It’s a misconception that striped bass fishing stops in the summer. The spring rush is over and fall’s push of fish has yet to appear; however, July through early September offer some excellent action with schoolie striped bass in coastal rivers, back bays, salt ponds, and creeks. Captain Mike Bartlett of B-Fast Charters explained his summer strategy during a fly show seminar when he said, “The most important piece of fishing tackle for summer is your alarm clock. You want to get to your fishing spot early, before the crowds, and fish the quiet water.”
Most fly anglers who fish the dark side seem to prefer early evening from dusk until about midnight, then head home for a good night’s sleep to be wide awake for tomorrow’s workday. The opposite approach, starting your night session before dawn may seem less natural if you’re not an early riser, but there are many benefits. As Captain Mike stated, you’re on the water before the crowds. Another huge plus is that the water has been rested for a few hours and the bass relatively undisturbed. They get comfortable and complacent after several hours of peace and quiet. Their guards are down, and they are often very eager to bite.
The best nighttime fly-fishing structures are bridges, docks with lights, marinas, and manmade bulkheads. Also consider small creeks emptying into a river, mussel shoals and sandbars, along with rock fields and grass flats. All of these can be found from New England to the Mid-Atlantic coast, though not every local area may have all of them. Depending on where you fish, you can shuffle and wade, sneak up in a kayak or canoe, or fish from a small skiff that’s equipped with an electric motor.
A Maryland fisheries biologist once explained that the summer fishery was dependent upon two tiny water-borne organisms called zooplankton and phytoplankton. They rise toward the surface in the dark, then retreat downward in daylight. Anchovies, spearing, peanut bunker, and fresh-spawned crabs feed on the plankton, often gathering in masses at areas with dock and bridge lights. Stationed nearby are schools of striped bass taking advantage of the binge-feeding opportunity. I can almost imagine the bass smiling as currents serve up a buffet of good eats.
The predominant bait may vary from area to area as the season fades from hot summer to early fall. If you’re fishing a new spot, be patient. It pays to get into casting position but then pause before making the first cast to see what, if any, bait is visible. It’s easy to see the difference between slender anchovies and plump juvenile menhaden, and you can then tie on an appropriate fly pattern.
Surface-feeding bass may give a clue to what they’re feeding on by the way they take the bait. Crabs are often delicately sipped with barely a splash while peanuts may be eaten with gusto, the bass giving away their presence with loud “pops” as they suck them down. Subsurface takes of anchovies and spearing often are silent—the feeding presence of the bass given away only by wakes of bulging water as the bass move submarine-like toward the bait. Sometimes, you’ll see flashbulb-like reflections as a bass chases bait, making quick turns at the instant the bait is inhaled. When several bass are feeding simultaneously, it looks like underwater blinking neon signs in the water lit up by marina lights.
Speaking of which, marina and dock lights cast shadows on the water and bass will, at times, appear as dark, slender ghosts gliding in and out of the shadow line. General wisdom says they usually position themselves in the shadows facing into the current, waiting for bait to be washed toward them, but they sometimes hold positions just below the surface in the bright water, feeding aggressively just as the bait emerges from the dark shadow line.
Tides and currents are of extreme importance through the summer, with a falling tide usually considered the best option because it concentrates the bait and the bass in potholes, deep channels and depressions, along sandbars, and in cuts in the bars. The structure doesn’t have to be big. One of my favorite local spots is a small creek that empties from a golf course into a river, then sweeps downriver over a wide sandbar. As the tide falls, stripers gather at several cuts that pierce the bar where the water is slightly deeper. Schoolie striped bass hang out down-tide of the cuts and mug the bait as it washes through.
This spot is far from the Intracoastal Waterway channel and too shallow for most boaters to get into unless they’ve been there before. I like to beach the kayak on shore or anchor the boat about a hundred yards from the bar and then wade to it. A 60-foot cast allows the fly to swing toward the cuts, and most bites occur just as the line tightens in the current. At the start of the tide, I’m about waist-deep and bass are randomly scattered along the bar, but by tide’s end, I’m only knee-deep and the bait and bass are very concentrated on those cuts.
The moon has great influence, too, although, some good fly fishers don’t agree that the full and new moons are optimum fishing times; however, my logbook shows some really good nights on the moons, and I look for potential good fishing during the three to four days on both sides. A late moonset is especially helpful if it occurs about an hour after dawn because this means you’ll have some natural moonlight to illuminate the fishing spot. If possible, position yourself so the bright moon is not directly behind you. This causes a noticeable shadow and the bass will see your casting motions.
During the new and full moon phases, the tides rise higher and drain lower, causing more water movement into and out of nearby marshes. Increased currents can make drifting flies problematic if the current is just too powerful, though current speeds speed up and slow down through the six-hour event. Change to a weighted fly or, better yet, tie in a 1/16-ounce bullet weight at the head of the fly just in front of the hook eye and remove it when the current slows. A thought on tides: Don’t quit fishing and rush away at low or high slack. Sometimes, bigger fish hang around for a last look-see before following smaller fish to nearby deeper water.
Your experiences may vary, but even in shallow water, if the current is swift, a full intermediate and intermediate sink-tip or an integrated Type 3 tip of 250 to 350 grains may be needed to keep the fly from water-skiing on the surface.
Anywhere there are lights is potentially a great fly-fishing opportunity, probably better than a plug fisherman might experience. Flies are much more easily worked in pre-dawn quiet water than splashy plugs. Some excellent well-lit opportunities are often overlooked but can offer interesting opportunities. The dockmaster where I regularly fueled up mentioned he was seeing concentrations of striped bass at the end of the fuel dock. Hmmmm, that didn’t take long to register, and I targeted the dock a few nights later. The water was about 10 feet deep, so a sink-tip line got the fly down a few feet, and I nabbed two fish at about 5 pounds. That dock became a reliable “secret” spot overlooked by other fly guys working the dawn patrol.
Another spot I liked had three bridges, a metal bulkhead, two marinas, a riprap stone wall, and a marshy area all within 300 yards. It’s a great kayak spot and often gave up several bass when I moved from spot to spot. Because the fish might be under the docks or lying between boats, polish up your sidearm casting skills to avoid getting hung up on dock lines, ladders, and water hoses. I’ll bet there are similar opportunities near your home waters.
Finding good night spots is really a daytime job. Do your reconnaissance runs at low slack water, especially if there’s a breeze to help push the tide out and expose all the structure. You can visibly see where to wade or where to navigate your watercraft. Take pictures, too, since it’s easy to forget what you saw but a photo collection will remember every sand bar or mussel bed cut, and where the drop-offs and depressions are located.
Also, tune up your casting skills in the daytime. Close your eyes and make several casts so you depend more on the feel of the rod and the line unrolling, then open your eyes and watch the line. A friend of mine practices in a park with a small pond after dinner at dusk. He found that the transition into complete darkness gave him time to get accustomed to working at night. You can also practice at the conclusion of an early morning trip after the sun is up to see how the fly drifts, how deep it is, and how the line drifts in the current.
A word about neck lights. Don’t use them unless they are red. Flashing a bright white light is guaranteed to send every striped bass or weakfish into the next zip code. There are several good lights on the market like the Brila UST 580 Dual Power LED lamp that I hang around my neck. It takes AAA batteries and also has a rechargeable battery with a USB cable. My back-up is a small LED light with a homemade lanyard of 200-pound Dacron taped to the barrel. I use it to navigate trails to the beach or kayak launch spots but only as a backup for fishing.
Clothing choice can also have a dramatic effect on nighttime fishing. A dark shirt or jacket is more fish-friendly than a khaki or pale-colored shirt that reflects light from nearby dock lights, even moonlight. All the arm-waving casting motions look like a strobe light to the fish. Many times while fishing docks, bridges, or marinas, I’ve watched bass move away from my casting position, but then return if I rested and stopped casting for a few moments.
Casting distance is a balance of getting close, but not too close. Long-distance casts lead to problems with fouled flies, sloppy loops, line tangles, wind problems, and slack line. At night, about 50 to 60 feet is a good range. This is where a kayak really gives you an advantage because it is so quiet. Anchored beneath a favorite bridge, I’ve had bass swim a rod length away, undisturbed by my legs dangling in the water. It was amazing to watch them in the current as they moved back and forth through the mussel beds, feeding on bait and crabs.
At night, many bass strike at the rod tip near the end of the retrieve. So that you don’t jam the fly into the tiptop, add a five-turn barrel knot or snell to the fly line at about 15 feet. You’ll feel a “tick” as it passes through the tiptop, alerting you that it’s time to make the next cast. Short-head lines like Cortland’s Compact series are good choices for medium-length casts and are available in floating, intermediate, and sink-tip configurations. They minimize false casting, which means less hook-yourself problems. John DeFilipis, former president of Atlantic Salt Water Flyrodders, used to promote wearing clear impact glasses like those sold in hardware stores for eye protection.
I rely on few flies, paying more attention to categories of performance such as surface popper or slider, suspending like an Enticer or Seaducer, slow sinking like a Clouser, or quick sinking like a Jiggy Fleye. It’s good to have a selection of flies in several colors: some all-white and all black, others that are white with dark backs, plus you always need a few with chartreuse or pink. Fly lengths range from about 4 to 6 inches and almost all have some flash. Dock, marina, and bridge lights really light up the flash just like a real baitfish.
Fishing by the alarm clock from now until September should pay off with some decent summer catches, including weakfish, and maybe some herring. I hope those pesky little bluefish will leave us alone. Catch ‘em up!