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Flyfishing in Saltwaters: Nov/Dec 2003
Stalking Stripers on the Northeast's Famed Sod Banks
By Captain John McMurray
It’s an unusually warm morning with just a hint of sunshine peaking through the clouds as I bump the trolling motors approximately 60-feet parallel to a falling sod bank laden with spartina grass. To the north a brilliantly white snowy egret slowly and subtlety lifts it’s long thin legs, moving in slow-motion with the cunning and stealth of an extremely effective hunter while dozens of fiddler crabs scurry into their holes. Almost too fast for the human eye to comprehend, it shoots its long orange beak into the water successfully spearing and engulfing a 3-inch Atlantic silverside in one fell swoop. As we get closer the pterodactyl-like bird extends its long wings and shoots off parallel to the sod bank. Underneath it’s flight, water boils and V wakes shoot off toward deeper water as both large and schoolie stripers mistake the bird as a threat. Farther north, from the platform I can make out several dorsal fins, moving in wing formation, pushing wakes to both sides. As the heart rate increases I quietly whisper “okay David, get ready… About a half dozen fish heading this way.” David pulls out 60-feet of floating line with a small chartreuse popping bug attached to a 9-foot leader. The fish continue to be oblivious to our presence as I position the boat so David can intercept the school. One false cast and David drops the popper 3-feet from the lead fish. It spooks, sending several others darting off, but almost simultaneously several turn back and begin cautiously following the noise-making popper. As soon as the popper reaches the drop-off, it disappears in a hole of water as David strip-strikes fast into a striper well over the 10-pound mark. It heads toward the sod bank, and then turns quickly moving fast to the deeper water. David does the infamous flyline jig as he tries to keep his feet off the line. Backing appears the ensuing fight commences. In 10-minutes we’re “oohing” and “ahing” at a gorgeous fat striper.
Scenes like this one are becoming more and more frequent in the back-bay saltwater marshes of Mid Atlantic and Northeast states as stripers continue to become more and more abundant each year. Those spots laden with sod banks, adjacent flats and close by deepwater drop-offs bring stripers into shallow water to prowl for the copious amounts of forage native to this particular type of habitat. These areas produce some wonderful opportunities to stalk sizable fish in water that sometimes is not more than a foot deep.
Sod banks produce plenty of nutrients, algae, and dead plant and animal material for baitfish and crustaceans to feed on. In fact, many in the scientific community argue that these areas are the most productive ecosystems on earth. Dead marsh plants that make up these banks are a source of nourishment for many species. Decaying spartina grass breaks into small pieces called detritus fueling the bottom of the food chain. As the plants decay and sediment builds up, peat deposits accumulate, forming tidal sod banks that support a rich habitat for the growth of hundreds of diverse organisms. Dead plants that make up the layers of the sod banks are a source of nourishment for bottom-dwelling scavengers like worms, fishes, shrimps, snails, and crabs. Fishes, crabs, and shrimps live in the sod banks where stems, leaves, and roots provide food and shelter from predators. The abundance of food and protection given by marsh plants allows the young inhabitants to survive to adulthood. So it only follows that where rich habitat for bait exists, stripers will instinctually be there to hunt.
Grass shrimp are usually the first bait to show along the sod banks. This small bait is associated with submerged vegetation because it feeds on detritus, algae, and dead plant and animal material. Sod banks offer the perfect habitat and food source for these critters. While various species of grass shrimp are year around residents in most salt marshes, they have prolific hatches in the spring. During late March and into April, shrimp can produce local hatches numbering in the thousands and stripers will most certainly be there to feed.
Most grass shrimp measure anywhere from ¼ of an inch to 1.5-inches. Their bodies are nearly transparent, except for orange or yellow pigment in the eyestalks. They are tough to see in the first place and good hatches can flood areas along the sod banks with an unbelievable number of these little critters. Therefore, “matching the hatch” doesn’t work so well in this scenario. Tossing a ½ to 1.5-inch grass shrimp imitation into visibly feeding fish, the odds of your pattern getting noticed by a feeding bass among thousands of the real thing are small. Though a lot of trial and error and limited success with grass shrimp imitations we’ve found that noise-making poppers are much more effective.
It’s obvious that poppers in any size and color look and act nothing like a grass shrimp. In fact, they are not even close. But these early spring stripers will go for them 10 to 1 over smaller grass shrimp imitations. When you pull a noisy popper through the vicinity of visibly feeding fish, it gets their attention for sure. Stripers by nature are aggressive territorial feeders. In this scenario the fish doesn’t hit the popper because he wants to eat it. It hits it because he’s angry. It’s a natural combative response more than a desire to feed. This theory is proven by the fact that when there is a significant grass shrimp hatch, fish will slap a popper with its tail 3 times to every one time it will go after it with its mouth. In fact, I’ve had days during the early spring grass shrimp hatch along the sod banks where I must have had a half a dozen rises and slaps on a popper, and hooked nothing. It can take a lot of will power to allow a striper to boil and smack the offering while resisting the urge to set the hook. Many anglers will pull the popper away from a fish on every tail slap or boil. After the first boil, it pays to let the popper sit like stunned prey. Stripers will often engulf a popper on a pause.
Poppers also work when other small critters that inhabit the sod bank areas are abundant. Small crab hatches that number in the thousands are frequent throughout the year on the sod bank flats. Small crab patterns seem to be useless here. The summers’ nighttime cinderworm hatches are also tough to fish, but poppers always seem to draw strikes from stripers stalking the sod bank flats when nothing else will. Making noise is the key with these offerings. The more noise they make the more attention they will attract and the more strikes you will get.
In May and June along the Mid-Atlantic and Northeastern coast the big bait begins to show. In the Mid Atlantic, Atlantic menhaden (locally called bunker) come into the salt marsh because of its rich supply of plankton. These big bait fish can be upwards of 14-inches and it’s high oil and fat content, as well as it’s tendency to school in large numbers make it a favorite of large striped bass. Quite often, big bass will push bunker that have been feeding along the drop-offs adjacent to the sod banks right up on the flat. Corners and pockets of sod banks can often be explode with activity when this happens. You better have a strong heart when this scenario unfolds. To see 20-plus pound fish crashing bunker in just a few feet of water is a pretty amazing sight. This fairly frequent occurrence could perhaps be the best scenario to get a fish in the 30-pound range in shallow water.
While creating a fly to resemble this bait can be difficult, it is certainly possible. Large, bulky deceivers in the 9-to 10-inch range will often draw visible and savage strikes when tossed right at the edge of the sod bank and retrieved through the activity. A word of advice here. While, for the most part, you’ll be fishing in shallow water for these fish, it is inadvisable to use a floater or intermediate line for the sole reason that tossing a big fly like this is difficult to impossible, especially if there is any wind. Shooting head sink tips in the 10 to 12-foot range, like the ones used for salmon fishing in rivers, work well here. They don’t sink too quickly like the full sink or longer sink tip lines and offer the weight and umph to push an unusually large fly through the wind. To keep the fly off the bottom, there can be no pause between the cast and the retrieve and the retrieve must be quick. Drop-offs often produced the best chance of a strike from a particularly larger fish, so slowing down once you reach deeper water can be effective. These methods can also be used in the Northeast when herring are abundant in the salt marsh and get pushed along the sod banks by feeding bass.
Once the summer patterns set in spearing (Atlantic Siversides) become the predominant bait. This omnivorous fish feeds on zooplankton, copepods, shrimp, amphipods worms, insects and algae and prefers shallow water during the summer months. It therefore makes sense that these fish are abundant along the marsh’s sod banks during the months of July, August and early September. Small clousers in olive over white worked on intermediate lines tossed along the sod banks and retrieved in short quick bursts can produce dozens of schoolies in a day. Poppers and crease flies can be effective for schoolies as well and they offer heart-stopping strikes form voracious predators. However, the larger stripers seem to prefer larger than normal crab flies during the summer months. The sod banks are loaded with fiddler, juvenile blueclaw and even tiny lobsters gaining refuge by burrowing holes in the sod banks during the summer. The small crustations feed on the decaying marsh grass along the sod banks and whatever fish they can scavenge in the flats. Large to medium crab flies worked very slowly with pauses in between slow strips can produce some surprisingly big fish in the later days of summer.
During the hot dog days of summer it can pay to fish the small sod bank lined creeks that snake through a salt marsh. While overlooked by most anglers, these small winding saltwater nurseries can sometimes twist and turn for miles. Even when it’s dead everywhere else, these creeks always seem to hold schoolies. While there are numerous creeks in each estuary, most are navigable only during mid to high tides. Some of my favorite creeks are maybe an average of 60 to 100-feet wide and are around 4 to 6-feet deep during a full tide. These tinny waterways can get very skinny very quickly on an outgoing tide so finding rooting and fining fish in these creeks is very possible. At times, all you’ll see are tails extending vertical from the water while stripers bury their noses in the mud. I prefer to use 6-weights in these areas, as the fish never seem to get much over the 24-inch mark. A 24-inch fish will give you a run for your money on a 6-weight. Judging by their rooting behavior, these fish seem to be feeding on small shrimp and crabs, but again, poppers seem to be very effective in these creeks and even if a cast goes astray, schoolies will seek out the noise maker and go after it from a far. I’ve noticed that the bigger predators cruise the edge of the sod-banks lining the creeks, most likely looking for the crab holes that are dry during a low tide. Most creeks will open up to small ponds, or areas that are wider than the rest of the creek. These are the areas that you really want to work those sod bank edges well as the larger schoolies and bluefish will, more than likely, be hanging out here. Also, areas where the creek forks tend to be hot spots.
I’ve found that moon and spring tides, regardless of the season, are the best time to fish the creeks. They offer higher tides and a bit more moving water, allowing me to get deeper in the creek to areas that would otherwise be inaccessible. It seems to make the fish a bit more aggressive as well.
In the fall months, new of the year Atlantic menhaden (aka peanut bunker) come flooding out of these creeks and often times big stripers will push schools up against the sod-banks creating some phenomenal shallow water fishing. Peanut bunker appear at around the same time stripers begin their fall migration feeding patterns. This bait is perhaps a striper’s favorite food and they become extremely aggressive when peanut bunker are around. Predators get so riled up that they’ll hit just about anything thrown in their general direction. Again, I really enjoy the explosive strikes that poppers draw, but when the sun gets high and the fish become finicky, broad profile deceivers in all white, white over olive or white and pink fished on clear intermediate lines work very well. Geno’s Baby Angle bunker (see www.flyfishinsalt.com for tying instructions) is an excellent choice and is highly recommended for this type of fishing. You’ll find plenty of schoolie action in this scenario, but also much larger fish in the mix, so be prepared with a 10-weight.
Sod banks and the mud flats that extend from them are arguably the best areas on the East Coast to get a crack at a big striper in shallow water. Because of the nutrients and bottom type near these banks, the water clarity, for the most part, is poor. But this characteristic makes big fish less spooky and V-wakes usually do a good job of indicating a big fish’s presence. If you have this kind of habitat close to home, make sure to take a good long look on your next outing and employ the methods described above. It could be very rewarding.
EAST COAST SOD BANKS COLLAPSING AT AN ALARMING RATE
In the last several years it’s become painfully obvious to anglers, biologists and scientists that thousands of acres of valuable marsh habitat from the Cape Cod National Seashore to the Chesapeake Bay area are vanishing at an astonishing rate. Tall grasses and vegetation that have held the sod banks together are dying resulting in the bank’s collapse, creating vast mud flats where spartina grass once stood. Perhaps the most serious example is Jamaica Bay, a 10,000-acre saltwater flyfishing jewel 30-minutes South of New York City (See www.flyfishinsalt.com for more info on Jamaica Bay). Scientists estimate the rate of marsh loss in Jamaica Bay at a whopping 44-acreas a year. If the answers to why this is happening aren’t found, and steps aren’t taken to stop the loss, salt marsh areas like Jamaica Bay could be completely gone in 20 to 30-years. There are many theories to the continuous marsh losses on the East Coast. A popular one stems from the dredging of channels and borrow pits in the bays contiguous to marshes. These man made deep-water areas absorb the sediment that historically has contributed to the shoring of the sod banks, maintaining marsh elevation against inevitable sea level rise. In addition, more and larger boats continue to move at faster speeds through unnaturally deep channels throwing wakes against sod banks that could very possibly be killing them one wave at a time. Urban and farm runoff as well as wastewater treatment plants in the vicinity of marsh areas have caused the nutrient level to skyrocket over the years from their natural levels. This causes excessive algae and sea lettuce blooms as well as prolific hatches of ribbed muscles all of which could be choking the marsh grass. Furthermore, development in and around marsh habitat as well as beach and inlet replenishment and stabilization have cut off the ocean flow of sediment into the marsh. Government agencies are struggling to procure funding to study the problem and some agencies are gearing up for massive replenishment projects. Whether these projects will work, or create even more damage is still up in the air as environmental groups continue to opposed filling in dredge pits with dredge spoil taken elsewhere. The good news is that the issue is finally getting the attention it deserves after several years of inaction.
Captain John McMurray is currently the Program Officer at the Norcross Wildlife Foundation in New York, which has distributed over $15 million in conservation grants since 1982, much of it directly targeted for protection of fish and fish habitat. He is also the owner and primary operator of One More Cast Charters, Inc. saltwater fly and light tackle guide service in Jamaica Bay, New York. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.