Sometime between late March and mid-April, schoolie striped bass show up in coastal inlets, creeks, rivers and marsh-lined bays, their presence bringing smiles to salty fly-fishers eager to shake off the chills of winter. The bass will be just as eager to start the new season as they forage on crabs, worms, shrimp and baitfish, triggered by the sun getting higher in the sky, which turns on the coastal migration from their wintering grounds. Changes in water temperatures, the mix of cloudy and sunny days, and the availability of bait and freshwater run-offs will control the local daily movements of spring bass. Choosing the right fly will be an all-important decision.
The earliest fish are caught in very chilly water; unlike summer fish, these bass will be living in slow motion, feeding on crabs and worms. Paul McCain of River Bay Outfitters in Oceanside, New York, starts his back-bay bass fishing by favoring afternoons when the dark mudflats have been exposed to the sun all day and are a few degrees warmer. “I fish high outgoing,” says Paul, “and I fish a range of patterns that include shrimp, small Deceivers and Clousers, and Gartside Gurglers.”
Capt. Robby Barradale of the Bayshore Saltwater Flyrodders fishes the Monmouth County sedge banks and rivers with his Robby’s Worm pattern. He ties it about 4 to 6 inches long on a 1/0 hook with a Clouser eye, five long and slender red grizzly feathers, a red or orange chenille body, and a palmered feather wrapped forward to the hook eye. Worked very slowly, it’s a proven spring bass pattern that has the natural motion of a sandworm or bloodworm, a prime striped bass meal at the season’s start. (Check out the club’s website for the tying recipe.) As the water warms, Robby switches to a bunker pattern tied with Steve Farrar Flashblend in olive over tan over white.
At night in the spring, striped bass will aggressively feed on crabs, shrimp, and cinder worms that can be found around dock pilings and bridges, and sometimes drifting along in the current by the thousands. Captain Jim Freda of Shore Catch Guide Service often relies on two Bob Popovics patterns to fool these fish: the Jersey Long-Legged Crab and the Ultra Shrimp.
Many other fly-fishers also use fish patterns that emphasize the look of a shrimp or at least imitate their brown, tan and olive coloring. If you want something brighter, try a pink or chartreuse Wooly Bugger. This pattern has worked for me for many years, probably because of its high visibility and the motion of the marabou tail and palmered fibers that make it look something like a shrimp.
“Sometimes it’s hard to pick one pattern,” says Jim, “but I always try to use what matches the bait in front of me. If I had to pick just one fly, it would be a 6-inch Popovics’ Bucktail Deceiver with a light bronze back and white underbelly.” Bob Popovics, the master himself, echoes that advice but uses slightly smaller 4- to 5-inch Bucktail Deceivers. Bob says, “In the spring, I like the Bucktail Deceiver tied in red and white, red and yellow or all white.” The incredible breathing motions of the Bucktail Deceiver can be fished slow or at medium speed in an infinite number of erratic retrieve strokes.
Rick Ferrin starts his spring fishing in Long Island’s Great South Bay by looking for warm water on outgoing tides in the afternoon. “I like the warmer afternoon water and fish the Clouser Minnow because the weighted eyes give the fly a jigging action that combines both a vertical and horizontal motion. On a slow retrieve, which the bass seem to like best in the cool water of spring, the Clouser dives at each strip pause and then sweeps upward on the next line pull. Many times, the bass take the fly very gently as it falls, so the hookup is just about automatic on the next strip of the line. I fish bright chartreuse for maximum visibility, or olive and brown to look more like a killie or shrimp.”
When I asked Captain Joe Hughes of Jersey Cape Guide Service for his favorite spring pattern, he answered, “That’s easy! The Electric Chicken! It’s a Clouser tied with 5/32 nickel-plated eyes with pink over chartreuse bucktail and a small amount of pearlescent and silver flash.” Joe ties it with all the material on top – nothing on the bottom as you’d do with a traditional Clouser. “Springtime finds me fishing deep in the channels with a sinking line. It’s best on the swing to achieve maximum depth with a one-hand retrieve, pausing between strips.” On the flats, Captain Joe fishes the same pattern with a floating line using a faster retrieve, and he says, “It catches everything – fluke, weakfish, blues and bass.”
Harold Eckett of NJ Saltwater Flies starts his bass fishing sometime in March. “Outgoing tides around creek mouths are places to work a slow retrieve in cold water temperatures.” He developed a fly called the SCRAT in bright chartreuse that works great on a slow retrieve. It’s inverted to ride hook point up (like a Clouser), but with barbell eyes, some bucktail and flash for the tail, and cactus chenille for the body. It’s tied on a Partridge ACS/E hook in sizes 2 to 1/0 and is a great attracter pattern.
Capt. Ray Szulczewski of the TideRunner out of Cape May is another advocate of bright colors in spring. Starting at the inlet as the new season unfolds, he throws chartreuse-and-white Clousers on sinking lines to get deep; he switches to Deceivers and floating lines in the same color combo as the water warms and he moves into the backcountry. Capt. Ray makes an apt point, “It’s always a good idea to observe your fly alongside the boat and understand how it moves and looks in the water. Make your fly appear alive.”
When you crank up ol’ Betsy to drive to the beach or to your boat, you never know exactly what bait you’ll find when you get there. Have a variety of patterns in your fly box that imitate the color, length and profile of the most common spring baits. Jim Freda advises, “On any given day you can have spearing, bay anchovies, striped anchovies, sand eels, small herring, and adult herring, and all sizes of bunker in front of you.” For small baits, Jim likes Popovics’ Jiggies and Surf Candies, Skok’s White Mushy, Steve Farrar’s Softex patterns, and Half and Halfs. “When imitating larger baits, my favorites include big Bucktail Deceivers, Hollow Fleyes, Dino’s Herring Fly, Skok’s Mega Mushy and Farrar’s Bunker.”
Water conditions will influence your color and profile choice. In murky water, some fly-fishers like dark patterns, while others prefer a yellow, chartreuse or bright pink to stand out against the cloudy water. I always have several “skitzo” flies that I tie all black, all purple or dark olive on back and brown bellies, and then add chartreuse bucktails or feathers down the sides. These flies can’t decide if they’re dark or bright, but the bass seem to like them, especially at night, early morning, and on cloudy days.
At times, a bulky, opaque fly will be more appealing than a sparsely-tied translucent fly. While most tyers apply some type of flash material to everything they tie, there are times when a fly with minimal flash, or no flash at all, will be more appealing to the bass.
As days get warmer and April gets bumped aside by May, there will be many more opportunities for topwater fishing, either from surface-feeding striped bass that you’ll see crashing bait, or from fish in feeding position in a rip or over good bottom structure that will rise to take your surface fly. For topwater action, Bob Popovics likes the Bob’s Banger in silver and white on a 3/0 hook, and this is indisputably one of the most reliable spring topwater patterns. Besides being pleasant to cast and great fish foolers, they’re so easy to tie that you can make up a bunch in just one evening at the bench. They’re also inexpensive so you won’t lose your cool when a bluefish chews the heck out of it.
Surface bubblers, popularized by Jack Gartside’s Gurgler pattern, are another excellent choice for topwater action. A short, quick strip makes them spit, while a slow steady retrieve with short pauses makes them push a seductive wake that, in quiet water, often gets more bass strikes than splashier surface poppers.
To paraphrase a popular TV commercial, now’s the time to ask “What’s in your wallet?” Your fly wallet, that is.