Pictured above: Ben Furimsky shows off a bass that inhaled his hand-tied, 14-inch bunker fly.
Catching a cow striper on the fly isn’t easy, but it can be done.
It’s no secret that the arrival of massive schools of bunker in May and June—and in recent years, in October and November too—make the New Jersey coast the place to be for anglers hunting trophy striped bass. To catch these big bass, most anglers use the conventional methods of snagging and dropping, live-lining, chunking, or casting metal-lip swimmers and pencil poppers. When the bass are feasting on bunker, hooking up with any of these techniques can be easy, both for boat and surf anglers—but what about the fly-fisher? Is it possible for fishermen to hook into 30- to 50-pound bass on the fly?
Yes! But getting the bass to find and strike your fly among thousands of 1-pound baitfish isn’t easy. If it was, we’d be seeing many more photographs of happy fly-fishermen with huge stripers draped across their laps. But it can be done.
Ups & Downs
There are two methods I use to target big bass on the fly. The first is the more traditional method of throwing 10- to 14-inch-long, synthetic flies to imitate adult bunker. I fish them by casting into the school of bunker and retrieving, keeping the fly near the surface with a floating or intermediate line. Retrieves should vary, since sometimes the bass want it fast and sometimes they want it slow. Varying the retrieve is important to see what the big fish want.
When casting and retrieving these flies near the surface, the key will be to get the boat in the right position so a cast can be made to feeding or breaking fish. This requires getting close enough so the angler can reach the fish because casting big flies can be difficult. It’s best to position the boat so it will drift into the fish with the engines turned off, so the throttle man must size up the wind, current, and the direction the school is moving.
When bass are blitzing on the surface, I also have success using big popping flies and chuggers on top. To catch a really big bass on the fly, one in excess of 40 pounds, this is the method to use. It’s similar to surfcasting with big pencil poppers. The goal is to make as much commotion as possible, which whips the bass into a frenzy and triggers them to strike out at the source of the disturbance. They don’t take a long look, as they might with a slowly fished subsurface fly.
When you know big bass are in the area—either by the marks on your fishfinder or from nearby trollers hooking up—but they aren’t showing on the surface, fishing deep with fast-sinking lines is the way to go. Getting down to the bass involves a little more than just casting out, letting the line sink, and retrieving. Instead, I cast out and then “stack mend” by dumping out all the remaining fly line and another 50 yards of backing. When dumping the line into the water, sweep the rod quickly from side to side, laying the line into the water. It will sink down with no resistance, as if you were dropping a weight in free spool on a conventional reel. As the boat drifts away from the line, it will start to pull tight. Once the line comes completely tight, the fly will begin to rise through the water column, and this is when you begin to retrieve.
On a calm, windless day this method will not work because it relies on the drift to put distance between the fly and the boat by the time you start stripping. The sinking rate of the fly line, the speed of the wind, the size of the boat, and how fast you are drifting will all factor in as to how deep your fly will sink. On my 28 Parker Sport Cabin, with a 10 to 15 mile-per-hour wind blowing and a 350- to 400-grain line, my fly will usually get down about 30 feet before the line comes completely tight. The best scenario for covering the most water when drifting over different depths is when the wind is blowing from the west. In such a case, I will stop the boat in 30 feet of water and drift out to 50 or 60 feet while repeating this technique over and over.
When retrieving the fly, use a long or short strip-pause retrieve, or slowly twitch the fly. I recommend varying the retrieve and the duration of the pause with your drifts. However you choose to retrieve, always be ready to strike quickly as a big bass will inhale the fly in one swipe. Maintain contact with the fly so there is no slack in the line and you can strike quickly with a hard hookset.
When deep fly-fishing, I carry three different sinking-line outfits with me, all rigged and ready so I can choose the right line for the right conditions. Under normal conditions, the Rio T-14 (14 grains per foot) Custom Cut Outbound line will fit the bill. It has a sink rate of 8 to 9 inches per second and a 30- to 35-foot sinking head integrated into an intermediate running line.
On the extreme side, I have my secret weapon that I call the dredge. I only use this outfit when the wind is howling, there are whitecaps on the water, and I have guys who are 100-percent dedicated to catching big bass on the fly. The line is the RIO Leviathan Big Game and is 1150 grains per foot. The line has a 30-foot, fast-sinking head integrated into an intermediate running line. This line is not cast in the traditional sense, but rather it is stack-mended into the water as you quickly pull line off the reel. This line is no longer manufactured by RIO, and has been replaced by the Leviathan 750.
The Beast Fleye, a perfect bunker imitation, ted by New Jersey fly-tyer Bob Popovics[/caption
Flies for big stripers should be 10 to 14 inches in length. Bob Popovics’ Beast Fleye is my number one choice. A monofilament extension with a very sparse tie allows the bucktail to pulsate and undulate when retrieved. My other go-to fly is Dave Skok’s yak hair fly. Both flies are lightweight and easy to cast because they shed water easily.
To target big bass on fly tackle, you must be prepared with a rod that can generate enough power and leverage to subdue the fish. When dredging with the heavy Rio Leviathan lines, I use a St. Croix Legend Elite 9-foot, 12-weight rod. When fishing the Rio T-20 or T-14, a 10-weight rod will fit the bill.
I match the rod with a fly reel that has a drag system capable of putting enough pressure on the fish. I use a large arbor 9500 or 9550 Jack Charlton Mako reel. For leader, I use 6 to 8 feet of 40-pound-test fluorocarbon on my sinking line and 50-pound-test fluorocarbon when going topwater with a floating line.
Patience & Persistence Pays Off
One of the most important things a fly-fisher must do to catch a trophy bass is to keep the fly rod in hand. This is much easier said than done, especially when the fisherman next to you is pulling in one big bass after another with live bunker. When I have an experienced caster on board who wants a cow bass on the fly, he will stick with the fly rod for three-quarters of the trip. The other time is spent pitching or snagging baits on conventional gear. This way, the angler can still enjoy catching a few fish, even if none come to the fly.