If you’ve ever thumbed through an issue of Fly Fishing in Salt Waters and paused to admire an artistically shot striped bass or a creative low-light landscape, the odds are good you’ve seen the photo credit of Dave Skok next to the image. Skok’s passion for all things fly-fishing began at the age of 10 in his home state of Connecticut, where he fished primarily for bluegills. Nearly 30 years later, Skok admits that he loves fly-fishing as much today as he did back then — perhaps even more. He still remembers the first striped bass he caught and stated that one fish was what really got him crazy about the sport.
“I caught it at Penfield Reef on a green-and-white deceiver with some grizzly feathers in the tail. I had a wire shock tippet on because there were some blues around too. The tide was running pretty hard, and while it wasn’t a big fish compared to what I had been used to, it pulled like the dickens,” Skok remarked.
About 15 years ago, the Connecticut native packed his belongings and moved to Boston — an area that historically has had great striped bass fishing. One might assume that an area so synonymous with one species would make it a favorite of those who reside there — this is not the case for Skok. He loves striped bass, and because of his proximity to them, he pursues them the most, but according to him, he doesn’t really have a favorite fish to target — he loves doing it all.
Being a fly-fishing photographer has afforded Skok several opportunities to travel abroad to places such as the Bahamas and Mexico, but the majority of his fishing and shooting takes place inside two hours of Boston. When asked if he has a favorite destination, with no hesitation Skok responded, “I love going to Martha’s Vineyard in the fall to chase mostly false albacore but also striped bass, bluefish and bonito. This trip is kind of a long-term vacation on which I can really immerse myself into the recreational fishing culture of the area, sometimes for as long as a month. It usually takes a week before you actually feel like you know what’s going on and are in the rhythm of the place, which to me is very rewarding.”
When Skok mentioned the striper culture of Martha’s Vineyard, I asked him to elaborate more on that topic, because this fish has a devotion behind it rivaled by few others. In his opinion, the culture of striped bass directly correlates to the magnificence of the species itself. His point rests on versatility. “You can catch them many miles up a big freshwater river, in tiny brackish tidal creeks, 30 miles offshore, on sandy flats, in open ocean surf — you name it, stripers can thrive there and do so 24 hours a day.”
Somewhere in the late ’90s or early 2000s, Skok expanded his passion of fly-fishing into the world of photography. When he started, everyone was shooting slides, and to a certain degree he wishes that was still the case. “There are a lot of great things about digital photography, but the level of competition that technology allows today is not one of them,” Skok jokingly said.
The bread-and-butter of any fishing photographer remains getting shots of the fish, and while Skok agrees, he has a profound reasoning behind each frame he shoots of each fish. He explains: “I love getting shots of the fish themselves because every striped bass is a unique individual. They all live separate lives and had to endure their own separate hardships, and oftentimes you can actually see these hardships on the fish. In addition to fish, I really enjoy shooting fly-fishing landscapes in low light. Sometimes, if the light is spectacular, a snapshot will do, but what I really like is putting the camera on a tripod and shooting long exposures usually with a combination of filters and multiple flashes. It’s a lot of work, but the end result is completely worth it.”
Most of his days are spent doing the same things — shooting photos, going fishing, taking naps and tying flies. Skok has developed many of his own effective patterns but none that have achieved the same level of popularity as his Mushmouth, a pattern he and his friend Chris Aubut developed in the late ’90s.
The two fishing buddies were taking advantage of strong runs of fly-rod-size bluefin and skipjack tuna when Chris noticed that the fish were feeding on tiny, young-of-the-year menhaden. They were about a half-inch long and clear and didn’t even have a belly sack yet. Because the bait were so small, trying to mimic them was pointless, so Skok began fishing flies that were significantly larger than the bait. These flies measured up to 7 inches in length and were tied primarily out of flash. These prototypes worked quite well on these picky and spooky pelagics, but development continued. The key feature that came from Skok’s tweaks was the stiff, yet flexible spine he constructed using Softex. This prevented the fly from fouling and also provided durability just in case it smacked a jetty or outboard engine on a backcast. The first Mushmouths were tied using shredded Mylar, but as time went by, Skok began using materials such as Slinky Fibre and Steve Ferrar-inspired blends. Using such materials allowed him to create supersize baitfish patterns up to a foot long. To date, Skok’s Mushmouth has fooled just about every saltwater game fish that dines on baitfish, including stripers, bluefish, false albacore, bonito, jacks, barracuda and a variety of tuna species, including skipjacks. In fact, the first fish taken on the Mushmouth were skipjacks, aka mushies.
So, if you ever thought this pattern was named after the Fat Albert character with a speech impediment, you are mistaken.