Slapping at the bloodthirsty greenheads nipping at my legs while unloading my fly tackle at Driftwood Marina, the first order of business was a big dose of bug repellent. George Cornish was already aboard one of his boat rentals, eager to get started on a late-afternoon hunt for south Jersey striped bass. Once outside the marina basin, a mild breeze kept the greenheads away (well, most of them), and as we pulled away from the dock, I rigged up my fly rod and reel.
“Here, tie on one of these,” George said as he dropped a fuzzy-looking fly into my palm, maybe an inch-and-a-half long with a fluffy white marabou tail and an orange chenille head. “This should catch some bass if we can find my little friends.” His “little friends” were bay anchovies, clouds of life that filled Jersey’s back bays and thoroughfares every summer, feeding the local bass.
About a mile from the marina where two channels intersected, he found the first pod of anchovies and we started casting and catching fish. By sunset, we tallied over 20 schoolie stripers. George far out-fished me. He was the expert, and I was just a young guy awkwardly casting, trying to soak up some fly-fishing lessons. A gracious host, George gave me a handful of his special flies called Orange Blossoms before I headed up the Parkway toward home.
That was back around 1970 when Cornish was president of Salt Water Fly Rodders of America Chapter #2 based in Avalon, New Jersey. He was a pioneer saltwater fly-fishing angler, a noted professional fly tyer, and an accomplished taxidermist, one of the first to use fiberglass. Over the next few years, he mounted several notable catches for me, including a pair of Manitoba brook trout, striped bass, weakfish, a Walker’s Cay bonefish, and my wife’s big redfish, all of which still decorate our den.
An important lesson from that trip was discovering the great importance of small bait to successfully catch back-bay striped bass. “Find the bait, catch the fish,” was how George put it. It was good advice back then, and it’s still good today.
Bay anchovies live in just about every coastal estuary from Maine to Florida. They are commonly nicknamed rainfish or rainbait because they dimple the surface of the water while schooling, giving the appearance of raindrops splashing down. They’re also called glass minnows because when held up to the sun, you can almost look right through them. In the water, they are nearly transparent, with a single flashy stripe of silver down the side.
Anchovies gather in schools for protection from predators and, at times, the concentrations can be quite large. Their telltale surface dimpling of the water is a sure giveaway to their location. Anchovy populations peak in the fall, although overall abundance has varied along the coast in recent years. Capt. Craig Cantelmo of Fin-Addict Fishing and a Pure Fishing rep says, “The bay anchovy is arguably the most important baitfish to the fly fisherman in late summer and fall. The anchovy is a schooling, slow-moving baitfish that migrates along the shorelines and keeps fish tight to the beach.” This is especially good for surf fly fishers and those who ply inshore waters. Craig saw abundant amounts of bait inshore last year, but he said, “The false albacore were not nearly as plentiful inshore as the previous six years.”
Commonly known as spearing, the Atlantic silverside has just about the same geographic range, season, and general overall appearance as the bay anchovy, but with a pointed nose and smaller mouth. It can grow a bit longer to about 6 inches. It’s more prevalent outside the backwaters, favoring the beaches and inlets. Adult bay anchovies are usually about 4 inches in length, sporting a bulldog look with a blunt nose and an unmistakable under-slung lower jaw. The habitat of these two vital baitfish overlap so it’s not unusual to see a mix of bay anchovy and silverside concentrations within the same inlet or coastal bay.
Clean water is essential for happy anchovies and spearing. While many coastal bays have good tidal flushing of their waters, some of more remote backwaters have seen a decline in bait. In Cape May’s backwaters Ray Szulczewski, retired captain of the TideRunner, told me, “Overall, every year I see less and less baitfish.” I watched the same decline at the top end of Barnegat Bay, where silty summer waters didn’t welcome the hordes of anchovies we used to see, while in the Manasquan River with its superior tidal flushing, small bait is still abundant.
Capt. Cantelmo has also seen a decrease in silversides, saying, “The spearing is another story, and it appears they are not reproducing as well in recent years. This may in part be due to a commercial fishery that targets them as they’re spawning and also looks for the biggest baits.”
For a flyrodder, it doesn’t really matter which is which because most patterns designed to imitate an anchovy look just about like a silverside; however, a fly tyer usually adds a touch of tan (sometimes pink or lavender) to an anchovy pattern and a bit of olive or blue on the back for a silverside. There are many topnotch patterns that imitate small baits, with some dating back nearly a hundred years, like Harold Gibb’s Striper Fly. Others are more recent, such as Bob Popovics’ ubiquitous Surf Candy. In between those years, hundreds of variations and innovations were developed from Rhode Island to Florida to imitate anchovies and spearing. Some were just tweaks of existing designs, but others were more innovative, like the Surf Candy, but they all added their own measure of fun to catching back-bay striped bass on small baits.
According to Capt. Robby Barradale of the Bayshore Saltwater Flyrodders, “The New York Bight and Sandy Hook area seemed to have had more small baitfish from August to October in recent years. I like to tie up a Clouser Deep Minnow or a Half-and-Half Clouser/Deceiver in white with an olive top wing on a number 2 hook measuring about 1 1/2 inches long. These are my go-to patterns, but I also tie a lot of small Deceivers and Candies, again on a size 2 hook, in standard colors like olive/white or chartreuse/white.”
Paul McCain of River Bay Outfitters told me, “I see about the same amount of bait in my area as I did in years past. My favorite fly is a lightly dressed Deceiver for spearing and a Rain Bait Surf Candy in a tan and pink color to imitate an anchovy.”
Let’s go back to George Cornish and his Blossom flies for a moment and pull them into modern times. Their marabou tails provided action even if the fly stood still in the water with no stripping action imparted by the fly angler. It looked alive. While the original Blossom flies are nearly forgotten, today’s tyers unknowingly still tie the pattern. Instead, they create a bulked-up silhouette and seductive shimmer by replacing the yarn-like chenille with Antron or Crystal Chenille, Estaz, Crystal or Metallic Fibers, or EP Brush, Flashblend, or Flex Hackle brush. Each option offers color options and lifelike glow.
Expand Your Fly-Tying Knowledge
There are hundreds of variations of small flies that beautifully imitate bay anchovies and spearing, and you’ll find many of them in Angelo Peluso’s Saltwater Flies of the Northeast, an in-depth look into the creations of the best local fly tyers. If a trip down memory lane grabs your interest, Ken Bay’s Salt Water Flies published in 1972 has all the old-time favorites that still catch, like Chico’s Glass Minnow. A detailed look into fly-tying principles, especially the ubiquitous Surf Candy and its many variations, can be found in Fleye Design by Bob Popovics and Jay Nichols.
If you’ve fished southern Florida on a winter vacation, you may have seen this pattern called the Crystal Schminnow, a favorite night-fishing fly when throwing flies at snook feeding on small baits attracted by dock lights. Up north, many fly fishers call it the Estaz Minnow, and there are many color variations: pink, chartreuse, and all-white being the most popular. It’s a deadly fly for stalking striped bass at night and does a respectable job with weakfish too.
One of the most effective small-bait fly patterns of all time is Bob Popovics’ Surf Candy. Its epoxy body gave it durability that was beyond anything ever tied previously and helped ensure the fly’s fame. The recent switch to acrylic finishes that cure in a blue or UV light proved to be as revolutionary as the original use of epoxy, but with no yellowing, no mixing, and greatly improved ease of application. Bob’s collaboration with Dr. Ned Lunt, a Texas dentist, resulted in the original Tuffleye family of acrylics marketed by Wet-A-Fly Technologies that eventually spawned a wave of similar products.
Another impressive enhancement for Candy-style flies is the employment of Fleye Foils, an incredible product Bob developed with Swedish fly tyer “Ibby” Mesinovic. Marketed through Wet-A-Fly Technologies, they’re available at most any fly shop or tying-supply source. There are three baitfish Fleye Foils (anchovy, spearing, and sand eel) and a Squid Foil. With slight variations in color choices, body length, head shape, and flash, Candies are versatile workhorses along the salty coast, and I’ve even used them in freshwater ponds to imitate tiny shiners.
Bendback patterns are another great fly that can be tied in micro sizes. My friend Rick Ferrin of Long Island likes to wrap body braid on the hook shank and also adds a strip of Mylar along the side of the wing. “The Mylar is stiffer than most flashes and I think it makes a better, more realistic presentation. For really small baits, I tie them on size 4 hooks, but most of the time I use size 2 or 1. One of my favorite color patterns is a blend of pale blue, yellow, and olive bucktail as a topping over the main white wing, and I like large stick-on eyes covered with an acrylic finish.”
Enrico Puglisi markets an EP Micro Minnow fly that is easy to duplicate on your own. It is an excellent choice as a go-to fly for backcountry striped bass. With a large eye, short body, and lots of silver flashiness from the EP Brush and body fibers, it’s a great choice as a fake bay anchovy. Tied a bit longer, it looks like a spearing. I’ve tied them in all-silver, silver/white, silver/tan, silver/pink, silver/chartreuse, and silver/olive on Owner Aki Light hooks in sizes from 6 to 1, and I always keep a good supply in my fly box.
Ray Szulczewski subscribes to the bigger-is-better approach. “I always go with a 4-inch chartreuse/white Clouser. My thinking is that if it is a little larger than all the other bait, it will stand out in a crowd. If you are a fish, do you go for the French fry or the Big Mac?” Although not micro in size, Ray’s Clousers are right about in the middle of average sizes for anchovies and spearing.
Whatever pattern you throw, old-fashioned or new wave, tiny or not, now’s the time to make sure your fly box is ready for late summer and fall small-bait opportunities.