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Shallow Water Angler: April/May 2006
HIT THE HATCH
Grass shrimp are the key to the Northeast marsh bite
By Captain John McMurray
It was one of those mornings - there was zero wind and the fog was so thick you couldn’t see 30-feet in front of you. We putted along at just a little above idle as David stood on the bow ready to scream at the top of his lungs if he saw an obstruction. “Are you sure this is safe?” David shouted, half-joking. “Quit being such a wimp,” I yelled back, but I was starting to doubt whether it was safe as small droplets of rain began to patter against my slicker and the rumbling of other hapless boaters sidetracked my concentration. “Woe, woe, woe” David shouted, as marsh grass appeared like a ghost 35-feet off the bow. I turned the wheel hard right, cut the engine, and said, “We’re here,” pretending I knew that the grass-flat was at exactly this spot. Looking at me questioningly, David moved to the rod holder and unstrapped his 7-weight. “What fly should I use?” he asked, almost quivering in anticipation. I pointed to the water and David looked down. For the past week, there had been thousands and thousands of tiny grass-shrimp in these flats, and the stripers and weakfish had been sipping them up like trout during a mayfly hatch. While there was a lot of bait around, the fishing had been tough. In fact, there was too much bait around, and it wasn’t easy to get these fish to take a look at your offering. Nevertheless, we’d had some success.
As I quietly navigated the marsh line with the electric trolling motors, David rummaged through his fly box, pulling out a one-inch grass-shrimp imitation and tying it on. The fog had begun to burn off, and farther up I could make out swirls and dimples on the surface. As we crept up on the school, fins began porpoising all around us as stripers fed leisurely on the tiny shrimp. For 30-minutes we casted at every swirl and boil. “What the H,” David said after another unsuccessful cast. “Keep at it. Eventually you’ll get that fly in front of a fish,” but David was already reaching for a popping bug I had stuck to the console. “Okay, but you’re just going to scare them with that thing,” I said awaiting my chance to say, “I told you so.” We’d had a lot of success with this pattern when the mullet and peanut bunker were around, but I seriously doubted it would do much good here. David sent a 60-foot cast out just behind a swirl. One strip and a large boil appeared. Another provoked a large tail to send the popper airborne. David continued to strip and just like something you’d see on one of those nature channels, a 10-plus pound striper came completely out of the water, not once but three times before hooking itself and tearing off into deeper water. “I told you that popper would work,” I said to David as we both began to laugh. David’s reel made that wonderful zinging noise, and for a minute I wondered if there was anything so satisfying. Ten-minutes later I lipped an extraordinarily beautiful 15-pound healthy spring bass. Silver and purple radiated from the fish in the water as I turned it on its side admiringly. Out came the hook and the fish swam away vigorously.
No doubt, stripers as well as weakfish love to gorge on grass-shrimp, and because grass-shrimp feed on detritus, algae and dead plant material, they naturally inhabit the aquatic vegetation one finds in saltmarsh flats. There are a few different species of sand and grass-shrimp in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast, but they all hold one trait in common: under the right conditions they can be very numerous. These small fragile, nearly translucent creatures don’t appear to be much, but when a good hatch occurs they can number in the thousands in a relatively small area drawing predators into very skinny water. This combination of numbers and habitat can create spectacular shallow water fishing.
You can find predators on grass-shrimp in the marsh flats all throughout the season. In fact, a recent study carried out by Massachusetts Department of Marine Fisheries biologist, Kristen Ferry, drew the conclusion that the most consistent food eaten by striped bass in the 13 Massachusetts estuaries she studied was the sand-shrimp or what many call grass-shrimp. These shrimp were the one steady food source in the striped bass’ diets throughout the year.
Matching the Hatch?
There are many ways to work a grass-shrimp hatch. Of course, the most popular is to load two or three onto a 4/0 gold hook with no weight or just a few split shots and toss it into a flat where weakfish and/or stripers are visibly feeding. Some anglers cast shad darts or a very light bucktail tipped with two or three shrimp, working it back to the boat in short quick jerks. But even bait fishing can be difficult at times. Shrimp can be so thick that bass and weakfish are more interested in sucking up many live critters at a time rather than just grabbing a few dead ones on a hook.
As one can imagine, it is even more difficult fishing a small grass-shrimp fly amongst all of the bait. The likelihood of getting even an exact imitation noticed amongst thousands of the real thing is small. Anglers using this method during a good grass-shrimp hatch are likely to have limited success at best. So, matching the hatch isn’t such a good policy in regard to the northeast grass-shrimp hatch. Over the years, mostly by trial and error, I’ve found that there are a few different techniques that work well when stripers and weakfish are keyed in on this small but abundant bait, and none of them involve matching the hatch.
Make some Noise!
I’ve mentioned it before, but I can’t stress it enough, nothing creates an aggressive response like a popping bug. Predators like striped bass and weakfish, even those keyed in on a very specific small bait like grass-shrimp, just can resist taking a swipe at a splashing noisy popper. Obviously, poppers look and act nothing like a grass-shrimp, but even if these fish have no interest in eating the bait they will still whack it.
The bottom line is that poppers make so much commotion they get the attention of a predator. When the bait is small but numerous like it is during a grass-shrimp hatch, getting your offering noticed is half the battle and just about every one will agree that poppers are effective at doing just that. These baits work particularly well in shallow water as feeding fish that are scattered will immediately key in on the noise and come from afar to see what’s going on.
Working a popper during a grass-shrimp hatch can, however, require knowledge, skill and above all, willpower. Poppers bring about that instinctual urge in a striper to attack whether it’s food or not. And because these fish aren’t necessarily trying to eat the popper, but just punish it, they will whack at it with their tail, boil on it, pick it up and spit it out etc. But the topwater-strikes that poppers produce also bring about that instinctual urge on the anglers part to set the hook right away, inevitably pulling the popper away from the fish. Even knowing what I know today, I still find it hard to resist the impulse to set the hook every time I see a boil or a tail slap. The trick is to never set up on that fish until you feel tension on the line. I’ve also found that, if you just let the popper sit after that first boil or tail slap, a fish which was not so much intent on eating the bait will think that it has stunned or perhaps killed whatever that noise-maker was and figure that now it is an easy meal. This also helps keep that popper in the water as long as possible, giving predators a chance to seek and destroy. For this reason, whether you’re fishing a popping bug or plug, you’ll want to get one that floats. Obviously, Poppers don’t work well when they are sitting on the bottom of a flat. I’ve also found that the smaller versions, specifically the ½ or even the ¼ ounce versions of popular poppers work well for the spin casters. Color doesn’t really matter, as long as the plug makes noise. The same can be said for flies. Small poppers and Gartside Gurglers work much better than the big chuggers I use when mullet or bunker are around.
In all of my years fishing various saltmarshes in the Northeast, I’ve never, taken a weakfish on a popper. Plenty of follows and boils, but perhaps because of the nomenclature of their mouths, they just can’t grab it. In addition, when the sun gets high, stripers don’t seem to whack poppers like they do in the morning or during overcast days. So during the late morning and afternoon hours or when I want to get a weakfish, I switch tactics.
Still, I find it unproductive to try and match the hatch here. The bait concentrations just don’t allow for it. So, I go bigger and brighter and even a bit louder than the bait. I generally tie three or even four-inch clousers or half-n-halves with the addition of a small rattle on the bottom. Again, getting the fish’s attention in these scenarios is more than half the battle. Color is important in these circumstances for the sole reason that you want as many fish to see your fly as possible. Weakfish seem to really prefer pink, while stripers will go more readily for chartreuse and white. I’ve had a lot of success with yellow as well. It’s highly visible, specifically during low light conditions and the weakfish can’t seem to resist it.
If you are fishing a spinning a rod four-inch red-fin or bomber plugs in yellow, white or chartreuse are great go-to lures. Even though these plugs look nothing like the bait, these predator fish will most certainly go for them. Perhaps, because they think it’s a bigger and better meal than what they are feasting on. While these baits are great, nothing, I mean nothing beats the action of a Slug-Go. These soft plastics seem to draw strikes when nothing else works. I’m a big fan of the nine-inch versions, but have had plenty of success with the smaller ones as well. The action in these lures is spectacular. If you fish them right they dart and jerk in an enticing manner. Obviously, these baits are about as far from a grass-shrimp imitation as possible, but experience has taught me that if there are fish in area, they just can’t resist them. My first choice is the gray and black version, but I have had plenty of success fishing Slug-Gos during the grass-shrimp hatch in chartreuse and pink. At night I use solid black with a lot of success. Fished without any weight on or near the surface, the enticing action of these baits is rivaled by none.
When the Bait Thins, Look for Robins
Later in the season, when the big hatches are over and done with, grass-shrimp are still relatively abundant in the marsh flats, but not in overwhelming numbers like they were earlier in the season. This is when things get interesting. As you might imagine, the predators aren’t as numerous either, but they are still there, and the ones that stick around seem to be the larger ones.
East Hampton Guide Captain Paul Dixon alerted me years ago to the symbiotic relationship between sea-robins and larger predator fish, and my experience over the years has proven him correct. Sea-robins are typically a nuisance fish, known for stealing the baits of fluke fishermen. This interesting prehistoric looking fish has evolved to become a very effective bottom feeder. If you happen to catch one, try picking it up (while avoiding its spinney fins) and looking at its underbelly. You’ll notice several protruding feelers on the fish’s underside. Because grass-shrimp will burrow into the mud or sand bottom of a marsh flat when threatened, sea-robins use their feelers to flush or dig them out. Striped bass and weakfish find this behavior very helpful as they take full advantage. If you can find a few sea-robins rooting around in the flat, odds are there are a few big fat opportunistic predators hanging around waiting for a grass-shrimp or two to get flushed out.
Fortunately, because of their dark copper color, sea-robins are much easier to spot than stripers or weakfish. We have good success during this late season period casting to these rooting sea-robins and picking up nice bass or weakfish in their vicinity. Because there are fewer grass-shrimp around later in the season, matching the hatch does have its merits here. Plus the grass-shrimp that remain are quite a bit larger than the ones that were around earlier in the season. But still, I will go bigger than the bait as these predators would rather eat a larger grass-shrimp than a small one. A three-inch grass-shrimp pattern, or even a copper or olive and white clouser in that size range works well. Small red-fin and rapalla plugs in darker colors are effective too. And, don’t forget the Slug-Go. They work in these situations as well.
If you fish in an area of the Northeast where there is an abundance of tall spartina or similar grass, there are most certainly grass-shrimp around. Grass-shrimp usually spawn in the spring to early summer, although in some ranges the season can extend from April to early autumn. Female grass-shrimp can hatch an average brood of around 100 individuals each, densely populating the shallow water in salt marshes. When they hatch, boy do they hatch. And the fish get on them good, so it’s always worth keeping an eye out for grass-shrimp as the fishing can be outstanding when they are around.
Grass-shrimp are a very an important component of the marsh and tidal creek system as they are excellent scavengers, helping to break down the detritus in the flats. They are important species from an ecological perspective because they serve as a link of a marsh’s energy transfer between levels in the food chain. They help break down detritus, small bits of dead plants and animals, into even smaller bits which more animals can eat. Although the grass-shrimp can tolerate a wide range of salinity, grass-shrimp avoid the waters near the ocean so expect to fine them almost exclusively in the back-bay saltmarsh areas. While they are year round residents in these back water areas, their numbers fluctuate considerably according to the season. Spring and early summer seem to be the times where they are most abundant. Because these critters grow and inhabit the salt marsh, they provide a critical link between the striped bass, weakfish and salt marshes. Thus, one can conclude that healthy salt marshes are vital to successful striped bass and weakfish populations.