Standing on the bow of the 17-foot Maverick flats skiff, I saw the bottom spread before me in a patchwork of sand and dark clumps of vegetation. I shot a quick glance over my shoulder at guide Jeff Northrop, who stood on his perch above the big outboard, graphite pushpole in hand. "Fish rolling at eleven o'clock - good one," he said calmly, although I interpreted his words to also mean, "Take your time and don't screw up the cast!"
Just ahead of the expanding circle of ripples some 75 feet ahead, a dark shape was moving in the direction of the boat. Squinting harder behind my polarizing glasses, I saw that the fish was not alone; two others were also moving into casting range.
I made a quick false cast and shot the Clouser Minnow 60 feet in the direction of the approaching pod. The fly landed gently and began dropping slowly toward the bottom before my free hand brought it to life. Strip, strip, pause . . . strip, strip, pause. One of the fish saw the movement and shot forward to investigate. I watched breathlessly as it approached the fly from behind, opened its mouth and flared its gills. The fly disappeared.
Minutes later, Jeff was holding my fish for a photo session before gently sliding it back into the crystal-clear water and letting it swim away. The scene was idyllic, but a few things seemed out of place, such as the eight black stripes on the fish's flanks and the north shore of Long Island in the background. That's Long Island, New York - not the Bahamas.
Stalking fish from the bow of a flats skiff is a pursuit most anglers are apt to associate with the Florida Keys, the Bahamas and other warm-water destinations, where tarpon, bonefish and permit are the usual targets. In these places, eagle-eyed guides pole their clients across shimmering shallows and lush turtle-grass beds, able to pick up the slightest movement at 50 yards.
But in recent years a different breed of flats guide has taken up residence in the Northeast, putting his shallow-water skills to work by hunting striped bass and other species in knee-deep water. Many anglers find this hard to believe, but the truth is that the coastline from New Jersey to Maine offers lots of places that provide fly- and light-tackle enthusiasts with action that mimics the sight-casting opportunities found much farther south. Let's explore a few.
A Welcome Sound
Captain Jeff Northrop grew up along the banks of the Saugatuck River, where his family owned a marina. The river empties into Long Island Sound, a major nursery area for striped bass spawned in New York's Hudson River. The Sound is also frequented by roving bands of bluefish, hickory shad, little tunny (false albacore) and bonito during the season.
Jeff spent his boyhood days fishing the Sound's coves, creeks and rivers, but after visiting Bimini Island in the Bahamas on a high-school summer vacation, he moved there for an extended stay after graduation. On Bimini he learned how to fish the flats at the gentle hands of a legend, the late Reverend Bonefish Willy, who became his friend and mentor. Jeff returned home in the late 1970s with a newfound "sixth sense" that had transformed his understanding of shallow-water fishing. He established a guide service unlike any found north of the Florida Keys, and is widely credited with inspiring the popularity of Northeast flats fishing.
Jeff's home turf - where the shore of Connecticut kisses the western Sound - features miles of varied shallow-water habitat that holds vast numbers of striped bass throughout the season - all of it within an hour's drive of New York City! The area also serves as a waystation in the migratory wanderings of many other game fish as they move up and down the coast. In addition, the near-by Norwalk Islands offer a network of rips, channel edges and barely accessible flats where large stripers can be found feeding in incredibly skinny water. The western Sound is a magic place where you can be fishing for surface-busting schoolie bass and "harbor" blues in one cove, then make a short run on a tide change and tie into a 25-pound linesider or teen-sized bluefish in the next.
Exploring Jersey Estuaries
The eastern end of Long Island Sound isn't the only place that offers terrific shallow-water striper action. There are 80 miles of sheltered waters that fall between New Jersey's mainland and the barrier islands extending from the town of Bay Head to Cape May Inlet. While I frequently fish the sand flats and sedge islands of Barnegat and Little Egg Bays, I had never explored the extensive salt marshes that lie between Atlantic City and Wildwood - until I met Captain Brian DiLeo last year and we spent a few days aboard his 16-foot Hewes Bonefisher.
Brian grew up surfing and fishing the Jersey shore, and has an extensive knowledge of the flats, cuts and tidal creeks that crisscross the savannah-like marshlands around his boyhood home on Great Egg Harbor. These days he spends spring through fall hosting fly- and light-tackle enthusiasts and putting them on striped bass up to 38 pounds, often in water less than a foot deep.
The flats here are very different from the ones fished by Jeff Northrop, and are often covered with bottom vegetation. That's because the marshes are incredibly fertile. Baitfish, crabs and shrimp abound, providing a rich food source for stripers, bluefish and weakfish of every size and age class.
Brian likes to fish long, narrow channels as the boat drifts lazily along, making subtle adjustments in position with a bow-mounted trolling motor. He instructs his anglers to work the little creeks that feed into the main channel and drain the vast marsh system. It is another magical place, especially with the casinos on Atlantic City's famed boardwalk just a few miles away.
One of Brian's favorite flies for this area is the Crease Fly, a foam-and-tinfoil creation that looks like a popper that was run over by a truck. For spinning and baitcasting work he likes the Rapala Skitter Pop, which imitates a mullet. You could say that Brian is hooked on topwater action, and the areas he fishes certainly deliver.
Brian explains that stripers in the marsh shallows often lie in ambush around most every point and cut - very much like fresh water bass. This is a different kind of sight fishing that has to be experienced to be believed. As you drift along through the quiet, secluded inner marsh, you'd never know you were fishing in the most populous state in the union.
Escape to the Cape
Cape Cod, Massachusetts - long home to some of New England's best salt water sport - also happens to be a flats-fishing mecca. There are hundreds of square miles of flats inside Cape Cod Bay, around the barrier island of Monomoy, along Nauset Beach, and along parts of the south shore. Captain Steve Moore knows them all. A Massachusetts native and former staffer at Salt Water Sportsman, Moore keeps his flats-rigged Maritime Skiff on a trailer so he can access "the whole nine yards."
If the bonito are tearing up the south side of the Cape between Falmouth and Monomoy, Steve and his anglers will be there, tossing flies and metal spoons on fly and ultralight spinning gear. If the bass are thick in Chatham's Pleasant Bay or hitting on the outside of Monomoy, Steve's Jeep will be chugging down Route 6 in the dark, heading east.
"There's just so much good shallow-water fishing around the Cape that it would be a sin to park the boat on a mooring somewhere and limit yourself to just one area," Steve told me on a recent drive from Falmouth to a ramp in Chatham. "The beauty of a flats skiff is mobility."
Casting for bluefish and stripers in a foot or so of water, with sand dunes rising in the background, was like being in a different world. Clouds of small, silver baitfish would rush past the boat, fleeing for their lives in water so shallow you'd have to sit down to get wet. Moments later, large, dark shapes would dart in, moving so fast that you only had moments to get off a cast before they were gone. Then we watched as the stripers corralled the hapless baitfish in a bowl-shaped section of beach in just inches of water, drawing a flock of hungry, shrieking gulls. We quickly moved in to join the carnage, and began catching fish on every cast. Steve doesn't call his boat Slamdance for nothing!
More Where That Came From
This is only a small slice of the great shallow-water pie that can be found in the Northeast. For example, the beaches and bays of Long Island, New York, are rich with fish that venture into skinny water. Book a trip with Captain Scott Hardin if you'd like to take a shot at ten-pound weakfish, or head out east for a day with Captain Paul Dixon on Gardiner's Bay, where the sand eels play hide-and-seek with 20-pound stripers in a foot of gin-clear water. Then there's Captain Terry Sullivan, who can put you on weakfish and striper action in New Jersey's famed Barnegat and Sandy Hook Bays These gentlemen are not only great fishermen, they are excellent teachers as well.
The opportunities for taking a variety of species in the shallows of the Northeast are growing all the time thanks to a few pioneers who brought southern-style flats fishing to a new environment in the last two decades. Take it from me: you'll relish the challenge of fishing even more when you have to "wait 'til you see the whites of their eyes" before unleashing a cast.