Check out the new 'Salmo Saxtilis' fly rods designed by Ken Abrames in the stripermoon store.
There are no absolutes in fishing so whilst you can expect fish to be moving into the current in general, I'll always periodically look behind just in case!
The flow from the outgoing tide created an audible rip line as it poured from the vast sand flat into the shallow channel no more than two feet deep. It wasn't long before the first shadow appeared about eighty feet away. There was no hurry in its movement, an occasional dip, intercepting some unseen morsel being swept into its path. I got ready and went through my mental checklist. It's something I now do almost automatically, having learned the hard way. About six feet of line beyond the rod tip, clear of obstructions, fly held between index finger and thumb of the left hand. Wind direction, slightly off the right shoulder but well within safe parameters. A roll cast above the surface, single back-cast and the six-inch flatwing touched down about sixty feet out over the flat. I wanted the fish to see my offering swept into the channel. A single up-current mend, everything set and now the hardest part - the wait. Slow, deep breaths, I could now see both the fly and approaching fish. A single slow strip, no more than six inches and there! The white cavernous mouth was clearly visible. A smooth strip hook set and all hell broke loose as the 33 inch Striper expressed its displeasure at having its Sunday morning so rudely interrupted.
We were fishing the South end of North Monomoy in late June this year and it was one of those special moments that, for me, define sight fishing the flats.
One of the first challenges for anglers who make the transition to saltwater sight fishing is spotting fish. After years of fishing for trout using traditional wet-fly techniques from a drifting boat, my eyes had become trained to focus on the surface of the water and I got to be pretty good at detecting the sometimes imperceptible swirls and disturbances that betrayed the presence of a feeding fish just below the surface of a good wave. When I first ventured out onto the bonefish flats of Christmas Island back in the early 90s, the only fish I was aware of were those departing at speed having seen me long before I saw them. After a while, with the assistance of some very patient guides, I learned to look "through" the water surface and focus on the bottom.
For those who are new to the flats, a great eye training technique shown me by a Bahamas guide is to follow the path of a released (or spooked) fish into the distance until no longer visible. You'll be surprised just how far out you can still detect the movement. Once you get some confidence, try shifting your gaze away from the fish for a few seconds and then try to "recapture" the movement. After some practice I found I was able to pick out fish at distance almost as well as the guide. Many factors affect the ability to spot fish at distance. Light, position of the sun, water depth and bottom coloration all play a part. On the light colored sand flats like those at Chatham, in good light, Striped Bass are "relatively" easy to see in water up to three feet deep, certainly easier than Bonefish for those who have hunted the "ghost of the flats". Being able to spot fish on the flats before they become aware of your presence will greatly increase your hook up ratio. I've fished from a Flats Boat and the added height and mobility certainly increases your chances but my preference is to wade. In fact, I find myself jumping off the boat at the first signs of cruising fish in shallow water. Some very experienced flats anglers employ step-ladders to increase height and visibility. This seems like a good idea in certain locations but personally I prefer to travel light and cover as much ground as possible.
Figuring out where and, equally important when to fish is the next part of the equation. Flats come in all shapes and sizes. Some can be literally miles in length and width. Local knowledge is valuable and generally more freely given in relation to flats fishing than the location of someone's favorite honey hole. Check out the terrain at low tide - preferable a moon tide when the water is at it's lowest for the month. A closer inspection will reveal shallow sandbars, channels, pockets and all manner of structure, which will tend to create concentrations of current when the tide is running and attract fish to follow certain paths. If I'm fishing a flat for the first time I like to concentrate on channel edges. I'm not really interested in blind casting the drop-offs although that can be a good technique if no fish show in shallower water. During the incoming tide, fish will typically follow the channels before dispersing onto the flats and turning to feed against the current. Make sure the current is running the way you think it is. Wind action can create tricks on the water surface so kick up some sand and see which way it drifts. One of the most amusing pictures I ever saw on a lodge wall showed an angler and guide intently staring out into the far distance, completely oblivious to the school of a hundred plus bonefish nonchalantly swimming up behind. There are no absolutes in fishing so whilst you can expect fish to be moving into the current in general, I'll always periodically look behind just in case!
I like to be mobile on the flats and will cover many miles during the course of the day. I usually stay at about knee depth when wading since that gives me good visibility and comfortable walking. Ideal conditions would include a clear blue sky, high sun at my back and light breeze off my left shoulder (or my right if I was left handed). Such days are rare and I will adapt to whatever conditions present themselves. Polaroid sunglasses are essential. I carry two pairs, one with dark copper lenses and one with an amber/yellow tint, which I find slightly better on cloudy days.
O.K. so far so good, we're out on the flat, the light is good and we can now pick up individual and school fish from about eighty to one hundred feet out. I'm a great believer in the "presentation is everything" philosophy and this is the one area that can make the difference between a great day's flats hunting and total frustration. I'll try to position myself so that my fly lands well ahead of the fish - fifteen to twenty feet - and at a slight angle. If there's sufficient current to work the fly into the fish's path then I'll take up any slack and allow the fly to drift. If there's no response then I'll try a couple of long slow strips followed by a couple of short quick ones. There's no set formula here. This is visual fishing and you're looking for an indication of interest from the fish rather than "feeling" a take. From the outset I'll rarely have more than sixty feet between the fly and me. Beyond that distance I find it hard to see what's going on and the less loose line hanging around the better. Sometimes it will be a slight change of direction or twitch of the tail. At close quarters you will see the white of the open mouth. Occasionally you'll get a full-blooded attack, which really gets the blood pumping. The classic surface take seems to be a leisurely sideways roll followed by a hearty "slap" of the tail. In any event, I find that a steady, smooth strip to be the most effective means of hooking up. The emphasis is on steady and smooth since, if the fish doesn't have the fly, it's still in its sight zone and you're still in the game. If you yank it away too quickly you have no choice but re-cast and I've found that the odds of a take are reduced considerably - although not entirely.
I like to use as long a leader as conditions allow up to eighteen ft. Stealth is a key part of presentation. I'm fairly convinced that fish become aware of our presence on the flats long before we realize it and even though they don't spook, they will simply refuse to show any interest in your presentation. Even standing perfectly still, the movement of current past your waders or long pants can create unfamiliar "vibes". Remember, on the flats you are a hunter, a sniper. Think about the way the deer hunter goes about his business. You wont see him crashing through the undergrowth. It's the same out there on the flats.
This season I'm increasingly using floating lines on the flats for stripers. We wouldn't think of using anything else on the bonefish flats but the intermediate reigns supreme up here in the Northeast. I think floater offers a number of advantages when fishing shallow water flats. I can fish flies on or just under the surface. I can bump clouser and crab style flies along the bottom in water up to 6 ft deep. If things get desperate and I decide to fish the deeper channels I carry a 15 ft. hi density extension tip which I can loop on and off in seconds. It casts like a dog but it's a lot more convenient than switching spools and carrying extra gear.
There has been more than enough written about fly patterns already but for flats work I like to be armed with a selection of flies tied to include color combinations which tend to mimic the bottom shades. I've found a root beer / olive combination very effective in combination with copper braid for the body when fishing in high sun over a light sandy bottom. For presentation just sub-surface I love flatwings patterns and they seem to turn a striper on like nothing else. Even when the fish seem to be hugging the bottom, I've found them willing to check out a flatwing fished just under the surface . When fish are feeding heads down with their tails out of the water, I'll use a clouser style fly dressed in the same color combo described above. I've found that dropping such a fly right on the fishes head results in a refusal more often than not. Once again I'll try to figure the general direction the fish is taking and get the fly out in front before the fish gets it's head up. Then, a couple of short strips, trying to get the fly to kick up a little sand and pause, mimicking the action of a sand eel. The flats offer such a vast diversity of prey. I like to have a variety of patterns from about one to seven inches in length. I even carry a couple of Crazy Charlies from the bonefish box down to about a size six. A variation of the good old Gold Ribbed Hares Ear on a six or eight hook also makes useful general representation of all manner of flats fauna. If you get refusals, go down a size or two. Another pattern which I've played around with this season is designed to be fished "static". The tail feather (I used yellow grizzle) is tied around the bend to stick up at 90 degrees to the hook shank. With lead eyes, the idea is to let the fly sit on the bottom well ahead of a cruising fish with the tail sticking up and moving at the mercy of the current. Check out Ken's sand-eel gallery and you'll get the general idea! Fishing the cut at Chatham back in late June we came across a large school of stripers that were hanging around the entrance. Several boats had gone by them ahead of us but no-one had hooked up. We tried all the usual methods but it was a good opportunity to try something different. I dropped the fly about twenty feet ahead of a pod of three good-looking fish. It probably sat on the bottom no more that fifteen seconds before it was inhaled by a 35 inch fish. Several more followed.
One final word regarding safety. As mentioned above, many flats can be vast and featureless. It's very easy to become so absorbed, you find yourself a mile from shore on a rapidly rising tide suddenly surrounded by fog. The Brewster flats on the Cape are notorious for this. I always carry a compass and check my bearings back to dry land periodically. Some anglers will carry mobile phones and GPS units - not a bad idea. Information on potential danger spots will be freely given by local tackle shops and may turn out to be more important than where to find fish.
Sight fishing for big stripers in shallow water allows anglers in the North East to experience all the thrills and excitement of chasing down bonefish further south but at a fraction of the price. If you haven't already done so, give it a try next season. You may well become a flats rat like me.
© Adrian Sharp, 2001