It’s often said that 90 percent of the fish are caught by only 10 percent of the anglers. It sounds a bit outlandish, but in my experience, it’s probably pretty close to reality. Obviously, those 10 percent are doing a variety of things different.
While there isn’t room in this article to discuss all of these differences, the very simple tactic of changing your retrieve could make all the difference in the world for you in a variety of fly-fishing situations. Besides being able to locate fish and select the correct fly, the ability and willingness to vary your retrieve is one of the most important tactics in getting more strikes.
The steady or regular retrieve is used by most of the anglers most of the time. The retrieve is typically a consistent or steady stripping action of about 6 to 10 inches in length. The angler may vary the retrieving speed slightly anywhere from slow to fairly fast while fishing, but the overall action is usually consistent within any one cast. When stripers are aggressive and not very finicky, this retrieve may be all that’s needed for consistent hookups. The downside is that an angler can often fall into a rut of relying on it too much for most of his fishing. This can lead to a significant decrease in strikes and angler frustration when stripers are less aggressive and looking for something different to come along. Here are seven effective striper retrives that you can use and combine for a variety of angling situations to increase your odds of success.
The Wiggle-Waggle is a retrieving technique that is imparted by your rod rather than your hands. The technique involves a slight side-to-side motion with the rod tip as you’re retrieving your fly. As a result, the fly gets a little extra wiggle or waggle that apparently turns on otherwise finicky fish. This is also an excellent technique to use when dead drifting.
Stripers often follow a drifting fly. Sometimes they’ll readily sip them in, but in other situations they’ll be hesitant. A little Wiggle-Waggle gives the fly just a little “shimmer” of life that often makes them commit. What I like about the Wiggle-Waggle is that it’s a technique that can be used in conjunction with many of the other types of retrieves mentioned below.
2. Rip & Pause
Stripers will often follow a fly all the way back to the boat without the angler ever knowing it. When the steady, regular retrieve isn’t producing strikes on a frequent basis and you suspect there are fish in the area, it’s time for a change. A few years ago, I was fishing on the Upper Chesapeake with a friend, Ken Steffen, who was fairly new to striper fishing. We were getting few strikes, yet I believed we had a fair amount of fish around the boat right by a drop-off. I began to explain to my friend that if stripers are following the fly they will often be enticed to strike when there is a rapid speed up, followed by a definitive pause. I was in the process of demonstrating the technique and came to the pause, when … wham! A striper slammed the fly. Ken mimicked the Rip & Pause and … wham!
This is a great technique, especially when fishing deeper water with a weighted line and fly like a Clouser Minnow or Jiggy Fly. I believe the technique is effective because the fast ripping motion of the fly gets the attention of the fish. The fish begins to track the fly but for whatever reason, doesn’t seem interested enough to strike. When the angler pauses, the weighted fly dips sharply, resembling an injured baitfish. By this time, the fish is so charged up that it instinctively strikes the fly.
3. The Drop-Back
There are lessons to be learned from other more conventional styles of fishing. I learned years ago as a kid while bottom fishing for carp that if you happened to finally get a bite and missed the hookup, don’t be foolish and yank the dinner plate away when somebody’s trying to eat. Many anglers only think of retrieving the fly in one direction, namely back to the angler, and miss out on some outstanding opportunities.
While fall striper fishing with some friends off southern New Jersey, we located some stripers that were down deep in about 20 to 25 feet of water. It wasn’t a large concentration of fish so it would be important to make every cast count once the fly finally got down to the depth the fish were holding at. I was using a 550-grain sink-tip line and made a cast of approximately 40 to 50 feet up-current/upwind. To ensure the line continued to sink, I fed out about another 60 feet of slack line over the course of 35 seconds or so. On the third strip of my retrieve, I felt a fish take the fly, but wasn’t able to set the hook. Instead of retrieving the fly back to the boat, I quickly feed out about 10 feet of slack line and dropped the fly back to the fish. I started my retrieve again, and on the second strip, I was tight to a 30-inch striper.
Having to retrieve the fly all the way back to the boat in order to get the fly right back in the water exactly where I just pulled it from didn’t make a whole bunch of sense. The right technique to use in this situation was the Drop-Back retrieve. Think of it as a retrieve in reverse. The fly still has fish attraction power going down and away, perhaps even more. When you miss a hookup, all you need to do is drop the rod tip and feed out several feet of slack line. Wait a moment until it comes tight, and then twitch it slightly. Stripers will often follow the fly as it drops back, and the moment it’s moved, they’ll suck it back in their mouth. When you feel the take give a short strip strike to see if you’re hooked up; if not, just repeat it a few more times. Be patient, keep the fly in the strike zone and you may be rewarded.
The Rapid-Fire is a great retrieve that often entices stripers to strike when other retrieves, especially the steady strip, just isn’t making it happen. The strikes are usually violent. To do this retrieve, try to strip the fly as short and as fast as you can. Basically it’s a 1- to 3-inch rapid retrieving action. Just picture the fly in the water going crazy in rapid up and down motions like an injured baitfish that’s going spastic. Another side benefit is that since the stripping action is very short, the fly stays in the strike zone longer. Stripers often find the rapid-fire retrieve irresistible.
When faced with unusual fishing conditions, sometimes one has to abandon traditional techniques and try something radically different. The results may surprise you. I was fishing the Chesapeake and had been doing quite well on sub-surface stripers using a sinking line when the wind suddenly began to blow very hard. As the boat drifted, I continued to cast upstream/upwind. Casting the large 8- to 10-inch herring imitation became increasingly more difficult as the gusts exceeded 15 knots, while my hookups all but disappeared. As I looked around on my backcast, I noticed boils within 25 feet of the downstream side of the boat. The wind had whipped up the water to a nice 1-1/2-foot chop that apparently confused the baitfish and turned on the stripers.
Stripers that had been feeding lower in the water column were now feeding just below the surface, but casting into the wind was exceedingly difficult and tiresome with the large fly. With the fish feeding aggressively so close to the boat, I decided to try something a little radical. I reeled in until I had only 20 to 25 feet of line outside the rod tip that I could pick up and put down easily. I then turned, faced downwind and cast the fly, or should I say smacked the fly on the surface hard and paused for a brief moment. If I didn’t get a strike; I then picked the fly up and just smacked it down again without any retrieve. On the third cast a nice 5- to 6-pound striper took the fly. It worked! After releasing the fish, I smacked the fly again on the water, not 20 feet from the boat. The water exploded when a 16-pound striper engulfed the fly.
The Water-Slap has worked equally as well fishing just off the New Jersey shore when surface-feeding stripers would come near the boat. No need to cast very far in these situations. More often than not, the sound and commotion of the fly smacking the water triggers a strike.
As you probably know, stripers will often hug the bottom around structure. Getting the fly down on the bottom with the fish is key. Sometimes fish will only strike when the fly is actually bouncing off the bottom. This can occur in the deep as well as fairly shallow water. You’ll know your fly is on the bottom when you feel it tapping the bottom or when it occasionally gets hooked on something like clam or oyster shells. While fishing in shallow water of 2 to 3 feet in the Middle Chesapeake near Tilghman Island, I would get most of my strikes immediately after the fly pulled loose from an oyster shell. Bottom-Bouncing also was very effective this past summer fishing for huge 4- to 6-pound croakers off the beaches of Cape Charles, Virginia.
7. Super Slo-Mo
After you’ve tried all the other retrieves without much success, try one more: the Super Slo-Mo. This is a retrieve that can literally save the day. On several occasions this spring when I was on the Upper Chesapeake, the weather was a bit cooler, and as a result, the fishing slowed. All the other retrieves and a variety of different flies were tried without success, yet I would mark a fair number of fish in about 8 to 10 feet of water. The resulting change in water temperature apparently made the stripers a little lethargic, and they were not eager to strike.
When faced with this situation, try the Super Slo-Mo retrieve. This is not just slow, but a super slow-motion retrieve Ñ very slight twitches combined with big, long pauses. We were using a large 8- to 10-inch half-and-half all white herring fly with a 325-sink tip. With all the other retrieves not producing, I switched over to the Super Slo-Mo retrieve and felt a very soft tap. I gave the fly another slight twitch and a pause when I felt another tap. A slow strip, a little resistance and the line came tight on a 6- to 7-pound striper.
This day I was fishing with my friend, Kurt Schmidt. He’s an excellent trout and steelhead fisherman but hasn’t done much in the way of striper fishing. The way I explained the Super Slo-Mo retrieve to him was, “When you think you can’t go any slower, go even slower.”Being an excellent steelhead fisherman, Kurt was familiar with having a “soft touch”and was soon taking stripers on a regular basis. It wound up being a fairly good day, despite the conditions. Slowing things down can sometimes really pay off.
These are but seven retrieving techniques that I have found effective. There are probably as many different techniques as there are anglers. Use what works, but when it doesn’t, be willing to vary your retrieves. Be creative, try something different and you may just be surprised at the results you get.