It’s one of the finest times of the year for the salty fly fishermen!
When spring rolls around something happens inside me that has stayed with me for my entire life. That is the irresistible urge to have a striped bass put a bend in one of my fishing rods.
Fishing with a spinning or conventional rod with small soft plastics or swimming plugs will usually accomplish this goal but to do it with the fly rod can be a completely different story. Early season bass bites normally require a slow methodical retrieve close to the bottom in the waters that you are fishing and the fly rod is not the best tool. However, if you put yourself in the right position and are set up the right way, a fly fisher can also get that much awaited early season fix.
The waters that you will be fishing in the spring are not along the oceanfront but rather will be the backwaters of bays, coastal rivers, tidal creeks, and flats. The further west you can go away from the cold incoming tidal influx of the ocean the better. While areas of the Great Egg and Mullica rivers to the south are excellent bodies of water, in the central and northern part of New Jersey the Raritan Bay reigns as king as the most consistent fishery for early spring striped bass bites. The river systems that dump into this bay, the Raritan, Navesink, Shrewsbury, and Hudson along with the Arthur Kill hold good populations of wintering bass that will drop down into the bay as the angle of the sun gets higher in the sky and water temperatures begin to rise. These two factors trigger the innate clock of the bass that it is time to start to feed to prepare for their spawn that is about a month away.
I start my spring fly fishing well in the back of Raritan Bay around the charted area known as the Triangle by Great Beds Light. These waters warm quickly due to their dark mud bottoms and warm water runoff they receive from the Raritan River, Arthur Kill, and surrounding creeks. Wading fly fishers can hit the southerly facing New Jersey shorelines from South Amboy to Port Monmouth with some degree of success. These southerly facing shorelines will be the first to warm as they are in the direct path of the sun’s rays due to the beach’s southern exposure.
To my south, Barnegat Bay is also fair game with a consistent fishery as are the Metedeconk, Toms, and Forked rivers; same with the Mullica and Great Egg farther south. The Manasquan and Shark Rivers would be last on my list as these waters seem to stay colder much longer than the others. When fly fishing any of these waterways, boat fly fishers have a big advantage as being able to move around can make all the difference in finding water that is a few degrees warmer and is holding bass.
On To The Fly
In the early part of the season water temperatures will be in the low 50s and the baits that make the first reappearance may be on the small side. When predominant spring baits like spearing, anchovies, or sand eels abound, your fly patterns should also be small in the 3- to 6-inch range. Your arsenal should include Popovics jiggies, surf candies, deep candies, and simpleclones. Also, Skok’s white bait mushy, Farrar’s softex patterns, Clousers, half and half’s, deceivers, and bunny flies.
From the boat fish these flies on a 250-350 grain line with a 9- or 10-weight fly rod. When wading use a cold water intermediate striper line on an 8- to 10-weight rod. For both attach a 20-pound, 8-foot fluorocarbon leader. These flies should be fished slow and methodical near the bottom as you impart a strip-pause type of retrieve. This will impart a jigging action to your fly. Be ready for a take on the drop.
As spring progresses and backwaters warm into the 60s, early season tactics will still work but now more traditional methods can be employed as bass are much more aggressive and spread throughout the water column. Baits are much more prevalent and bigger and bass are chasing them down. Alewife and blueback herring which are anadromous like the bass flood into the bay from the ocean to spawn upriver. Adult bunker also make a strong appearance in the backwaters as they move in to feed on the first planktonic blooms that take place in these warmer nutrient rich waters. The stage is now set for the big bass to feed on big baits and the pre-spawn urge to feed gets even more intense.
When these big baits are established, the biggest bass of the spring will now be present. To increase your chances to hook into a trophy it will be advantageous to seek out pods of bunker that have big bass actively feeding in them. They will be easy to spot up on the surface as you will see and hear the bass thrashing through them. You can cast to these bass by throwing large synthetic flies that imitate adult bunker. These flies can be a big as 14 inches long.
The flies can be fished near the surface on intermediate lines or allowed to sink down below to the bottom of a pod by using quick sinking lines. Retrieves will vary as sometimes the bass want the flies fast and at other times slow. So, varying your retrieve is important to see what the big bass want on any particular day.
Go Big Around Bunker
One method that has worked for me over the years when fly fishing around bunker schools has been to let these bunker flies sink to the bottom of the pod and then twitch them slowly along the bottom. This emulates a fresh dead bunker that has sunk to the bottom. Big bass will usually inhale the fly in one swipe so be ready for a quick hook set employing a series of hard strip strikes.
Flies to use will be large Popovics bucktail deceivers, hollow fleyes, and the beast fleye. These are my first choice as these offerings are easy to cast and present a wide and long profile in the water. Well known in the industry as one of the finest fly tiers around Scott Stryker (strykerscustomflies.com) is one of the few places where you can get the beast fleye designed by Bob Popovics. Other flies that will work are Skok’s mega mushy, Dino’s Herring fly, big Lefty’s deceivers, half and half’s, and Farrar’s bunker to name a few.
When targeting these big bass on fly tackle you will need to be prepared with a rod that can generate enough power and leverage to subdue the fish in a timely manner. Since these bass will most likely be 38 inches or greater, they will all need to be released as per current New Jersey regulations (important to remember if you are fishing across state lines in Delaware or New York where upper slot size is only 35 inches along these shared waters in April).
At minimum you will need a 10- or 11-weight fast action rod; leave the 8’s and 9’s at home. I prefer to use the 9-foot St Croix Imperial Salt 11-weight or the older Legend Elite series. A 12-weight rod could also be used as using this rod will give you even more of advantage when fighting a 30-plus pound fish. Fly lines I recommend to use are the Rio Striper series which are a 30-foot long sinking head with an intermediate running line or the cold water series Coastal Quickshooter XP. For leaders I will use 8 feet of 40-pound fluorocarbon looped to the welded loop in the fly line.
For reels you will want a fly reel with a drag system that will be able to put enough pressure on the bass without failing and one that can take up a large amount of line with one turn of the reel handle creating a faster line retrieve. For this reason, I will use a large arbor reel.
The other option for flies is to cast big poppers or chuggers up on top with floating lines. My thinking here is to make as much commotion on the surface that you can to get the attention of the bass. This method is very similar to what surfcasters do when they cast big pencil poppers from the beach into a pod. They have a high degree of success with this method and this same technique will work for the fly fisher too.
When all kinds of commotion is taking place up on the surface the bass go into a feeding frenzy and don’t take a long look at the fly like they might a slowly fished bunker fly. Rather they are attracted to the splash and commotion and instinctively strike out at their target with the hope that it is a juicy meal.