Dave Micus, Plum Island Sound

June 14th, 2004

Striper Hunting
By Dave Micus

It's 3:30 am, and I carefully ease myself out of bed, trying (unsuccessfully, it turns out) not to disturb the bride. I don't use the alarm, just will myself to wake, which is something I'm able to do for fishing but, no surprise, not for work. High tide is about 7, the rip will begin forming about 4. The car is already loaded with my gear, I don't eat or have coffee (always fish hungry), and I'm on my way by 3:40. I live, intentionally, 2 minutes by car from where I fish. The rod is strung up, I put on my waders, and I'm in the water by 3:45. This is what you do when you're trying to catch big striped bass.

The sun won't be up for another hour, the moon is new, and it is dark. Fly-fishing in the dark takes some getting used to, but conventional wisdom says the big fish move at night, a Darwinian trait that helps them avoid predation. And once you become accustomed to it, it will improve your casting, this relying on timing alone. But it does take getting used to. At a breakfast after an all night fishing tournament, one of the winners described how he learned to cast at night. "Drink a martini, then go and cast, then drink another martini, and go and cast, then drink another, then go and cast. Keep doing this until you pass out." "Hey," another competitor said, "that's the same way I learned about sex."

There are certain precautions you need to take when fishing at night. It's mandatory that you know the area you'll be fishing--the rocks, the holes, the rips. You need to check your fly and leader every third or fourth cast to make sure there are no knots or nicks. I'd prefer to fish an outgoing tide at night, knowing I won't get stranded by the tide, but where I'm fishing today only fishes well on the incoming. It's a mussel bed, to the left of a sand beach. To the right of the beach the rocky shore juts out, forming a bowl, and the water sweeps in to the right, past the rocks, curves along the beach, and sweeps out over the mussel bed, creating a strong rip. You need to get in the middle, cast to the right and let the fly swing into the rip. Then you retrieve slowly and hope there's a big bass finning behind a rock, waiting for a vulnerable baitfish to be swept by. You want to be about thigh deep; shallower than that and a good part of the water you'll be fishing will be too skinny, deeper than that and you'll be swept away.

The ocean shore changes frequently, and this spot is no different. It used to fish well on the outgoing tide; there'd be a lot of fish but they'd all be small. Now it fishes well on the incoming tide, and there are fewer fish but they tend to be bigger. The day before I caught a 28.5 incher here--a keeper by the current criteria, but not by the old (36 inches) that we still adhere to. Still, a nice fish.

It's an hour before false dawn, my favorite time to fish. It requires more than just your sight, and it can be unnerving to hear but not see fish feeding, depending on your ears to guide the cast. Night fishermen sniff the air like dogs, actually more like bears standing on their hind paws, trying to pick up a scent. And it is true you can smell when fish are feeding. This morning there are no splashes and no smells, and I just cast, drift and strip.

I'm using a blue back herring pattern with an epoxy head of my own design. It's been a killer fly for me, accounting for most of the fish caught. Killer patterns are deceptive, though--if you fish only one pattern it stands to reason that you'll catch all of your fish on that pattern. And it is rare that the striper will take one fly and not another; I've only seen a handful of situations where the bass were taking specific imitations. Once a friend and I found ourselves in the middle of acres of feeding bass. He was fishing a Ray's fly and getting a fish on every cast--even caught fish after he released a bass and the fly hung in the water at his feet. I was fishing a fish head, and catching a fish on every 4th or 5th cast. I didn't have a Ray's, so I swallowed my pride and accepted his offer of one. We caught over 80 bass between us.

The blue back herring pattern is what I caught the bass on the day before at this very spot. It's a large fly, with a nice profile, and it has good action in the water. It's big enough to entice hefty fish, but still casts easily. It has very big eyes--an important feature for any striped bass fly. The eye is a trigger for the bass--having no real teeth, they swallow their prey from the head so the dorsal fin will collapse.

It's now five, the rip is moving nicely, and the sun is just thinking about coming up. The horizon is just a shade lighter than the water now, and this is when things happen. I cast to the right, let the fly swing into the current, then slowly strip strip strip. And, though I'm hyper-alert, I still feel that synaptic jolt when a striper smashes the fly 50 feet away. I can't see, but I can tell by the splashes that this is a good-sized bass. Sometimes big stripers hit a fly near the surface like a shark hits a seal, driving it right out of the water. The bass splashes around for a second, then heads for England.

And this is what it's about, why I get up a 3 am, stand up to my butt in freezing cold water, hungry, tired, thirsty. That one big fish. The reel buzzes like a dentist's drill, the orange backing blurs through the guides, and the line goes slack.

Dammit.

I reel in, thinking the knot is bad, but the fly is still on. Hook seems sharp, but it didn't set. On a big fish you need to set the hook three, four, five times. And there was my mistake.

The sun is just starting to break the horizon. The cloud cover makes the sky vivid red, and the water, too, turns red from the reflection. I cast a few more times but my heart isn't in it; I know from experience that this spot, for some odd reason, only gives you one shot. I pick up three schoolies, small for stripers, nice size for trout, 17 inches or so. I hold them by the lower jaw and work the barbless hook free. I lower them to the water and let go, and they are off with one quick swipe of their tail.

I can go from here to Gould's Creek which fishes well from high until two hours after; from Gould's to Crane beach to fish until two hours before low. Then on to the river mouth until low, then to the slot off of Little Neck Road that holds fish at slack low. Then to the lobster boats and fish until the tide forces me off of the sand bar. That would take me until 3 pm, 11 hours of fishing.

But there is wood that needs stacking and grass that needs mowing and I have promises to keep - at least until tomorrow, at 4:50 when the tidal rip will once again surge over the mussel bed at Pavilion Beach. ~ Dave

About Dave:

Dave Micus lives in Ipswich, Massachusetts. He is an avid striped bass fly fisherman, writer and instructor. He writes a fly fishing column for the Port City Planet newspaper of Newburyport, MA (home of Plum Island and Joppa Flats) and teaches a fly fishing course at Boston University.


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