Fall Fly Fishing for Striped Bass
Read at Fly Lords online magazine as well: Fly Lords Mag.
The signs are subtle at first; faint, and easily overlooked but once September settles in, there’s no mistaking that change is in the air. Energy starts shifting, the sun hangs lower in the sky, and the first signs of transition appear. In the summer, vacationers and striped bass both come to Maine for the same reasons; easy living on the bold coast, gorgeous estuaries, great seafood food, and ideal temperatures. The highlife must eventually come to an end and give way to an inevitable shift of the seasons.
The natural world gives us constant cues and come mid-August our resident bass are reacting to the shortening of each day. Stripers that have been content grazing the flats lazily for crabs and shrimp all summer, start chasing baitfish more frequently in the skinny water. Aggressive surface activity becomes more routine and the urgency to pack on weight increases before the annual migration south.
Monarch butterflies fill the air as their journey south to Mexico begins, creating a patchwork of colors across the northern skies. Calls of migratory birds echo along the horizon as flying V’s stretch across the landscape. Minke whales bolster their fat stores, consuming mouthfuls of bait. The Harbor Porpoise consumes 10% of its body weight each day in preparation for its search for warmer waters to the south. Gannets grace the air, converging on the inshore feed, dazzling our eyes with high-speed dives, reaching up to 60mph before they hit the waters surface.
The fall run is a like a freight train… it may be slow to get moving but once enough momentum is behind this New England phenomenon, amazing things can happen. Slowly but surely stripers that have fed all summer in smaller groups begin to school back up, peeling away from their summer habitat. One by one stripers leave their seasonal grounds to find old pals, and embark upon a familiar journey.
If you sling salty flies in New England, your stoke level is, indubitably, rising. As a fly rodder, my habits, expectations, and tempo completely shift. I am no longer stalking resident fish on the flats. Now my days are spent, almost exclusively, on the oceanfront, running my skiff up the coast, looking for migratory schools of bass and casting big flatwing flies to the rocks. It’s a welcome change of pace from peacefully poling my skiff in skinny water, scanning for crab eaters. The stakes feel higher on the coast, and I remind myself everyday that anything can happen out here.
It’s early October, and a call comes in from a good friend & client that wants to play hooky and chase down some stripers. A couple days later we meet at first light at my favorite fall boat ramp. Clouds hover in the distance, dancing tight to the horizon as the sun’s first rays hit the coast of Maine. When it comes to fishing, I usually keep my expectations low but in the fall, I find myself yearning for greatness. It’s that time of year, and anything can happen out here.
We motor north through the light breeze to our fishing grounds with eyes scanning the horizon; the school we’re looking for could be anywhere. The morning feels fishy, and life seems to be all around us. Gannets, terns and herring gulls are diving regularly with their curiosity fully piqued. We continue motoring through the chop and pause to watch shy harbor porpoises disappear into the dark blue-grey water off our port bow. Further in the distance a spray of water launches into the air, giving away the location of a small pod of Minke whales, feeding on mackerel and pogies.
After our first initial scan and a 6-mile run north without discovering our school of big migratory bass we shift our focus tight to the rocky, granite coast. The boys lay casts into the wash where ocean born waves meet their demise. After covering several hundred feet of coast we catch and release a few strong fighting bass and are stoked to be on the board. As our drift through productive water comes to an end, we decide to backtrack along our original northerly line up the coast. This time we position the boat right around a half-mile off shore and look for an attractive contour line to follow on the GPS. Patience is with us and morale is high, the perfect combination to conjure up some good fish juju.
A half-mile into our descent down the coast, two acres of water erupt 100 yards ahead. Swirls, splashes, fins, and tails reveal this reckless blitz… not the birds; not a single bird was diving on this pack of migrators and the bait they were subsequently chasing. We were at the right place, at the right time and we celebrated the good fortune by double hauling, straight into the chaos. The boys traded shots into the school of bass and everyone went tight with solid fish. We saw stripers over 40 inches in the mix and got follows right to the boat but we weren’t lucky enough to hook fish in that upper size class. It’s only when 40” bass are feeding within casting distance that 30”ers feel like a consolation prize. As quickly as the school appeared, they settled back down into the open, structureless water below. Our boat was left silent with only the repetitive sound of waves lightly lapping against the gunwales of my skiff. We thought for sure the school would pop back up, but they never showed again.
After our collective nerves settled, we went back to working rocky structure tight to the shoreline. It was 10a and the sun was beginning to warm the cool, North Atlantic air. I decided to move us in hopes of finding big bait that would attract the fish we were looking for. While we were slowly motoring at about 5 knots we kept our eyes glued to the sonar for any encouraging signs.
As the ocean floor lay 35 feet beneath us, my sonar began to bend the truth, reading that we were only in 10 feet of water. This could mean only one thing… a dense school of pogies below the boat, tight enough to walk across if they rose to the surface. Sure enough, a huge ball of bait began undulating and we could visually pick out individual baitfish beneath us. The school was on high alert, indicating that predators were close by. I assumed that we had rediscovered the big bass and it was only a matter of time before linesiders cut through the school. With such a big school of large bait it can seem futile to merely blind cast a 3/0 hook, sparsely tied with buck tail and chicken feathers, expecting to connect with 8 to15 year-old, seasoned stripers. But our plan wasn’t to blind cast and hope for the best, we were going to watch the school and wait for our shots. I quickly climbed up to my perch on the poling platform while explaining our plan to the guys. I gained my footing and peered down into the water just in time to witness true beauty unfolding beneath us; a kind of beauty that is hard to describe, one that’s felt in the heart and echoes in your soul.
With a thrust of its hard, efficient tail a 300+ pound Bluefin Tuna rocketed just feet beneath the skiff, parting the pogies and leaving behind a footprint as big as a Volkswagen. Bluefin are up to 75% muscle and can reach speeds over 40mph. We were in complete and utter awe of the power, especially since we were expecting bass. Twenty seconds later, only 65 feet off our stern, another tuna jumped 4 feet out of the water. Witnessing this combination of grace and strength is evidence that perfection exists. What an incredibly evolved creature.
After our encounter, we all needed some time to let the energy settle. We felt a part of the ecosystem around us, but it was also crystal clear that we were just visitors to this marine world. As we deciphered the morning’s events, we connected the quick disappearance of the school of stripers to the arrival of the tuna. These big tuna were ripping around in 30 feet of water and, no doubt, put the stripers on high alert, enough so, to completely disappear.
We continued working the water with success until the wind picked up after lunch. We retreated back to the boat launch, tired and wet, but inspired by the coastal convergence that we experienced throughout our session. Everyday on the water, tapping into the rhythm of the coast, is a privilege and these are the rewards.