Striped bass is the token saltwater fish of the Northeast. If you’re familiar with this species you’ve often heard about their epic migrations. Every spring stripers leave the deep waters of Virginia and North Carolina to spawn and then migrate north. When the stripers arrive, they first hit New Jersey and New York in March before moving toward Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Maine. As a New York native, I’m lucky enough to experience the first wave of the striper migration in the backwaters of Long Island and New Jersey. Typically, stripers ranging from schoolie size to 30 pounds will stage in warm back bays for a month and a half before continuing on their journey. The aggression and brute force of these fish make them a spectacular battle on fly gear. If you're looking to get into some migrating backwater stripers, here are a few tips to help you along the way!
If you're looking to stay on a consistent bite, you have to pattern the fish. This means solving the puzzle of figuring out the best tide, wind, moon phase, and point in the day to target striped bass. In order to establish the ideal set of conditions for catching stripers, you have to fish in a multitude of different conditions. For instance, try fishing an incoming tide during the day and an outgoing tide at night. If neither of those conditions yields fish, try fishing under another set of variables. Once you start catching fish in a certain set of conditions be sure to write them down in a journal, this will allow you to replicate your successful outing at a later date and time. By thoroughly fishing this spring season, I’ve established that the most conducive set of conditions is fishing at night, 3 hours into the outgoing tide, with a west wind at 10 miles an hour. This has led to multiple large fish each night in the 10-18lb range. That being said, there is one tried and true constant that has always yielded fantastic results, fishing around moon phases. In particular, the three days before and after the full and new moon are usually the best nights to fish. This is due to the fact that the full and new moons create stronger tides which result in faster currents in the back bay. These currents often confuse bait and create the perfect conditions for large opportunistic fish to easily ambush bait.
Stripers are most comfortable in water ranging from 42 to 60 degrees. During the beginning of the migration water temps are on the colder side, so stripers move in large pods in search of warm water. There are a few backwater features that attract migrating stripers. The first element to consider is the presence of mud. Backbay areas with shallow mud flats easily retain heat which in turn creates a comfortable environment for fish. The second factor to look out for is the presence of tidal creeks or river outflows. The water at the mouth of these small creeks contains warm water which in turn attracts large pods of stripers as well as a variety of bait such as bunker, spearing mummichogs, killi’s, and alewives. If you’re able to find mudflats or tidal outflows you’ll certainly find bait and hungry stripers.
Gear, Fly Patterns & Retrieval Techniques:
Remember, you can hook into a monster striper at any point in time so you have to be prepared with a reel that can handle drag-peeling runs. The ideal setupfor back bay stripers is an 8-weight rod paired with a Cheeky Limitless 425for fish 15 lbs and under and a 10-wt rod paired with a Cheeky Limitless 475 for larger fish in the 18 to 30lb class. As for the fly line, I prefer a coldwater floating or an intermediate line in order to keep my fly suspended in the water column. In terms of leader, I always fish an 11-foot section of flurocarbon broken down into 6 feet of 40 lb attached to 5 feet of 30lb. When it comes time to choose the right fly, there are a wide variety of patterns that get the job done. My favorite flies include a pink over white half and half, white hollow deceiver, olive flat-wing, and jiggy clouser fly. For retrieving the fly, there are a few different cadences that I practice. The first tactic that I use is a steady two-hand retrieve. I simply tuck the fly rod under my shoulder and strip the fly line inch by inch until it hits the rod tip. Quiet often, fish will hit the fly at my rod tip. The second retrieval tactic is the swing, simply cast up the current and allow the fly to swing laterally across the current. Be sure to strip in any slack line as the fly moves around. It’s important to be patient when swinging, fish often crush the fly as it transitions to slower-moving water at the end of the drift. The final tactic is the strip and pause, I prefer this method when trying to mimic a dying bunker. I simply twitch a large deceiver and pause it for 10 to 15 seconds. The floating line allows the fly to suspend in the column, typically large fish crush the fly on the pause.
When it comes to targeting stripers on the fly it’s important to release them as quickly as possible. Be sure to use the appropriate gear. While it’s fun to target large fish on lighter rods, it’s important to bring the fish in quickly to reduce stress. If a fish is taking a while to revive, ensure that you move it mouth first through the water in order to help it regain oxygen and strength. Looking at the striper fishery through a holistic lens, the stock is currently at an inflection point with dropping numbers and below-average spawning rates. As ambassadors of the sport, we must be dutiful in standing up for these beautiful fish. Please be sure to attend all Atlantic Striped Bass Management Board (ASMFC) board meetings in order to have your conservation concerns heard.
Meet the Author: With roots in the northeast Jack Larizadeh is a passionate fly fisherman and writer willing to go to the ends of the earth to catch some of his bucket list species. Through fly fishing he’s met a ton of new characters and friends who share the same pursuit of the next catch. Jack has authored a multitude of educational and informative content with an emphasis on catch and release practices and community. Off the water, he's sharing his passion as one half of the blog Long Haul Fly Fishing.