Fly fishing stripers can be a year-round activity – you just have to follow the fish. In the winter, fish are offshore, hanging by deeper water that keeps a stable temperature that is more to their liking (in the 40’s). And they move south, traveling from as far north as Nova Scotia to as far South as the St. John’s River in Florida. Each state has a different season and fishery, with the southern states fishing best in winter. And with that said, some striped bass winter close to their summer stomping grounds, providing again they have access to water (and food). New York anglers (who don’t mind the cold) do find fish in the winter, but they’re usually deep and tough to access even with fast sinking fly lines. The same goes for Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia…you may find fish but presenting a fly is better accomplished with vertical jigging tackle.
Winter fly fishing can be quite good for smaller, sub-adult striped bass in the south. North Carolina has a dynamic fishery in the tannin-stained creeks and rivers of it’s saltwater sounds. Again, these waters are shallow, but warm quickly and have food year-round (killifish, crabs, and shrimp).
Starting in February and March on the Chesapeake, and up to a month earlier or later depending on how far south or north, adult striped bass begin to make their journeys from saltwater to brackish water. Anglers on the Chesapeake Bay first intercept these fish at warm-water discharges (power plants and treatment facilities), or see them on tidal river flats during a warm winter day. Usually by March, these fish are spread throughout the bay, and can be targeted legally in the headwaters of some local rivers and the northernmost portion of the Chesapeake, the Susquehanna Flats.
April and May bring some of the best light tackle and fly fishing of the year, as water temperatures in the 50’s to low 70’s bring baitfish and crabs into the shallows, and striped bass follow them. This time of year is also excellent for sight fishing the clear waters of the Chesapeake shallows. This is highly dependent on weather: Heavy rains will push sediment into the water, and resulting algae blooms may cloud the water.
Typically by early June, shallow water fly fishing for striped bass begins to become a morning and evening activity, with some spots with access to deeper, cleaner, and cooler water offering all-day activity. Breaking fish begin to become common, with the best places to look in the 25′-40′ range.
July and August are tough on striped bass. Mortality rates sky-rocket when the Chesapeake Bay waters reach the high 70’s and low 80’s, and recreational anglers are undoubtedly responsible for the lion’s share of dead striped bass during this portion of the year. If you are fishing for striped bass, fish bigger lures for bigger fish, and keep your catch. If you want to catch catch and release a lot of fish, concentrate on the 8″-14″ fish in the tidal creeks, usually mixed in with white perch. A 4wt or 5wt fly rod with a sinking tip line is deadly, and these fish weather the temperatures much better than the bigger fish. Your other option is to go north. The waters of Cape Cod and coastal Maine and New Hampshire are covered in fish this time of year, and they are often accessible by foot.
September is begins the fall fishing season for striped bass. As water temperatures drop, the fish begin to spend more time on the shallow grass flats and along sod banks, where again a fly rod is the perfect tool. Also this time of year the open water fishery for striped bass begins to accelerate, and finding bluefish, striped bass, weakfish (gray or yellow trout) and spanish mackerel mixed together is a good bet.
October is when the shallow water fall fishery peaks, and as the grass begins to die off, the fish will congregate together in locations with structure and current. These fish are intercepting migratory baitfish (often menhaden, mullet, silversides, or anchovies) and if you find one fish, its guaranteed that many more are in the area.
November brings the great cool-down. As the water temperatures drop through the 50’s, the fish congregate in deeper water. 5′ to 10′ cuts and channels in the shallows are good bets , and in the tidal rivers, striped bass cruise far up river along deep shorelines, finally comfortable with good water quality and water temperatures. Besides the shallow water fishery, the open bay becomes world class. Huge schools of striped bass of varying sizes hunt migratory baitfish around the mouths of tidal rivers. As the temperature drops, they move out over deep water, where temperatures continue to remain stable and comfortable. This is the time of year to find the biggest fish of the year, or catch the most fish in a single day.
December continues the trend of January, with the shallows fully emptying into the main bay. The farther south you go, the better the fishing.
Striped bass fly selections should be based on what the fish are eating. That said, striped bass are honest fish, and if your fly is about the right size and profile, it will get eaten.
I like three flies above all others for striped bass: A heavily weighted clouser minnow in chartreuse and white, a bead-chain clouser minnow in brown and white, and a half-and-half built from craft fur and hackle.
Why these three? There are three primary baitfish, or profiles, you will be imitating:
(1) Mummichog, killifish, and other juvenile shallow-water fish are imitated best by the lightly weighted white/tan clouser. This fly can be cast in shallow water without making a loud splash, and sink more slowly. This is important to let the fly dance just above grass beds in the shallows. If you are fishing in really weedy areas or after a storm, this fly should be tied with a weed guard. I like a size 2 B10S Gamakastu hook and medium sized brass beadchain, as both make for a much lighter fly. I’ve also found that rust or copper colored flash is loved by stripers, trout, and puppy drum, and so I tend to use it often. I like this fly in 3″-4″ lengths. If you go smaller, tie it on the B10S in size 4. I tie these in the high-tie style, which I find keeps the fly in one piece for a longer period of time.
(2) Peanut bunker, anchovies, and silversides are deep water fish species, and a heavily weight clouser minnow is ideal to capture both the profile, length, and speed of these open water bait. Chartreuse bucktail is visible for a long distance in the bay’s turbid waters, and in combination with white bucktail and pearl/white flashabou, this fly is deadly. I tie this on a B10S as well, as the entry wound from the thinner diameter hook appears to do less damage to smaller fish. This fly can also be tied with craft fur, but I find bucktail holds up better to fish, and can be more easily tied to adjust fly profile: Wider and taller for menhaden/bunker imitations, thinner and sparser for anchovies and silversides. Often the fish simply don’t care, and nail any fly in their neighborhood (again, striped bass are honest fish).
(3) Bigger mullet and menhaden/bunker are imitated with a half and half fly in white. This fly is my go to when the striped bass are feeding in mid-depths on bigger baitfish, or when bombing bigger flies in winter to 30-40′ depths. Tied with craft fur, this fly lacks buoyancy of bucktail, and sinks like a rock. I like a 1/0 or 2/0 B10S Gamakatsu for this fly or a Daiichi X452 in 3/0.
There are times when other flies will work. Poppers like Bob’s Banger or gurglers in the morning or dusk, crease flies on breaking fish, crab patterns when sight casting the shallows. But these are only effective in very specific situations, and while fun to fish, the three flies I listed will catch fish at these same moments.
For shallow water fly fishing, a 7wt or 8wt fast action fly rod with a clear intermediate sinking tip line, or full clear intermediate line, are my favorites. These lines can be blind cast without spooking fish, whereas colored floating or sinking lines will spook many more fish than eat your fly. As most shallow water fishing is done when the water is cooler, a temperate weather line is best (up to 75 degrees). If you are going to use your intermediate line for tropical species, or fish the bay in the heat of the summer for trout and drum in the shallows, a tropical weather line (above 75 degrees) may be best for you. Word of caution here: Your line will want to tangle and knot if it is designed for tropical conditions, and you are fishing 50 degree water. You can make it work, but it can be frustrating.
As for fly reels, no shallow water striped bass is going to burn out your drag. Everything from simple click-pawl reels on up will work. The major thing to consider: Is the reel resistant to salt-water, sand, and sun? And again, will this reel be used for stronger species like bonefish, small tuna, or even stingrays (a viable target in the spring and summer Chesapeake Bay with a fly rod)?
For shallow water fishing, I like 7′ 20lb leaders. If you are fishing a colored floating or intermediate line, use a 9′ 16lb leader.
When fishing deep water, I like 8wt, 9wt, and 10wt fast action fly rods and fast sinking lines. 300-400 grain fly lines with 30′ sinking heads are magic, and can take your fly into the depths within seconds. The same selection of fly reel works here, but the possibility of hooking into a bigger fish is real, depending on time of year and luck. Leaders are simple: 4′ of 20lb tippet.
Where and How to Fish
Shallow water fishing is very seasonable. Knowing the seasons and fish patterns at one tidal river or section of bay coastline does not always provide insight elsewhere.
In general, April into early June will have striped bass moving into the shallows along sod banks and grass beds. Cast to the edges of grass beds, the edges of sod banks, and over submerged points and debris (sunken boats, clam beds, rock piles, etc). For striped bass, current is king, and fishing where there is walking-speed current (1 to 3 knots) and structure will almost always produce some fish.
Large grass beds will usually mean spread out fish, so covering water is key. This is where a clear fly line come into play. Your goal is to cast out as far as you can as many times as you can all around the boat. Cover the water with your lightly weighted clouser, and you will be rewarded.
Again in September and October, the same approach as in the spring will work. As the grasses die off in November, focus more on the sod bank edges where current is strongest and where there is depth close to land. In addition, cuts and channels through islands and shallow areas, and where the water is a bit deeper (5′-10′) works. As the fish move deeper in the shallows, consider switching to a heavily weighted clouser minnow.
You will have some sight casting opportunities, mainly in early May and October. Poling quietly along sod banks in clear water, you can have an angler stand on the bow of your boat and sight fish. This is challenging fishing, and presenting the fly in a way that doesn’t spook the fish is difficult. When doing this, keep the sun at your back to reduce glare, and wear polarized sunglasses. Also, use lighter-weighted flies and be prepared to make very short casts (20′-30′). The angler should have 10′ of line out while standing on the bow, and the fly pinched between the fingers of his non-rod hand. When a fish is spotted, all it takes is a single false cast to shoot the fly to the fish.
As far as retrieves, I use a strip-strip-strip-pause cadence, with each strip around 2′ of line. If I am not catching fish, I will slow down the retrieve, moving to a strip-strip-pause cadence. Again, these fish will reward you.
For fishing deep water, the game is usually to find breaking fish or birds, and work larger schools of actively feeding fish. Timing your fishing trip with tides is key, and the best approach is to look around the mouths of rivers and choke points in the main stem of the bay on a falling tide. As bait flushes from large rivers, striped bass will attack, and you will motor to the breaking fish (often highlighted by whirling birds feeding on the same baitfish). Here you get close to the fish, cut your motor, and drift with tide and wind through the feeding fish. Why cut your motor? Striped bass can stop feeding after being heavily pressured by loud-engined boats, so cutting your motor will help keep the schools happy and high in the water column. Often with your motor cut, baitfish will take refuge under and along the sides of your boat, and striped bass will drift you to keep feeding on those baitfish.
If breaking fish are not viable, drifting in 10′-30′ depths, often along points and drop-offs, can yield fish. To learn this game, you have to put in work. Fish a variety of points and structure at different times of the tide cycle, and eventually you will score. Put that knowledge together, and you usually can have a solid day only focusing on blind casting structure.