Some people drive fancy cars, live in big houses and drink expensive wine to make them happy. For me, it’s always been the little things that put a smile on my face. It’s hard to imagine many things better than sitting on a deck on a cloudless afternoon with a cold brew in one hand and a fresh “lobstah” roll in the other – all the while musing over a morning of chasing stripers on the flats of Casco Bay.
Protruding from the water like the icebergs of the Arctic Sea, the islands of Casco Bay, Maine, are referred to by some as the Calendar Islands – a name derived from the myth that the bay enclosed 365 islands. Although the myth has long since been proven untrue, the stunning landscape dotting this body of water forms a labyrinth holding hidden treasure for anglers.
Captain Eric Wallace (www.coastalflyangler.com) has been fishing these waters for many years. Casco Bay spans 220 square miles and contains more than 14,000 acres of fishable flats. Mastering a body of water to Wallace’s extent can only be achieved one way – logging as many hours on it as possible. What’s more interesting is that Wallace has done so without a trolling motor and with minimal use of an outboard; instead, he has relied on two of fishing’s more rudimentary tools: a push pole and a poling platform.
Some time ago, Wallace was on the water and a rod went overboard. The outfit drifted into the shallows, and Wallace followed a little too far. He got in too shallow for his boat and stuck. While waiting for the tide to turn, he watched as hundreds of striped bass – big and small – used the deeper part of the flats like a metropolitan interstate. From that point on, he knew the way he fished the waters of Maine had forever changed.
Chasing stripers as if they were bonefish, permit or redfish isn’t typical, but it can be more productive than conventional methods. Be warned, though: Casco Bay is one unique piece of water. Hundreds of islands that look alike and tides that flow like flash floods on a daily basis make for a complicated and intimidating environment. However, after fishing and collaborating with the pioneer himself, I was able to extract four key ingredients to hitting pay dirt on Casco Bay.
Rivers That Run Through It
Right off the bat, anglers need to put a heavy focus on rivers like the Royal, Presumpscot, Harraseeket and Cousins. These are the perfect environments for a variety of striper forage and act as gateways to flats action on Casco Bay. Shad, blueback herring and alewives use these rivers like highways during the spawning season. These huge pushes of bait moving through the rivers are what bring the stripers to Maine in the first place. Around mid- to late June, the bait reaches the end of the road and has no choice but to scatter throughout the flats at the mouths of the rivers – and the stripers are close behind.
Once the bass reach the flats, they quickly adapt to the marine buffet awaiting them, with entrees like crabs, shrimp and – during the right moon phase – worms. With such a variety and abundance of food on the flats, the fish forget about mackerel and herring, and they’ll keep that mentality all the way into September.
Keep Your Eyes Peeled
Whether you’re fishing with fly tackle or conventional gear, spotting the fish is a must. Stripers can be bashful in skinny water and are adept at cruising along while showing little or no sign of their presence – especially over muddy bottoms. Sight-fishing on the mud isn’t so much casting to fish as casting to movements, like trembling water, V-wakes, boils and small bait showers.
I learned quickly when fishing over mud that even the slightest surface disturbance shouldn’t be neglected. Our first fish of the day came when Wallace saw some movement 20 yards away – I saw nothing. As he poled closer, I started to make out an ever-so-slight vibrating mass lazily scooting along. At Wallace’s command, I sent a small, weightless baitfish imitation right in front of the nervous water. Two strips later came the thump! The general rule on the mud is this: If you see any type of movement, make a cast and get ready.
Later in the day we moved onto the sandy flats. If it weren’t for the brisk temperature and craggy shoreline, it would have been easy to imagine we were hunting bonefish on the flats of Mexico. The water was emerald green and the bottom hard white sand. This scenario presents more of a challenge; the fish are much more wary and harder to see. Just like a permit in the tropics, their silver flanks allow them to blend into their surroundings. We had pretty good luck with smaller fish by dropping flies right on their noses. Poling along the beach we encountered some massive bass that Wallace estimated in the 35-pound range. We tried everything on those fish, but like the old saying goes, they didn’t get big by being stupid.
Work The Angles
The single most critical consideration on Casco Bay is the tide – both for fishing and safety. If you aren’t careful, you’ll find yourself high and dry in a hurry. Tides can rise and fall from 7 to 11 feet in one phase; you want to make sure you are familiar with your charts. But safety aside, knowing what the water is doing when and where will make a difference – just like on the tropical flats. Success in this fishery is based on sight, so in the early morning, when the sun is at a low angle, spotting fish on the sand would be nearly impossible. Times like this are better spent looking for blitzes and wakes on the mud – particularly during a super low tide.
Because the water moves so fast, you’ve got to have a plan before you leave the dock. For example, say you are fishing an extreme low on the mud and catching fish. It won’t take long for that area to flood to the point where the fish are deep enough not to disturb the surface. Casco Bay sits 800 miles east of Miami, so by 10 or 11 a.m., the sun is pretty much directly overhead. This is a good time to seek out sandy flats that are still milking a low tide. If you have good sun directly above the clear water, you will be able to spot fish even as the tide rushes in.
As any flats-fishing junkie knows, a stealthy boat is a successful boat. Striper fishing in Maine is no different, and that goes for everything from poling to presentation. The water temperature averages about 60 to 65 degrees, which is perfect to keep fish happy and active. When we encountered the big fish on the sand, Wallace instructed me to put a sock in it – I was so excited to see those big fish in only a foot of water, I was rambling like a child. Such skinny water also means you need to pay special attention to your baits. When fly-fishing, long leaders (up to 12 feet) are in order, as are unweighted flies. Spinning tackle calls for the same – light leaders with either live crabs or soft-plastic jerk baits to minimize the splashdown and increase your odds. When you make your presentation, try to lead fish as much as possible, and make your cast in front of and beyond the fish. When you think you are leading the fish too far, lead it a couple more feet. The fish are less likely to spook if the drift of your offering has a more natural appearance and time to get down to the fish’s eye level.
I’ll Be Back
I’ll never forget the first time I ever threw a fly at a tarpon – my knees were wobbling something fierce. That was a long time ago, and I never thought I’d be able to recreate that sensation until I found myself on the deck with four 30-pound-plus stripers lazily cruising by in 2 feet of water. Just like that first tarpon, these fish didn’t eat, either. But they left me with a void that I’ll need to fill. And the only way to do that is to return to the shallow flats of Casco Bay, Maine.
WHAT: While stripers are the main draw, fishing for laid-up bluefish is another scenario anglers might witness on the flats of Casco Bay. Throwing poppers to these voracious feeders when they are stationary is a blast and quite different from fishing for them when they are schooling.
WHERE: Although there are several airports that are in close proximity to Casco Bay, the most convenient is Portland. Rent a car at the airport and head north to Freeport, which is a great spot for couples. Bed-and-breakfast type inns are aplenty and are well suited for anglers and shoppers alike.
Chebeague Island Inn
WHEN: Depending on how harsh the winter is, flats fishing can start as early as May. Fishing really heats up in mid-June and lasts into October if the weather stays mild.
WHO: Casco Bay can be a tricky place to explore on your own. Fish with a guide until you get your bearings.
Coastal Fly Angler
Capt. Eric Wallace
Portland Guide Service
Capt. John Ford
Capt. Doug Jowett