October 15, 2014
By Alan Caolo
The same sight-fishing excitement that has captivated bonefish and tarpon anglers for decades is now mesmerizing striper anglers from Long Island to Cape Cod. But despite growing interest in striper fishing and the techniques required to catch the fish, most fly fishers still don't know how to sight fish for stripers in the surf.
There are three types of sight-fishing techniques for stripers: wading inshore flats, wading or boat fishing offshore flats, and sight fishing along ocean beaches in the surf. The most challenging sport is in the surf, where the fish run large, presentations are complex, and fly selection is difficult. I began sight fishing the surf eight years ago and managed just three hookups for the entire season that first year. Since then, 60 percent of my fishing from June through September is spent stalking stripers in the surf. In 1997 I averaged three hookups a day. Here's how I do it.
You must understand striper surf moods if you want to sight fish for them. As the spring migration concludes, the fish leave the rivers and estuaries and take up residence along Northeast ocean shores. As water temperatures rise into the 60s (F.), the fish begin their summer feeding pattern, nocturnally feeding on squid and diurnally feeding on a variety of surf prey. Unlike the bold, aggressive school-fish we're accustomed to seeing during spring and fall migrations, summer stripers quietly prowl the surf, often alone, as they feed selectively on the ocean bottom.
Daytime surf feeders are large fish. Ten- to 25-pounders are the usual targets, with 25- to 40-pounders often in the mix. They are from 7 to 13 years old and have keen survival instincts. Expect them to be wary and challenging. Smaller fish enter the surf near dark, which accounts for the schoolies that are often taken by blind casters but are seldom seen by sight casters. The right sight-fishing strategies are the key to catching the large, challenging fish.
Except during slack tides (dead high and dead low), stripers work the surf all day. They maneuver it in a number of patterns that are influenced by tides, sandbar and hole formations (rip tides), the prey they're eating, and wave action. Your presentations must correspond to these patterns (see illustration A).
Cruisers. A straight track parallel to the beach is perhaps the simplest striper pattern to recognize. These fish are known as cruisers and they may be inches from the shore on a high tide with low surf, or well outside of the breaking waves, or breakers, during low tide. Slow-moving fish are the most likely eaters. Fast movers are relocating and are unlikely to take a fly. Feeders move slowly with the current, while relocators move quickly against the current.
Surfers. Other striper tracks are wavelike and more challenging in terms of your fly presentation, but they offer the highest potential for a take. Unlike cruisers that may travel alone, in pairs, or in strings, these fish are known as "surfers" and are always solitary. Gently rolling meanders along the beach through the intertidal zone—or more parallel tracks, spiked with sudden, shoreward rushes behind rolling waves—betray actively feeding bass. These fish are good targets, and you can stalk them for several minutes as you wait for the right shot.
Recognizing Beaches for Sight Fishing Stripers
Fabulous sight fishing is available throughout the striper's summer range. Good spots include: Gay Head on Martha's Vineyard, Boston's North Shore, Cape Cod's Monomoy Island, and Napatree Beach in Watch Hill, Rhode Island.
Good sight-fishing beaches have light-colored, fine-sand bottoms with a gradual beach profile. They provide an intertidal zone that nourishes the striper's prey and creates a wide, shallow, wadeable flat. A quality sight-fishing beach must be close to clear, clean water to support the forage and provide consistently clear water.
You can find resident striper prey by beachcombing. Look for remnant shells of mole and lady crabs along the high-tide line. Learn to spot sand eels and silversides in the shallows. They can reveal localized feeding zones along an otherwise uniform expanse of beach.
Weather and water conditions can spell the difference between success and failure. With blue sky, clear water, and a light surf, you can spot fish more than 200 feet away. You'll seldom get those ideal conditions, but your fish-spotting abilities will develop quickly with experience. Use amber-color polarized sunglasses for spotting stripers under good light conditions, and yellow lenses for foggy or overcast days.
A light and well-defined surf is best for spotting fish, and a high tide often brings them closer to shore. Don't expect to see surface clues like tailing or swirling fish. Look for faint to dark shadows, especially in the waves. Sometimes you can see a clear image of the fish and its shadow. The distance between the shadow and the fish indicates the fish's depth; the greater that distance, the deeper the fish. It tells you whether the fish are feeding on the bottom or higher in the water column.
Plan a Strategy
Once you locate a fish, plan a strategy that positions you in the best spot to intercept it with good presentations. Place the fly where it can be retrieved to draw a strike and not spook the striper. I cover more beach by walking the water's edge or wading parallel to it in knee-deep water, wading at a pace that allows me to scan the surf for advancing stripers, both close to and outside the waves.
When fish are cruising the water's edge, it's best to stay out of the water and well up the beach face. Walking high up the beach improves your elevation and your view so you can see fish cruising outside the waves. But when the fish are surfing the intertidal zone, a knee-deep wade is best.
The orientation of the beach relative to the sun's track through the sky determines the optimum direction for wading. For east-west beaches, a westerly wade is right for the morning because it positions the sun at your back, providing a westward viewing window. The reverse is true for the afternoon. At midday, you can wade in either direction. North-south beaches have inherent limitations, because the sun is positioned for optimum viewing either in the morning or in the afternoon. These beaches offer half-day fishing at best.
Unlike in the tropics, the quality and duration of daily viewing varies by season in northern latitudes. In June and July, high-quality viewing prevails from about 9 A.M. to 5 P.M. This time frame shortens considerably as fall approaches.
If I have a limited spotting range or the fish are noticeably concentrated in a given area (stripers frequent hot zones due to an abundance of food there), I prefer to wait for the fish to come to me. You must always be ready to cast to fish that enter your viewing window from any direction. Stripers surf the intertidal zone swiftly, so you must make quick, accurate casts when they come: You'll probably get only one shot per fish.
Presentations and Retrieves
As with all sight fishing, the head-on shot is best (see illustration B) when the fish are coming right at you. The fly should be placed no more than three feet to either side of the striper's track and far enough in front to allow it to sink to the bottom before you start a retrieve to draw it away from the fish.
Time the delivery of your cast so that approaching waves or receding wash won't drag the line and ruin the presentation. Be mobile and move with the fish down the beach; always stay ahead of the fish. Your casting distances will be limited by the surf conditions and how well you can see the fish. It will usually take within three strips of the fly, but some fish will follow the fly right to the rod tip before striking.
Unlike bonefish, stripers have eyes placed well atop their heads, which gives them exceptionally good overhead viewing. Any fish that follows the fly long enough will eventually see you. If it does, it may cease following; to blend with the background, you should wear drab-colored clothing, especially hats and shirts, and be prepared to crouch low to keep from being seen by close-in fish. And a reach cast is an ideal technique to keep the fish off a direct approach to you; I use it whenever I cast head-on to stripers at 30 feet or less.
There are four rules on retrieve that apply to all presentations:
- The fly must be on the bottom before the retrieve starts.
- The fly must move to increase the distance between it and the fish. Retrieving the fly across the fish's path won't move it toward the fish, but this violates the rule and spooks most stripers.
- Once a fish follows the fly, don't vary the cadence of the retrieve or the fish will quickly lose interest.
- The speed of the retrieve should suit the speed of the fish; bigger fish prefer a slow strip.
You can use surf currents, such as rip-tides and receding wash, to enhance your presentations (see illustration C above). For example, casting slightly upcurrent and letting the fly swing into the fish's track is most enticing.
Stripers don't always give you head-on shot opportunities. Fish cruising the beach well outside the wave-break (breakers) and fish swimming out of the sun's glare into your viewing window are two common occurrences that call for a second presentation strategy called the "perpendicular strip" technique (see illustration D left). Here's how it works.
Make the cast perpendicular to the fish's track and place the fly directly in the fish's path or slightly inside by no more than three feet. Present the fly so that it moves off the fish's track and draws the fish off its path for a follow. Casting beyond the fish's track for a retrieve that crosses its path won't work, because the distance between fish and fly is closing. It's unnatural for the fly (prey) to swim toward the striper. Your ability to make a curve cast is a strong asset in this situation: It ensures that the fly moves away from the fish when the fish first spots it.
I use the "drop-and-twitch" technique when stripers are reluctant to follow or when I want to imitate immobile prey such as worms. I drop the fly directly in the fish's path and allow it to settle on the bottom. As the fish comes into range, I give the fly a twitch to entice the fish to inhale it. The take is subtle, and a slowly tightening line is the only indication that the fly has been eaten.
Naturals and Imitations
Stripers come to the surf in daylight to feed on worms, mole crabs, and sand shrimp in June and July, and silversides and lady crabs in August and September. Fish behavior reveals what they're eating. Early-season bass working close to shore in the wash feed on mole crabs or worms; bass working farther out are probably interested in shrimp. Later in the season, the fish zigzagging through the intertidal zone are looking for silversides, while fish cruising slowly outside the breakers are hunting lady crabs.
Worms don't propel themselves well when unearthed in the surf. A slow wriggling is all they can do to dig their way back into the sand. Long, undulating rabbit-fur flies weighted to sink quickly and a drop-and-twitch presentation are all you need to take big, early-season fish.
Silversides and shrimp, on the other hand, move quite well in the surf, and flies like the Clouser Minnow are fine imitations. I prefer olive and gray bucktail with a hint of flash as a dark offering, and white bucktail with gold flash as a bright offering. You can experiment with different color combinations to find the most effective shade for the waters you fish. Use a strip retrieve with these patterns and expect some long, tense follows from skeptical fish.
Mole crabs live in shallow intertidal-zone burrows. When they are unearthed by the surf, they tumble about as they attempt to dig new burrows. They are fast diggers and are only susceptible while tumbling in the wash. The best presentation is to cast the mole-crab pattern into the wash ahead of an advancing striper, let the fly tumble with the current, and hope for a strike (see illustration C). It's a difficult technique and requires a solid understanding of striper and surf movements.
Virtually every 20- to 40-pound bass you encounter while sight fishing will be a crabber. Lady crabs become abundant in the surf late in the season as water temperatures approach the upper 60s. They grow to a large size, but stripers are most interested in crabs with a 1- to 2-inch diameter. Lady crabs are agile swimmers and quick burrowers, as evidenced by their rear leg paddles. The best imitations are swimming-crab patterns that you can retrieve. Slow-strip retrieves work best to imitate a crab that is immobilized and unable to dig a new burrow. Forget about permit flies like the Merkin in the surf; sculptured, stationary crab patterns like that will likely spook stripers.
Tackle for Surfing Stripers
An 8- or 9-weight rod and a good saltwater reel that holds 150 yards of 20-pound-test backing and has a smooth drag work fine. A 91/2- to 10-foot rod makes it easier to keep the fly line above cresting waves during your presentation and retrieve. The ability to do this cannot be overstated. Many saltwater anglers also prefer the longer rods to avoid snagging the dunes on their backcasts. Most casts will be less than 50 feet—too short to need a stripping basket—and you should only present the fly to sighted fish.
Full-sinking and clear intermediate (slow-sinking) lines are best because they sink below the surface water movement, allowing more precise presentations. This benefit outweighs the difficulties of picking these lines up for quick recasts. Sinking-tips and intermediate wet-tips are tempting choices, but they don't allow the controlled presentations that are possible with a fully submerged line.
Leaders with 8- to 12-pound-test tippets are strong enough to take large stripers, and they don't hamper the action of the fly. Stripers in sight-fishing situations intensely scrutinize the action of the fly, so I recommend a clear fly line and a 9-foot leader. With opaque fly lines, I use 12-foot leaders to avoid spooking fish with the line.
Finally, wading warm, sandy beaches all day does not require special footgear. This is minimalist sport at its finest. Put on a drab-colored bathing suit, polarized sunglasses, and a pair of old sneakers, and relax as you stalk fish from the beach and enjoy the challenge of sight fishing the surf.
Alan Caolo is author of Atlantic Baitfish & Other Food Sources. He is working on a book about sight fishing to striped bass. He lives in Westerly, Rhode Island.