I’m drifting along a window-clear flat about 150 feet from a coarse-sand beach. The only sound I hear is a staccato click, click, click that sounds like someone flicking a cigarette lighter. My buddy on the poling platform, Capt. Joe Blados, told me he quit smoking, so I break my concentration for a moment and turn around to determine the source of that curious sound. Now Joe is wondering why I’m not looking ahead, but when I see that he’s working the remote switches on the trolling motors, I spin around again and resume my search mode. We’re looking for fish in the shallows, a game that many peg as the ultimate challenge in light-tackle fishing.
A number of anglers associate this type of fishing primarily with the tropics. In the past few years, however, more and more are discovering the world-class flats fishery that is literally in their backyard. For the past 10 years, before moving back to Connecticut last spring, I annually went to the Northeast to visit friends and relatives, but mostly to fish the shallows mainly for stripers. Areas like Monomoy, the Vineyard and Nantucket have become justly famous, but if you live in New York or Connecticut, you can significantly reduce your travel time and still enjoy some outstanding flats fishing by heading out to Long Island’s north shore.
As in most shallow-water settings, the most productive way to cover the water is by boat. This is specialized fishing, and to maximize your time on the water you’ll need a specialized craft that can be easily and constantly maneuvered in shallow water either via a poling platform or some sort of trolling-motor setup. Among the best I’ve seen are the dual trim tab-mounted Lencos. Twin electric motors not only provide the power you’ll need to propel the boat in windy conditions, but just like dual standard engines on a boat, they also offer maximum maneuverability.
If you don’t have a skiff you can opt for a day with one of the area’s experienced guides. Of course, a guide can be a great investment even if you have your own skiff. They can help locate likely fishing spots and educate boaters on the many hazards that exist in the coastal waters of Long Island’s north shore.
For me the beauty of this fishery is that if neither of these alternatives fits your budget or your style, you’ll still find plenty of shore access to great fishing. Wading the shallows and actually spotting fish you can cast to has a magic all its own. Probing the flats in a skiff is a demanding game; doing it on foot raises the challenge quotient significantly.
Aside from not being able to cover as much water, the biggest handicap is the restricted visibility. That’s why poling platforms are considered standard equipment on flats skiffs. They function like mini tuna towers. The added height above the deck greatly increases your ability to spot fish. In contrast, standing on deck greatly reduces the range of vision, and going lower in the water while wading reduces it even more.
However, if you wade carefully, what you have going for you is pure stealth. There is no large boat profile, no ominous movement and no hull slap. You’re often closer to your quarry, so casts can be shorter and more accurate. I’ve stood shin deep in the eelgrass flats off Orient Beach and watched stripers swim past that literally were only a rod’s length away. I had to wait until they swam out about 10 yards before I dared move the rod to prepare for the cast.
Being on foot also lets you access spots that would be off limits for even the shallowest draft boats. One such spot that comes to mind is the causeway between Orient and east Marion. I have driven over this roadway hundreds of times, and with the exception of a few flat-bottom clam skiffs, I have never seen a fishing boat in these shallows. Several times I have almost veered off the road watching small V-shaped surface wakes that are telltale signs of cruising fish, and last summer the sight of surface wakes caused me to miss my scheduled ferry ride back to New London. The three school-sized bass I caught in water that barely covered my ankles made the three-hour delay a minor inconvenience.
If you ride the ferry over from Connecticut and are anxious to get your feet wet almost as soon as you arrive on the island, you’ll find access points for Hallock’s Bay only a couple of miles from the parking lot. Brown’s Point and Peter’s Neck Point jut out into the bay like a pair of crooked fingers. An outgoing tide will generate a strong current around the points, and if you study the water with a good pair of polarized glasses, you can sometimes spot shadows cruising the edge of the drop-offs. Even if I do not see fish, I blind-cast and let the fly sweep in an arc with the current. You’ll be amazed at the bass you hook that you never knew were there.
Of course, with a flats skiff, the possibilities are almost limitless in this area. You could easily spend a season just probing the shallows around Shelter Island. Last June, the back side of the island gave up good numbers of bass for anglers willing to put in the time. As in all phases of the sport, conditions change, especially on the shallow-water flats. A flat that’s productive on one day may be devoid of fish the very next one on the same tide. In addition, the fishes’ feeding mode may be as fickle as their travel inclinations. The same fish that bit well on the flat today may not cooperate tomorrow even if conditions are apparently the same.
What’s the bottom line? Be willing to explore different spots when you’re fishing the shallows. Obviously this applies to practically all fishing, but it’s particularly important on the flats. If you want to stand a chance of encountering fish with at least a fair degree of consistency, you have to be willing to try a variety of spots. For the shore-bound angler, this may mean driving to different destinations during a single outing or on successive trips.
Despite the effort (or perhaps because of it), the rewards in this type of fishing are unique. It’s always exciting to see signs like circling birds that may indicate the presence of fish, but it’s hard to find anything in fishing more exhilarating than actually seeing and targeting your quarry. Naturally, water clarity is of paramount importance. Thankfully, the east end of Long Island’s North Fork is blessed with an abundance. If clouds or a wind-ripped surface compromise visibility, I compensate by blind-casting. You may not see the fish initially, but in shallow water you can generally see the take – and that’s a thrilling experience in its own right.
Because flats fishing is so specialized, many anglers get locked into a particular mode of fishing and are reluctant to change. For fly-fishers, the standard presentation mode is usually a Clouser Minnow or similar weighted pattern tied to the end of a weight-forward floating or clear intermediate line. I have taken most of my shallow-water stripers with basically this same setup. But for the past couple of seasons I’ve begun to change tactics, and the results have been far better than I ever expected.
First of all, instead of using a standard weight-forward line, I’ve switched to an interchangeable line system that allows me to quickly change tip sections to accommodate different conditions and fly patterns. A number of companies offer these quick-change lines, which utilize a floating, tapered running line in conjunction with floating, intermediate and fast-sinking tip sections. I particularly like the systems that use short, 15-foot tip sections that have proven ideal for shallow-water applications.
The two tips I use most often are the clear intermediate and the fast-sinking, which likely surprises many flats fishermen. Why use a fast-sinking tip when fishing water that is only a few feet deep? The answer lies with the factors of current and speed of delivery. You have to bear in mind that even a line designated as “fast-sinking” doesn’t plumb the depths like a pyramid sinker or a diamond jig. By comparison, fly lines sink relatively slowly. Their descent rate is measured in inches per second. If the tide is running, even a moderate current will further impede the sink rate. Fishing the shallows is fast-lane fishing in the sense that the fly has to be presented without undue delay. Fish can quickly change direction. A striper may seem slow compared with a bonefish or a permit, but just a couple of swipes with their broomtail-shaped caudal fins can quickly put them out of casting range. Not only do you want to present the fly as quickly as possible with a minimum of false casts, but also you want the fly to be in the feeding zone almost as soon as it lands in the water. Stripers in the shallows are often feeding close to or right on the bottom, so that’s where you want to fish the fly. Even a weighted fly on a floating fly line may take too long to settle into their feeding zone; that’s why I’ve switched to the sink tip.
If the current is light and I am in less than 5 feet of water, I generally use the clear intermediate tip. When the water is exceptionally clear or when the bass seem overly finicky, I want the clear tip because it is less visible than the colored lines. The intermediate sink rate is also very versatile in shallow water because it allows you to fish the full range of the water column. If you lead a fish to the point that you can wait a few seconds before stripping line, the fly generally will have a chance to settle near the bottom. On the other hand, if you want to fish the fly on or near the surface, the slow sink rate of the intermediate line will let you.
Fishing a fly on top is another tactic that many flats anglers seem reluctant to try, maybe because they fear this will spook fish that already seem as cautious as a cat slinking past a guard dog. I initially felt that way, but after seeing my spin-fishing buddies nail bass after bass in the shallows on surface plugs and chuggers, I no longer hesitate to fish surface offerings. In fact, there are times when a topwater presentation is the hot ticket.
My favorite fly for shallow-water surface work is Blados’ Crease Fly, and I was surprised a couple of years ago when he seemed hesitant about my fishing it on the flats. I told him I had already done this numerous times on the Vineyard with great success and that I was confident it would work in his home waters around the North Fork. On the very first cast in the shallows near the Mattituck Inlet, a bass ate it as the fly sat motionless on the surface. I had made a cast that was shorter than expected because the fly line fouled on the protrusion of a homemade stripping basket that I’ve since eliminated. I was clearing the tangle when I heard a loud splash and then felt the line suddenly get tight.
Drawing strikes while merely floating on the surface was not an isolated incident, but the most effective way to fish the Crease Fly is by imparting movement. Depending on conditions and the feeding mood of the fish, you can do this in a number of ways. A steady hand-over-hand retrieve will cause the fly to swim on the surface with a slight side-to-side movement. If the fly is tracking correctly, it will leave a small wake in its path. Stripers seem to find this irresistible, especially in the shallows. I had my wife use this technique this past June near Orient Point, but she was having difficulty drawing strikes. She would become entranced with the bass tracking the fly and would forget to keep stripping line. Once in a while, a thoroughly enraged bass would swipe at it, but most of the time when the fly stopped moving, the fish lost interest.
A second way to fish this fly on the surface involves one or two short, sharp strips on the line that will cause the blunt, flat face to push water like a popper. After this surface commotion, resume swimming the fly slowly across the surface. The initial surface disturbance and noise will often draw the bass’ interest; then when the Crease Fly starts to swim away, they go in for the kill. This makes for some of the most exciting fishing you’ll experience anywhere.
You can also fish this fly effectively on a sinking line, which adds to its versatility. Stripping the line will cause the fly to dive a few feet below the surface and mimic the action of some swimming plugs favored by spin fishermen. When visibility is poor in the shallows, this is one blind-casting technique I often resort to. If any fish are in the area, they will likely respond to this subsurface swimmer.
So here in New York you have a deadly combination of locale and offering: Long Island’s North Fork and the Crease Fly. Now all you have to do is get out on the water.