The Transition to Wade Fishing for Striped Bass
I felt like I had a decent amount of saltwater fly fishing experience as I had taken many guided trips on vacations checking off critical species such as tarpon, bonefish, snook, permit, false albacore, bonita, sailfish, and striped bass. However, as I ventured into the saltwater wade fishing game I quickly saw how much of a disadvantage being on foot vs. in a boat with a guide, suddenly the learning curve seemed very steep compared to my initial expectations. My only self-guided saltwater experience prior to 2013 was a 10-day trip to Cape Cod for stripers in 2005 (prior to learning two-handed casting) which I caught a lot of schoolie sized striped bass, but no large fish at all. So, in 2013 I reverted to how I fished out of a boat using 9’ single handed rods 8-10 weight. I spent 2013 chasing bass, primarily in daylight all over Cape Cod, and despite six times more angling days than 2005, I failed to produce one keeper bass (28 inches or larger) on a fly rod that season. I had read that night offered your best chance at hooking large striped bass from shore, so in 2014 I found a guide who offered night wading trips on Cape Cod. I fished three trips with Steve Kean and it was my baptism into catching stripers at night. I finally broke the keeper mark and set a personal best that would last 4 years of 37 inches long.
What was most interesting was the last trip of 2014 where after a rough night in surprise storms we ended up finding great fishing for large striped bass at the mouth of a tidal creek, but with a 70-foot casting distance needed using a large Bob’s Banger fly and a 20 mph headwind I could not make fly casts with my 9’ 8 weight fly rod, so I switched to spinning gear. Switching to spinning gear when conditions became too difficult for fly fishing started to become a habit after that trip. One that I would not break until switching to two hand beach rods for fly fishing in 2018.
Over the course of 2015 and 2016, I would continue to do better by fishing almost exclusively at night with over 80% of my trips being fly rod only. I also started trying to use Spey casting as a method of fishing in areas where I had limited back casting room such as bridges. My efforts yielded large numbers of bass ( In 2016 I landed over 600 striped bass in 67 days of fishing) and over a dozen fish between two seasons in the low 30-inch range, however truly large fish over 40 inches/20lb pounds eluded my efforts. In 2017 I decided to put the fly rod down and dive into the realm of true surfcasting.
I have always been a big game fly angler hence my 10 plus year obsession with salmon and steelhead fishing. So, for my personal fly fishing goals, consistently catching striped bass over 20 pounds with regularity from shore and there just seemed to be no one I could find doing it on fly gear. These guys in Surfcaster’s journal were the ones braving bad weather, big swell, and the darkest part of the night to catch striped bass up to 60 pounds from shore. So, I bought John Skinner’s book Striper Pursuit, an 11’ surf spinning rod that could throw lures in the 2-6 ounces range, and a surf-bag with plug, bucktails, and swimbaits recommended in John’s book. At the end of the 2017 season I had caught 8 fish over 20 pounds and 2 fish over 30 pounds all on heavy surfcasting tackle.
What I learned from that year of exclusively surfcasting is rough conditions on beaches in the fall produce trophy fishing conditions and deep inlets with fast currents are also trophy bass haunts most of the season. I also found that while you can catch big fish on small offerings consistently throwing large offerings had dramatically increased my average size of striped bass caught, but substantially lowered my overall catch rate. I wanted to convert this success to fly fishing in 2018 so I started the year trying to repurpose my trusty 12’6” spey rod for fishing beaches in rough weather. I found some pretty major issues trying to use waterborne casts in surf conditions and I also found they were very difficult to use to deliver flies 8-12 inches long which became the norm for me in 2018. Some people will point out most of my surfcasting plus are 7-9 inches long yet my flies are 25% longer than the plugs I prefer.
The reason is the commotion the action of 7-inch plug for example a Danny Surface Swimmer makes for a surface wake generally takes a larger/longer fly to produce similar results. The action on these big plugs helps bass find them and elicits a predatory response from large fish in the dark. After some research I determined I needed to switch to two hand overhead casting techniques and a rod/fly line combination that was designed for throwing large flies in strong wind. I went out and tested several rods including Loop, Beulah, CND Ocean, and Thomas and Thomas’s Exocett Surf. I ended up selecting the 11’2” Exocett Surf in 10 weight for general striper fishing and the 12 weight for my fly fishing efforts at the Cape Cod Canal. It has been a complete game changer for my striped bass fly fishing efforts and I will lay out the major advantages it provides. I will also layout the insights that this very successful 2018 season on fly rod has given me.
Two-Hand Overhead Casting Advantages:
Fishing at night is critical to my strategy for catching large striped bass wading with a fly rod. Fly casting at night requires casting by feel and the less false casts you make the less likely something is going to go wrong. Also, wind is a constant theme on my trips and throwing flies 8-12 inches long into the wind requires a head of 425 grains for winds under 20mph. Once the wind hits 20mph or greater a minimum of 600 grains is required. The other key thing about wind at least half the time it ends up being on your normal single hand casting side and throwing an 8/0 hook in the dark in the wind is a scary proposition using a single hand double haul casting style. However, when using the two-handed overhead style of casting and a rod that is designed for throwing Rio Outbound heads of 450 grains (10 weight Exocett Surf) in floating, intermediate, or fast sinking categories all those problems are addressed. I don’t false cast at all anymore and I can make casts of 60-80 feet into the wind off either shoulder with the two-hand over head casting stroke using the following sequence:
- I typically retrieve my fly almost to the rod tip because fish will follow very close to you at night. So initially I will flip my fly to side of me without wind letting water anchor pull fly head out of rod as I sweep into wind this gets about 10-14 feet of the 30 foot head out of the rod tip.
- I then will sweep back into a spey cast to shoot the remaining length of the head out of rod tip landing slightly downwind and in front of me.
- I let that cast anchor in water and then water load into a strong back cast.
- When I feel the back cast load the rod I then power into the forward two hand over head cast letting the bottom hand drive the power in the cast.
- I release line letting cast shoot out to desired casting distance.
This consistency of casting in pitch black windy conditions is in my opinion one of the biggest factors that has made my fly fishing results so much better in 2018 for big fish than previous seasons. I have stopped using spinning gear as the crutch every time the wind gets over 10mph and honestly the most important thing to catching big fish on the fly is “Stick with the Fly Rod”. However, I also found that the lack of false casting keeps my fly in the water a lot more which is another key to hunting big fish. This is because I am no longer getting wind knots forming in the leader or hitting myself with the fly due to wind. The other very critical thing for me is shoulder fatigue does not occur when using a proper two-handed overhead casting technique.
When I started in May 2018 I was throwing large herring flies on my single hand 9’ 9 weight rod and three days of 2-3 hour night sessions double hauling those 10" flies was wreaking havoc on my shoulders. I tried making the switch to Spey casting but getting any distance past 45 feet with the 10" flies on Skagit casts was very difficult. This arthritis induced pain kept diminishing my casting performance during the final couple days of fishing the herring run and cost me catching some big striped bass. I made the switch mid-June to two-hand overhead casting and I never once have had shoulder pain or fatigue after a fly fishing session for the remainder of 2018’s season. This shoulder friend method of casting is possibly the most important factor to allowing me to stick with throwing huge flies all seasons since my active duty service left me with two very bad shoulders.
2018 Striper Seasons – Insights for Targeting Larger Stripers from Shore
2018 was my sixth season and my best season for big striped bass on a fly rod from shore so far with 20 total fish over 30 inches long. Of that twenty-fish group two of them were over 40 inches long with largest topping out at 42 inches. Historically I have never broke 40 inches fly fishing from shore and typically my number of fish over 30 inches from shore in a season were less than 10 fish total. Here is what I think made the difference in 2018:
- Fish the Graveyard Shift of 10pm to 6am: This is not new to 2018 as I started fishing the night shift in 2014, but I feel it’s so important I am reiterating it. Other than sight fishing your best shot a big striped bass in fly casting range on foot is at night or the first magic hour of daylight (half hour before and after official sunrise time).
- Stealth is Critical to Night Game: I rarely use my headlamp and when I do it’s on the one small red led lowest output setting. Only wade if necessary to get in range of structure where I know stripers like to hold.When wading move very slow and carefully to minimize creating any noticeable wakes in non-surf conditions. If you do things right sometimes huge fish will be breaking within arm’s reach all around you without realizing you are there.
- Daytime Scouting and Presentation Preparation: You must know your night fishing spots like the back of your hand. You also must know exactly how your fly and line combination are going to preform in getting the fly down in the water column. This is not something to figure out for the first time at night. Unlike a river the current and depth is always changing in the areas I fish tide can vary from -1.8 feet on a moon low tide to 12.6 feet on a moon high tide. So a lot of time during daytime seeing how stage of tide impacts current speed, current seam locations, and fish holding capability of structure is critical. One inlet I fish depending on tide height has the current shift from the far bank, to the near back, to a double eddy situation in the course of 3 hours. Knowing how and when to change position for presentation is key and only becomes apparent in daylight.
- Large Flies Equal Less Schoolies: The magic numbers seems to be 8 inches in length at this point the amount of school sized stripers that hit my fly drops off substantially. This is important because some of my best big fish spots are also schoolie hot spots. If I fish all night with a 10 inch or larger fly I may get 1-3 bites but those are all big fish. If I use smaller flies I will catch 10-30 fish but never seem to catch anything over 26 inches in length.
- Two-Hand Overhead Casting Style: Big flies was a critical component to catching big fish this season. 16 out of the 20 fish over 30 inches were caught on a fly of 8-12 inches in length with the two largest fish being on a 10" herring fly and a 11” eel fly. The four fish not caught on flies over 8 inches long were caught on crab flies and one fish caught on a prototype 7-inch lobster fly. Honestly without switching to two hand overhead casting with the 10wt Exocett surf fly rod consistently throwing large flies would have not been enjoyable, but with this casting style and rod/line combo the lack of fatigue means I can do it with regularity.
- Learn Habits of Large Prey Items: Focus on learning seasonal patterns that cause concentrations of or other ideal feeding scenarios for large bait types that trophy stripers prefer such as: river herring, lobsters, crabs, American eels, and bunker. Sandeels and silversides can produce fish 10-25 pounds, but if you are chasing fish over 25lb pounds focus on large bait types. Surfcasters much better than I like John Skinner and DJ Muller have driven this point home to me. Yes, huge striped bass will take 4 inch or smaller offerings, but based on my experiences both fly fishing and surfcasting to target big fish sticking with big flies 8-12 inches is your best bet for trophy-sized fish.
- Beyond Intermediate Lines: The intermediate line is a great general-purpose line for striper fishing, but I have stopped using them for the most part. I prefer a floating line because I like to crawl my very large surface presentations as slow as possible at night and an intermediate line sinks flies making this presentation impossible. For 70% of my fishing I use a full sinking line because at night I am finding being down deep as close to structure as possible is where the big fish hang.
- Looking for 40 Inchers Target Inlets: Deep shore accessible areas with rocky structure offer your best year-round location for chasing the big one on a fly. Casting challenges are a constant theme in these locations as well as figuring out where the best structure is and getting your fly down to that structure in heavy current. Both of my fish over 40 inches on the fly were caught at inlets between 2:00 am to 4:30 am.
- Don’t End Up Under Gunned: I love catching schoolies on my 8 weight fly rod, but I probably have hooked fish close to 40 inches in the past that smoked me early in the fight. This is because I was only using 10 or 12lb tippet and fishing near rocky structure or mussel beds. There is a huge different between a 2-4 pound striper and a 30 pounder in how they fight. You are on foot in nasty rocky areas and cannot chase them so don’t be under gunned on your tackle. I never use lower than 20lb leader at night and my most common leader is just 36-40 inches of straight 25lb (At Cape Cod Canal I am using 40lb leaders) flouro or mono connected to my fly line (mono for fishing surface flies and flouro for everything else). Now if you are fishing in daylight on the flats a lighter (10-12lb) and longer leader (9-12 feet) is very necessary, but when fishing the night shift short heavy leaders work great.
- Challenges of Big Surf at Night with Fly: This is when the 12 weight exocett surf rod finally proved it has another place for striped bass than the Cape Cod Canal. In my rocky beach I only need a 50-foot cast to get into fish, but in 25 mph wind the only thing that could get a fly there was a 700 grain shooting head. I got some upper 30-inch fish and I am sure there were 40" fish around that I just failed to entice that night.
- Nymphing for Stripers: If you start fishing inlets regularly do not overlook using a Czech style nymphing approach with large heavy jig style flies along where the sandy bottom meets the rocks of the jetty. Another tactic that saw the use for the first time in 2018 was using glow in dark indicators with suspended crab flies. This presentation only became possible when I switched to using a floating line instead of an intermediate fly line. Looking to expand on these tactics in 2019 as I think they have great potential for night fishing in general.
So, in summary, fishing from shore with a fly rod does not limit you to fishing for schoolies. Trophy fish can be targeted and landed each season with a lot of hours logged fishing big flies in the dark. If I had to only own one rod for fly fishing for big striped bass from shore the Exocett 11’2” 10 weight surf rod is “the rod” and you should pair it with a reel that has a true saltwater sealed drag with a drag strength of at least 25 pounds. I considered it the lowest cost solution to catching big striped bass on a fly rod since you cannot even buy an outboard boat engine let along a boat for the price of the rod and reel. That was my sales pitch to the wife that got me the approval for the purchase so feel free to steal it if you need to convince your significant other.
One key thing I do want to point out as my overall catch rate is substantially lower now with this method of fly fishing. In 2016 I fished with standard clouser minnows and deceivers in the 4-6 inch size range and I caught over 600 striped bass on the fly rod that year with 6 fish over 30 inches. In 2018 I caught over 300 striped bass on the fly rod, but more importantly if I remove 3 trips where I was dedicated schoolie fishing on Cape Cod my season total for fish is less than 200 fish caught on the fly rod. So only follow this path if you are committed to chasing large fish because throwing large flies substantially decreases your overall catch rate.
Author Bio: Daniel Wells is a well-known striper enthusiast in the North Shore, MA area. Using every opportunity he can to chase trophy size bass, Daniel has developed an in-depth understanding of his local fisheries. He has found the Exocett Surf rod to be an ideal tool for chasing 30"+ bass from shore and throwing the 10" flies he creates. Follow Daniel on Instagram @Canalflyguy to see how his 2019 fishing season unfolds.