Northeast Spring Primer

Spring is upon us, and it's time to fly fish Northeastern waters for stripers, bluefish and weakfish

April 7, 2011


Finally fly-fishers can get into the back bays and rivers to pursue stripers, weakfish and bluefish. I, for one, approach the start of each season with great confidence. By the time I’m wetting a line for the first time, I’ve already convinced myself of three things. First, I’m sure I’m going to catch more fish than I did last year. Second, I just know I’m going to catch bigger fish than I did last year. And third, I’m certain Mother Nature will provide more days with light winds and calm seas than she did last year.

Keeping a positive attitude is definitely a good thing, but that alone will not guarantee a fruitful fishing season. Before the season begins, take inventory of all your tackle and start figuring out what line you will fish on what reel and with what rod. The idea is to end up with several outfits, each having a specific intended use. Preparedness is often the difference between catching and not catching.

**The Catching Dilemma
**As the fishing season approaches, I constantly find myself analyzing what I did right and, even more importantly, what I did wrong the previous year. I check and recheck my logbooks and measure how effective my time spent on the water actually was. In essence, my thinking boils down to this: Considering the fishing situations I was in last year, did I have a good cast-strike ratio?


True, there are days when the fish are nowhere to be found, and little or nothing can be done to change that. But what about when the angler standing next to you is hooking up left and right and you are not? Or how about when you’ve spent a good amount of time working an area, but when you move, another angler slips in and hooks up on the very first cast. Is it luck? Maybe, or maybe not. Situations such as these are what you should evaluate when it comes to preparing for a new season. Ask yourself what changes could be made to increase productivity and close the gap between your casts and strikes.

In my years as a charter captain, I learned some things the hard way, as I am sure many of us have. One of the most frustrating things was not catching fish when I knew I should be. I’m reminded of a situation I found myself in when I was just starting out in the sport. It was early spring, and the weakfish were being caught in good numbers. The tide was moving at a brisk clip, and the water was about six to eight feet deep. I was fishing an intermediate line from a sod bank and getting only occasional hookups. I was spending most of my time casting and stripping without any quantifiable results.

After a little while, a second angler came alongside me. He was fishing the same fly I had on but with a 400-grain sinking line. Almost immediately after his arrival, he was nailing a fish on nearly every cast. Obviously the weakies were hugging the bottom, and my intermediate line wasn’t getting the fly into the strike zone.


The point is this: I learned the correct technique on the water, and I wasn’t prepared to adapt. I had a whole bunch of flies that probably would have worked just fine, but I had only one rod and one line that couldn’t get the job done.

**Presentation Comes First
**If you want to be a fish-catching machine, you must be able to adjust to different conditions on the spot, as they present themselves. This may require using a different line type, changing fly patterns or employing another retrieve. Acquiring knowledge in all three of these areas is part of the learning and growing process of becoming a skilled fly-angler.

Perhaps the biggest key to success in saltwater fly-fishing lies in your presentation. Presentation is comprised of three components that are equally important. First, think about what fly you are using. Does it emulate the bait in size, profile and color? Matching the natural bait of the location you are fishing is always a good starting point. Tying (or purchasing) flies that mimic a variety of baits is a very wise use of time during the off-season. Make sure to include patterns that cover the entire water column, and most importantly, organize them so they are easy to get to and in pristine shape when the time comes to use them. Second, consider your retrieve. Are you imparting the correct action to your fly so that it mimics the natural movement of the bait? Having a working knowledge of how your local bait behaves is extremely helpful. Before the season starts, it’s not a bad idea to get out on the water and examine how different fly patterns look and move with varying stripping methods. And third, are you presenting your fly in the right place? It’s critical that you set your fly in a spot that will catch the attention of the fish without spooking it. So before the season opens, spend a little time sharpening your casting skills.


**Rigged and Ready Solution
**When I look at an expanse of water where fish are present, I realize that putting the fly where the fish are is dependent in part on the fly line I have selected. That being the case, it’s important to be able to cast a variety of lines with proficiency, but it’s also necessary to have a variety of lines. With my weakfish scenario, if I’d had a fast-sinking line with me rigged and ready, I would have quickly been in the game when I learned what I was doing wrong.

Some might say I’ve taken this philosophy to the extreme. Whether I’m fishing from shore or boat, I bring as many outfits as I can comfortably carry, each rigged with a different line type and a different fly. Having diverse setups ready to fish at a moment’s notice allows me to assess the situation first and then pick the right tool for the job. There is no delay, no rerigging and no changing spools or heads, which saves me time, keeps the flies in the water longer and prevents me from worrying about missing shots at fish if they show up suddenly.

**Be Surf Ready
**Many anglers fishing in the Northeast choose a weight-forward intermediate line as their workhorse for surf-fishing, and while this line will certainly be effective often, it won’t fit the bill for the surf 100 percent of the time. I recommend including many different types of lines in your arsenal and rigging each type on individual rods.


For surf or jetty enthusiasts, the second line to acquire is a sinking line in a 300- to 350-grain weight. This line will sink at the rate of approximately six inches per second and is useful when fishing the deeper holes, drop-offs, cuts, rips and moderately strong currents that exist along most beaches and jetties. With proper casting techniques, this line will also help you throw larger fly patterns that are more wind-resistant.

While there are anglers who can effectively fish on the surface with an intermediate line, eliminating a floating line from your collection would be a mistake. There are many instances in which a floating line is absolutely necessary, particularly when fishing the flats. By carrying an outfit with each of these three lines rigged and ready with you in the surf, you can cover the entire water column, which means you can catch fish when they are on top, when they are suspended and when they are hanging on the bottom.

**Be Boat Ready
**When I’m fishing from a boat, I’m typically working deeper water, and my go-to line is therefore a 300- to 350-grain sinking line. This doesn’t mean that intermediate and floating lines don’t come into play on a boat – they definitely do. It’s an awesome (and not uncommon) sight to find stripers and blues frantically busting baits on the surface, and when that happens, floaters and intermediate lines always yield the best results. For that reason, I never set out for a fishing trip without at least a couple of outfits rigged with each type.

It’s also a good idea to gather even heavier lines, such as 400- to 500-grain lines or specialized varieties like RIO’s DC Type 8 sinking head, which has an integrated intermediate running line. These super-heavy fly lines allow you to fish deep even when currents are running strong, which is often the case in Northeastern waters.

If you feel the off-season will never end, you are not alone. By this time of year, most Northeastern anglers are champing at the bit to get back out on the water, especially after a long, cold winter. When you start feeling anxious for the fishing season, be productive. Go outside and practice your casting accuracy, tie some new flies, load your reels with new fly lines and organize your fly boxes into categories like topwater, suspending and sinking. Anything you do to prepare beforehand is time well spent. If you are rigged and ready by opening day, you can focus on the task at hand and not on all the tasks you have to complete before you can go fishing. Carry this philosophy with you any time you are on the water, and your success rate will definitely increase.

**Steady Hold
**I typically have eight fly rods at the ready on my boat at all times. Since I have so many rods on board, I’m quite judicious about how I store them. If I were to haphazardly lay them in the corner of the boat or not use proper rod holders, they would inevitably get stepped on or fallen into or be in the way. Standard PVC three- or four-gang rod racks designed for spinning and conventional rods can actually work for fly rods, and best of all, they are relatively inexpensive. The open slit down the center of the holder allows your rod to seat deeply in the tube and butts up against the reel seat. Better options do exist, however. I own and highly recommend looking at alternatives, such as Blue Water Designs’ stainless-steel fly-rod riggers and DelStang fly-rod holder ( The stainless-steel riggers are removable and can be placed into an existing conventional gunwale rod holder. Another good fly-rod holder is available from iFly (stores.the I have both manufacturers’ holders mounted on my boat, and they have all performed flawlessly.

**Bang for Your Buck
**Acquiring an assortment of lines rigged and ready on different rods takes time and can become rather expensive. An alternative to having to purchase more reels, spools and rods is to set up at least one rod and reel with a shooting-head system. Shooting heads cost about half the price of a full line and can be changed with ease while on the water. You can carry several different-weight heads in a wallet or pouch that will fit neatly into your bag or jacket pocket. This system is an inexpensive alternative that allows you to read the water first and then select an appropriate head that will put your fly in the strike zone. Besides the ability to quickly change a head to meet a need, shooting heads give fly casters an advantage when added distance is needed to reach a fish. If you are a beginner, casting shooting heads will take a little practice, so make sure to start off slow.


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