East Wind

The East Wind

There’s an adage New England fishermen widely use regarding the wind’s direction and the quality of fishing that prevails: East brings the least, west is the best. Its wording may vary depending on the teller, but its meaning is always the same and most times it’s the truth – game fish activity and catch noticeably decline during an easterly breeze. I can’t recall when I first heard the saying, but I know I was very young – too young to understand what it really meant. And certainly too inexperienced to understand why it was so. Over the years I continually heard that expression, usually on the dock or in a tackle shop from crusty fishermen whose names I didn’t know, but men clearly revered as “old salts” by those who did know them. I came to see the truth in those words and believe in them. Though I don’t consider myself an old salt (yet), I now find I’m reciting that adage to young and otherwise uninitiated New England anglers. I recall the mystery associated with the east wind phenomenon that puzzled me for years, despite its truth. Like everything with fishing (and the sea, for that matter), there are no absolutes, but here in New England there’s a sound basis – a reason – the east wind quells the fishing.

Like many elements that affect the quality of fishing, the wind can have a major impact or a minor, more subtle influence. The east wind phenomenon I classify as subtle – it comes and goes with the day-to-day weather, as opposed to the substantial, lasting ravage brought by a hurricane, for example. Subtle factors are much more difficult to observe, hence expressions such as ‘east is least, west is best’ can easily remain mysterious, despite their consistent – and obvious – result. Many people never ask why, or give up trying to sort it out and just accept the truth in the saying. I’m not one of them. I love trying to unravel this kind of stuff . . . sometimes there isn’t an explanation, and I love that, too. Fortunately, I’m an inveterate sight-fisher, which enables a greater understanding of fish behavior through direct observation.

I live in a Rhode Island coastal town called Westerly. Aptly named, as our prevailing winds are from somewhere out of the west. Do we get winds from other directions? Of course – there’s plenty of stuff from the north (especially in winter), the south (especially in summer), and yes, the east, which is our least prevalent wind direction. And this is the case throughout coastal New England and much of the Northeast. But during most of our fishing season (spring and summer) the prevailing breeze is from the southwest – it is the harbinger of good weather and it’s the day-to-day expected wind during protracted periods of stable, pleasant weather. This is the period when fish are least migratory . . . they’ve settled in to a coastal region and become comfortable in their habitats and daily feeding patterns. We, as anglers, get pretty comfy with all this, too, and we tend to pattern our fishing approaches accordingly. Both fish and fisherman become acclimated to these conditions as “the norm”.

Back to sight-fishing – I spend a great deal of time each season visually stalking stripers (and other game fish) in clear, shallow water. By course, I’m able to observe these fish closely in all wind conditions. It is not only amazing to see their change in behavior, but also how quickly it occurs when the wind shifts to the east. Fish that were moving low and slow in very shallow water, actively feeding, often tailing and very willing to take a fly, change almost immediately when the wind shifts east. Within a half-hour – sometimes sooner – they move deeper – still observable – just in deeper water. No longer meandering about looking for prey, the fish are moving fast now, often with other fish and they’re pasted to the bottom . . . they are clearly not happy. When a fly is adequately presented now (a heavier pattern and longer lead), fish that were quite receptive earlier in the day now veer away from it and speed up some more. Those fish that do respond favorably most often won’t strike – they may come to the fly, but they’re edgy and overly inquisitive before they give you the blow-off . . . they’re uncomfortable. Why the sudden mood change? “What the hell’s the big deal with a wind from the left or from the right?” one wonders.

Before we explore the mechanics of what’s going on, it’s beneficial to look at the big picture. First, why is this phenomenon not universal? Why in the Florida Keys (and likely The Bahamas), for example do inshore fishing guides pray for easterlies (southeast, being most prayed for) and loath anything out of the west? Why is a nor’easter not such a bad thing back in New England in the fall? Nor’easters can make for crazy-good fishing in October and November. These, and other, apparent contradictions must somehow relate to the “big picture”. Is a particular wind’s effect on local fishing a regional thing? Is this wind effect seasonally dependent? What the heck is going here?

While observing fish behavior at the onset of an easterly here in New England I’ve also paid close attention to other variables, notably the water itself – its temperature and its movement. One miraculous phenomenon was immediately apparent years ago when I first embarked on sight-fishing northern beaches. When shoreline waters were dirty – clouded with sand, fouled with weeds, etc. – an east wind cleared the surf zone, often within a tide cycle or two. Another observation was how cool this cleared water became. Cooler air temps made perfect sense, as an easterly rolls in off the open ocean, but sudden four or five degree water temperature drops were intriguing. Clear water was surely not the reason the fish became agitated . . . there was more to this puzzle. Continued observation revealed that east winds notably disrupted near-shore water movements, too. Every coastline has subtle currents that become intrinsic based on shoreline topography, tides, and prevailing winds. These prevailing water movements are the norm and marine life at all levels within the food chain come to expect each subtle current at each stage of the tide throughout each day of each season. Longshore drift, a well understood marine physical phenomenon, is a prime example of a delicate current that is easily perturbed by a change in wind direction. Natural surface slicks, formed out of biological debris that commonly collects along the edges of current seams, provide a window with which subtle shoreline currents may be readily observed. With regular westerly breezes these slick lines form and dissipate with each tide just where you expect to see them. An east wind, on the other hand, disrupts these normal patterns, creating unusual flow and visual evidence of how a contrary wind “shuffles the deck” so-to-speak with regard to normal, expected near-shore water movements and temperatures. When the wind swings to the aberrant direction, several things take place that upset the apple cart: water temperatures rise or fall, expected tides go off schedule, and day-to-day water movements suddenly shift to an unfamiliar course. None of this may seem like the end of the world to us, but try to envision it from the fish’s perspective.

Why does such a delicate change in routine bother marine life so damn much? Well, the marine world is a subtle and complex environment. Life here is simple – creatures prey on other creatures and do their best not to be preyed upon, or otherwise perish in this unforgiving world. That’s it – it’s basic. These creatures, including the game fish we pursue and their prey, respond to and rely upon subtle water movements and changes in water qualities just to survive another day. Imagine if you came home one evening and your kitchen cabinets were entirely rearranged. Not just the spices all in a new cabinet and the soups all in another, but the whole shebang thoroughly dispersed in unfamiliar locations. It could make you crazy. But if you knew in a day or two that everything would return to normal, you’d probably abandon cooking for a day or two and simply order a pizza and get back to the regular routine when the kitchen was back in order – just the way you expect it to be. Marine life doesn’t have the order-out option. Instead, they choose to lay low for a day or two – going “off the chew”, as the young guys like to say – and they get back to regular feeding when the “kitchen” is back in order. It’s a silly analogy, but accurate. Fish aren’t the only creatures of habit prone to getting upset over what we perceive as “little things”. If you have a cat, try a sudden litter box relocation across the room sometime – a mere 12-foot move – see how that goes over. Humans often have difficulty comprehending the everyday subtleties in the world’s of animals and fish.

Keeping in mind that there are no absolutes in fishing, nor the Wild for that matter, let’s look at some obvious contradictions to the east wind phenomenon. First, why does it not seem to matter quite so much during the fall seasonal migration? Nor’easters routinely produce outstanding fishing. Game fish (and bait) are migratory then – they are not comfortably situated throughout an area or region in “residence” as they were for several months prior during the non-migratory portion of their seasonal existence. They’re on the move now. These fish are not resident creatures – they’re from other areas, other shores and they no longer know a “norm” in the here and now. They’re on a nomadic tear and they have no “kitchen” now. Chaos has become their friend. Some species, such the tunas (including false albacore), live an entirely nomadic life. They’re always on the move in search of enough biomass to sustain their numbers (and they eat a lot). They never really set up a “kitchen”. They just roam and raid wherever they go. There is no normal day-to-day wind direction for these fish and winds from the east don’t appear to disturb them much – when they find food they blast it, and move on . . . and they never stop moving. I’ve had outstanding tunny fishing on an east wind, a west wind, and everything in between.

But for non-migrating resident fish that feed regularly in familiar places for long stretches of the season, such as striped bass in the Northeast and bonefish in tropical locales, a sudden wind from an infrequent direction really throws them off by way of disruptions in their expected daily water movements and water temperatures. They become uncomfortable in a suddenly out-of-the-ordinary and unfamiliar environment. They don’t like it. For the game fish we seek, this temporary “deck shuffling” likely strips them of predatory advantage, as their daily forage is suddenly not where they expect to find it when they usually prey upon it. The higher up the food chain you go, the more creatures expect things to be just the way they expect them. Without that, they likely sense vulnerability and their world is just too unforgiving for that.

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The Bendback

A Miracle Pattern for Fresh and Salt Water

 

Fly-rodders have scads of choices when selecting flies – there are literally thousands of fly patterns for both fresh and saltwater fishing. Most of them, however, may be categorized into relatively few distinct pattern classes; by that I mean general classifications by design and intended use. In salt water, for example, we have surface flies (poppers, sliders, Crease Flies, etc.) for working the surface, mid-water streamers (Deceivers, Surf Candies, etc.), crab imitations (Merkins, Ragheads, etc.), shrimp imitations, and several more categories. In fresh water, there are dry flies (with many sub-classes), wet flies, nymphs, streamers, poppers . . . the list goes on. Each pattern style has unique capability and appeal, and they all have a niche in our fly box. But among the thousands of patterns, just a handful are general fly patterns, ones that are effective in many fishing situations, for many different species – they are truly outstanding designs. In fresh water, the Wooly Bugger immediately comes to mind, with its broad species appeal and all its simple and effective variations. My favorite saltwater “general” pattern, with broad-scale effectiveness, flexibility, and simplicity in design, is the Bendback.

            The Bendback is a unique design – it rides with the hook point up without adding weight to the hook shank, a feature achieved in several benchmark patterns (including the Clouser Minnow and Crazy Charlie) through the addition of lead eyes or beadchain to the back of the hook. The Bendback is a simple design that requires just basic fly tying skills. And it’s a design that lends itself well to inventive variation at the vise to suit a variety of fishing situations, as well as personal preference in pattern appearance. The Bendback is ideal for imitating myriad small baitfish, including Atlantic silversides, anchovies, sand eels, baby bunker (juvenile menhaden), glass minnows, and many more. With a different choice of wing, body and tail materials – and how sparsely it’s dressed – the Bendback is easily morphed into other prey, such as shrimp, a vital forage for inshore game fish around the globe. This pattern has many virtues that collectively make it a BIG winner.

 First – its inverted design with the bend, barb and point of the hook nestled within the wing fibers creates a pattern that’s inherently foul-proof – there are no long, flimsy wing fibers or tail feathers to wrap about the bend of the hook during the cast. The hook’s bend itself serves as the foul-guard. This is a very important facet when sight-casting, where starting the cast from a fly-in-hand posture can easily lead to a fouled fly (especially when you’re rushed with excitement and the wind is up a bit), effectively killing a valuable opportunity before the presentation ever had a chance. This is a great feature when night-fishing, as well. No matter how often we’re told to diligently check our fly after every cast – most of us simply do not do this often enough. The foul-proof Bendback affords a big margin of forgiveness in this department. For the same reason, it’s an ideal pattern when fishing a multiple-fly rig (fishing two or three similar flies simultaneously on the leader – a great saltwater tactic). All it takes is one twisted or fouled fly to alert the fish and kill your entire presentation.

Second –the Bendback is inherently weedless – another tremendously valuable facet when fishing messy waters, which we encounter often in salt water, including ocean beaches, bay and harbor shores, and on the flats. The hook point and bend are conveniently shrouded by the wing fibers, which act as a built-in weed guard.

Third – again linked to the hook being cloaked in wing fibers, the Bendback never “shows its hand”. Most streamers – for both fresh and salt water – ride hook-point-down and the hook’s point, bend and barb often hang flagrantly below the fly, somewhere along its belly. Game fish approach and strike baitfish imitations most often from below and behind, rather than from above, the side, or head-on, which puts the business end of the hook in plain view with hook-point-down style patterns. Most times, the visible hook doesn’t offend a hungry predator, but when fishing in bright conditions, clear water with a light current, game has the luxury of taking a really good look at your offering before striking (or not). Oftentimes in these conditions, any exposed metal on the underside of the fly will turn them off . . . apparently, they don’t dig belly rings : ) With the hook point cloaked in wing material atop the fly, the “stinger” is hidden, making the Bendback immune from such rejections.

Fourth – the up-riding hook provides a wide range of pattern “fishability”. The keel created by slightly bending the hook shank (which encourages the pattern to invert itself in the water to a hook-point-up posture) creates a fly that’s ideal for working right on the bottom in shallow water, such as when imitating shrimp or small baitfish on the flats. When tied with non-buoyant wing material (synthetic fibers are ideal), a fly is created that sinks adequately in skinny  water, is snag-proof, and one that lands softly – without the “plop” associated with lead and beadchain eyes . . . a perfect, stealthy fly for tailing or otherwise spooky fish in very shallow situations.

Fifth – it’s unweighted, design enables a versatile pattern that may be fished effectively for a wide variety of species throughout the water column from near the top to right on the bottom, regardless of water depth. Appropriate fly line selection (floating, intermediate, or sinking), and the amount and type of wing material (buoyant bucktail, non-buoyant synthetics, heavy or sparse, etc.) enables this flexibility.

            The Bendback’s a versatile fly pattern that’s simple to tie, inherently weedless and foul-proof, stealthy, effective in a wide range of fishing situations, can imitate a variety of important forage species, and it takes countless game fish species in both fresh and salt water, including striped bass, trout, bonefish, largemouth bass, seatrout, smallmouth bass, bluefish, pickerel, tuna . . . the list goes on and on. The Bendback’s a winner!

 

Note to readers: I’ll post images of this terrific fly pattern when I figure out how to imbed them within this post. Till then, please visit the following sites for Bendback images and easy-to-follow sequential tying steps:

  1. http://mangrovecoastflyfishers.com/fly-tying/the-right-way-to-bend-and-tie-a-bendback-fly/
  2. http://www.ehow.com/how_4421272_tie-bendback-fly.html
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2013

AUTHOR’S NOTE: This piece originally appeared November 3, 2013 in the Stripersonline Fly Fishing Forum in response to a request for “theories” as to why Northeast striped bass and false albacore fishing had declined in the fall of 2013.

 

My usual position when sorting out this kind of natural “puzzle” is that we tend to overcomplicate the issue – the cause and effect that drive these things are often simpler than we make them out to be. We have a tendency to look too deep. But this one’s a doozy and I don’t know if anyone will ever really sort it out entirely. Here’s my spin:

Game fish and forage cycles are certainly at the core of what’s going on. Furthermore, inshore species competition for available prey is fueling transition. When the numbers of one species swell, that species tends to dominate inshore waters, consuming most of the prey and furthering that species’ proliferation. The less dominant species must seek forage elsewhere and survival gets tougher and their numbers fall further . . . this continues until something happens that starts the pendulum moving the other way. It could be disease, increased predation by creatures higher up the food chain, over-harvest . . . there’s a long list. I believe these natural cycles are fundamentally “smooth” (like a sine wave) – a natural progression from one competing species dominance to another that shifts gradually and rhythmically over time, rather than the sudden and protracted shifts that we often see today. Natural events can certainly upset the apple cart, but I think Human impact is most significant (over-harvesting a species, destruction of vital wetlands, rivers, and the benthos, misguided bureaucratic and legislative endeavors . . . this is a long list, too). In the world we live in today, those natural rhythmic cycles are no longer smooth – they’re jagged, spikey, and much more dramatic.

Ok, so if it’s fish cycles, what about inshore albies? There’s no black market for those guys and they spawn somewhere off in the wild blue yonder, not in tributaries that feed the Chesapeake.

I annually examine the final results of the Martha’s Vineyard Derby for total catch numbers for four species: stripers, bluefish, bonito and false albacore. You can view this year’s results online, but the trend’s been consistent for several years. 2013 produced the following:

Striped bass – 487

Bluefish – 919

False albacore – 236

Bonito – 358

I consider this a great data point – the Derby runs for a month amidst the fall migration and the contestants fish from both shore and boat with every manner of tackle over a range of waters surrounding the Vineyard. In the years 2004 – 2005 fly anglers were hard-pressed to capture a bluefish from shore. Today, contestants fill that category quickly and effortlessly. Times have changed. Striped bass weigh-ins began dropping off in that event about six years ago, reaching a low of 384 fish in 2010 (lowest count since 1997). Since then, striper weigh-ins have increased slightly.

I don’t know what this site’s readership’s average age is, but I do know that regardless of age a lot of people became interested in inshore angling (especially fly fishing) at a time when striped bass were returning in a huge way and false albacore fishing (especially from shore) came into being. For those old enough to remember the 10+ year dearth of stripers that plagued us prior to 1990, do you remember albies blasting our inshore silversides each fall? I remember them bouncing about here and there off the shoreline and boaters occasionally caught one, but the fishery was not established and most people hadn’t a clue how to catch them. When they did – surprise, it was more likely to be a bonito! I do remember them off Watch Hill and Montauk, but I surely don’t recall a shore fishery. And I don’t ever recall a bonito catch from shore, but often by boaters.

Today seems remarkably like the ‘80s again . . .

Over the last several years I’ve witnessed increasing numbers of snapper blues in my Rhode Island home waters. This past season the numbers were mind boggling. For years when striped bass were on the bounce-back and our Northeast fishery was fabulous at worst and saltwater fly fishing was peaking as a sport (1990 – 2005ish) I rarely encountered snappers in our estuaries – all summer long. And I was sight-fishing back there a lot and taking stripers right through till fall migration fishing started to shape up along the beaches. Bluefish in general were somewhat hard to come by, but no one was overly upset. One season it began with the snappers, sometime in early August they mysteriously appeared. The following years there were more and more of them each summer (always appearing in early August). That’s when I began to see the decline with stripers and other fishing (albies). It’s progressed to where we are today.

A number of people this past season asked me, “Where’s all the bait”? – great question. One guy actually asked me that as we stood on the Weekapaug Breachway amidst a snapper melee where they shred every silverside in sight, completing a project they started a month and a half earlier back in the pond, back in August. Snappers have been wiping out our annual silverside crop before it even makes it to sea! No wonder the albacore have dodged us – without an abundance of near-shore prey there’s just little reason for them to come.

Ok, perhaps we’re in a bluefish / bonito high and a striper / albie low cycle – pretty simple. Here’s the tough question – where are the blues . . . the big ones? This is all eerily like the ‘80s to me, except back then there was plenty of shoreline bluefish action from September through November. They were usually on bunker of one size or another. Chunkers took big blues on any given night throughout the fall.

To round out this “theory” I’m going with the bunker factor – it’s the wildcard in all this. Without near-shore bunker availability there’s simply no reason for adult blues to come in tight. Mullet would do it, too, and last year we had plenty, but no significant bluefish blitzes materialized. It’s puzzling. Their babies are certainly taking care of the silversides and I have a suspicion that the big blues are devouring other principle forage (large sand eels, mullet, anchovies . . .) away from the shorelines. If you patrol the coastline by boat from August through a good part of October here in Rhode Island you’ll consistently find medium to large (5 – 10 pound) blues scattered about in pods, randomly feeding on abundant small bait (small sand eels and anchovies) within a mile or two from shore. But no one seems overly interested in pursuing this option. If those pods of blues were schoolie stripers (or better yet, albies) instead, this discussion wouldn’t even be taking place. My theory in three words: cyclic bluefish domination.

Keep in mind that this is just a swing at this issue – an answer to a “call for theories” . . . I could be way off (it’s November 3rd and the water’s still 60F). But if I am on the right track, what’ll be the trigger that reverses the pendulum’s swing? Who knows, maybe it’s already reversed and we just don’t know it yet. Perhaps bluefish will run out of forage and start in on their own young . . . they are known to do that.

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Florida Bonefish

 

Anyone who’s pursued bonefish in the Florida Keys long enough has great stories to tell of these extraordinary fish, famous for their size and the extreme challenge they present. All of these anecdotes are amazing and as exaggerated as some may seem (I was skeptical when I first heard them, anyway), after nearly 20 years of fishing there I’ve come to believe just about anything I hear of these fabled creatures. As the late Billy Pate noted, “The bonefish here are big, and they all have names.”

The Keys do have a healthy bonefish population, however, there are fewer fish here than in other destinations, such as the Bahamas or the Yucatan. Veteran Keys anglers are far more preoccupied with size rather than numbers of fish caught – these seasoned bonefishermen do not seek the schools of fish commonly found in other destinations; instead, they carefully stalk large and difficult singles and doubles (fish commonly in double-digit territory), calibrating their expectations to perhaps just six or eight encounters per day. Managing a few fish over a week’s wading the hard oceanside flats is an admirable accomplishment.

Nearly every bonefish I’ve taken in these hallowed waters has been while fishing on foot. Pursuing them from a poled skiff is, however, the best and most productive approach, especially when accompanied by a native guide who knows this fascinating archipelago. But despite the challenges, I savor wading for them.

Big Keys fish are sometimes found tailing in thin water, particularly early or late in the day when wind, tide and temperature conditions conducive to that behavior prevail, but most of my success has by far come while working deeper grass flats. As with permit fishing, the combination of added depth and darker bottom demand stronger light in order to see fish at a reasonable range for presentation. I’ve spent lots of time stalking these fish in water above the knee to perhaps high-thigh in depth, but every so often I stumble upon a big one in very shallow water commonly associated with smaller two- to four-pound fish. These fish are ultra-challenging . . .  they demand your “A-Game”.

I typically wade out to a strategic position ahead of fishable light. As visibility increases with the rising sun, I intermittently wade down-sun very slowly, frequently remaining motionless (posting-up) for long periods to allow encroaching fish to swim silently into view. The approach is similar to what whitetail deer hunters refer to as “still hunting”. A typical Keys’ day winds down around 1:00 PM as shoreline waters approach 90F and become simply too warm for bonefish activity. To save valuable time, repositioning is accomplished out of the water, enabling brisk, stealthy moves to alternate sites on the flat, or a rerun of a juicy stretch without alarming any fish in the area. A second round of activity may unfold with a rising late-day tide and the sun off the water as sunset approaches.

Toward the end of the morning’s fishing on a hot day on Ohio Key, I egressed the water to reposition for one last run down the flat. Hustling to get back to deep water with what little time was left, I wasn’t paying much attention to the pock-marked coral bottom that bordered the flat along the water’s edge when I was stopped dead in my tracks by a golf ball-sized burst of marl that caught the corner of my eye.

The ensuing adrenaline wave that flushed through me sharpened every sense – I looked hard, but saw nothing more . . .

A minute later a second puff appeared – about ten feet uptide of the first – but still I could not decipher a bonefish. The white coral was dusted with bright marl that filled the coarsely pock-marked bottom like confectioner’s sugar creating a numbing reflection off the bottom in the blazing mid-day sun. Not so much as the tip of a tail scratched the surface. I hunched low and cautiously moved up the shoreline to stay abreast of this phantom fish. Finally, about 30 feet uptide of the marl that initially captured my attention, a vapid ghost materialized as it worked its way like molasses over a patch of sparse brown grass. It was a very long bonefish.

Crouched low at the water’s edge, I quickly changed to a tiny, pale, unweighted fly to make the most of this opportunity and not spook this fish. I was fishing a 12-foot straight shot of 10-pound-test fluorocarbon and an eight-weight floating line.

Cat-like, I continued up the shoreline, keeping my profile below the mixed-up vegetation immediately behind me and gingerly reentered the water well ahead of the big bone. With my focus riveted on this barely visible fish, I dropped to my knees about twenty feet off the beach and maneuvered from that position over jagged coral to get my shot – it was nasty.

Head-on distances can be difficult to judge from such a low position – instead, I waited for a close crossing-shot that  allowed me a better feel for where my fly was positioned in the intense shimmer and my best view of the fish’s response to my presentation. When it closed to within three rod lengths, I rolled out with a choked-up hold of the rod ahead of the grip, flicked a quick backcast and with a wide-open delivery I gently lobbed the tiny crab silently into the water about ten feet in front of the fish and a foot inside its path.

The ensuing moments demand firm mental effort to remain calm and responsive . . . regardless how many big bonefish one has taken. My heart pounded with adrenaline as this fish approached. When it was a foot from where I sensed my fly had settled on the coral, I scarcely inched the crab with a single delicate nudge. With no change in speed, the bonefish veered ever so slightly in my direction and  paused . . . but not so much as a tap nor twitch of that long gray body.

This is a dicey moment with sophisticated bonefish and it was now my move. Rather than risking a brisk strip-strike that would surely send this fish to Cuba if it hadn’t eaten, I opted for a slow, careful draw . . . and we were tight.

Hooking up with powerful fish at such short range often ends with a broken tippet the instant it begins, as fly tackle has little inherent “stretch”. A bonefish’s explosive response ignites far too quickly for human reflex; anglers must anticipate and maintain presence of mind to ensure quick, soft hands prevail that allow the fish to make it to the reel. I was prepared for a “Category 5” response from this fish.

The bonefish’ reaction was immediately strange – a few headshakes followed by a short, tempered run that got it onto the reel . . . then a few more minor league shakes. A second modest run drew just forty feet of fly line from a light drag (I fish bones loose at the start and gradually tighten-up as the fish burns out). At the end of that run, it shook its head some more and simply held its ground, much like a spring-run striper. Then – much to my surprise – it suddenly turned and swam right to me, as if surrendering without a battle. The bonefish casually circled in front of me before submitting to my legs on its side, mouth agape. Without removing the fish from the water, I cradled him upside-down, wiggled the fly loose and set this strange fish on its way.

He lunged ten feet and then resumed casually feeding . . . I was bewildered.

This was a very old bonefish – its shrunken lower tail lobe, worn ventral fins and reddened belly made that clear. But even old bonefish are capable of fireworks when hooked. Its behavior was baffling – almost as though this wizened fish knew the routine, perhaps having been hooked, landed and released many times during its tenure on that oceanside flat. Though this hefty bone never showed me my backing, it’s one of the most intriguing fish I’ve ever encountered . . . a fascinating interlude with a very old specimen of an ancient species.

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Big Fish

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I began exploring the sport of sight-fishing for striped bass circa 1990, when that species staged its miraculous return. The early going was tough, but exhilarating – imagine deciphering their flats behavior and effective fishing techniques when we had nothing to go on, other than what had been written about bonefish and permit. We (me and a few others) were working from the proverbial “blank piece of paper”. Was this easy? No. But that early exploration was extremely stimulating  despite the challenges. Was it rewarding? Absolutely! That experience, those 10 years of my angling life, and the adrenaline rush that accompanies discovery was addictive and it’s shaped my approach to fly fishing. Looking back I realize some early findings were gifts, like rough gems with unclear importance when sifted from the earth their value is timeless.

A big challenge was deciphering striper flats themselves. Did these fish prefer unique habitats, did specific prey attract them to the shallows, was it prey concentration, did tides affect all this, seasons, human activity, were the same fish repeat visitors, what about water temperature, water levels??? The questions were endless. I spent countless hours walking, wading, digging, and then scratching deeper on every imaginable type of shoreline. For every answer I zeroed in on there were two new questions. And I loved that! So how did I get answers? Time on the water.

Ocean shorelines are one of several unique habitats where you’ll visually find stripers and are able to pursue them with sight-fishing tactics. It’s highly technical sight-casting and perhaps the most challenging fly fishing there is. Beaches needed to be explored, so barefoot and equipped with polarized glasses, some 10-pound tippet, a few experimental flies, a camera and an eight-weight rod, off I went . . .

Some beaches are “domestic”, with overt human presence and much too much activity. Others are desolate and wild – there are no homes, no hotdog stands, no lifeguards, and very few people – they are raw. Here you’ll find deer tracks on the hard-packed tide line, driftwood, logs and other natural debris, abundant bird life and a great deal of peace. They’re my kind of beach.

On the first Saturday after Labor Day in 1993, after a week of calm, stable weather and fabulously clear overnight skies, I hit a previously unexplored hard-to-get-to beach to see what it had to offer. With a sunny, high pressure forecast, I planned to be on that beach early to take advantage of great visability and extremely calm surf and spend the day as it was a very long stretch of barren sand. I started at 7AM – just late enough to make out fish that might be roaming close to the edge.

Despite my enthusiasm, the first mile was disappointingly uneventful – no birds, little evidence of striper prey, and not a fish in sight. If that wasn’t enough, the water gradually turned from martini-clear to vegetable soup, making spotting increasingly difficult and complicating technical fly presentation should opportunity prevail. But I was there to explore – maybe this beach was inert and I was wasting time. I had drilled more than a few “dry wells” in this endeavor. So I continued. Perhaps when the tide swung some fish would move in, I thought. The water was peak-high with an instantaneous 12-inch drop into the water from dry sand. Tiny waves barely lapped the water’s edge with long periods of silence in a tranquilizing cadence. It was one of those mornings you could smell the water. Either way – fish or no fish – this was heaven, and I was giving it at least another mile.

Barefoot wading became increasingly treacherous amongst weeds and impressive driftwood, including a small tree and a log or railroad tie that had made their way ashore.  Tough conditions for the next 200 feet forced me out of the water and onto the sand to continue. The water looked clear for a solid stretch after that. From my elevated vantage I was able to scan long-range, well beyond the immediate shoreline mess and finally I caught a glimpse of what appeared to be two big fish – waist-deep about 75 yards down the beach; I hustled to get past the debris and get closer.

At three strides from the railroad tie, jutting seaward at a slight leftward angle, mere inches from the water’s edge, my legs stopped – slowly – imperceptibly slowly – the timber was moving. I stared in stunned disbelief as it silently eased off at a glacial pace.

 ‘Bass?’ flickered through my mind. We know such fish exist, but still they are mythical. How many people ever really see one – live? Inside Captain Don’s Bait & Tackle (the late Don Cameron’s colorful shop in Charlestown, Rhode Island), mounted overhead in immediate view as you entered was a 92-pounder that turned up off the Outer Banks in a winter net. I blurted “Holy shit!” the first time I saw it, and thought that every time I went in. Big stripers grip you somehow.

‘Brown shark – must be’, I murmured.

Why didn’t I cast? I was way under-gunned with a mere eight-weight, but that’s not the reason – I was awe-stricken. You have to experience such an event to understand. It rattles you. Why didn’t she register as “fish” sooner? Well, if I looked out my back window and saw a 25-pound chipmunk on the lawn, I wouldn’t sense that it was real either, a Disney stuffed animal left behind by a child, perhaps, but it wouldn’t strike me as real. And a fish that big, laid-up, with its tail nearly touching dry sand . . . ? That was impossible to digest. For a month afterward I recalled my first glimpse of the fish at least once a day while staring down at two pieces of masking tape I had placed five feet apart on the floor tiles at work. I told you, they’ll grip you.

When the fish was about 100 feet off the sand she turned right and proceeded parallel to the beach in chest-deep water. It was at that moment I knew what I was witnessing. No shark – it was a striped bass – five feet long and 18 inches deep. A conservative 75 pounds, probably more. For non-anglers, this probably all seems impossible to understand. Only fishermen can appreciate the surrealism of such an event. I was fortunate to observe the fish for 45 minutes before the next surprise unfolded, which caused her to mysteriously vanish, just as quietly as she had appeared.

It’s hard to describe the feeling when such a magnificent fish evaporates from your life, when you still haven’t digested that it swam into it in the first place. I was reeling from the experience when a tennis court-sized school of anchovies that had escaped my notice moved in tight to my right.

Suddenly, the anchovies were ravaged. A hundred 10- to 30-pound stripers arrived from nowhere and thrashed them till they were all but gone. And then they, too, vanished. I managed a few fish in the hour-long blitz and when it was over I realized that despite running up and down the beach in chaotic pursuit of the action, I oddly wound up at the exact spot where I encountered the big fish earlier – a lone four-foot scotch pine on the dune marked it for me. I sat in the sand, lit a cigarette and marveled at this day in disbelief.

About 45 minutes after the blitz subsided she returned . . . from the same direction she disappeared when she left hours before. All by herself, she hovered back and forth very deep and very slowly as she scoured the bottom. Just as carefully and deliberately as everything else she did, that fish worked an area 100 yards long where the blitz had taken place. Why was she where she was earlier, precisely in position for that event, I wondered? But she wanted nothing to do with feeding with youngsters. That was obvious. This fascinated me! Was it coincidence or did this fish know what was happening? She maintained a consistent 30- to 40-yard breadth from shore and fed for 40 minutes before vanishing for good, in the same direction she had come and gone before. I never took my eyes off her.

So what are big fish all about? How do they behave? What are their preferences? Well, this experience and others have taught me a little bit about them . . .

 

  • Big fish are old, but not bold fish. They didn’t grow large by accident. Their unique nature and everyday behavior, carried out their entire lives, enable them to survive a long time and become “big fish”. They’re genetically programmed to survive in a pure Darwinian sense. I often encounter small or medium fish that are just plain tough to catch – they’re wary, stealthy and careful. I always think to myself, ‘This guy’s going to be big’. Like people, not all of us are genetically capable of professional golf or hitting major league pitching . . . no matter how much we want to or how hard we try, most of us simply never will. If you measure an individual fish’s success by its age and ultimate size, relatively few succeed in growing large. I believe they are predisposed to becoming old, and big.

 

  • They’re slow and tentative beings. Big fish do everything slowly. They never seem harried or rushed; they swim, feed, take bait, lures or flies – and even spook – at a tempered pace. When you encounter them while sight-fishing, they may seem tranquilized, or in a catatonic trance. And they can be miserably difficult. These traits don’t suddenly surface when fish become old, even some small ones display them. But as they age these traits become increasingly pronounced. These big fish breed more prolifically which sustains the species’ wild survival “program”.

 

  • They’re careful; not smart in the cognitive sense, but they are inherently very cautious creatures. Perhaps they do “learn”, but I suspect that big fish are fundamentally more aware of their environment and highly suspicious of anything out of the expected ordinary – noises, movements, shadows, flashes – any environmental stimulus they do not expect to see, hear, smell or feel.

 

  • Big fish tend to feed alone or with others of their ilk. They avoid mixing with aggressive, less careful fish. In fact, smaller fish seem to genuinely annoy them, which is likely why the big boys are usually below, behind or arrive on the scene later than smaller fish. And they’re often active at “off times” when we’re not accustomed to stripers feeding. This adds immensely to their unpredictability.

 

  • They spend a lot of time deep. It’s generally safer near the bottom than near the surface, and the temperature fluctuates through a narrower daily band there, creating a more stable environment.

 

  • I believe big fish become more opportunistic and less selective in their feeding as they age. Large fish seem not to wear themselves with pickiness, they’ll consume what’s readily available and they can be piggish. If you’ve ever visited Robbie’s Marina in Lower Matecumbe, Florida and fed the harbor tarpon you know what I’m talking about. Big stripers are easily trained to become harbor slobs in that fashion, too (Robbie’s is a great experience!)

 

  • Really big fish – the 60- and 70-pounders – surface periodically when striper stocks are down every 15 – 20 years, or so when they become “exposed” to capture. They reveal themselves when throngs of younger, more aggressive fish simply aren’t there to shield them from fishermen. Though still quite small, they compose a greater percentage of the population during these periods. Really big fish are always out there, they’re just unavailable, hidden from human harvest, most of the time.

 

  • Big fish tend to eat “big” – they prefer large prey where a single capture yields a lot of sustenance. They’ll eat small prey, too, but they won’t work for it – it must be brought to them by the tide or otherwise involve no chase or pursuit. But big stuff is what they like – full-size bunker, lobsters, mackerel, squid, etc.
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Latest Story

Watch for my first article to be posted.  I plan to present original and topically-diverse stories here. They will range  from fly tying, to game fish behavior, to conservation issues, to travel logs that highlight recent adventures near or far . . . any fly fishing-related subject may appear.  These articles will run 1000 – 2000 words and a fresh story will be posted every few months.
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