The Anatomy of Maine’s Coast
By: Kyle Schaefer
Published: On The Water Magazine June 2018
As the days grow longer, stripers and vacationers, migrate to Maine for the same reasons: perfect weather, fantastic seafood, and the stunning, bold coastline. Including the iconic islands, Maine boasts over 5,000 miles of beaches, inlets, coves, estuaries, flats and endless granite structure. There is more terrain to explore than can be covered in a lifetime. By the middle of May striped bass begin to pour into our waters and the coasts awakens after another season of winter storms. As these resilient fish arrive they fill niches throughout our waters where quality terrain and protein intersect. Striped bass slide along shallow mud flats like redfish, work deep into backwater estuaries, cruise the rocky coastline, and frustrate anglers on clear ocean front sand flats. Striped bass work together and veraciously blitz bait until the opportunity to feed subsides. One of the most attractive qualities about Striped Bass is that you can fish for them exactly how YOU want. You can chase them on foot, or by boat. You can cast into the depths of the oceanfront, or the shallows of the flats. You can throw a fly, bait or artificials. You can sight cast to them or blindly work inviting structure. Whether you’re on the river, oceanfront, estuary, flat or beach you’ll find New England’s favorite game fish.
Early season in the gulf of Maine can be fiery. As dawn breaks, screeching terns track schools of stripers that are pinning bait to the surface. The crash of busting fish cuts through the heavy morning air and the water’s frothing surface gives the final clue that the blitz is on. Stripers often work together early in the season. They tactfully push bait to the surface and take turns cutting through the school of helpless prey. After migrating all spring, it’s only natural that these fish continue to stay schooled up and work together a little longer. As the summer wears on these fish will break off into smaller groups, spend time on solo missions but also come back together to hunt. Seemingly, there is no rhyme or reason why stripers choose to school up or hunt alone. I imagine there are many factors at play including social tendencies, the availability of prey, and the efficiencies achieved by working together.
The blitz is a perfect element for new anglers to get tight with our summer visitors. Stripers get a little complacent when the blitz is on; their guard is down, which creates an opportunity for the well-timed angler. With stripers distracted by the opportunity to eat big, now is the time to slip a subsurface fly or popper through the hungry school. Keep in mind that striped bass will key in on certain prey, especially when it’s available in good numbers. Matching the hatch is key. Try to identify what the fish are eating and tie on your closest size, profile, and color match. Watching the birds can quickly giveaway the type of bait the stripers are eating. Just watch the terns as they dive and pick off prey. The size of the birds hovering over the blitz will also give clues to the size of the bait. Terns won’t be able to lift an adult squid or menhaden from the water but a gannet or gull might make quick work of these targets. Enjoy the blitz; these moments can be fleeting or last for hours, only time on the water and first hand observations will reveal the true secrets.
The Rocky Coast
The rugged shoreline of Maine holds mysteries that can be unlocked by a well-placed fly. The land of big swell, fast tides, and weather beaten granite is the perfect home for big stripers. The coastal terrain crawls with big meals for striped bass; green crabs, lobster, juvenile pollock, mackerel, and menhaden to name just a few.
Stripers gravitate to the rocks as if there is a magnetic pull drawing them in. The varied terrain creates opportunities for stripers to ambush prey and truly flourish. Rock reefs create fertile foraging grounds for bass to explore. As the tide brings strong current over these structures stripers face into the flow waiting for food to get funneled into their hold. Swinging flies over a rocky reef can provoke aggressive takes as stripers ambush the fly from below. Shallow sloping cobble leading up to the edge of the sea is terrain that stripers often cruise. One of my favorite holding spots for striped bass is in the wash out of breaking waves. When the swell is up, waves gather energy over hundreds of miles and meet their demise against Maine’s granite walls. As these waves crash and run up onto the shore look for places where the saltwater funnels back into the ocean creating a current. It’s at the head and tail of these currents that stripers will sit. The crashing waves can stun prey and wash them up onto the rocks and ultimately pull the vulnerable bait right back into the hungry month of willing stripers. Try casting you fly into the wave as it rolls up the rocks. Your fly will wash back down into the stripers lane and the rest is history. I often dead drift my fly when fishing this style. Be sure to keep tension on your line and have your strip set ready to rock. Deep ledges, points, and coves all can hold fish at different tides. Work through attractive water and you’ll soon get a sixth sense for where stripers like to hold.
Fishing the coast can be overwhelming, especially when you stare at the chart and see miles and miles of seemingly gorgeous water. Break the coast down into small pieces just like you would a trout stream. Look for current created by tides and breaking waves. Watch how that current interacts with the terrain. Study the coast at different tides. Over time, good holding water will become obvious but in the meantime it’s all about R&D. Get your fly into fishy spots, vary your retrieve and fish a variety of water. Log each of these experiences into your fishing intuition and remember to always trust your gut. Making mistakes and trying new things is vital to growth in this sport.
The Gulf of Maine is home to mud and sand flats that attract small shrimp, green crabs, juvenile flounder, worms, clams and plenty of bait. These shallows may spend a portion of the tide completely dry but as the water rushes in, the flats are rejuvenated with fresh, cold saltwater. With the push of the incoming tide comes a specialized group of stripers that cruise around in these skinny waters like bonefish in the Bahamas. Stripers aren’t built exclusively for the flat but this is another environment where they excel. Their mouths face forward, not down, like redfish or bonefish. Stripers roll on their side to slurp in a shrimp or tail when they’ve pinned a crab to the mud. Bass are spooky on the flats, especially in water less than 12 inches. Stealthiness is key. A dropped reel on the boat deck or a firmly closed cooler lid will send your target running. Stripers pick up the faintest vibrations on the flat. When a striper detects danger she will transform from a happy fish into a puff of mud in the blink of an eye.
The sight fishing the flats can be the most challenging environment to catch bass in but also the most rewarding. Everything has to be perfect. Every flats striper that I have caught or guided clients to has been well earned. Patterning these flats fish is the first step. Understanding how they move on the flat will give you a window into their world. Once you learn how they move you’ll quickly realize the best way to approach them with a fly. Presentation, flies selection, equipment, and casting ability all play a factor in your successful day on the flat. If you can learn to deceive striped bass on the flat you’ll be just as ready for tarpon, permit, redfish and bonefish.
The Tidal Estuaries
Labyrinths of nutrient rich rivers and streams connect fresh water to salt as it runs off the land through coastal drainages. Channels and oxbows have weaved their way into the landscape as the tide ebbs and flow season after season. Freshwater continually pumps through the system. As a byproduct, gorgeous striped bass habitat is born. Estuaries are essential to a healthy coast. Water is filtered through the peat, sediment and mollusks. These extensive marshes provide nursery habitat for many types of bait, and various small fish.
Estuaries serve many purposes for striped bass. They offer shelter, protection, fertile hunting grounds and a place to seek out warmer water. Fishing the estuaries can be a surreal experience and a great place to sight fish. Stripers will cruise throughout the system as they hunt and ride the tides. Some bass will hold in deeper pools and face into the current, feeding like trout on a freestone stream. Some will forage the flats inside the estuary, picking off shrimp and crabs as they slide along. The estuary provides an endless seasonal buffet with a constantly changing menu.
These vast marshlands are major spawning grounds for an array of different bait. When spawns occur around the full and new moon stripers will follow the bait into backwaters and capitalize on the ritual. For example, after a sand eel spawn, the bait is particularly exhausted, becoming even more vulnerable to feeding stripers.
Estuaries are incredibly important to protect. They are also a great indicator for the health of the greater ecosystem. Strong estuaries should have eelgrass and plenty of oysters and clams. Oysters are capable of filtering around 40 gallons of water a day, which renews the water for all inhabitants.
Striped bass have long held my attention. When I was a boy, growing up on a tributary to the Chesapeake Bay, I would bait up a bottom rig with grass shrimp and catch stripers and just about anything else that would swim in the brackish water. Over time, my angling pursuits and preferences for chasing striped bass have greatly evolved. I’ve gone through phases where I’ve exclusively fished from the rocks. I’ve spent many days paddling and tossing flies in clear coastal estuaries. Each season I pick new pieces of water to learn and each new venue teaches me something valuable about my quarry. I’ve grown particularly obsessed with sight fishing for stripers on the flats and in any other element where I can pick out my target and deliver the fly. I’m equally as passionate about guiding clients to sight fished stripers from the poling platform of my skiff.
Striper fishing is a journey that is limited only by your imagination. Go out and find fish where you want them. Fish for them how you imagine. When I have free time after a charter, I’ll look for stripers in waters that I dream they’ll occupy. I live for finding tailing stripers and logging new observations. Witnessing truly unique behaviors from these fish is what gets me fired up everyday. Continue your own evolution as a striped bass angler, protect these fish, the places they live and enjoy every minute of it.