Fly Fishing the Sand Eel Explosion

Integrated sink-tip lines offer an easy way to send flies down deep to November stripers feeding on bottom-hugging sand eels.
Integrated sink-tip lines offer an easy way to send flies down deep to November stripers feeding on bottom-hugging sand eels.

Mother Nature has a good sense of humor. After blessing us with years of strong mullet runs and endless shoals of peanut bunker, she threw us a curve: the sand-eel explosion! There are still some peanuts to be found in the fall, but there are plenty more sand eels. There are still mullet as well, but not the vast numbers of past season, and the best of the run seems to occur late. Jose Colon of the Salty Flyrodders of New York put it this way: “The sand-eel invasion is welcome with the pitiful peanut bunker populations we’ve seen the past five years.” Scores of coastal fly-rodders agree and have changed their fall boat and surf fishing habits accordingly.

Savvy fly-rodders continue to keep a sharp eye for schools of mullet, and always have a few Siliclones, Bucktail Deceivers and other big flies that resemble mullet, herring and bunker in their fly box, but the go-to fly they tie on before making the first cast is now a sand-eel pattern. Guy Zummo says, “Unless I see bunker, bay anchovies or mullet in the surf, I use a sand eel.” Not every spot on the Long Island and New Jersey Coasts is infested with sand eels. Robby Barradale of the Bayshore Saltwater Flyrodders says, “The sand-eel explosion has definitely influenced our guys during the fall run, but it’s more so to the south of Sandy Hook, for some reason. From Monmouth Beach down the coast you must have a decent sand-eel pattern to hook up.”

Sand eels live close to the bottom and burrow into the sand. Even at the surf’s edge, if you see little squiggly sand holes as the waves recede, that’s a sure sign the sand eels have reported for work that day. Intermediate and deep-sinking lines are essential to take the fly to the bottom. On gently sloping beaches or in a gentle surf, the intermediate line may be an okay choice, but in tougher surf action or where there’s a steeper beach drop-off, an integrated sink-tip line of 250 to 450 grains or a shooting head of the same weight will make a better presentation. Some casters will go to a 500- or 550-grain head if the surf is rough or the beach deep. Boat fishermen will, 95% of the time, find better success with a heavy sink-tip or a full-sink line than with an intermediate, although an intermediate outfit rigged and ready is always a good idea for those times when surface feeds occur.

Matthew Farrell found hundreds of sand eels in the belly of this striper in the first week of November.
Matthew Farrell found hundreds of sand eels in the belly of this striper in the first week of November.

Sand eel patterns that dive are good choices, especially for surf. Zummo prefers Clousers with lead or brass eyes so the fly dives quickly to the bottom after each strip, much like a live sand eel diving for shelter in the sand while being pursued. Andrew Niethe of L&H Woods and Waters likes Popovics Jiggy Fleyes and Rhody-style flatwing patterns and fishes them at night or dawn and dusk. Because ol’ yellow eye is often patrolling the same waters as Mr. Bass, I like acrylic Surf Candy patterns, but I don’t waste time applying two coats of finish. The blues are probably going to chop the heck out of them anyway, so I do the best job I can with one coat and then go fishing. They’re not as sweet looking, but the blues and bass don’t seem to mind.

Sand eels often reflect vivid shades of red, pink, purple, olive green and black on their top sides, and silver of course on their flanks and bellies, which leaves a lot to the imagination of the tier to duplicate these slender baits. For boat and surf, I like long Surf Candies when there are blues around, skimpy Bucktail Deceivers and simple flies tied with Steve Farrar’s Flash Blend whenever I feel safe from the toothy critters and target just striped bass.

Favorite color schemes include red, purple, dark blue or olive over a white belly, or bright attractors with lots of chartreuse and pink. Jose Colon likes 6-inch or longer patterns tied thin in profi le and favoring olive and tan colors. Zummo echoes these color
choices and favors synthetic materials like Polar Hair with mixes of pink or rainbow Krystal Flash mixed in to imitate the purple and pink hues of the natural sand eel.

Regardless of the preferred color scheme, Robby Barradale likes his patterns to be thin in profi le and sparsely tied. “The fuller patterns may be prettier, but the thin stuff catches!”

Whatever hook you select, if you’re fishing the surf, be sure to check it frequently. Sink-tip lines will have your fl y dancing through sand, clam shells, rocks and other junk on the bottom. You want to be certain the hook point hasn’t been bent or damaged.

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