Ten fly patterns to match the East Coast’s most abundant early-season baits.
[by Henry Cowen]
They say that March goes in like a lion and out like a lamb, so whenever I start seeing and feeling the lamb, I know it’s time to dust off the fly rod and waders (or tune up the boat) and begin hitting some of my favorite early season striper haunts. Once water temperatures average in the low to mid 50s Fahrenheit, it triggers the movement of two of the largest concentrations of striped bass populations along the East Coast, and fish will leave their winter holdover grounds inside Chesapeake Bay or up the Hudson River and make the long journey toward their eventual summer hangouts.
While huge schools of fish sometimes follow an offshore migration route on their way north, some smaller groups of fish will take an inshore path along the coast. Fish coming down from the northern reaches of the Hudson River will typically take an inshore path until they clear New York Harbor and venture north into open water off Coney Island, or come through Long Island Sound and head northeast until they reach Eastern Connecticut and Rhode Island.
For fly anglers, this presents opportunities to cast flies at hungry fish that are making their trek along the entire mid-Atlantic region and points north in and around New England. From as far south as Delaware and as far north as Maine, reports of hungry stripers will become routine on social media websites and online fishing reports and in fly shops along the entire East Coast. Anglers will be able to find fish along beaches, the mouths of inlets, bays, estuaries, and tucked away in harbors. It’s a great time to be on the water.
Chocklett’s Gummy Tarpon Worm
Chocklett’s Gummy Tarpon Worm is an amazing pattern I’ve used successfully when stripers are busting cinder worms on the surface. You need to vary the length and hook size depending on the size of the worms you encounter during the hatch, though most are 1 ½- to 3-inches long. Fly by Umpqua Feather Merchants.
HOOK: Gamakatsu SL12, size 1/0.
THREAD: Chartreuse Uni-Thread, 210 denier.
BODY & TAIL: Sili skin, tan Larva Lace and medium black round rubber legs.
Jonny King’s squid pattern is one of the most realistic looking squid flies I’ve seen in a long time; it’s an easy doppelgänger for the real McCoy. This fly has been a top producer in New York Harbor the past three seasons. Fly by Jonny King.
HOOK: Partridge Attitude Extra, size 4/0.
THREAD: Fine/clear UNI-mono.
EXTENSION: Pro Sportfisher Flexitube.
TENTACLES: Arctic fox and palmered Senyo’s Predator Wrap (color of choice).
HEAD & BODY: Slinky Fiber and Steve Farrar’s Flash Blend (colors of choice).
EYES: 10 mm Pro Sportfisher Cool Eyes.
Stripers are not as easy to find in the spring as they are once inshore water temperatures start to warm up throughout the entire coast. As June rolls around, the water temperatures along the entire striper coast are warm, and more and more schools of fish will be found inshore; it’s simply more habitable and the forage fish that striped bass target will gravitate to inshore areas throughout their entire migratory range.
Some early season striper hot spots include areas that are near hot water outflows like power-plant discharges, back-bay flats (since shallow water heats up faster than deeper water), or at estuary and river mouths (both large or small)all easily reachable by wading flyrodders. Some of my long-time favorite warm-water sanctuaries are around the Devon Power Plant on Connecticut’s Housatonic River and the Long Island Lighting Company (LILCO) in Northport, New York. Crab Meadow Beach, just east of LILCO was always a good place to locate fish early in the season.
Areas with tidal ponds that are fairly shallow will warm up quicker in the spring and present wonderful opportunities to fish for stripers early in the season. Fishing the mouths of these tidal ponds is always a big producer for me in the month of May. If you’re having trouble finding fish, my advice is to just keep searching. Sometimes it takes more sniffing around than usual, but having a good network of other anglers to commiserate or a friend in a fly shop can help you cut some corners.
Popovics’ Ultra Shrimp
When fish are feasting on grass shrimp early in the season, this fly will surely be the ticket. While it’s not an exact replica of Bob Popovics’ original recipe, Scott Stryker put his own little twist on an already great pattern and this fly will have the bass saying, “I thought it was the real deal.” Fly by Scott Stryker.
HOOK: Mustad C-68-NP, size 4.
THREAD: Danville .006 monofilament.
CARAPACE: Fox fur.
ANTENNAE: Pearl Krystal Flash.
BODY: EP Foxy Brush.
TAIL: Fox fur.
SHELL: Tuffleye light cured clear acrylic.
King’s Silverside Hoo Fly
This fly pattern looks alive when fished using a series of short, quick strips interrupted with brief pauses. The craft-fur tail moves and breathes like few other materials. This fly is also nearly bullet proof as the entire pattern is tied using synthetics. It’s a sure winner when silversides are swimming in our local waters. Fly by Jonny King.
HOOK: Gamakatsu SL12S, size 2.
THREAD: Fine/clear UNI-mono.
TAIL: Olive craft fur.
BODY: Olive over pink Senyo Laser Dub.
COATING: Liquid Fusion.
EYES: 5mm Flymen Living Eyes.
For anglers with a boat, fishing near creek mouths, inlets, rivers or near any moving water will likely lead you to school-sized fish (weighing two to six pounds) during the early part of the season. Finding an occasional double-digit sized fish is possible, but this is really a nice time to break out lightweight outfits. A 6- or 7-weight rod is ideal for early-season fishing.
As the season progresses into mid-May and beyond, you can certainly start bringing out your tried and true 8- and 9-weight striper outfits. It is at this juncture that you need to spread out and start looking for fish in a multitude of areas; shallow water as well as in deeper water. While flats and estuaries will still hold good numbers of fish, savvy anglers will now start looking around deep-water rips, strong surface flows that disorientate baitfish, and other areas holding fish that are searching for their next meal.
Don’t over-complicate your search; remember, it’s all about finding the baitfish. Find the baitfish, and you will likely find hungry stripers nearby. Wildlife can help; whether it’s terns and gulls or herons and egrets, watching the collection of birds can be a dead giveaway that schools of baitfish are close by. If you’re unsure where to start, consult a map for entrances to ponds, rivers, bays, breachways, harbors, or inlets. Big or small, they’re all likely avenues to pursue.
Warshawer’s Juvenile Sand Eel
Small sand eels are a staple in the Northeast during the springtime and most naturals are 2- to 4-inches long. Warshawer’s sand eel is a beautiful imitation that will surely fool nearly any striper keying in on this bait. Fly by Andrew Warshawer.
HOOK: Mustad C70SD, size 2.
THREAD: Extra-fine monofilament.
WING: Blended olive, lavender and yellow bucktail.
TAIL: White bucktail.
BELLY: Blended pink and white bucktail.
FLASH: Holographic silver Angel Hair
EYES: Jungle cock.
THROAT: Blended pink and white bucktail.
GLUE: Head cement.
Bisharat’s Flat Fred
Charlie Bisharat’s Flat Fred is by far the most productive popper pattern I have ever fished. This fly spits water and makes a lot of noise. Best of all, when it’s sitting at rest, it can still elicit a strike from fish just below the surface because of the added movement from the bucktail and flash. Fly by Umpqua Feather Merchants.
HOOK: Gamakatsu B10S, size 2/0.
THREAD: Flat waxed nylon, 210 denier.
WEIGHT: .035 lead wire.
POPPER HEAD: Evazote foam (cut to shape and color with prismatic markers).
TAIL: Bucktail (color of choice).
WING: Fluoro Fibre (color of choice)
FLASH: Krystal Flash (color of choice)
EYES: Quarter-inch 3D molded eyes.
TOP COAT: Clear fingernail polish.