Fly Fishing New England: Fly Rods and Set Ups For Striper, False Albacore, Bluefish and More

The coast can be surprisingly diverse in New England, from river estuaries and salt ponds to rocky headlands and sandy beaches, not to mention the offshore environment. These three T&T Pros – Kyle Schaefer, Ross Kessler, and Abbie Schuster - cover it all, and each has a unique perspective on the best way to prep for their fishery.

What is your go-to fly rod for fishing in New England waters?

Striper Fly Fishing New England

Kyle Schaefer: For Striped Bass in Maine: 8, 9, and 10-weight Exocett, SS-250, and SS-350. If I had to choose one rod for every day it would be the 9wt Exocett in Maine. 

Ross Kessler: Any fast-ish action saltwater rods between an #7 and #10 do very well around here.  I typically keep a full sink and an intermediate slow sink line on the boat for striped bass and bluefish. A floating line can be a lot of fun with poppers, sliders, and gurglers as well.  The favorite rod has to be the one with an intermediate line on it. It is almost as effective as a full sink but much more intimate in that you can see most of the fish follow and eat the fly.  Currently, I have a Zone 9-weight rigged with a Wulff Intermediate and an Exocett 7-weight rigged with an intermediate clear tip Rio. The Exocett SS350 has a Wulff 350 Striper Line. The clear tip lines with a floating running line are key during albie season. A floating running line allows for a quick lift and recast when the fish move and the clear-tip allow for a shorter leader (usually 6-8 foot leaders of 20# and 15# fluoro) and actually acts like a de facto 12’ leader.

Abbie Schuster: My go-to fly rod is the Exocett SS-350. I love the 350 for false albacore, stripers, big blues, and bonito.

What about the features of your preferred rod(s) make it an important tool to have for targeting species in the northeast?

Kyle Schaefer: What I love about the T&T rods that I run on my boat is that novice and expert casters can both easily load and “feel” the rod work in their hand. The rods I use must be versatile. One moment we may be sight fishing a flooding flat with a floating line and a couple of hours later we are throwing 10-inch flies to the rocky coast or switching to a heavy sink line to fish deeper moving currents. The Exocett delivers accuracy, the ability to punch through the wind and throw a wide variety of lines with ease. These rods are not fast for just the sake of being fast; however, they’re built to catch fish and make my day easier.

Ross Kessler: When you’re fishing New England waters It’s really about fly size and wind. The Exocett 350 is probably the most effective rod on the boat. It can cast big flies long distances and get them to where the fish are. It’s not typically a visual bite like a smaller rod with a floating or intermediate line and smallish flies would provide but it is effective. For instance, last week I was fishing over spring schoolies with a floating line and Clouser minnows. I stripped the slack out of the line and let the current provide the movement and action. Every fish about jerked the line out of my hand and the visuals were spectacular. In a sense, the sinking line rods typically are a better searching tool. 

Abbie Schuster: I love many things about the 350, but two of my favorite things are that it cuts the wind really well making it a great rod for the fall. I also love that it has the backbone to both cast in the wind and to land the fish quickly and responsibly.

In your opinion, what are a few of the strengths of the Exocett SS-350 for fishing for different species in New England?

Kyle Schaefer: Accuracy. The ability to cast long lengths of line on the flat and the coast.

Ross Kessler: The lifting power of the Exocett 350 makes it a terrific rod-of-choice for bringing saltwater species like Atlantic bonito and false albacore in as fast as possible.

Abbie Schuster: The New England salt is typically pretty windy, especially in the fall. With the SS-350, making accurate casts into the wind seems effortless. This allows my clients to fish all day without getting too tired and frustrated with the conditions.

What reel/fly line do you pair with your rod-of-choice for New England saltwater species?

Kyle Schaefer: I fish Nautilus Reels on my rigs. Nautilus XL MAX on my 7 and 8 weights. Nautilus NVG on 9 and 10 weights. CCF-X2 on anything bigger than 10-weight. We fish for tuna in New England and the 12 and 16-weights come out when we are offshore. For floating lines, I use Scientific Angler Amplitude Bonefish, typically on an 8 or 9-weight rod. For Intermediate lines, I use SA Sonar Titan Full Intermediate, typically on a 9 and 10-weight. I also love the Rio coastal quick shooter on my 10 weight. For heavy sink lines, I like SA Sonar Titan Sink3/Sink5/Sink7. Rio Leviathan is also another go-to sink line

Ross Kessler: On my home waters - Buzzards Bay, Cape Cod Bay, and Rhode Island Sound - I use Abel reels with my Exocett 350. Some of these reels are close to 30 years old and have well over 1000 days of use in saltwater. Keep this in mind if you aren’t from a coastal area, saltwater ruins everything. These reels have been used hard on false albacore, Atlantic bonito, bluefish, striped bass, bluefin tuna, tarpon, and bonefish to name a few. I have never lost a fish due to a malfunctioning Abel reel. Care and feeding of these reels include a teardown and greasing 1-2 times a year and a quick rinsing with the hose the rest of the time.

What type of cast should I work on before visiting your fishery?

Kyle Schaefer: We have a diverse fishery in Maine where you’ll get shots on the flat, have the chance to sight cast to fish busting on the surface, and also do a fair amount of blind casting in deeper water and along the rocky coast. A versatile cast is handy but I can coach most anglers through these situations so we are adjusting to the different elements while still being effective. 

Anglers should work on presenting flies at 40 to 60+ feet for cruising stripers on the flats. These casts will need to be accurate and delivered quickly. Practice casting at a target.  But when you are casting at the target, never go right at it. Go through some drills where you are leading the target by 4 feet, 6 feet, 8 feet, and 10 feet. Being able to effectively and accurately lead your quarry can make all the difference on the flat. 

Work on shooting line on both your forward and backcast. This will help you make your shots quicker and spend more time fishing and less time with your fly out of the water. When we are blind casting it’s important to be able to get 50 feet of the line delivered in only three or less false casts.  We’ll be covering lots of water and a quick cast will keep your fly in the zone and we won’t be missing great holding water. 

Work on casting a heavy sink line. Work on opening your loop with the sinking line. There is so much weight to cast with a sinking line that it’s okay to open the loop and shoot more line than you may be used to; again minimizing false casts. On windy days some people use a Belgium cast to keep the heavy line out of harm's way.

Ross Kessler: Being able to cast well 40’ will serve as a fundamentally good starting point.  Further is better, but being able to cast within your skillset under tough conditions will benefit the angler well.  What I mean by this is that if you can only throw a 40-foot cast well don’t think you’ll magically be able to throw an 80-foot cast when the fish show up in front of you. Also, if you’ve never thrown big flies doing so requires some adjustments to what you have done in the past. We all want to mimic that 11-inch bunker but many people can only cast a fly like that 20 feet and only when conditions are good! As I mentioned before, I live by the ocean. On the ocean, the wind blows a lot, and waves are made by wind. A writer once wrote that in saltwater fishing, the wind may not be your friend, but it will be your companion. Double hauling can overcome some of the wind. Learning to curve a cast to let the wind pull your loop is beneficial. Casting over your shoulder and releasing behind you can keep flies out of the boat. Another piece of advice I will give anyone is to stay in as good of physical shape as you can. You need balance, stamina, and some strength to maximize your enjoyment in any sporting event and fishing is no exception. If you’ve let yourself go, lift a couple of weights, go for a run or at least some long walks, take a yoga class. You will extend your enjoyment of fishing later in your life.

Tell us about a certain situation where you honestly pushed a Thomas & Thomas rod to the absolute max both in casting to and fighting fish in your area.

Kyle Schaefer: Casting – After a long season managing Bair’s Lodge on South Andros in the Bahamas my wife, Kitri, and I finally got a chance to catch our breath. We headed over to Abaco Lodge, sister lodge of Bair’s, where T&T pro-Christiaan P. was managing the place for his third season with his wife Lindii. Kitri and I got in the skiff the following morning and headed straight for permit water. The program was to look for permit feeding on the back of rays. It was clear and still early in the day when the first ray came into our line of vision a couple of hundred feet away. With the sun still low in the sky, we couldn’t see if the ray had a permit along for the ride or not. The plan was to put a prospecting cast on the ray and keep the boat concealed. Since there wasn’t a puff of wind the fish would be extra sensitive to any movement we’d make. The ray was still out of range, so I stripped out a little more line to get prepared for a long shot,  thinking an early presentation might be our best bet. I started my cast just as the ray entered the outskirts of my range. I shot all the line at my feet and to my somewhat surprise the fly landed right on the nose of the ray. Our guide Robert called for a long strip and immediately a permit stormed off the back of the ray and two strips later the fish was on. It was the 22nd permit for Abaco Lodge that season in their breakout year of chasing these challenging fish. When my cast landed I realized that a little backing hung out of my reel. This is certainly a cast that I can’t make every time, but I trusted my Exocett 10wt to the fullest and got everything I needed out of my equipment. We reflected later that if we had gotten closer to that fish on such a calm morning we never may have had a chance. It was the first cast of the day and it was one of those few times that everything went right. Unfortunately, my wife stepped up to the bow and spent the next 6 hours staring out towards the water void of permit... now that’s more like it!

Fighting – I was on the platform to watch my 110-pound wife land a tarpon more than half her size in 10 minutes. It was her first tarpon. She held the Exocett 11wt at a low angle to the fish realizing the power in the rod could break its spirit and help to land the fish quickly for a healthy release. 

Abbie Schuster: When there is a false albacore blitz you need to act fast. These fish are up and down and can be gone within a matter of seconds. It is so important to get a solid cast out quickly and accurately. Not only is this situation full-on, but there is usually wind to add to the mix. This fall it was windy and the fishing was quiet, we finally got on a blitz and got a good cast. The SS-350 cut the wind and turned the line over right into the heart of the blitz. We hooked up and then it was game on! This albie ran to the backing three times before we could finally get it to the boat. That fish could have run longer if the 350 did not have the backbone to get it in and safely released without getting too tired.

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