Casts and Tactics
It’s been said that writing about music is like dancing about architecture. Unfortunately, writing about casting is about the same: Spey casting is best learned from a live teacher, not a book or magazine. If a book is all you’ve got, Simon Gawesworth’s Spey Casting is the definitive authority. For striper fishing with Spey rods, I’ve primarily relied on two casts: the snap-T and the Double Spey. As with all Spey casting, these are simply fancy names for the setup moves necessary to get yourself and your line into a standard roll cast position.
All Spey casts are roll casts at their core. Both these casts have the advantage of lifting your flies right up to the surface before you begin moving forward, which is helpful when trying to pluck a heavy striper fly off the water. Meanwhile, I’ve found that single Spey and snake roll casts can be more difficult to execute with a six-inch-long wet mop of a fly, though there are certainly casters who can handle it.
River fishing for stripers gets truly interesting when it comes to patterning and fooling the fish. Most stripers spend the majority of their year out in deep water, either in a reservoir or in the lower stretches of a deep river. In places where it gets truly hot, like Texas, Mississippi, Alabama, or Georgia, some lake-dwelling stripers will run into rivers seeking thermal refuge in the summer months. (The rest just go below the thermocline and stay on the bottom of the lake where it is cool). Typically this run occurs around the first of June, and those stripers that make the move tend to stay in the rivers until the end of August. Moving water contains more dissolved oxygen, which is leeched out by hot weather, and which may be why some stripers prefer rivers to the lake bottom. Alternatively, they may just be following baitfish, which are themselves looking to beat the heat. Either way, once in the rivers, they tend to stay put for the summer.
Tying the Non-Slip Mono Loop
The non-slip mono loop is a very easy knot and one you should know for any striper fishing.
1. Start by making a small overhand knot in the tippet, about six inches from the tag end. 2. Pass the tag end through the eye, then back up through the overhand knot. Partially close the overhand knot and position it where you want the top end of the loop to be. 3.Wrap the tag end four or five times around the running line, just like in a standard clinch knot, and then pass it through the overhand knot (but not the hook eye). 4. Lubricate; then gently seat the system so the overhand knot closes around the tag end to form a loop of about one quarter inch. 5. Firmly tighten the knot, and trim the tag end
In places where heat is not as much of an issue, such as Tennessee, Arkansas, or parts of California, stripers will still run the rivers in the spring in order to spawn. Typically, stripers are the last of the temperate basses to run up from a given lake. Around the first of March the white bass will run, followed a couple weeks later by their hybrid or “wiper” cousins, and then finally a couple weeks after that by pure-strain striped bass. Striped bass are often a by-catch of late season white bass anglers, for instance on the upper White River in Arkansas. Thus, depending on the part of the country you live in, chances are good that your local reservoir stripers will swim into shallow water for at least a few weeks a year
The first push of fish is usually the best fishing. Watch for a “fresh,” which can be either a rain event or a period of extended generation from a tailwater that raises river levels by at least six inches. Stripers (and other fish, for that matter) will move and assume new positions when the waters are high, then stay there when the waters recede. Initially, before they get a lot of pressure, you are likely to see pods of stripers camped out on sand or gravel in water sometimes shallower than two feet. This can be an intense fishing time as the stripers will be heavily feeding and may even compete for your fly. After the fish have been in the river for a couple weeks, the pods will often break up into smaller groups or even individuals. As a rule, these smaller groupings orient themselves around structure; you can find them holding just out of the current in a logjam, or on the front side of large boulders or rock shelves. Stripers seem to prefer the cushion of water on the front of a rock far more than trout or other basses, which are more likely to hide behind or to the side of the same structure. Later “freshes” may also bring up new fish, and the cycle repeats itself.
Mallard & Marabou
fly and photo by Seth Fields
Hook: Ahrex TP610 size #2
Thread: White Veevus GSP 150 denier
Tail: White Marabou
Body: Pearl Palmer Chenille
Weight: Large black bead-chain eyes
Collar: Mallard flank and white hen hackle
The End of the Line
Fly selection depends entirely on the local forage fish; the only constant is that stripers invariable eat some kind of baitfish. In places like Tennessee’s lower Caney Fork or Clinch River tailwaters, stripers have easy access to stocker-sized trout. (Bait anglers actually catch and use trout as striper bait in those waters.) Consequently, large-profile trout-colored patterns, such as Enrico Puglisi’s Baitfish, in size 5/0 and lengths up to nine inches, are worth trying. In other areas, such as Arkansas’s upper White River near Fayetteville, or in Oklahoma’s Illinois River tailwater, the predominant baitfish is likely to be a gizzard or threadfin shad. Patterns like Kintz’s Major Mullet or Cowen’s Baitfish, in size 3/0 and lengths from three to six inches, accurately imitate these deep-bodied but shorter-length forage fish.
As a general rule, whenever stripers push into a river where they don’t live year-round, they will eliminate the largest, slowest, and dumbest baitfish or prey (especially trout) first. By the month of August or by the end of a spring spawning run, you can count on smaller flies, such as a simple gray-over-white Clouser Minnow, in size 1/0 or even size 2 working best. Spey casts are also made easier by floating foam flies, such as the Gurgler Minnow or the Wiggle Minnow, both of which will dive and produce fish laid up on the front-sides of rocks.
The final key to approaching stripers successfully is the kind of terminal tackle you use. Both Skagit and Scandi lines are available in a wide variety of sinking tips and full-sink configurations. The best bet seems to be a clear intermediate sinking tip or intermediate full sinking head on a floating running line. Stripers strike upward: They sit below bait and wait for it to pass by overhead, then spring like a viper. At other times, pods of stripers work together to wound or injure many fish in a baitfish ball, after which they will rest below the pod and pick off sinking casualties at their leisure. Consequently, you don’t really need a type-VI fast-sinking head to be successful; instead, you want your fly to be in the top two or three feet of the water column. Clear tips help eliminate the line’s profile in clearer water but are not necessary for stained-water fishing (for instance, if your fish are mostly in a spring spawning run triggered by colored runoff).
Most of the stripers I target run between 6 and 10 pounds. For this class of fish, four or five feet of straight 15- or 20- pound-test fluorocarbon is all you need for leader. I tie the fluorocarbon leader directly to the tip of the fly line, and if I need to add tippet at any point, I use a double Uni-Knot rather than the trout fisherman’s surgeon’s knot, which is weaker. For the fly-to-tippet knot, I always use a non-slip mono loop, which allows the fly to move freely and dance in the current. Small, stealthy knots are less of a priority than brute strength when it comes to striped bass.
As a Spey caster, look for a rock or level section of shallow water, where you can get good solid footing above a deep pool, ideally with a sandy beach on one side and a rock shelf or boulder line running across the tailout. A Spey rod is ideal for the angler afoot, because it gives you such tremendous reach. (Hundred-foot casts are fairly normal with these rods.) Because you can cast so far, you don’t need to approach the fish as closely as you would in a boat, which can also disturb the water and alert them to your presence. Consequently, despite Spey casting’s commotion in the water near you, in many cases you can still be a stealthier angler with the long rod, at least over where the fish are.
In our hypothetical pool, I would first cast toward the sandy beach area, seeking cruising fish in shallow water looking for an easy meal. It’s not uncommon to get a strike on the very first cast when you reach a new pool. If the beach was unsuccessful, I would next cast directly in front of the shelf or each boulder sitting in the tailout, stripping the fl y a couple times as it landed, then letting it settle to suggest a wounded baitfish. Sometimes I wonder whether stripers take these fish to be presents dropped by a bird of prey. Whatever the reason, they will frequently pounce on such a presentation.
The ideal way to assure yourself of stripers is to throw a cast into a surging baitball; this results in a fish practically every time. Of course, first you need to find a baitball! Stripers are crepuscular fish—that is, they prefer low-light conditions, whether on a cloudy day or in the period when the sun is rising or setting. In the evenings, as soon as the sun leaves the sky or drops behind a hill or trees, stripers will quickly move into the shallowest water to prowl for lazy baitfish not yet aware of their peril. Thus the ideal fishing times are two hours before full dark on a hot summer night when the low-light period stretches the longest, or during a rain shower causing rising water, if you’re fishing the spring runs. During these hours, you are likely to see a 10-pound or larger striper thrashing and splashing as he kills baitfish trapped against a beach or rock shelf. Get a fly in front of him, and he’s yours.
The best thing about Spey fishing for striped bass is the style of fishing itself. Spey casting can be frustrating, but when you catch a cast right it can also be a pure joy. Stripers provide the perfect off-season Spey diversion; they are the strongest-fighting fish in fresh water and plenty challenging, without being overly difficult to locate. For all those anglers who Spey-cast only once or twice a year, you’re now out of excuses: Get out there and swing for striped bass.
Zach Matthews is a frequent contributor to American Angler and the host of The Itinerant Angler Podcast, itinerantangler.com. He lives in Atlanta