As part of Cheeky's ongoing "How To" series, Cheeky caught up with New Hampshire guide and striped bass expert, Zak Robinson to learn how he targets large stripers in northern New England.
How To Target Big Stripers on the Fly in Northern New England
By Capt. Zak Robinson
Preparing for the Season
Once spring arrives and water temperates begin to rise, the river herring begin their journey north to their ancestral spawning grounds in freshwater rivers and lakes. Hungry striped bass follow in pursuit, foraging their way north to their summer grounds on the coast of Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maine and beyond. The two masses swim up the coast slowly and steadily, roughly following the 50 degree water temperature gradient until they reach their destinations.
By the time this happens you've likely been waiting several months for this marine life to come back to Northern New England and their return is visible in the water. Now that you've probably caught your fair share of schoolie sized stripers, it's time to start looking for a fish with a little more shoulder to test your gear and skills.
How Big is Big?
A trophy striper is always relative to location. For fly fishing in New Hampshire and Southern Maine, 30-35” is a large fish, 35-40” is unusually large and 40”+ is a proper trophy. Fluctuations in the biomass and year classes of striped bass will make for varying degrees of success when targeting “big” bass. Note: The 2011 year class is currently the most abundant (approx. 22-26 inches) See: Age and biomass charts.
As the water temperatures rise, big stripers will follow the herring runs as far as they can. This often means that as river herring stack up below a head-of-tide dam or other structure, big fish will be in the mix gorging themselves on alewives and bluebacks. If you find a feeding stack, cast a big baitfish pattern right in the thick of it. Make sure to strip slowly and avoid jerk-stripping, which will cause endless snags on the herring.
To land big stripers during the spring, you'll often have to fish after dark. I prefer to throw big imitative flies from evening through to early morning. Patience is key during the spring as the amount of natural forage in the water can be difficult to compete with, but twitch a big baitfish imitation around and it'll be hard to pass up.
During the spring, think big like a Benjamin. I tie this Farrar's big baitfish pattern in many variations to imitate herring, shad, bunker or mackerel. I utilize a dubbing brush table to spin the Farrar's fiber, then palmer it around a 6/0 or 8/0 hook.
As the season progresses and the herring run slows, anglers should change tactics and begin focusing on structure, sand beaches and flats in search of that lunker striper. A change in location also means a change in food. Summer heat marks the arrival of squid back to New England. Squid make their presence known when the waters reach 55 to 60 degrees, and big stripers love to feast on this boneless meal. (Pro Tip: keep an eye out on the fishing reports from commercial head-boats in your area for the first mention of squid.)
Squid patterns are a summertime staple for any fly box.
Nighttime is when big stripers really gorge during the summer. If you're fishing shallow water after dark, tie on a squid pattern and twitch it slowly to entice large bass to eat. Even after dark, structure remains key to big striper hunting. Dragging an orange or pink pattern under a lighted dock or pier is an exhilarating way to hook up with a big bass. During the daytime, squid imitations can still be very effective, but make sure you're able to get it down into the deep water. Cast out and give it plenty of time to sink before slowly retrieving it back in.
People don't always think of flats when they think about fishing in northern New England, but they are often some of the most productive and accessible spots for targeting striped bass on the fly. Stripers begin populating the New Hampshire and Maine flats in June. Although larger fish are more difficult to catch on the flats, being able to select which fish to cast to will increase your chances of hooking a large striper. When you spot a large striper cruising the flats, make sure to lead it by a wide margin and entice it to the fly with quicker strips as the fish pursues. I always use 9-12ft leaders, and sometimes fluorocarbon as light as 8-12lbs can be necessary to fool a clever old fish on the flats.
Flats provide great feeding opportunities for hungry bass.
When fishing flats, the most productive patterns are crabs, small squid imitations, sand eels and clousers. Try a blind cast to the edge of the sandy flats with a sinking line and a very heavy green crab pattern, tie the pattern on 4/0 and 6/0 hooks to avoid the schoolies. Short-strip and slowly drag it across the sandy bottom to stir up sediment.
Late Summer and Fall
Most anglers have become slightly subdued by this time in the season, late nights and early mornings, midnight fishing sessions and even some sleepless nights have taken their toll on the mind and body. Don't hang up the rod yet though! Late summer stripers are less likely to stay on the surface very long but they're still around. Sticking to the rocky and sandy shores outside the warm rivers and bays will give you a better shot at large fish. On a calm glassy day offshore (not more than 3 miles) look for schools of big fish just below the surface. These fish will show themselves by the water they disturb, watch for “wobbly water” or ripples that happen in a pattern inconsistent with surrounding water, as this likely means stripers are below chasing schools of herring or bunker. As the season rolls along, bunker becomes a favorite for stripers. The intensity of the fall run is often dictated by the abundance of peanut bunker in rivers and bays. Working with a teammate can be a great way to stir up a feeding frenzy. Have your buddy cast a hookless spook plug into the rocks while you throw a fly in right behind it.
Working in tandem can pay off. Here, the author and client pose with a healthy late summer striper.
Gear of Choice:
- Rod: Orvis H2 8WT or Sage Salt 10WT depending on size of fly
- Reel: Cheeky Mojo 425
- Line: Rio Intermediate and Rio 450 Grain Sink Tip
Boat or Shore:
Use the resources available to you but keep in mind that a boat is not always the best mode of transportation. Boat anglers will have more flexibility but stripers often go where (most) boats can't. Anglers on foot will have actually an advantage when stalking fish in extremely shallow water and when fish are in narrow creeks chasing Herring.