With a forecast for for northeast winds at 15 knots with gusts to 25, plus 3/4 of an inch of rain, rescheduling my friday fly-only trip was an easy call. What to do with myself Thursday evening wasn't, until it was. It was finally cool enough to consider mowing what used to be our lawn and is now our hayfield. Gary the dog could really use some dedicated training time or even just an hour at the dog park. My fly tying desk qualifies for disaster-zone funding. The list goes on, but the striper fishing has been pretty fabulous and looking out at the river I could see the wind was dying and the tide was getting ready to turn. An honest assessment of priorities and needs had me changing into bug gear, digging another marrow bone out of the freezer for the pup, and heading for the ramp. I needed to fish. And I needed to fish a fly.
This wasn't a scouting mission, an opportunity to see what was going on in water I hadn't covered last couple days. Nor was it about just sticking some fish, as I sometimes have to do after dropping clients off. It was all about taking advantage of the perfect conditions to cast flies at waking fish in shallow water. Only. No blind casts to structure. No fishing under birds. No dredging edges as the water starts to move. Just waking fish. Period.
I'm always looking for new insights, but last night my brain kept focusing on lessons already learned. Those reminders seem somehow different when your perspective changes from guide to angler. Not more significant or impactful, but like an additional layer in the fabric that builds understanding, proficiency, and habits. Here are some of my take-aways:
Catching waking striped bass on a fly can be hard. Really hard. So many elements need come together and do so at precisely the right instant to succeed. I get a lot of practice sighting fish and signs of fish, so am decent at doing so even in evening light under cloudy skies. I don't get a lot of time to practice my fly casting this point of the season, but I'm a reasonably proficient caster. And even with those advantages it can just be tough.
I'd run up to a flat that had been holding a lot of fish. I knew I was too early in the tide for what is usually peak feeding activity but I wanted to spend my two plus hours of remaining light in one spot, watching fish behavior change with the water flow, feeling out the evolution of movement, feeding, and degrees of success. The fish weren't showing well when I arrived but that quickly changed. Man were they tough. I was getting good shots, having fish follow, but just not getting eats. I was casting a 12 foot leader with 12 pound tippet and changing flies frequently to see if there was something that they really wanted. I started with a small fly (photo above) that had produced well in other settings that morning, because that's what we often do, but also because the bait has been small, the light was low, and I had confidence in it. It wasn't the ticket. Ok, so let's go big. Toss a meal out there. Something with wiggle and life. Yup. Same result. The hollow fleye (photo below) tied with an ostrich hurl tail and arctic fox head pushed a lot of water and is super sexy looking, to me only at that point is time. It was also more difficult to cast (and turn over) and at this point being able to reach out quite a ways was an advantage. Ok, next offering would be different, very different, so I went with a simple shrimp Clouser. And I caught a fish.
Well, I hooked a fish, played it for a bit, smiled and hooted a bit, and then the hook pulled out. No knot failure. I don't feel like I over-pressued it in my exuberance. No slack or line tangle to clear. Hook was sticky sharp when I got it back to the boat. Just pulled out. Uh-huh. If catching involves landing the fish, I just reinforced the lesson that this isn't an easy game.
To be clear, the change to the shrimp wasn't the golden ticket. I could just barely discern that I had fish look at it without eating it, but I wasn't about to swap it out. What was clear was the challenge of detecting the strike when I couldn't see the fish eat the fly. The low light just didn't allow the visual feedback that tells you "SET THE HOOK!". With a fly that you strip fast, a fleeing baitfish imitation, the eats are aggressive. Not so with a shrimp that seeks cover by diving to the bottom. I missed a couple of fish that did their part to play my game. Hmmmm...stick with the subsurface fly or switch up again to see if a Gurgler gets a reaction? My stubbornness won out and I promptly caught (and even landed) a couple of nice stripers.
I stayed with the shrimp and had a couple more great shots into big pods of stripers that were happily milling around...and got zero return. No swings and misses that I could tell. No hits on which I just didn't connect. Interesting. Light was getting lower. Tide was starting to move. I stripped my fly all the way in as I went to move up on more bass and what did I find? A weightless fly. I must have dinged the fly against the boat at some point and blew out the lead dumbell eyes. Ever had that happen to you before and taken a while to notice it? I think if I were guiding and not fishing I would have picked up on it sooner, but I wasn't. And didn't.
As I paused to rerig, the fish behavior changed noticeably. I started hearing and seeing much more aggressive slurps so I went with a scaled down version of the ostrich-foxy hollow fleye I'd fished earlier. I'd tied this specifically to cast better on an 8 weight floating line and lighter tippet and to be more user-friendly for anglers who aren't used to chucking big, bulky flies. First good shot it got attacked. And then the fish promptly came unglued. Trying to learn from my weightless shrimp experience, I checked the fly right away and found that the tip of the hook was just slightly bent over. I knew for sure that I hadn't pinged this fly against the hull or trolling motor but I hadn't checked the hook point before I tied it on. Yet again, something that I can't imagine doing when guiding that didn't occur to me when fishing. Dingus.
Thankfully a little file work salvaged the fly and I started catching fish. All the way through to unhooking them and watching them swim away. The difference in their behavior and attitude compared to an hour earlier was stark. And it was fun. Really fun. I thought about changing flies after every hook-up, curious about the first pattern I'd tried and wondering what else they would chomp, but said screw it and just kept having fun, which after all is kind of the point.
Here are a few additional reminders I received last night:
Fishing (and casting) a floating line is just more enjoyable. I'm still infatuated with the Scientific Anglers Grand Slam line. It casts well at short distances but shoots like a dream, handles a variety of fly sizes, and behaves well in much cooler water than you'd expect (59 degrees last night).
Even at 8:00 at night on a cloudy evening, fish are very attuned to overhead threats. It's impressive how well they detect a fly line in the air and are especially likely to freak out when schooled up in bigger pods. Even if the water erupts from the presence of your line either above them or hitting the water, get that fly moving, pronto. You're not likely to fool the biggest fish in the school but often someone can't resist reacting to it if it is moving in short order.
We should all work on our ability to make a cast with no false casts. Just pick up and lay down. Get the fly back in the water. Now! I've worked to reduce my habit of making two false casts to a default of one false cast, but sometimes you get lots of second shots at close range where even a single false cast takes up too much time. I also noticed that lack of practice has me back to the default of releasing the line completely with my left hand when I deliver the fly. I have to think about letting the line shoot through my closed thumb and index finger to do so consistently. Getting any slack out of the line ASAP, sometime even before it hits the water, is a benefit in both shallow water sightcasting situations and when targeting fast moving fish like albies. While we're at it, (becoming more proficient casters) we should all strive to have a strong, quick and accurate backcast presentation.
Speaking of fly/leader turn over...I can't recall the last time I used a knotless, tapered leader in a saltwater setting. I still recommend them for people getting started in fly fishing (any opportunity to simplify things is helpful) but tying your own leaders with stiffer butt material makes a difference in the wind, with bulky flies, when you really need a straight line connection with your fly the instant it touches down. I wish I had THE formula to share, but I'm still playing with configurations, materials, and even knots (the Westport Fly guys have me revisiting improved blood knots).
Unless we have good sighting conditions or see the bulge of water behind our fly, we have no idea how many fish follow without eating. Yeah, we often cast to a lot of empty water but we also get lots of follows with no swirls, tugs, taps, or bumps.
Our success has so much to do with the mood of the fish. Especially when chucking a fly. Given what I was seeing when I first arrived on the flat last night, I would have moved if I'd had clients in the boat and come back a bit later. The attitude change with tidal flow and dropping light was impossible to miss.
A little bit of elevation gain when sighting and casting pays dividends. I was in the LTB last night and standing up on the anchor locker in the bow. I'm working with a custom composite builder to design a small coffin box for the bow that will provide another option for getting higher off the deck. Even in a boat with admirably narrow and low gunnels, it should be a good tool. No need for a cushion on top of it, just good foot traction and maybe a metal rail for a brace/grab bar.
Clearing the fly line off the deck when you do set the hook presents a dilemma. Do you try to reel up slack to get the fish on the reel? I preach not doing so as I see a lot of fish lost during this maneuver. If the fish is big enough, it will clear the line. Better to focus on not giving it any slack. Slack is your enemy. Strip by hand until you don't have to do so. Again, this is easier to say as a guide and harder to follow as an angler, as evidenced by my own behavior last evening.
If you spend much time fly fishing by yourself and you don't yet have a remote controlled trolling motor, start saving for this tool. Today. Right now. Everyone who's used one ends up referring to it with the same term: Gamechanger.
I violated my own pledge when it became too dark to pick out the waking fish and made a few blind casts to a spot on the flat that has that magical combination of structure, current, and depth change. I didn't even roll a bass, but it did remind me how much fun I've had over the years fishing in the dark. It's a different experience and holds so many memories of all-nighters with John Asseng in Boston Harbor or Tony Cox nestled in his sleeping bag in the Lund while we drifted up Sagadahoc Bay under the stars or wading around the edges of Back Cove while Sarah was cleaning up the bar at Amigo's. Building that library of memories is one important reason why we fish.
Ok, that's waaaay too much. Time to take advantage of a day off the water to attack the mess that is my fly tying table. 87% of the flies I've tied in the last month have been one and done between 2:45 and 4:15 am, which lends itself to leaving shit out and dealing with the chaos. Entropy takes its toll and I've reached my limit.
Hope you get out to fish. Soon. It's been really good. And really fun.
Capt. Peter Fallon
Gillies & Fallon Guide Service, LLC