Cape Sands: No Fly Flats Stripers - The Fisherman

Cape Sands: No Fly Flats Stripers

will
The author’s friend, Will Roellke, with a flats striper that ate a 4-inch Ron-Z.

Casting plastics on the flats for Cape Cod stripers.

It’s 6 a.m. as I pull into the parking lot, I watch as the tide drops on the Cape Cod Bay flats. The cuts and channels form a maze of shifting currents, and I have just enough time to hop in my kayak to get to the outer bar before I run out of water. Floating over horseshoe crabs, calico crabs, and thousands of shells, looking down is like a trip to the aquarium.

As I float into deeper water, I see terns wheeling in the distance. I keep my eyes on the biggest group and strain to see activity beneath them in the early morning sun. Sure enough, I see the telltale swipes of stripers pushing sand eels to the surface. I slide into the fray quietly with the kayak, delicately place a cast with a soft plastic, and the day begins with a striper peeling drag.

Flats fishing often conjures images of flats skiffs, fly rods, and expensive gear. These tools certainly account for many of the fish landed on the flats. However, stripers on the flats are just as accessible on spinning gear. In some cases, spinning rods out fish fly rods, especially on days with a strong wind or when you are fishing the deeper cuts that stripers use to traverse the flats.

Wade Safely

Flats stripers are accessible from a variety of vessels, but perhaps the stealthiest method is wading. Even if you fish from a boat or kayak, don’t count out anchoring up and wading in areas you believe will hold fish. One major word of caution: be aware of your surroundings and when in doubt, head back to shore or get back on your watercraft earlier than you think is necessary. Oftentimes, the tide fills these flats in strange ways. When walking out, make note of any deeper areas, and know that if you’re wading up to your knees on a flat, these deeper areas may be over your head at high tide.

Carry a compass; fog can be very disorienting and losing your sense of direction could cost you dearly.  Lives have been lost from anglers who stayed too long as the tide came in. Even if the bite is good, it is imperative to resist the urge to stay longer. Prior to venturing out, set a time that you will head back and stick to it, or leave earlier if wind or other conditions make the tide come in faster than anticipated.

Dress For Success

With all that being said, for the wading angler, proper footwear is essential on the flats. Shells, angry crabs, and barnacle-encrusted rocks can make for a painful endeavor if you don’t have the right footwear. I prefer flats boots when wading. They are available at a variety of price points, but I find World Wide Sportsman Flats Boots from Bass Pro Shops get the job done without breaking the bank. I like this style of footwear because it’s supportive while also being light enough to walk around in all day. An old pair of sneakers will also work, but the materials on these shoes have variable success in being comfortable and water-tolerant enough for wading.

Waders, which are essential during the early spring months or on cold days, may be too hot for summer. I recommend breathable waders. Neoprene waders are heavy, hot and do not breathe well, which can make these trips miserable. When it’s forecasted to be a warm day, I usually wade in lightweight shorts or a bathing suit.

Polarized sunglasses are probably the most important part of the equation, without them, you’ll miss seeing many of the fish that pass by over the course of a day. I really like Costa’s 580G glass lenses. They do a great job of blocking glare, and the green mirror lenses are my go-to color for the flats. This amber based lens adds a lot of contrast to your vision, allowing you to more easily see fish and bottom contours on the flats. Smith also makes a nice lens called the Chromapop which works well.

There are differing opinions on camouflage, and while I certainly don’t have a definitive answer, I do know that the fish on the flats are usually very spooky and react to many small factors you wouldn’t necessarily expect. As a result, I try to wear muted colors when possible. Pale blues, greens, grays, and beige colors probably help make it less obvious to fish that a 6-foot creature is in prowling in the background. For all clothing, look for lightweight, breathable fabrics, ideally with SPF protection. I really like AFTCO’s sun shirts, especially the hoodies, which offer an added level of protection for your vulnerable neck and ears without getting overly hot. Huk, Free Fly and Columbia also make great products in this area.

shallow-bar
A shallow bar protecting a wide expanse of sandy flats on Cape Cod; a perfect place to prospect for shallow water stripers.

The Approach

One of the most important aspects of being successful on a flat is understanding its unique structure. Consider walking the flat at dead low tide to find where the major deep cuts are. Stripers will use these as highways to traverse the flats during lower tide stages. Fishing these locations towards these lower water periods can often lead you to the most concentrated groups of stripers on an entire flats system. While exploring at low tide, also look for the other extreme – large areas of shallow bottom that may even be exposed. Stripers will move onto these areas and do a lot of their foraging here as the tide rises. Armed with this knowledge, you will have a roadmap of where and when to fish certain areas of the flats system you are approaching.

Once you’re on a flat and find some fish, a few words of advice. As tempting as it may be, with large groups of fish, try not to drop a cast directly into the middle of them. This is the quickest way to spook the school. Instead, start on the edges; it’s fine if your first few casts are too far from the fish to elicit a strike. Gradually cast in closer to the fish until you get some interest. When you approach a school this way, it’s often possible to pull several fish from a single pod with thoughtfully placed casts. I have seen a few fish follow the hooked fish, while many others remain within the school, ready for your next cast. Opt for weightless presentations here when possible to reduce spooking.

In shallower areas, the most encouraging sign you can see is a fish with its head down in the sand. At times, you can see stripers tailing like redfish in extremely shallow water or flashing silver when swimming on their sides to navigate shallow water to get access to prey. These fish are actively feeding and very amenable to biting. Again, try to lead the fish here as much as possible. One overly long cast might immediately spook the fish. However, a few short casts will allow you to present your offering successively closer to the fish until you secure its attention. Try to cast such that your lure is moving either directly away or at an angle to the fish’s nose. Fish are not used to prey swimming directly into their mouths, so casting in front of a fish and swimming the lure toward it will usually spook the fish.

It takes a little practice, but once you identify what a striper looks like in shallow water, you will be able to spot them with relative ease moving forward. Tough conditions with lots of clouds obviously make this more challenging. One of the best tips I can give is don’t necessarily look for a whole fish. Any shadow on the bottom, flash in the water, or movement against the current should be a trigger for you to look more closely. There is no penalty for casting to a clump of grass or a rock! When in doubt and with distance closing between you and your target, fire off a cast. Sometimes you’ll be surprised when the “rock” you were looking at was a striper cruising stealthily along the bottom.

Flats Gear

For spinning gear on the flats, I prefer a 7-foot, medium action rod with a 3000 to 4000 reel. My reliable set up for years has been a Tsunami Airwave and a 3000 Penn Battle spooled with 20-pound PowerPro. A similar set up will allow you to toss everything from light unweighted soft plastics to heavier offerings on jigheads.

I connect my braid to a leader with a double uni knot. For the leader, I usually go with a 6-foot trace of mono or fluorocarbon. Early in the season, the fish are often less line shy, and you can get away with 20-pound mono. Later in the season, or on sunny days, I will drop all the way down to 12-pound test fluoro. I tie direct to all my lures, no snap adds another layer of stealth to my offering.

stripers
Stripers caught on the flats often display lighter, sandier colors for blending in to their shallow water surroundings.

Plethora Of Plastics

A 6-inch rigged Ron-Z is probably my number one choice for the flats. This lure is versatile, as it can be presented in shallow water if you give yourself enough buffer between the fish and the splashdown, or it can be dropped into the depths of the channels. I often start my outings with one of these tied on. My favorite colors for the flats are ‘white pearl’ and ‘silver metallic’. A 4-inch RonZ also is a great choice if the fish are on smaller bait, or if you are consistently fishing the shallower sections of the flats; just know that it doesn’t cast anywhere near as well as the 6.

For both sizes, I employ a straight, medium speed retrieve. I keep my rod tip down, and occasionally impart some twitches. Sometimes the fish want a slower, faster, or more erratic retrieve, so try to mix up your cadence if you aren’t getting bites. In deeper areas, let the lure sink down first before beginning your retrieve. You can also jig the lure in deeper channels, letting it fall and swing in the current.

For fish blasting through sand eels, or just a more delicate presentation, reach for a 5-inch Albie Snax. These lures really shine on the flats, as they cast quite well, can be paused and suspended in front of fish, and they land delicately. I have found the best success with the amber and pearl colors. Rig these up Texas-style for a weedless presentation on an unweighted widegap, twist-lock hook. FishSnax lures makes their own hooks which work well, or you can opt for an Owner Beast hook. I like to fish these with a retrieve that is a little more erratic. Cast out and mix some twitches with pauses. Sometimes the fish will come up and slam the lure on a pause as it’s suspending, so always be prepared for the strike. Other unweighted soft plastics rigged and worked the same way can produce well too. Hogy Originals in the 4- and 7-inch sizes and Slug-Go’s in the 4.5- or 6-inch sizes can be presented delicately and twitched in front of fish to draw strikes.

In deeper areas, the aforementioned soft plastics on smaller jigheads can produce, as can pre-rigged offerings, like the 7-inch Bill Hurley Mini Rat Tail in olive or the Savage Gear Sandeel. At times, you will encounter stripers glued to the bottom in these areas, and these heavier lures can get down and draw strikes. Straight retrieves or jigging can produce fish, depending on the conditions.

Consider venturing out onto the flats this summer with your spinning rod and a variety of soft plastics in hand. With this setup and some well-placed casts, you can experience the thrill of sight fishing and the beauty of our Northeast flats.

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