Hit the rivers and backwaters to start your striper season early this year.
One mid-April day a few years ago, I happened to run into one of my most enthusiastic trout-fishing friends on the bank of Meadow Brook in southeast Massachusetts. A sudden burst of rain had put the fish down for the day, and that was one of the reasons we paused long enough to chat. I mentioned that since the day was still young, I expected to try a local tidal inlet to see if the first run of striped bass had reached our southern Rhode Island shore.
“Striped bass?” my friend asked. “I thought they only showed up later in the year – tell me more.” Well, she joined me that afternoon, and with 7-weight fly rods we caught and released a half-dozen 4- to 5-pound stripers. Just when it couldn’t get any better, a bigger bass nailed a mummichog fly in a foam-flecked eddy. The marsh through which the tidal river ebbed and flowed was just turning that faint green color of early spring, a few mute swans made a ruckus when we came too close, and redwing blackbirds sang their hearts out at sundown. It was a flawless afternoon and an unforgettable start to the spring striper season.
Striped bass can be found along the New England coast all summer and into the fall before they begin migrating south to warmer waters. In southern New England waters, they can linger as late as December, and a small percentage, mainly juveniles, will “hold over” in river systems, especially those with a warmwater discharge. In the early spring, while larger adult stripers are spawning in Chesapeake Bay, Delaware Bay and the Hudson River, holdover stripers will begin to grow active, and their numbers will be fortified by “fresh” juveniles migrating back up the coast into southern New England waters in mid April.
Check the Back Waters
When searching for early-season stripers, start with the premise that the year’s first fish will invade creeks and rivers. These fish are often swimming in dense groups, hungry for warmth and food. The brackish water rivers are the locations that produce the spring’s first bass on the fly, often two or three weeks before stripers begin hitting flies in salt ponds and along the beaches, which have cooler water in the spring.
Water temperature is the driving factor, as it affects the activity level of the bass and the availability of food. On a sunny day, a brackish river draining a large marsh on a strong-moving falling tide will produce the warmest water temperatures and the fly-fisherman’s best shot at active fish. When we’re blessed with three or more successive unseasonably warm days, I make certain to wet a line because many times this is the event that gets the action started. Later in the season, dawn and dusk may be the best times to fish for stripers, but in mid to late April, the day shift is tops.
In the region I fish, reliable early-season waters include the Barn Island area in Stonington Connecticut, along with the Niantic and Mystic rivers, and the Narrow River in Rhode Island. Similar river systems and estuaries along the coast may offer early-season striper fishing as well, but the starting date will be later as you move farther north along the coast.
Within these areas, you’ll find the stripers holding and feeding in spots that offer structure and current. I have a favorite eddy with swirling water that is a reliable April hotspot. I also target points of land featuring rocky structure, or marsh patches that jut out from the shoreline. I fish bars, mud flats, shallow areas with a drop-off, and irregularities in the bottom structure. In the early spring, these shallow areas can be accessed by wading or with a stealthy kayak or canoe.
Match the Prey
A favorite prey of bass at this time is the mummichog, which resides year-round in brackish rivers and marshes. These “chubs” are tougher than a two-dollar steak, allowing them to thrive in large groups in virtually polluted water. The mummichog usually hangs out near the bottom, so flies worked slowly to imitate chubs are solid producers.
I developed a fly I call the Murky Mummichog to nab bass in the early season. The fly mimics the bland olive/brown tone of the chub, in addition to sporting a representation of the bait’s mottled appearance with yellow grizzly hackle. I included some copper flash in the pattern to make the offering more visible in stained water. A blend of olive and ginger bucktail for the wing help keep the fly riding hook point up, as does the rugged dumbbell Eye Balz. The fly also includes a chartreuse-and-yellow, back-wrapped hackle feather for the body. The chartreuse is highly visible, and the yellow suggests a spawning male mummichog.
At times, a glass-minnow pattern will draw strikes, especially in clear water, so they should be included in the spring fly box. These flies resemble small baitfish fry, which are virtually translucent, so the glass-minnow pattern should sport a sparse white or olive/white Craft Fur or Fishair wing with the hook shank left bare or palmered with clear monofilament. I fish this pattern with slow and fast retrieves because a baitfish fry will dart nervously at times and just drift along at other times.
Be Willing to Go Big
Though most of the migratory bass that enter the river are school size, there are also considerably larger bass in the mix. I am convinced that the key to consistently attracting these brutes is to fish large flies that imitate river herring and menhaden. Both these baits are similar in physical size, about 8 to 10 inches long, and shape. The herring typically arrive first, followed by the bunker. Any freshwater river that connects to the ocean is a candidate to house these important baits early in the season.
On tranquil days, it’s easy to spot a school of herring when they school near the top of the water. The herring leave clearly visible wakes in calm water, attracting the larger bass. Menhaden make an audible slapping sound on the surface when they are high in the water column. Bass do not blitz these two baits in a vicious frenzy, instead imposing a casual, concerted attack on the bait by circling under and alongside, often picking off the stragglers.
I concocted a fly called the Sloopy Droopy Bucktail Bunker to dupe large early-season bass. I’ve caught river stripers to 19 pounds on this fly. The key to its success is illusion. Long tailing strands of mirage Flashabou create an illusory glow, and Bird Fur Feathers at the fly’s tail suggest marabou and Extra Select Craft Fur. These components come together to give the perception of a large bait, and with a total length of 8 inches, the pattern enters the big-fly realm, yet casts easily with a 7-weight line.
The Sloopy Droopy rides very high in the water column, reflecting the movement of menhaden and the essence of herring when a blue Bird Fur Feather is added. I fish this fly slowly and casually, as the fly will continue to move, even when paused. Bass will generally attack this design headfirst. All-white Lefty’s Deceivers with silver highlights are effective bunker imitations, while blue-and-white Deceivers suggest a herring.
Try on Top
Even though it goes against the logic of early-season bass fishing, in areas protected from the brunt of spring storms and warmed by the sun, you can often enjoy topwater action using poppers and sliders. Many years ago I saw two anglers consistently getting solid hits on 3/8- ounce poppers tossed with spinning tackle in stained, choppy water, and I knew something different was happening. I inquired about their poppers, and they said the key was a rattle built in the body.
That day I purchased some 3 mm and 4 mm rattles, and I realized they could be inserted in a round, closed-cell foam popper body. I heated the tip of a bodkin and bored a half-inch centered slot in the back of the popper body, then forced a rattle in the opening. I was amazed at how much more effective the offering was. It’s tough to beat the hypnotic “pop, pop, pop” of a rattling popper, and this bug is often effective when fished with long pauses.
On a calm day with clear water, a round closed-cell foam slider or diver is the ticket for topwater stripers, especially during cloudy days and when there is a gentle spring rain falling. When constructing surface lures, I wrap the foam body with prismatic tape (for color and durability) in the Bob’s Banger fashion and use long-shank hooks. The slider and diver leave an inviting wake, while the rattle rings the dinner bell. Bass sometimes hammer these baits in a vicious manner, perhaps because they can get a good look at what appears to be a injured minnow.
Match Their Mood
It’s important to recognize that early-season bass fishing can be very challenging. Though there will be days when impressive numbers of bass are caught, more often than not the angler must really work for each fish. This involves persistence, focus and sometimes special presentations for moving water. There are times when dead-drifting a pattern to bass holding in the current works, while casting and retrieving, which requires enticing the fish to chase the fly, doesn’t. It could be that the bass are sluggish in the cold water, or that they have fed well and will only take an offering if it drifts right to them.
The wet-fly swing is a reliable approach for tempting striped bass that are downstream of your position. This can be done by casting down and across and letting the moving water swing the fly. I start with short casts, then gradually make longer casts to cover more water with this technique.
Fly Gear for Fun Fishing
Six- to eight-weight fly rods are ideal for this fishery. You can find 6-weight rods made today that come with fighting butts designed for light saltwater applications, unlike the “banana sticks” of yesteryear that were limp as a strand of Flashabou.
I use a floating weight-forward fly line with an 8-foot knotless tapered leader with 12-pound-test tippet and a cork strike indicator. A 7-weight line casts the float and lightly weighted flies without creating tangles or wind knots in the leader. I avoid knotted leaders for this work because they can pick up debris and gunk that you’ll encounter in the backwaters. A 7/8-inch oval float turns over well and will allow you to detect over 80 percent of the strikes, while just watching the line limits you to detecting around 20 percent. The take is often very subtle, a slight tilt or bob, so if the indicator merely twitches, set the hook. If you miss, just repeat the cast in the same location. The key with strike indicators is to get past the “I don’t fish with bobbers” mentality and recognize their value. When casting this rig, I slow down and open up the casting stroke and lob the cork and fly, as I’m more concerned with accuracy and control than finesse.
I prospect with size 2 to size 4 brown, black, rust, and chartreuse Woolly Buggers because the fly has plenty of inherent action and mimics a prey item that may have become dislodged in the current. I adjust the strike indicator up or down the leader to work the fly at various depths in the water column. Experimenting with fly and depth is part of the program, and if conditions hold from one day to the next, I’ll begin with what worked the day before. When fishing moving water, an appropriately sized stripping basket is ideal for managing the line.
For subsurface work, I’ll fish a clear slow-sinking line, and use the previously mentioned weight-forward floating line for topwater and strike-indicator fishing. Looping a straight 4-foot section of 12- to 15-pound-test monofilament to the sinking line is fine, while an 8-foot straight shot or knotless tapered leader with 12- to 17-pound-test tippet is a good match for the floating line. The straight shot is suited for calm, windless days, but for windy scenes, bigger poppers and the strike-indicator system, the tapered leader assists with turnover. The fish are usually not leader shy, so heavier tippets can be used. They make casting easier and shorten the fighting time, allowing for fast, safe release of undersized stripers.
While most of the fish will be smaller “schoolie” stripers, it’s important to be prepared for the occasional 10- to 20-pound bass. Smaller fish can be stripped in with no need to get the fight on the reel, but the larger bass will get into the backing, so connections must be secure to properly play and land the bass. Regardless of size, they’re all fun, and they’re likely lurking in a brackish-water river near you, ready to get your striper season off to a great start.