A Fair and Decent Return (an investment story)

          I have fished for a long time. As with many of us, it began with outings with my dad and brother – pumpkinseeds were what we were after. This drill has been practiced for generations by countless dads, uncles, grandfathers, big brothers, and some special moms and aunts, too. That early introduction has led me to waters near and far, from shaded trout streams in the deep woods, to farm ponds, big rivers, the coast, and far beyond to the deep blue waters of the Gulf Stream and the Pacific. I’ve fished with a hunk of meat and a hand-line, a wispy three-weight fly rod, bent-butt bluewater “stump pullers”, and everything in between.

Over the course of this odyssey I’ve acquired two simple rules that encompass everything about the angling experience, no matter where or how you choose to fish. I deeply believe in these “philosophies” that may be captured in just five words:

Rule 1Respect the resource                                  Rule 2Have fun

The second may seem silly to even mention – who willfully goes fishing because it sucks? That would be deranged. But there are times on the water when perspective is lost and cool heads don’t always prevail. Pressure to produce, competition for spots, difficult fishing conditions, difficult fish, rude behavior, and more can make a bad day on the water not better than a good day at work. I advocate a perspective that keeps recreational fishing fun – no matter what.

Rule 1, however, is a conscientious respect for our lands, laws, our fellow man, our waters and all of its inhabitants. I believe this awareness is a work in progress for most anglers, including me.

Lee Wulff said, “The fish you release may be a gift to another, as it may have been a gift to you.” Lee – a Titan in our sport – is regarded as the father of catch-and-release angling, a powerful concept, unchallengeable by anything other than radical activist thinking. The vast majority of anglers today understand its value and embrace the idea. With ever-tightening regulations, the majority of our catch these days no longer meets legal size limits, or may exceed established daily bag limits and must be returned to the water in shape to survive (Rule 1). But herein lays an issue . . . one that has become too prevalent and is the reason I’m writing this post.

I fish from shore a lot and the number of recreational fishers pursuing a limited and sometimes fragile biomass of game fish has steadily increased over the years. What I witness more and more is appalling, and it’s not just new participants who may simply be ignorant of their own behavior, it’s seasoned anglers, as well, who ought to know better.

Sadly, the release half of the catch-and-release proposition has degenerated. I’m not suggesting this is widespread or representative of the majority – it’s just become too common and the behavior is trending the wrong way from what I see. With some examples of what I’ve observed, I’m certain you’ll understand my concerns.

First, the catch – the scene usually begins with a bumpy landing – an angler brings a fish ashore either by reeling or dragging it up the shoreline till it’s high and dry where it’s easier to handle. When fishing from rocks, this approach gets uglier where the fish is landed with a “bang-bang” extraction from the water that bounces it off the stones till it’s safely in hand. Are there instances when anglers really have no choice but to do this? Occasionally, but these landings unfold even in the friendliest weather and water conditions . . . it’s unnecessary and obscene. Next up, hook removal – this often entails placing a foot over the fish, pressing it securely into the sand or against a rock, and ripping the hook(s) from the mouth as quickly as possible so as to get back to the business of fishing. Again – disgusting.

My immediate impulse is to coach these folks with guidance on proper handling techniques carefully infused with some Rule 1 philosophy. This is not always greeted kindly, I assure you. Certainly, if a fish is – by law – a “keeper” and is headed for the kill bucket, then do what you have to do, but showing the creature a little dignity in the process won’t hurt.

So what about the actual release? These anglers are releasing these fish, so everything’s not all bad, right? Well, sort of – there are some ugly release practices taking place out there on a regular basis. I’ll illuminate two common ones, but I witness plenty of others.

Fish destined for release because they were not the intended quarry, too small, or otherwise unwanted are sometimes treated to an undignified return to the sea. I refer to one practice often deployed with small fish as the “pitch back”. It’s simple – grasp the fish by the lip or tail and with an unceremonious softball-like underhand lob at a 45, toss the fish cartwheeling seaward into the drink . . . sometimes landing nose-first, usually not. While crude and undignified for the fish, it’s much kinder than the next example. Following hook extraction, fish lucky enough to survive the landing are treated to a “kick back”. An alternative to the “pitch back”, this technique is easier on the shoulders as there’s no need to lift the fish nor heave it seaward. And it’s “clean”, for those reluctant to get their hands dirty. The practice is basic – return the fish with a series of soccer-style kicks, completing the release with a nifty extended-leg toe-flick at the water’s edge that ensures dry feet while returning the fish to sea. It’s horrifying . . .

I don’t want to mislead you – even well executed catch-and-release fishing can result in casualties. But they’re minimized or eliminated with responsible, educated practices. I fish a lot and some years I do kill a fish or two despite a deeply conscientious effort not to. As a percentage of my landings, it’s next to nil. I know for a fact that I killed two fish last season – a very small spring bass that inhaled the fly and a hefty albacore hooked from a breakwall in ridiculously heavy northeast wind and accompanying sea state that was brutally difficult to land. The albie was too exhausted and did not make it – I’m certain. Both of these instances were preventable . . . or better-stated, avoidable, as I’ll describe.

I know some anglers who are fish-counters, and there’s nothing wrong with counting your catch, whether to measure your own success, share with others (bragging – it’s the clear purpose no matter how well you try to disguise it), or for that almighty social media post. Personally, I am not a counter. I’ve tried catch-counting over the years but I’ve failed miserably every time a fat count could have been tallied. It’s ironic, too! Zero, one or two fish is not hard to remember and I always recall those scores without issue, but it seems that counting when counting really matters becomes impossible for me. I invariably lose count after six or seven and when the number hits around 10, or so, I don’t really care anymore . . . I’m having fun and am not interested in bragging and I don’t media socialize. But here’s the important part – most of those big outings consist of catching a shitload of small fish . . . like the baby striper I killed last spring. So I’ve learned to appreciate those crazy-fun outings – and remember them without remorse – by calling it quits after a half dozen fish . . . while I can still keep a tally. This doesn’t necessitate leaving an exhilarating atmosphere. I usually stay, observe, learn, take pictures, or help others who may be struggling. Apparently, I’ve matured and no longer need gluttony to realize a great experience. And I leave the water feeling good.

Similarly, by not actually wetting your line in unfavorable weather and sea conditions that do not support a fair landing for you or your quarry – regardless of the game fish spectacle that may be unfolding before you – is a responsible choice in such scenarios. That big albie I caught last fall would live on had I made that decision. But that’s a really tough thing to do. I shoot a lot of images while on the water and it takes immense discipline to put the rod down and pick up the camera, especially when the action’s HOT, which ironically is when you most want to be fishing. So I’m no stranger to forgoing epic fishing and I should have forgone that opportunity with those big albies. It was a tough shore season for ‘core last year – the second in a row – and that’s my lousy excuse . . . shame on me. Alternatively, when the reality of a safe and reasonable landing does not materialize (albacore generally don’t cooperate and maneuvering them to an ideal landing spot is often futile . . . like giving a cat a pill), anglers can simply elect to break them off and I should have done that.

Despite being well publicized, I’m compelled to review sound and healthy release practices. And I have my own twist on these, too. First, try not to fully remove the fish from the water – cradle or secure it with one hand, remove the hook and set it free without ever lifting it out. Yes, some fish jump and clear the damn water – some in violent fashion, too – but keep in mind that your fish (including skates, robins and other undesired bycatch) just battled for its life . . . and lost. Now is when an angler’s kindness is most relevant. Resist ripping the hook out. Instead, wiggle it and gently pry it loose. Barbless hooks are the right choice for fly rodders, and circle hooks for conventional bait-fishers, and trebles should really fade away. Once the hook is out, the fish may need a bit of reviving to ensure a healthy return to its environment. The long accepted practice is to hold the fish by the tail and while cradling its underside, oscillate it back-and-forth with its head submerged so as to induce water flow over its gills. This is OK in theory, but I’ve discovered a better method that allows the fish to gather itself much more effectively, as evidenced by how quickly it forcibly bolts from your hand. I simply immerse the fish’s head facing into clean, clear, preferably moving water with a light grip of the tail. By gently wiggling the fish with a side-to-side swimming motion, rather than back-and-forth, it moves its body in a natural serpentine swimming fashion that engages its central nervous system quickly. This efficiently revives the fish, enabling it enough vigor to briskly swim from your grasp in less time than the traditional method described above. False albacore, bonito and other small tuna are unique fish that call for a unique release – a nose-first plunge directly into the water that directs the fish down into the water. A return plunge is facilitated by holding the fish upright with a grip of the tail peduncle while supporting the underside with your other hand and dropping or launching the tuna back to the water. Swift hook removal is recommended with these fish, as they’re more prone to suffocation than most soft-finned fish we’re familiar with. Please do YouTube searches for visualization of this procedure – I’m sure there are many videos available.

Summing up these thoughts – the better we treat our quarry, the more fun we’ll all have in the long run.  It’s the best investment we can make in our sport and it’s free…

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Tide Basics

Understanding Tides and the Factors That Influence Them Will Make You a Sharp Saltwater Angler and Unquestionably Improve Your Success

Tides are the pulse of the sea. Their infinite cycle generates oscillating currents and fluctuating water levels that have shaped the appearance, behavior, and life cycle of virtually every marine life form, including the game fish and prey species that are important to our sport. Minus tides, marine species the world over would likely appear and behave entirely different—even if they existed at all. Understanding tides and the ability to predict them are skills fundamental to saltwater fishing. Thoughtful anglers who use knowledge of the tides to formulate their angling strategies have a better chance to be in the right place at the right time.

Tides are produced and regulated by astronomical and geophysical effects, which often make tidal phenomena seem mysterious. But in fact, tides are well understood. The gravitational effects of the moon and sun acting upon the oceans of our spinning earth drive the tides, and the sizes and shapes of continents and oceans in conjunction with regional shoreline geography (the configuration of sounds, large bays, archipelagos, etc.), define tidal behavior throughout the globe. Amplitudes and cycle periodicities may vary considerably between oceans, hemispheres and throughout differing latitudes; regionally, however, they are consistent.

A discussion of the many factors that influence tide behavior would require far more space than a short article allows—and would be much more than anglers need to know. The good news is that you can easily familiarize yourself with some tide basics, and that just a little bit of applied knowledge will make your time on the water more rewarding.

The Mechanics of Tides

Three concepts are key to understanding tides. First, tides are created by the gravitational attraction of the moon and sun acting upon the liquid oceans of a spinning earth. These gravitational forces combine to slightly stretch the oceans away from the earth’s core forming geophysical “waves” (or fluid bulges) that propagate across our planet—quite similar to a hula-hoop rolling around one’s torso. Second, tides follow a repetitious monthly cycle that mimics the periodic 29.5-day lunar cycle, or the lunar orbit of the moon about the earth. And third,the strength and amplitude of prevailing tides varies in accordance with astronomical positions of the sun and moon relative to earth throughout the 29.5-day lunar month.

When the moon, earth, and sun align, either with the earth between the moon and sun (the full-moon phase), or with the moon situated between the earth and sun (the new-moon phase), this is called a spring tide. The gravitational forces associated with a spring tide become additive, producing a strong pull upon the oceans that yields inherently larger tides—greater water level fluctuations and stronger currents—than when the forces aren’t aligned. Spring tides occur twice each month within a few days subsequent to the associated moon phases.

During quarter-moon periods, the sun, earth, and moon are positioned in a 90-degree configuration(with the earth at the apex), and the gravitational pulls of the moon and sun are offset by 90-degrees. Such a configuration does not allow the moon and sun to act in concert upon the earth. This creates a neap tide, and the fluid bulges that form during a neap tide are correspondingly smaller, producing weaker tides with less amplitude than during a spring tide. Neap tides occur twice each month.

These astronomically-generated geophysical waves are our tides, and they manifest themselves in two basic daily tide cycles: diurnal and semidiurnal. Diurnal tides run in an approximate 24-hour cycle, with one high and one low tide per day. Semi-diurnal tides run in a roughly 12-hour cycle, with two high and two low tides per day. The US Atlantic coast and the Bahamas experience semi-diurnal tides, but the Gulf of Mexico has primarily a diurnal cycle. The Pacific coasts of the US and Central America experience mixed tides—a combination of diurnal and semi-diurnal tides.

In general, tidal range becomes greater nearer the poles and lesser towards the equator. The range is the fluctuation or difference in water level between low and high tide. In North America, one can expect greater tides the farther north you fish—north of Cape Cod and throughout the Gulf of Maine, for example—where tide ranges of 10 feet or more are typical. Conversely, expect weaker tides in southern regions—south Florida, Gulf of Mexico, etc.—where ranges of two feet or less often prevail.

Tides also follow a daily cycle that is associated with the earth’s 24-hour rotation on its axis, which recurs at the same pace regardless of moon phase. Day-to-day tide schedules, however,are not exactly repetitious—there’s about a one-hour advance, approximately 50 minutes, in the timing from one day to the next. The reason? The lunar day—which is the time it takes for the moon to reappear over an exact earth longitude from the previous day—takes 50 minutes longer than our 24-hour solar day (the time it takes for the sun to reappear over an exact earth longitude). This is due to the moon circling the earth over its 29.5 day orbit . . . it simply takes an extra 50 minutes each day for the earth to catch up  with the advancing lunar orbit. Obviously, the tides must follow and they, too, recur approximately 50 minutes later on each successive day.

Tide Predictions, Estimates and Weather Effects

Numerically-based tide predictions, a fancy name for tide charts, are available online and in print at tackle shops, ship’s chandlers, and other marine-related retailers. These projections are compiled for specific periods of time and for specific geographic locations where predicted times for high tide and sometimes low are provided by calendar day. Most predictions conveniently include corresponding moon phases, many indicate resultant water levels at high and low tide, and some offer maximum current velocity at peak tide flow.

Despite their convenience and general accuracy, these predictions are frequently off by as much as 45 minutes due to prevailing weather conditions, or due to crude or inaccurate time corrections for locations not specifically cited in the chart (this is the case more often than not). Anglers, however, rarely need precise tide data to meet their objectives. Most often, its sufficient knowingroughlywhen high or low tide will prevailfor a given location. Bear in mind, slack-tide periods (when there’s no tidal flow) at high- and low-tides endure for about 30 minutes during the tide change, but simply knowing that the tide will be outgoing or incoming through sunrise or sunset is often enough information to make a sensible choice as to where to fish. Flats fishers are often only concerned with approximately when high or low tide will occur on their flat of interest—a morning low (implying a mid-day incoming tide) or a morning high (implying a mid-day outgoing tide) is usually enough information to decide when, where, or if to fish at all.

Winds can significantly affect both tide schedules and ranges. The stronger the wind and longer its duration, the greater the impact on astronomical tide predictions. These effects are most significant within shallow, nearshore waters

Though astronomy is entirely predictable, a fact that makes tide charts, clocks, and other predictive tools possible, nothing in our earthly world is that simple or absolute. It’s important to know that meteorological activity often has significant influence on prevailing tides. Events such as strong weather fronts and cyclonic storms (hurricanes, typhoons, etc.) will amplify tidal fluctuations and accelerate or delay their schedules. A strong onshore breeze that persists for days, for example, may advance the arrival of incoming tides by as much as an hour ahead of scheduled predictions. And the opposite may prevail with a persistent offshore breeze, or one that blows in harmony with the ebb tide.

Water levels, too, are impacted by weather events—strong winds that act in concert with either an incoming or outgoing tide often produce higher or lower tides than normal or what was predicted by the tide chart. Cyclonic storms generally raise water levels, sometimes for days, particularly as they advance into a region and throughout their duration.Numerical tide predictions must always be viewed as baseline projections, as if the tide occurred in a vacuum, upon which ongoing regional and local weather events should also be considered to arrive at actual tide performance.

Basing a Fishing Strategy around the Tides

Tides are important in all marine environments, however, their impact is more pronounced on shallow inshore habitats than say the Mariana Trench. In addition to creating current, tides flush shallow near-shore environments with fluctuating water levels that cleanse these waters and regulate water temperature—two factors that strongly influence prey, game fish, and fishing. The flats associated with bonefish, tarpon, striped bass, redfish, and other popular game fish are examples of near-shore fisheries completely governed by tides. In deeper waters away from the shoreline, moving tides form inshore rips over ledges, shoals, and reefs, creating prime opportunities for predation throughout the water column and ideal angling. While in open-water offshore environments, tidal currents (in conjunction with the wind) generate surface weed-lines and rip-lines—key surface features that attract and hold pelagic bait and game, including dorado, sailfish, marlin, and other bluewater species.

Tides affect fishing in three ways: creation of current, and velocity and direction are both important; fluctuating water levels that increase on a rising or flood tide and decreasing on a falling or ebb tide; and controlling water temperatures. Game fish utilize moving water to their feeding advantage, either holding below stiff currents and allowing prey to be swept to them overhead or advancing into moderate currents tracking the scent of food to its source, as is often the case when roaming the flats in search of prey.

In aggressive tide rips, game fish such as false albacore and bonito actively traverse the turbulent upper water column to attack bait pods being swept in surface waters. Stripers and blues often hold deep in these rips, capturing prey as it comes to them. You should choose your fly-line densities based on where you want to present the fly effectively in these various conditions: floating lines for fish that are blasting bait on top, high-density sinking lines (450 to 650 grains) for action that’s 10 to 15 feet down in fast-moving water.

Fish prefer feeding zones based on tidal movement and often relocate during slack tide to feeding areas better suited for the impending tide. The calm of slack opens unique windows of opportunity for anglers to get their fly deep enough to have a shot at fish that re transiting low to fresh-feeding stations. Inlets, channels, jetties, and other deep structure are likely spots to ambush these fish during quiescent slack periods. Along ocean beaches, water level is critical for bringing “beach holes” (scoured trenches along the shoreline) to life – as rip-tides. These holes are often dry and out of the surf zone at low tide, but once covered with waves and wash with incoming water, they ignite rip-tides, dynamic shoreline features that are highly productive surf-fishing structure.

Of all forms of fly fishing the ocean, flats fishing is perhaps the most dependent on tides. Entire flats may be bone dry for one quarter of the day, too deep to wade for another quarter, and just right the other 12 hours, half of which may occur at night! It’s not always this complicated, but it can be, so making correct use of daily tides is critical. When embarking at low-tide, it’s wise to position yourself at the outer fringes of the flat where fish generally first appear with the incoming tide. Prime fishing gradually progresses shoreward with deepening water as the fish move further in to feed in areas unavailable at low tide; to remain in the action, anglers should gradually reposition inward, too. Most game fish focus on specific areas of a flat during mid-tide periods, it may be a grass bed, right along the shoreline, a sandbar . . . wherever prey is concentrated. While others, often the big ones, may lag behind and never stray too far from the flat’s edge, regardless of water levels. Observant anglers note where the fish appear to be going, or are reappearing often, and focus their efforts on these prey-rich areas, as well. When the tide turns to outgoing, expect the fish to respond right away – the change affects flow over the flat (not always reversing it, but it will impact its speed and direction) as water levels start to recede. Fish immediately resume moving about the flat while gradually progressing outward with thinning waters. Anglers should adjust their position accordingly while taking maximum advantage of sun position for optimal viewing . . . early and late-day tide changes that redirect the flow of water (and fish) may force you to now look into – or out of – a low sun’s blinding glare. This can simplify spotting with easy down-sun viewing (but remain mindful of your very long shadow during these hours), or bring the fishing to a grinding halt when fish approach solely from the direction of the sun.

Shallow flats are heavily influenced by tides – in addition to driving water level fluctuation, they also regulate water temperature. Thermal effects are amplified on flats that go dry at low tide when bottom sediment becomes exposed to wind, air . . . and the Sun

Furthermore, shallow near-shore areas warm and cool much more readily than deeper waters. Temperatures are controlled by solar radiation, wind, overnight cooling, and tides. Both prey and game have preferred thermal comfort zones. For example, stripers prefer 50 to 70°F, bonefish 70 to 90°F, tarpon 75 to 95°F, and so on. When the flats are too cool for good fishing, an incoming tide that brings warmer water from the adjacent ocean can light things up. Such is often the case with winter bonefishing, especially in the morning. Flats that have become too warm may be soothed by the influx of cool ocean water brought with a fresh incoming tide, and this is common on the striper flats during the heat of summer, and with afternoon bonefishing in isolated, tepid shoreline waters in the Keys and the Yucatan.

Five Key Things to Keep in Mind about Tides

1 – Know the approximate tide schedule for your planned time on the water: knowing the times of high and/or low tide are key, as game fish often cease feeding and relocate to new feeding stations during slack periods. Remaining patient and not being fooled by these temporary lulls may keep you positioned for impending action. When a “hot bite” subsides at slack, but does not resume after the tide change, it may be wise to relocate to an alternate spot for the impending tide.

2 – Based on observations made at low tide, be aware of the bottom structure for the area you plan to fish: careful inspection of the water at low tide reveals bars, rock formations, subtle troughs and other subsurface structure important to fish as they feed. Knowing the bottom’s contour (and features) enables you to utilize it throughout the incoming tide, despite being occluded by higher water levels.

3 – Be vigilant of expected water levels at high or low tide for the area you plan to fish: while wading, it’s very important to know how high the water will rise during the incoming tide. Always be mindful that what was wadable on the way out may become impassable later on during an incoming tide. The opposite is true when skiff-fishing; an outgoing tide can strand bold fishermen who ventured too far or too shallow for hours as they await the next incoming tide provide enough water to float their vessel for a safe departure.

4 – Be aware of the expected tide magnitude – either spring tides or neap tides, based on moon phase: in many fishing spots, the water simply runs too hard during the full and new moon phases to produce good or manageable fishing. Narrow inlets, shallow treacherous reefs and others that “amplify” water velocities too much for prey activity – or fly fishing – during spring tides often fish best during the weaker flow periods at the onset of the tide, or as the end of the tide approaches. Conversely, very shallow or isolated areas may become alive twice a month during extreme spring tides that produce higher than normal water levels and moderated temperatures that do not prevail during neap tide moon phases.

5 – Be aware that there is as much as a two-hour delay in the tide schedule between interior waters inside coastal rivers, bays and estuaries and that of the adjacent ocean just outside barrier islands, beaches or break-walls: Knowing such schedule “offsets” allows anglers to capitalize on tide change activity for hours simply by relocating within relatively small areas that abut interior waters and the open sea. In many instances, merely crossing over a barrier beach or sand dune provides simple access to “new water” with an entirely different tide scenario and renewed action.

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The Shore Game – Pursuing Albacore on Foot

(This article previously appeared in the August/September 2018 issue of Fly Fisherman)

The false albacore run is one of the most annually anticipated events along the Atlantic seaboard from Cape Cod to North Carolina’s Outer Banks. The albie season is somewhat predictable, but their exact arrival varies year to year, as does the duration of the run, which is relatively brief – typically four- to six-weeks-long after they first appear. Compared to other popular game fish, such as striped bass, it’s a flash in the pan that fuels an “albie mania” that disrupts the lives of countless Atlantic coast anglers who become consumed with chasing them. And with good reason – albacore (also known as little tunny) are arguably the most sensational fish one can pursue inshore with fly gear – they’re fast, powerful, sometimes fickle, other times ferocious, often exasperating, and never boring . . . they’re ideal fly rod game fish.

Pursuing tunny by boat is a popular approach and there are savvy, well-equipped guides throughout the albacore’s range who boat hundreds of fish each season for their anglers and double-digit daily landings are common. In contrast, pursuing albacore from shore is a tougher and far more challenging game, but the excitement and rewards are worth it. Near-shore schools (often referred to as “pods”) are smaller than those available to boat anglers, typically holding a dozen or fewer albies. These fast-moving fish surface suddenly, as they blast nearshore bait and then evaporate in mere seconds, providing one-shot opportunities (two, if you’re lucky) to connect with an emerald bullet. This facet alone heightens the shore challenge and gets the adrenaline pumping like no other game in the Northeast.

Consistent success from shore requires an understanding of coastal structures that are favorable for albacore feeding.  That knowledge combined with diligent observation and awareness of bait school locations enable anglers to anticipate where and when the fish will appear and facilitate strategic post-up positioning to effectively intercept them.

False Albacore and the Albacore Season

False albacore are pelagic nomads, spending much of their lives dispersed throughout tropical and temperate latitudes of the Atlantic high seas. But each fall they invade inshore waters from Cape Cod to North Carolina’s Outer Banks to gorge on seasonally abundant bait. Northeast hotspots include Martha’s Vineyard, Rhode Island’s Atlantic shores including Block Island, throughout Long Island Sound from Stonington, Connecticut to New York City, the Atlantic-facing shores of Long Island, the Jersey Shore, and the waters surrounding Cape Lookout and Harker’s Island.in North Carolina.

In the Northeast, albacore typically appear in late summer. September’s declining sunlight and dry air produce long, clear nights that chill surface waters with radiant overnight cooling, triggering the migratory itch in both bait and game – false albacore arrive to feast on the bait exiting fertile interior waters. Little tunny arrive from the east, rather than the south, as with spring stripers. Usually first appearing off Martha’s Vineyard and perpetually advancing westward and south to Rhode Island, Long Island, Connecticut, New Jersey, and beyond . . . tunny are nomadic – ever in search of food and never lingering anywhere for long.

The presence or absence of the right bait makes or breaks an albacore season. Albies clearly prefer anchovies, silversides, sand eels, and juvenile bunker over other prey. Mysteriously, all of these bait species may not appear each season, other years there are countless numbers of all of them. But when any of these baitfish are present in good numbers, solid albacore fishing will prevail – it’s that simple. The run advances southward through the end of November with a New England peak in September, top Long Island and Jersey Shore action in October, and November being primetime in North Carolina. Seasons with notable tropical weather activity (depressions, and pass-by storms) have produced exceptional albacore fishing. The influx of warm offshore Gulf Stream surface water that’s pushed landward by passing tropical depressions appears to be the reason. Offshore schools of albacore are perhaps nudged further landward, as well.

Anchovies
Silversides
Sand Eels

False albacore range from 5 to 15 pounds, with bigger fish encountered now and then (usually mid-Atlantic and southern waters). They are tunanot bonito – and are the smallest species in the tribe. They are fast and powerful creatures – when hooked from shore, tunny routinely rip the fly line and 150 yards of backing – sometimes more – on their opening run. In contrast to boat-fishing, where they quickly sound into relatively deep water and the struggle becomes vertical and at times monotonous, shore-hooked albies have nowhere to go but away, as they strive to stay with their school or flee to the horizon. This coupled with the raw excitement of making split second presentations to fast-moving schools make the shore game electrifying.

Strategies and Tactics

Concentrated Bait School

Unlike striped bass that hold in currents, rips or about structure to ambush prey as it comes to them, pods of albacore stay deep and on-the-move, scanning overhead against the bright surface for the silhouette of concentrated prey, which  they hit hard, and then move on to the next school. Stripers and blues often “corral” such concentrated bait for relatively long periods of surface feeding. In contrast, a shoreline albie blitz of 10 seconds is luxurious. Consistent success relies on smart post-up positioning, with sensible repositioning as necessary, to capitalize on these momentary feeding sprees.

False albacore blasting a shoreline bait school

Inlets

Inlets serve as conduit between protected interior waters, such as salt ponds and estuaries, and the open ocean. These waters are nurseries for many forage species spawned in the spring and which reside in these waters until they gradually move seaward in late summer, becoming the powerful magnet that draws little tunny to our inshore waters.

The best action occurs during the incoming tide when departing baitfish must inch their way seaward into the current, which impedes their progress, causing them to condense and become concentrated. This outbound bait naturally seeks a swim lane very near the jetty wall where currents are weakest. This further concentrates it, creating a perfect albie feeding opportunity. A smart approach here would be to locate a thick bait school and patiently post-up nearby till the albacore find it and ravage it.

When the fish are surfacing often, I prefer to take visual shots and hold my cast till they explode nearby before pitching my fly to them. The key to hooking up here is presenting your fly ahead and directly in the path of blitzing fish before bringing it to life with a slow retrieve. This approach keeps your fly in the action for the longest period of time. There’s no need for a ‘core to abandon concentrated bait for a lone fast-moving minnow. They have the ability to approach, eat or refuse food or fly with lightning speed, which confounds newcomers who expect quick strikes from such an aggressive creature. I believe it’s an “odds game” – get your fly in front of the fish as often as you can, for as long as possible and eventually the strike will come . . .

But if you sense that tunny are passing through the vicinity, staying deep and just not surfacing, repetitive blind-casting close to the jetty wall with a sinking line and a slow retrieve can be effective. Many positions along the jetty wall may be viable; however, jetty points are ideal. Albies entering or exiting an inlet often pass very close to the jetty tips, making points perfect blind-casting positions.

Jetty-lined inlets and breakwalls are consistently productive locations for anglers seeking tunny from shore

Breakwalls

Breakwalls (jetties not associated with inlets) effectively concentrate bait and allow anglers immediate access to relatively deep water making them ideal structures for pursuing false albacore. They’re often productive early in the day, as overnight bait concentrations linger close by, or when prevailing winds nudge surface bait into the wall, concentrating it and creating an attractive feeding opportunity. As with inlets, posting-up near concentrated bait and patiently waiting for albacore to surface nearby is a smart approach. The action can be frenzied, as pods of fish race along the foot of the wall, surfacing only to crash bait schools with no advance warning . . . it’s exhilarating. Again, short, quick casts ahead of, and perpendicular to, advancing ‘core that put your fly right in their path are effective. Blind-casting busy stretches of the breakwall with a sinking line and slow retrieve is an alternate strategy that will also get you connected. Relatively short casts of 50 feet or less present your fly close to the wall where the fish are actively feeding.

Beaches

Little tunny feed off ocean beaches, too. But with no structure or appreciable current to direct bait movement in this environment, the fish become less predictable. You may spot albies zipping through the waves in search of bait, or observe sporadic surface boils during calm surf conditions as they sequentially hit bait schools nestled near the shoreline. But chasing fast-moving albies is futile. Instead, carefully scanning the water with polarized glasses for concentrated bait and patiently staying with that school until the ‘core arrive and hit it is a smart strategy. The corners formed where a beach abuts a beach groin or other natural structure become “traps” that stall migrating bait, creating ideal post-up locations. Shoreline bait is typically more dispersed than along jetty structures, however, and blitzes become more spread out and often persist longer. I recommend peppering these blitzes with repetitive casting and slow retrieves that only span the action zone. As soon as you sense your fly is no longer in the “zone”, quickly pick up and recast into the action until you hook-up or the fish sound and move on. Expect very long runs from fish hooked from the beach, as they desperately try to stay with their pod.

Tunny are generally not leader shy and 10- to 12-pound-test monofilament or fluorocarbon leaders are fine. I prefer a simple, knotless seven- to nine-foot straight shot of 12-pound-test fluorocarbon that small albacore flies will readily turn these leaders over without a taper.

Stripping baskets facilitate line management and are recommended when working jetty walls and in the surf. The raw excitement of albacore fishing can easily lead to line tangles in these difficult environments . . . often at the worst possible time.

Flies and Equipment

Despite their aggressive feeding behavior, tunny are selective eaters and many unique patterns have emerged over the years to replicate the small baitfish they devour. Important common features with most successful albie flies are slim profile, a mix of pearl and silver flash material, and a silhouette appearance that’s opaque in front and translucent in back when viewed from below – silversides, anchovies and sand eels all appear this way. Although they have exceptional vision, albacore spend the majority of their lives in oceanic blue water and likely only perceive color in the blue-green spectrum (the rest appearing as shades of gray). Not surprisingly, blue, green, pink, and white are proven colors, and flies that the fish can see – but not too well – are winners. Synthetics and patterns tied sparsely with natural materials achieve this ghost-like appearance. Epoxy, silicone or resin minnows (Bob Popovics), sparse Deceivers, Mushmouths, and Bunny flies in lengths that match the prevalent bait are effective. Circle hooks offer no advantage when fly fishing and they can lead to missed strikes. Instead, I recommend wide-gap, chemically-sharpened J-hooks, such as Gamakatsu’s SC-15 in sizes 1 and 1/0, and Daiichi 2546 saltwater hooks in sizes 2 and 1 for albacore. They set easily in hard, bony mouths, rarely come loose, and extraction is quick and easy to support a healthy release.

Eight- and nine-weight tackle is perfect, and a seven-weight will handle fish under five pounds. When the action is on the surface, intermediate lines keep the fly high in the water column and they’re easy to pick-up for recasting, two important advantages when sight-casting to surfacing fish. But when the fish are staying deep, fast sinking lines and sink-tips get your fly down five or six feet in the water column and yield more hook-ups. Recently, I’ve explored surface flies and floating lines for the adrenaline rush this approach might provide. Though not as explosive as I had imagined, it’s an exciting and unique experience – the fish rise suddenly and “snatch” the fly off the surface with mercurial quickness, leaving little evidence of a strike. Focused visual tracking of the fly and oddly – a trout set is in order to seal the hook-up . . . much like Atlantic salmon fishing with a dry. A white Gurgler (Jack Gartside), loaded with pearl flash in the tail that’s traced along the surface with a slow, steady two-hand retrieve will raise fish from the depths. Fishing the surface is not the most effective method, but it’s an interesting departure for those with a few albies under their belt.

Jack Gartside’s Gurgler

Reels should be sturdy and have smooth drags that withstand repeated powerful runs. A wide arbor preserves the spool’s diameter with long-running albies, which provides two benefits – the large diameter of reserve backing ensures smooth, consistent drag after a long run, and it amplifies retrieval rate when reeling in those long runs. 200 yards of 20-pound Dacron or 30-pound gel-spun braid is adequate.

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Return to Guiding

          After a long layoff I will resume guiding effective immediately. I had guided in the ‘90s and into the millennium and I enjoyed that work a lot. It was a rewarding element of my recreational fishing career. But “life” somehow found its way and it became no longer reasonable to my clients nor me and I reluctantly retired that service.

I’m excited to again guide anglers at all skill and experience levels. My services are primarily as a wade-guide (on foot, from shore), but I will gladly come aboard to assist boaters new to saltwater fishing succeed in finding and connecting with their quarry. While wading, my focus is fly fishing, however, I welcome spin/light tackle anglers, as well.

I reside on the coast of southern New England in Westerly, Rhode Island where I have regional expertise in the waters from southeastern Connecticut east to Narragansett, Rhode Island. I also offer destination guiding, provided I am familiar with the target species and fishing methods you prefer. If you have an unfamiliar destination in mind, or a target species you know little about, I may be able to help you succeed more quickly.  My immersion in every manner of saltwater fishing since I was a young boy has provided me a great deal of experience and the ability to process observations quickly, decipher a new fishery and achieve success efficiently.

Wade guiding in my regional waters is offered in two packages: four hours on the water and six hours on the water. A four-hour trip would best fit a basic shore-fishing adventure – a sunrise or sunset outing that may include striped bass, bluefish, hickory shad, and others. For more technical fishing, such as sight-fishing for striped bass or pursuing false albacore or bonito from shore, I suggest a six-hour effort simply because these are more challenging pursuits and the additional time will help “stack the deck” in your favor. All trips are limited to one or two anglers in order that I may provide meaningful attention and guidance to the party.

I look forward to fishing with you . . . Tight lines,

Alan

My ValuesI will impart my knowledge and experience generously so at the end of our adventure you are a better fisherman . . . I will make every effort to guide you to your angling goal and help you catch your quarry, but what is most important to me is that you become a better, more versatile angler by the end of the day.

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Florida Bonefish

A pock-marked coral bottom blanketed with a layer of bright marl holds prey, attracts bonefish, but is difficult to fish

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.

Working close to shore, I maintained my stealth by crouching low and I utilized shoreline structure/vegetation to mask my silhouette

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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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 Pair of Saltwater Bendbacks

 

A Miracle Pattern for Fresh and Salt Water

 

Fly-rodders have scads of choice 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:  Please visit the following sites for more 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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Big Fish

big bass - image

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 2000 words or less and new stories will be posted regularly.
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