the bite stops.
Always keep a vigilant eye peeled for working birds and fish busting bait on the surface. Be careful not to run over the fish with your boat. Keep a long cast away from them and work the edges of the school so you don't spook them and put them off the bite. Author Dan Blanton holds a striper caught in San Luis Reservoir. Photo: John Sherman
Rivers and Creeks
Many striper lakes have large rivers running into them. Stripers leave the main lake and spawn or feed in these rivers depending upon time of year and baitfish movements. While bass will feed midriver in heavy current, they prefer bars, drop-offs, flats, and shoreline structure, including rocky banks and trees and deadfall. Work your flies along the drop-offs, near current seams, and tight to all structure. Although there are exceptions, most fish station downcurrent of rocks, points, and deadfall.
Blind-casting with a floating or sinking line while you drift along a shoreline is a good searching technique. Use an electric motor to steer the boat and a drag chain to control the speed of the boat's drift. Many anglers troll river regions to first locate fish before casting to them. I prefer to look for holding and feeding areas and cast to them.
Many lakes have feeder creeks and rivers. Exploring those that have been inundated by lake waters can prove productive. Often stripers and hybrids use the deeper waters of old creek and river channels to rest after feeding higher up on a flat or to escape warm water. Though resting, they'll often eat a fly fished in front of them. Bass like underwater humps located close to old river and creek channels. The most useful line for fishing Flashtail Whistlers (above) and other baitfish patterns is a fast-sinking shooting head or integrated-head line. Photo: Dan Blanton
The most practical rods for striper fishing are 7- to 10-weights with enough backbone to handle 27- to 30-foot shooting heads ranging from type 4 sinking to lead-core and tungsten heads. I attach the head with loops to a monofilament-type running line such as Rio's clear, intermediate shooting line (.031" diameter). If you don't have or don't like using shooting heads, integrated-head lines such as Rio's DC-26 Cold Water Striper line in 350, 450, or 550 grains and similar lines by Scientific Anglers, Airflo, Cortland, and Teeny work well. For surface flies, weight-forward floating lines to match your rod or floating shooting heads up-lined at least two sizes (for your 8-weight rod, use a 10-weight floating head).
Leaders on sinking lines shouldn't exceed 8 feet, (9 feet for floating lines). Tippets from 12- to 20-pound-test are adequate. Attach 50-pound braided loops to the ends of all lines to attach leaders, shooting line, and backing easily.Match the size, silhouette, and general coloration of the dominant baitfish where you are fishing. Sar-Mul-Macs (left) ranging from #2 to #3/0 in various color combinations cover many of your needs for fresh- and saltwater stripers. Photo: Dan Blanton
Useful fly patterns include Blanton's Flashtail Whistler, Sar-Mul-Mac, and Lead Ass Sar-Mul-Mac; Flashtail Clousers, Half & Half's; Rabbit Strip Dahlbergs, Lefty's Deceivers; Popovics' Hollow Fleye, Bucktail Deceiver, and Banger; Whitlock's Sheep Shad; Glazener's Spinster; Jack Gartside's Foam Gurgler; Blados' Crease fly; Dahlberg Divers; Rainy's Poppers and others of similar design. These should range in size from #2 to #3/0 and from two to seven inches in length. Good color combinations are white/chartreuse, white/brown, white/pink/purple, white/gray, white/black, white/red, all black, and yellow. Always consider local patterns.
Retrieve and Presentation
Whether working deep or shallow, a fast, erratic retrieve—a mixture of full-arm to half-arm or shorter extensions with occasional pauses to drop the fly—suggests an injured baitfish and usually work best. In winter, when the water is cold and the fish are lethargic, longer drops and pauses—even suspending the fly—seem to work best. Start with a few hard, fast pulls to push water and to catch the fish's eye. I call this popping the fly. Avoid twitchy, Woolly Bugger retrieves unless you are fishing slow and using a suspending fly.
It pays not only to fish tight to a bank, dropping the fly close to shore, but also to place your craft close to shore and cast to deep water, working the fly uphill. This allows you to probe the deeper near-shore water if fish are suspending from 10 to 20 feet deep off a bank or point. It also pays to cast parallel to a bank and across the deeper ends of points to cover more holding water.
Through the Seasons
Spring, early summer, and autumn are often great times for working surface flies such as poppers and Gurglers. Both wading and boating anglers can score in spring when the fish are in the upper ten feet of the water column. Baitfish often spawn in spring, and species such as gizzard shad form in tight balls that attract stripers.
A Gurgler is one of the best surface patterns ever developed for stripers, fresh or salt. Work a Gurgler much like a streamer: erratic retrieves mixed with long and short—some slow, some fast—pulls. Make the fly dart and spit water. If a fish swirls on the fly, keep it moving with faster, shorter twitches and pulls, but don't move it ahead too fast too far. Taunt the fish! A Line Tamer (above) or stripping basket helps keep your line tangle-free for quick casts to stripers cruising on the flats or busting bait in deep water. Photo: John Sherman
Large stripers move for a surface fly, but most fish you catch on top range from two to six pounds. Schoolies can be more selective to fly size than pattern or color. Experiment with your retrieve.
During high summer, fish usually retreat to cooler water deep in lakes or rivers. In rivers look for places that provide cover for the fish and are also good ambush spots such as deadfalls, riprap, natural rocky points, submerged bridges, natural drop-offs, and underwater boulders.
During the summer doldrums, bass feed most actively at night or dawn when the water is coolest. Most lakes have one or more marinas with lighted boat docks and slips that attract baitfish such as threadfin and gizzard shad. Though lighted docks are a year-round hot spot, be sure to check them at night during the summer.
During winter some lakes and rivers provide the best fly fishing near warm-water outflows of power plants that attract hordes of baitfish. Sometimes freezing temperatures kill baitfish and stunned, dying, and dead shad are sucked into turbines and are discharged into the river below a dam. This chum line attracts stripers from miles below.
Interest in fly fishing for freshwater stripers and hybrids is rapidly growing, and rightfully so. There simply aren't many gamefish of this class more readily available to fly anglers, nationwide, than these wonderful linesides. If you haven't already, give them a try—you won't be sorry.
The fastest and most effective way to find fish and shorten your learning curve is to hire a local guide. A good guide is worth every dime, and I highly recommend hiring one if you have never fly fished for stripers or hybrids before.
For a listing of fly-fishing striper guides near you, visit www.flyfisherman.com/toc/.
Tournament Striper Lakes
The following list consists mostly of freshwater striper tournament lakes from the National Striped Bass Association's website, www.fishnsba.com/. You'll probably want to stay away during tournament time, but this list is a good place to start for striper lakes near you.
1. Lake Wallenpaupack, Pennsylvania
2. Raystown Lake, Pennsylvania
3. Lake Norman, North Carolina
4. Yadkin River System Lakes, North Carolina
5. Lake Gaston, North Carolina
6. Lake Murray, South Carolina
7. Hartwell Lake, South Carolina
8. Santee Lakes, South Carolina
9. Lake Lanier, Georgia
10. Thurmond Lake, Georgia
11. Bartlett's Ferry Lake, Georgia
12. Allatoona Lake, Georgia
13. West Point Lake, Alabama/Georgia
14. Martin Lake, Alabama
15. Weiss Lake, Alabama
16. Percy Priest Reservoir, Tennessee
17. Tim's Ford Lake, Tennessee
18. Cherokee Lake, Tennessee
19. Lake Cumberland, Kentucky
20. Kerr Reservoir, Virginia
21. Smith Mountain Lake, Virginia
22. Toledo Bend, Louisiana
23. Lake Ouachita, Arkansas
24. Beaver Lake, Arkansas
25. Skiatook Lake, Oklahoma
26. Lake Texoma, Oklahoma
27. Lake Tawakoni, Texas
28. Lake Whitney, Texas
29. Buchanan Lake, Texas
30. Lake Bridgeport, Texas
31. Wilson Lake, Kansas
32. Milford Lake, Kansas
33. San Luis Reservoir, California
34. O'Neill Forebay, California
35. Lake Mendocino, California
36. Lake Castaic, California
37. Millerton Lake, California
38. Lake Havasu, California
39. Lake Powell, Arizona
40. Elephant Butte, New Mexico
Dan Blanton (www.danblanton.com) is the author of Fly Fishing California's Great Waters (Amato Books, 2004). He lives in Morgan Hill, California.