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Flyfishing in Saltwaters: March/April 2004

 

WHEN SIZE MATTERS

How to get the big guys to eat flies when the fodder is small

By Captain John McMurray

 

ďAweÖ Are you kidding me!!!Ē I scream in frustration after the third follow from a humongo striper.  Iím talking a fish well over the 40-inch mark casually swimming behind my epoxy sandeel imitation.  You know that intense feeling you get when you witness a big fish tracking your flyÖthe heart rate increases and the sweat immediately forms on your brow.  Then the insulting refusal and the maddening, ďwhat if Iíd done something differentlyĒ disappointment sets in the moment the fish turns and darts off into the abyss. 

 

Itís the seventh fly change today, and Iíve seen dozens of large stripers and thousands of tiny sandeelsÖ I canít buy a strike.  David suggests I tie on a bigger fly.  I tell him heís a knucklehead, and turn back to scan the bright expanse of sand flat in front of us.  Out of the corner of my eye I notice David huddling over his fly bag.  Shortly after that I hear a whack as David back-casts a 7-inch bulky, chartreuse and white clouser back-boarding it off my new outboard, leaving a nice white ding, but sailing it like a dart 60-feet onto the edge of the flat.  I complain about his treatment of my outboard and then begin to mention that his fly looks about as much like a sandeel as I look like Michael Jackson. But before I can get the words out of my mouth, a replica of the large fish that shadowed my fly appears from the drop-off and turns on the fly flashing quick but brilliant silvers, purples and pinks.  ďWoe!Ē I yell as David strip-strikes fast into what turns out to be the only fish of the day.  For the remainder of the trip, Iím barraged with various colorful versions of ďI told you so.Ē

 

Normally fishing for trophies amongst small bait like this is very difficult, especially when the sun is high.  For the most part, as an evolutionally survival technique, large predators of the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast (stripers, blues, weakfish, tunas etc.), prefer big bait and the big protein that goes along with it.  The older larger fish of the species got that way because they are smart, and they donít usually waste valuable energy chasing around tiny morsels when they can expend less effort and get more bang for the buck swallowing the big nutritious stuff like menhaden, mullet or herring.  Itís usually the schoolies and the pups that youíll find harassing the smaller bait and eagerly taking flies.  But when big bait is not present, which is increasingly becoming the case these days (see sidebar), itís no secret that large predators will most certainly gobble down the small stuff in mass.   Unfortunately, this is when those big fish become very picky and are particularly hard to catch.  After all, why would a lunker bother, or for that matter, even notice a small effort to match the hatch when it is intent on wolfing down the small fish in mass.  My experience is that the larger fish become extremely difficult when feeding on rain bait, shrimp, tiny crab hatches or worm hatches.  The exception here of course, is the bay anchovy phenomenon that happens in Montauk, NY where bait concentrations are so thick that itís worth it for large stripers to forage through the bait masses with mouths agape.  This is ďstupidĒ fishing and doesnít apply to the methods discussed here.  In that circumstance you can throw a piece of yarn in the mayhem, let it sit and expect to get a hookup.   

 

Getting back to the difficult task of fooling trophies when they are feeding on the smallest of critters, there are a few tactics, techniques, and various things you can try that will up your big fish odds significantly.  While theses methods may seem crude to some, they are in fact effective in enticing those larger fish, which are focused on gulping up massive amounts of small bait.  The following are a few methods Iíve found to be particularly successful.

 

MAKE SOME NOISE

 

Iím a huge fan of noise-making surface flies.  Not just for their effectiveness, but because of the heart-stopping, adrenalin inducing strikes.  There is nothing that compares to seeing a big fish boil, slap and eventually engulf a surface fly. Gartside gurglers are great, Joe Bladosí invention of the crease fly was brilliant, but nothing tops the boiling, splashing and generally offensive action of a hollowed out cone head popper.  Popovicksí bangers come in a close second.  Regardless of what bait is around these noisemakers, especially when outfitted with a small rattle, will undoubtedly get a predators attention.  Iíve found them to work particularly well in enticing strikes from large fish during small bait hatches when nothing else will. 

 

For the most part, poppers look and act nothing like a grass shrimp, silverside, spearing, bay anchovie, cinder worm, crab etc. So why do big predators always seem to whack them when they are visually feeding on small bait?  This phenomenon can be explained by what Iíve termed the ďannoyance factor.Ē  Big bluefish, stripers, redfish, snook etc., are aggressive, territorial hunters.  They canít help but notice and get annoyed at the audacity of a noisy obnoxious thing cruising across a flat.  Regardless of the bait they are foraging on, the bigger predators feel that whatever is making all this commotion must be punished.  They just canít resist taking a whack it.  

 

Iím fairly certain this theory is true because when the larger bait is around, predators will usually engulf a popper on the first or second go because, in effect, it does look and act like a wounded mullet or bunker.  However, when predators are on small bait, they arenít necessarily trying to eat the noise-making fly, therefore they will boil on the popper, slap it with itís tail, and generally play around with it before hopefully going after it with itís mouth.  Therefore, hook-ups become much more difficult in this scenario. 

 

During a trip to the Hamptons a few years ago, I suffered the constant badgering of East End, New York guide Captain David Blinken, as I missed one strike after another on a popper as fish boiled, tail-slapped and did things that sent my popper airborne. The stripers, which were mind bogglingly big, just never seemed to go after it with their mouths.  After every boil, I would futilely try and set the hook.  After that humiliating experience, I determined that those big stripers that were making a fool out of me were not really trying to eat the popper but were trying to punish it for having the insolence to be making all that noise.  It was the ďannoyance factorĒ in action. 

 

Through subsequent trial and error, Iíve since realized that there are a couple of very easy things you can do to get a solid hook-up in this situation.  The first and most obvious is to have a little willpower.  That means not trying to set the hook every time you see a boil.  Yes, this is obvious, but believe me, itís easier said than done.  Most red-blooded anglers, including myself, get excited and want to strike at every boil.  But try to have patience and donít set up until the line comes taut.  The second thing that has dramatically increased the hookup ratio for my clients and me is to just let your popper rest after it has been boiled on or whacked with a tail.  Predators who were not intent on eating the popper, all of the sudden become very interested when they think theyíve stunned whatever the noisemaker was.  More times than not, a big bass will suck a hole in the water and the popper will just disappear.  Again, it increases the hook up ratio dramatically if you donít set that hook until the line comes tight.  

 

Iíve had great success drawing strikes from big fish with poppers during difficult cinderworm hatches, tiny crab hatches, grass shrimp hatches and when the rain bait is abundant.  At times theyíll draw strikes when nothing else will.  There are, however, times when the big guys wont even look at a popper.  Iíve found that the early morning hours and the hour just before sunset are the best times for the surface flies.  Most of the time, when the sun gets high, for some reason the hogs just donít want to mess with top-water flies.  Thatís when itís time to try another tactic.

 

GO BIGGER

 

Matching the hatch most certainly has its applications, but the more and more I fish in the salt, the more and more I realize that big predators, no matter what they are feeding on prefer a big meal.  By all means, the first order of business is to try and pick a fly that is as close to the bait as possible, but often times, there is so much of the smaller bait around that the chances of getting your imitation noticed, much less eaten, are very small.  Take a spring grass shrimp hatch for example.  There can literally be thousands of these little translucent one-inch critters around.  You can throw grass shrimp patterns all day right on top of boils and v-wakes and not get so much as a touch.  The simple mechanics of the situation are that even if you get lucky, and your fly gets noticed, itís probably not going to entice a big predator to eat it, unless it happens to be in a big pod of bait and the predator just happens to plow through it.  The short of it is that itís unlikely. 

 

Again, the larger of the predator species you are targeting are genetically inclined to target the bigger source of protein, so a big fish is much more likely to pick a bigger bait out of the crowd and eat it.  That said, it pays to match the color of the bait, but go two to three times larger.  Back to the grass shrimp example, I tie a tan and off-white grizzly hackle spayed feather half and half, with a small touch of pink bucktail on the underside.  It measures about three to three-and-a-half inches in length, considerably larger than the bait but very close in color.  Itís deadly during the grass shrimp hatch.  The same can apply with any bait.  Match the color and tie it bigger.  It will stand out from the rest of the bait concentration and entice the larger fish that are going for that extra protein shot. 

 

CHANGE COLOR

 

After Iíve tried increasing the size and am still getting follows, refusals, short hits or worse, nothing, Iíll do the unheard of, and reach for a chartreuse fly.  Itís a simple fact that chartreuse flies work extremely well at enticing larger fish when nothing else will.  I have yet to hear a logical and convincing reason why, but just about every sportfish Iíve every targeted, including those in sweet water, love big ugly chartreuse flies.  If nothing else, this color is very visible and gets a big predatorís attention for sure.  Keep your offering three to four times larger than the bait, and when all else fails go chartreuse.  Another highly visible and effective color is pink, or bubble gum.  Itís important to recognize that half the battle with small bait concentrations is getting that fly noticed.  These two colors are particularly good at doing that. 

 

RATTLE

 

Along those same lines, rattles are worth their weight in gold when the small bait is abundant.  They are now readily available, though most catalogues order outfits and are easily tied right onto the shank of a hook. Their inclusion in a fly can draw several times more strikes than an identical fly without one.  I challenge readers to tie a favorite fly with a rattle and then tie the same fly without one.  Have a contest with your fishing buddy to see which fly gets more strikes and which fly produces larger fish.  Iím fairly certain youíll find that the fly with the rattle works better if for no other reason than it gets noticed by more fish.   Larger predators hit these rattling noisemakers for the same reason they hit poppers.  It gets their attention and then annoys them just enough to want to punish them. 

 

LEADER

 

While it might go without saying to some readers, itís still worth mentioning that lengthening you leader and lightening the tippet might help you entice large and picky fish feeding on small forage.  I really enjoy catching trophy fish and I enjoy seeing my clients catch trophies.  I really, really hate breaking off the big hogs and seeing them amble away uncomfortably with my fly in their mouths.  For this reason, I very rarely fish with anything under 17-pound fluorocarbon.  IĎm convinced that this stuff is virtually invisible in the water.  However, if I keep getting refusals, I will go down to 14 or even 12.  But before I do that, I will increase the length of my tapered leader from 8 to 10-feet.  Iíve even had circumstances where I havenít been able to get a strike until I went to 12-feet. If that doesnít work, only then will I lighten my leader.  (I must note here that this doesnít apply when using poppers.  Itís virtually impossible to turn over a big popper with a 12-foot leader.) 

 

PRESENTATION

 

Last, but not least, altering your stripping technique during small bait concentrations will sometimes cause shy stripers to attack your fly.  Increasing the speed of your retrieve will create considerably more interest from bigger fish that see the offering as a scared piece of bait thatís trying desperately to get the ďHĒ out of dodge.  This poses a bit of a problem, especially when youíre on a flat.  I tend to run out of room when Iím stripping in line like thereís no tomorrow, only to have the fish spook at the sight of the boat.  To correct this problem, I recommend using an erratic stripping technique:  Three long hard strips, followed by a pause then some short fast strips and repeat.  This allows your fly to spend more time in the water while still providing a fleeing appearance.  It also vaguely resembles a wounded baitfish loosing and regaining consciousness, enticing weary but large predators to hammer it. 

 

By using these simple techniques when the big guys are feeding on small bait, you just might up your big fish ratio considerably.  The important thing is to think outside of the box and avoid ďtyingĒ yourself to conventional and traditional flyfishing methods.  Be creative in your thinking and fishing, and odds are youíll constantly discover new methods that will help you adjust to different and changing situations. While certain tactics, techniques and patters prove themselves over an over again, the next day, the next hour, or for that matter the next minute, the fish will react completely different.  What makes a good angler is his or her ability to respond to these changes creatively.  Think like a fish, try new things and youíre likely to be rewarded with larger fish even when theyíre focused on small bait and are difficult to fool.   

 

Captain John McMurray is currently the Program Officer at the Norcross Wildlife Foundation in New York; 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 and sits as the Conservation Officer of the New York Flyfishing and Light Tackle Guides Association (PFLGA).   You can contact him at onemorecast@prodigy.net. 

 

 

SIDE BAR:

 

WHERE DID ALL THE BIG BAIT GO???

Why big stripers are increasingly feeding on the small stuff

 

Ask a number of Mid-Atlantic and Northeast anglers where to find the big stripers and nine out of ten will tell you to look for the moss bunker (Atlantic Menhaden).  These bait fish are bony, oily, and unfit for human consumption, but itís large size (adults range from 10 to 14-inches), itís high oil and fat content, as well as itís tendency to school in large numbers make it a favorite for many predators including tuna, and sharks as well as stripers, bluefish, weakfish.  Unfortunately most anglers agree that bunker, from the North Carolina to Maine, are becoming more and more difficult to find, and the schools when located are sparse.   As a result, hog stripers as well as big bluefish and weakfish are feeding mostly on small bait like crabs, grass shrimp, cinder worms, bay anchovies, Atlantic spearing and wherever else they can find.  Not only does this make fishing for the big predators difficult, but it has been having some adverse biological effects as well.  

 

Because of the Atlantic menhadenís tendency to travel in large densely packed schools, they are an easy target for large purse seine reduction boats.  These boats net bunker by the thousand, grinding them up and processing them for oil and protein meal that is used in dozens of products ranging from fertilizer and animal feed to margarine and lipstick and is a main ingredient in lubricants such as WD-40.  As the menhaden stocks in areas like the Chesapeake Bay steadily decline, predator demand continues to increase as the successful striped bass year classes of the early 90ís are beginning to fill out.  The impact on larger fish is becoming evident as anglers are reporting more and more long skinny fish that lack the traditional girth of an adult striper.  Itís no coincidence that an outbreak of a bacterial disease called myobacteria, a chronic wasting disease characterized by red lesions on the fishís skin, is spreading among the coastal population.  Many biologists believe that the proliferation of the disease has become possible because of malnutrition, a direct result of the lack of Atlantic Menhaden, the historical source of protein for the striper. 

 

Atlantic menhaden also serve as watershed filters because they feed on oxygen robbing algae blooms caused by nutrient overload from point source and non-point source pollution. Without traditional stock numbers the water quality has and will continue to get worse.