Johann Julius Walbaum, 1792
“The bass, of course, have no idea of the delight they carry on their shoulders for nearly four million striper fisherman on the east coast.”
– David DiBenedetto, “On the Water”
In the last few decades, the striped bass has rapidly stolen the hearts of saltwater fly anglers along the eastern coast of North America. Members of the Percichthyidae or temperate bass family, “stripers” are quite simply awesome on a fly fishing rod. These energetic anadromous fish are native to the inshore regions of the western Atlantic, but enjoy a wide range (51°N – 24°n, 94°w – 80°w) thanks to a host of introduction and aquaculture programs throughout the world.
The four major populations of striped bass along the eastern seaboard of North America are: the Chesapeake Bay striper, the Massachusetts Bay or Cape Cod striper, the Hudson River striper, and the Delaware River striper. Saltwater fly anglers on the Pacific coast – especially in the San Francisco Bay area – have also enjoyed playing the striper game as the fish migrate from the Sacramento River Delta to the Pacific Ocean. Regionally, the striped bass may be called the striped sea bass, rockfish, or “rock.”
In 1792, the German doctor, taxonomist, and naturalist, Johann Julius Walbaum, discovered and named the striped bass Morone saxatilis, from the Latin “rock dweller” – quite an apt title as striped bass love any kind of structure they can find. Stripers search for baitfish in rocky areas and cut banks that provide shelter as well as in rocky depressions along the bottom of inshore deltas, saltwater flats, and tidal lagoons.
Striped bass enjoy warmer, more temperate waters and will follow periodic heat fluctuations throughout the year. In the early spring, along the eastern coast of North America, stripers sense the shifting temperature gradient in the north. They will migrate in schools both great and small from the Outer Banks of North Carolina all the way to the rocky shoreline of Maine. The leaders of the migration are the smaller fish, colloquially known on the eastern Atlantic coast as “schoolies.” These smaller fish are trailed by their larger counterparts. Migrating striped bass feed primarily on baitfish, and hold a strong gastronomic penchant for alewives, and menhaden. Stripers will also dine on sand eels, squid, clams, and crabs.
Saltwater fly anglers, almost as instinctively as the bass themselves, follow the migration, emerging from their cold winter’s fishing slumber to clean up their outfits and cast flies again. Once the northern waters begin to cool later in the summer, the migration reverses its direction and the striped bass travel south again like the snowbirds of the northeast, looking for an escape from the brutal Nor’easters of January and February. Intersecting the migration as it moves along the coast is the name of the game in fly fishing for stripers and, lucky for the saltwater fly angler, there are many opportunities to play throughout the year.
The striped bass is a beautiful and silvery-sleek fish. It can grow to impressive sizes of 80 pounds or more with a maximum recorded length of just over 6 feet! The striped bass fly anglers will most commonly see, however, are in the 5 pound to 20 pound weight range. There are generally 7 or 8 dark stripes running horizontally from the striped bass’ gills to the caudal fin or tail and the fish can take on a striking light blue-green tint along its back.
Because of the wide range of environments in which stripers can be caught, there are several strategies saltwater fly anglers will put to use when casting to the striped bass. Commonly anglers will wade the inshore areas of tidal rivers and saltwater flats with hard bottoms in search of striped bass. Boats are employed when encountering flats with softer bottoms or when more expansive areas of deeper ocean, deltas, and larger bays need to be covered. Some anglers even enjoy surfcasting for stripers from the shore, and if flies are presented properly, this method can be an extremely productive way to hook a striped bass. For those daringly innovative anglers who want to live on the true cutting edge, spey rods and casting techniques are gaining popularity when surf casting for stripers!
Regardless of the fishing environment, saltwater fly anglers may enjoy the rare chance at placing a sight cast to schooling stripers, but most commonly, anglers blindly ply the most likely looking waters with a search and retrieve technique not unfamiliar to freshwater trout anglers. When the rare opportunity at sight casting for striped bass arises, knowing how to pick up the fish is key. When in shallower saltwater flats, stripers will often push wakes as they search for smaller baitfish. Learning to see this wake can be invaluable for anglers who primarily wade inshore areas.
When putting the more common blind casting or search and retrieve strategy to use for stripers, understanding how the fish feed is the most important piece of the puzzle. Striped bass, like trout, prefer to let their food come to them. Subsequently, stripers will often hold in sheltered areas and turn their noses (and hungry mouths) into the direction of the tide. Here they will wait for the tidal conveyor belt to bring smaller fish into their holding area. It is thus important to understand the nature of local tidal currents when fly fishing for striped bass. Because of this similarity in feeding habits of stripers and trout, common wet fly and dead drifting techniques work swimmingly when fishing for striped bass in saltwater and brackish environments controlled by tidal currents.
The trick to the search and retrieve strategy for stripers is creativity. It’s important to try as many combinations of casting distances, retrieving styles, and fly depths as possible. Covering water can be a challenge, but it’s really the heart of an effective blind casting attack. As with any saltwater fly fishing, conditions are often windy and long, powerful, and accurate casts are often necessary. Be sure to tune up your casting before heading to the salt or brackish water for stripers.
Despite the importance of long casts, any salty veteran striped bass angler anywhere on the eastern seaboard will tell you that you should “never overlook the water at your feet.” So when your 70 foot casts aren’t turning up a thing, pay some close attention to the rocky coastline near your feet and at your flanks … this could be prime feeding territory for that trophy rockfish!
A common and effective stripping method once a search cast is made is the “over hand” retrieve. This method is similar to hand lining and offers the angler a great connection to the fly line; even the most subtle tug from a striped bass can be felt with this method. To use the over hand retrieve, simply tuck the rod under the casting arm, and keeping the rod tip low, slowly retrieve the fly, gripping the line with alternating hands just below the stripping guide. Experiment with different speeds and cadences when performing any retrieve. Once you’ve found a technique the fish are keyed on, stick with it! In striper fishing, it’s always worth retrieving the fly all the way back to the rod tip as a striper will often chase the fly all the way to the rod tip.
Saltwater fly anglers generally use lighter 6 weight or 7 weight fly fishing rods for smaller stripers – the schoolies, and larger 9 weight or 10 weight fly fishing rods when chasing the bigger fish. Striped bass are tough and energetic fish, but do not generally make long, freight train runs. Nevertheless, it is important to have a reel in your outfit with a solid and dependable drag system, a large arbor for fast and efficient line pick up, and space for at least 150 yards of backing.
Stripers will take a saltwater popper fly at the surface, but saltwater streamer patterns fished on sinking lines often prove far more effective, especially on brighter days, as stripers will dive to deeper water to escape heavy sunlight. Overcast skies offer the greatest conditions for striper fishing because the fish are more active and their feeding habits and strategies become more daring. Because of the variability in striper fishing, a fly angler interested in catching striped bass should ideally carry three lines: a fast sinking line, an intermediate sinking line, and a saltwater floating line.
A stacked arsenal of striper flies has been developed over the last few decades. Streamers are the most effective and proven patterns, but the occasional saltwater popper will move stripers to the surface. Chartruse and white seem to be the most productive colors for striper flies. Flashy materials also provide a little kick to striper flies. According to fly fishing legend, Lefty Kreh, striped bass key in not on the color of a fly, but rather are attracted to the size of a fly. Listen to Lefty: Pay attention to the baitfish you’re trying to imitate and select a fly of a similar size.
Popular fly patterns for striped bass are Bob Popovic’s Big One, Jack Gartside’s White Gurgler. Sand eel patterns by Chuck Frumisky, Enrico Puglisi, and Page Rogers are deadly back east and in the Sacramento River Delta, and Lou Tabory’s Sea Rat is a classic and should be in your striper box. Not long ago, Leland Fly Fishing Outfitters’ very own Keith Westra developed a killer striper fly for Josh’s last trip back east. It was so successful in the Atlantic salt, we thought we’d give it a couple of casts and strips on the Left Coast. The result: Keith’s Yak Hair Bunker Fly gets big results in the San Francisco Bay area as well! It’s a bomber pattern to fish!
According to Barry and Cathy Beck in their must-read book Fly-Fishing the Flats, “The east-coast stripers have brought more fly rodders to the salt than any other fish in the history of fly fishing.” This is probably true. Striped bass are accessible by anglers on both coasts of North America, are a joy to chase, and even more fun to catch! There are certain anglers who dream only of the first sign of the northern migration. When spring hits and the schoolies are on the move with the monster stripers a few paces behind, it’s all systems go! David DiBenedetto was right … if only the striped bass knew the importance of what each year rests on their shoulders …