Fall can be a crazy, schizophrenic season, with great weather and fly fishing one day, then ugly skies, wind, and rain the next. One way to deal with this beautiful, challenging month is to fly-fish small, local places. Minimize travel time so you can concentrate on fishing the good-weather days, and by fishing more, you’ll probably catch more fish too. Getting up close and personal with local spots helps you learn where the fish are likely to be, the structure they hang out on, and the timing of tides, moon phase, water currents, weather, bait runs, and changing seasons.
To help choose autumn fly-fishing spots, my logbook has become as essential as the fly I tie to the tippet. Its pages hold a detailed catch history, kind of like a catalog, of proven places to fly fish in the fall. And, in this era of COVID-19 with social distancing, marina and beach restrictions, face masks and caution, fishing local places has become more important than ever. Many fly fishermen have switched gears to search for good fishing with minimal health risks in local ponds, salty beaches, and bays to safely feed their addictions. An overlooked pond or local beach that in pre-virus days may have seemed kind of dull can become a reliable hot spot when you spend time to get to know it better.
Every river, inlet, pond, jetty, beach park, and back-bay marsh has its unique personality and a treasure chest of secrets that, once unlocked, can deliver good fishing. These special fishing spots become close friends, someone we say “Good morning” to while stepping onto the beach, launching the kayak, or drifting in a boat along a rocky point. “What have you got for me this morning?” is answered by coming tight to a happy striped bass or largemouth bass.
Many flyrodders are heading to their home waters where they began their fly-fishing careers. Capt. Craig Cantelmo of Fin-Addict Fishing and a Pure Fishing/Van Staal rep says, “Home waters are where our early fly-fishing experiences began. These are places where we practiced our casting for many hours and ran to when there were only a few hours to fish. I have a section of shoreline that I’ve been fishing for hundreds of hours that always produces, and I know I can go there nearly any day with the right conditions and pull out a fish.”
Staying safe can be achieved by staying local. “We’re all experiencing travel problems these days,” reflects Don Avondolio, noted writer and longtime flyrodder, “so I’ve been visiting a local tidal creek about a quarter mile from a nearby inlet where incoming water brings bass, blues and fluke. Fish can be found hiding under the far side of the bridge near an abutment. By carefully getting the fly into position, I usually get strikes. Adjusting the fly-line depth and/or the weight of the fly is important for proper positioning to work the level of the tide. The goal is to get the fly down to the bottom tangles and numerous rocks where the fish are holding. Night tides are my favorite for intercepting fish at this spot.”
Capt. Robby Barradale of the Bayshore Saltwater Flyrodders has accumulated many local spots that he can count on. “I’d recommend scouting prospective areas at dead low tide, and if this coincides with a full or new moon, that’s even better. You’ll be able to see the deep-water cuts and all the irregularities, holes and submerged fish-holding structure that is hidden at high tide. Boat fishermen should always seek structure such as mussel beds, rocks, and subtle changes in bottom depth. Some of these can be very small places, but once located, they can be worked during changing conditions such as moon phases, wind direction, and strength of tidal flow to determine optimum times to fish them. Sometimes good-looking places may turn up barren, so the only way to learn what works and when is by fishing them.”
Some good locations are learned through a lifetime of fishing them and learning their seasons, structure, and unique personalities. Noted surf angler, Shell E. Caris of Shore Catch Guide Service, followed in his dad’s footsteps as a surf fisherman and has fished the beaches and jetties from Sandy Hook to Long Beach Island. “During the pandemic, I’m concentrating on Island Beach State Park. It’s a surf-fishing paradise,” he says, “and so close to home that I’m there almost every day. Although the park had some closures early on and is still at reduced capacity, we’re all social distancing, wearing masks when needed, and being smart.” Staying close to home, he’s caught fluke, bass, and bluefish because he knows the park like few others. “We used to hit the Cape Cod Canal in the fall and Pulaski in the winter for steelhead, but we’re all staying close to home now and not traveling.”
Some excellent small places can be found simply by slowing down. Chico Fernandez once said, “The best journey is not always the farthest and the fastest.” He recalls many Everglades trips with his friend and fly-fishing guide, Steve Huff, who is always looking, searching, and hunting from the moment he leaves the dock. Huff often throttles back to check out good water, a “nervous” spot, or the flash of a fish rolling, sometimes well before reaching the planned final destination. It’s one reason why this legendary fly-fishing pair have enjoyed numerous tarpon and snook hook-ups by taking the time to look at what’s around them.
An unplanned “throttle-back” moment happened to me on the Manasquan River when I blew a powerhead. It was my second year on the river after moving to the Jersey Shore in 1975 from Bergen County, and every trip gave up something new. While waiting for a tow back to the marina, small bluefish began to pop and swirl all around me just as the sun burst free of the horizon. Instead of trolling for blues at Manasquan Ridge, we caught dozens of small river blues. It’s become one of my favorite local places with blues that have varied from 1-pound dinks to 10-pounders, but the big smiles from catching them have been the same over 45 years.
With the passage of time, the river changed from being a back-up for bad-weather days to being a go-to spot that evolved into a primary destination for wading, kayaking, and skiff fishing. The more I fished its local bridges, docks, sand bars, mussel beds, bulkheads, and other nooks and crannies that held weakfish, fluke, bluefish, and striped bass, the more important the river became.
The beautiful marshes of Cape May are like that for Ray Szulczewski, retired captain of the Tide-Runner. He spent many years fine-tuning and accumulating his local knowledge and says, “This all comes with time, whether a saltwater or freshwater spot. I know pretty much every nook and cranny of the local waters not far from where I dock because I’ve fished them hard over the past 40 years. In the world of sports, this would be called home-field advantage. Many fly-fishers store this knowledge in their heads; others write in a fish log their experiences finding the different patterns that develop.”
“Having close-at-hand spots is great,” Ray believes. “If you have a small window of time, you don’t have to travel far or do much preparation. Here in Cape May, I can fish the Delaware Bay side or the oceanfront, the back-bay creeks, and if it’s too windy, there’s always the option to fish a nearby lake or pond.”
Also getting reacquainted with sweetwater opportunities as a solution for fly-fishing safely, securely, and away from crowds is Rick Ferrin of Long Island. He emailed recently and told me, “I’ve switched gears this past summer and have gone back to fishing local largemouth bass ponds on the Island and with my brother-in-law in Connecticut. It’s surprising that these urbanized, built-out places still have some beautiful places to fly fish. A buddy who lived on the Island all his life took me to ponds that he once rode his bike to as a teenager! I haven’t forgotten the salt, but I’ve really enjoyed the local freshwater experience.”
Fishing your own boat is one way to keep your social distance. Capt. John Isdanavage of Coastal Angler Fly and Light Tackle Charters says, “Fishing during the pandemic has been challenging due to state park closures and limited access to beaches. The best way I have dealt with the situation was fishing alone from the boat at some favorite back-bay areas and just enjoying the peace and quiet. If that’s not an option, I look for some secluded out-of-the-way places in Barnegat Bay by scouting new areas that I would not normally fish. I’m always looking to find that new secret spot.”
Like John, we’re all looking for new fly-fishing spots, especially those off the beaten path, so finding small places to fly fish may take some detective work. To locate access for wading and kayak launching, Google Earth is a big help. So are old-time spiral-bound maps from Hagstrom that detail the locations of streets, ponds, and parks (town, county, and state). Though no longer published, they’re still available from eBay and are a great research resource. I’ve found many spots by locating roads that end at the water’s edge, then taking the time to drive and scope them out to see if there’s access and parking. Sometimes, there’s a small trail with a large reward at the end.
Google Maps and printed maps exposed many good fly-fishing locations for my home waters on the Manasquan River. I am continually amazed at how little competition there is, and I rarely encounter anyone else casting a fly to these “secret” wading and kayaking spots. A dead-end road offered the perfect kayak launch site, another provided entry for wading, and I found a small park further upriver for wading and kayaking. I’d driven past them thousands of times without noticing them – I just hadn’t opened my eyes. This was proof that some of the best small places are in plain sight, such as a pond that you drive past on the way to work, the parking lot next to the railroad bridge, or the path through the marsh at the end of the road.
How-To: Saltwater Fly Fishing for Beginners
Not every trip will get bite after bite, so instead of heading back home when it’s slow fishing, use the downtime to explore places where you don’t usually fish. Go a little further—wade another 100 yards along the marsh, paddle to the other side of the bridge, drift past the docks near the river bend, hike around to the other side of the pond. One morning, I found no striped bass in a cove where I usually scored a bass on a dropping tide on nearly every trip. With an hour to go before dawn, I waded a short distance more to a small bend in the beach and found a pair of weakfish to break the fishless spell. There’s nothing quite so revealing as wading a river, creek, or bay, actually feeling the bottom and getting right up close to current seams, sand bars, and mussel beds.
Frequency is also key to fly-fishing success because it’s a basic building block to accumulate knowledge about a local spot. It’s not a hard chore to force yourself to fish local, and with less driving time, it’s easier to fish more frequently and gives you more time to solve its challenges and problems. Ray Szulczewski says it’s the best way to build confidence. “Putting in the time is necessary to learn where you are fishing.” It’s like the old saw about not finding fish by sitting on your rear – you have to make the casts.