The Mighty Tigress :
The Ins and Outs of fishing migratory striped bass (Liveys and Flies)
For many fishing is not a lifestyle but a way of life. The western long island sound (WLIS) is a magical place in the spring and fall months. The spring lays the groundwork or “waterwork” for generations to come. In April and May mature striped bass spawn within the Hudson River. As much as 20% of the eastern population navigate and return to the river they called home in the beginning stages of their lives. The mature stripers spew eggs near the surface over deep water with a minor current. The somewhat buoyant eggs eventually hatch within two to four days, leaving the fish to fend for themselves. By early summer these baby stripers head to nurseries such as Haverstraw Bay to embark on their second life cycle. Prior to the next generations introduction to the saltwater the Western Sound lights up in May and early June with mammoth beasts. Fish up to twenty years old flood the constricted sound with hopes to evade the trophy angler. Yes a season has come and gone, however it is imperative to reflect and comprehend this years spring run while the memory of the one that got away is still ever present. To look back provides the insurance to make mends where leaks might have sprung this previous spring. To acknowledge what must be done this autumn, to ensure an act of redemption.
Growing up and spending the majority of my time on the sound these past 20 years I find it safe to say that I have had the unique opportunity to have established an intimate and in depth knowledge of how the western long island sound flows. The floods and the ebbs so to speak. Come early may big striped bass otherwise known as “cows” begin to appear within the western sound. The large fish are plentiful and easy to pursue. With the menhaden baitfish migration and spawn underway it is no challenge to figure out where the striper schools lie. Nervous water is the name of the game. During this time of the year any average joe can go out and chunk or troll wire and catch their “trophy fish.” A trophy fish is loosely defined. However, in my eyes those that are members of the 50 lb club are right where you want to be.
Fishing for these stripers any time of day can be solid. In my experience I have found that with the onset of the ebb post high tide, the evening can work magic for most spots at the mouth of the many great harbors. Please note that the East wind is the devils wind. Any east and you might as well go home. A strong west wind can also be deadly and will likely disturb the once consistent current off course. Some people swear that to trick a mighty cow ones best chances are in heavy waters. I do not disagree however, can only say that most of my success has occurred in calm conditions where the natural sway of the goings on below ones feet are undisturbed. The bight can be prolific for 2 1/2 hours or so until the tide begins to drain emphatically. Leaving a chunk on the ground unless it is strategically placed on a drop-off will look artificial with the weight holding the chunk back from a natural drift. Chunk types in my opinion do not make a great difference. Start out using one rod with a head, one with a literal chunk and see what works. My only suggestion is to not include the menhadens’ tail for I find that it can get in the way of the hook set. When fishing chunks one should always use what I call a live lining snap swivel. With the weight attached to the snap and the rod in free spool a striper will pick up the bait and not feel or drag the weight with him.
When a fish hits the rod I always recommend to not pull the rod out of its holder for a solid 5 seconds plus of pull. Call me superstitious however with experience I profess that a fish will pick up on this minor disturbance and immediately drop the bait. Circle hooks are key to successful catch and release. Anyone can bury a J hook deep into an unsuspecting striped bass. Fishing with circle hooks in the 7/0 to 8/0 range catch the lip of a striped bass and ensures the survival and safety for the following generation. Remember that the fish essentially sets him or herself with a circle hook. It is imperative to leave the old and mighty hook set with the rod tip at home. Instead simply pick up the free spooling reel after the 5-7 second mark and point the rod tip directly where the fish lies. If the fish keeps pulling tighten the drag to a solid degree and let the fish run with the heavier drag while simultaneously lifting the rod slowly up to a halt at a 45 degree angle. With the fish hooked your ready feel the fish out for the more appropriate drag resistance. Remember a fish that is say a 100 lbs only weighs 10lbs in water. It is imperative that one fights a fish with heavy pressure to get the fish in as quick as possible. Exhausting a fish will only lessen its chances of survival. Knowing the equilibrium and breaking strength is imperative to safely fighting a fish. I recommend researching Andy Mill’s “A Passion for Tarpon,” regarding rod angles and line tension.
Using live menhaden is another great way to catch monster fish. Going out early in the day and harvesting and maintaining eight or more live menhaden can amount to great success later in the evening. Fresh bait to a striper is a lot more tasty in comparison with a day old fish bought at your local tackle shop. With live menhaden out I like to keep two live fish out one being on the surface and one being dropped down using a weighted three-way swivel. It is beneficial to use lighter tippet on the leader attached to the weight so that if you hit bottom with a fish on, the weight will snap off rather then the whole rig along with your trophy fish. Keep an eye on your “liveys” for they will consistently try new angles of escape resulting in tangled lines. Dropping chunks directly under ones boat and live lining an injured menhaden flapping on the surface can be deadly. I cannot tell you how many times I had fished chunks that would not bring results until I enticed the fish with an in distress “livey.” In this situation sometimes they would smack the “livey” or opt for the chunk. Either way the introduction of the distressed fish stimulates a bight. Few spectacles can compare with seeing a mighty cow lunging on the surface and trying to suck down a 2 lb menhaden. Another tactic that is deadly is establishing a chum slick throughout the fishing process. The key being to chop up little pieces of fresh menhaden and then ripping and gushing those little pieces into micro slices of flesh and oil with your hands. The process is dirty but rewarding. Remember you do not want to feed these stripers! Even little pieces of a fish are a big no no. Rather entice them to a point of madness that will lead to a bent rod one way or another.
Catching a 40+ lb striped bass on the fly rod is no easy feat. If there is a time of the year to make it happen the spring and fall migration are two of them. Again one must scout where the large menhaden schools have been that day(fall peanut bunker or baby menhaden) and what type of mood they have been in. With so many large schools swimming around it is worthwhile to find the smallest school of baitfish. Large striped bass will usually pair up in schools no more then 8 of the same size with the smallest fish being in the 35 lb range. If you are hooking fish below 30 lbs change your location. Stripers do not make it into their late teens by chance and are explicitly aware of there heightened and more economical feeding opportunity, when focused on a smaller school of menhaden. Flies like Lefties’ deceiver or Puglasis’ peanut butter work well in imitating different size menhaden. A heavy sinking line is more often then not essential. I tend to throw a 400 grain. A fluorocarbon leader is more stealthy but harder to cast. The more aware the angler is of his or her gear the smaller the lb test should be used. I prefer a 12 lb leader. The longer one keeps his or her fly in the water the better so try and limit your false casts. If your shoulder tires and the current is slow, pull up anchor and set a drift with your fly following the boat. Once drifted out of the “hot spot” loop back around slowly and as quietly as possible to reset ones drift. The method will create less need for consistent casts. Be aware of the current and fish your fly with the current not against it unless the baitfish appear to be acting differently. I like to throw the fly out and let her sink to the bottom before the retrieve. A tick tick strip strip action is the way to go. Tick the fly line 4 inches abruptly twice followed by two long and slow strips. To the striped bass the fly will appear injured or confused. With a fly rod patience is the name of the game. Enjoy your surroundings and casting. Find a rhythm and stick to it on a consistent plane. Never rush, instead work slow and hone your skills. When fishing is slow I find it helpful to observe and enjoy ones senses. Find solace in the cool breeze or lapping water. Fish with confidence, I cannot tell you how often I fish with a more then capable caster who begins to doubt his gear or self. Fishing is not catching! On top of this keep casting even in the dark. These fish have no problem seeing your fly at night. However you might want to throw a fly that is darker in color to emphasize its silhouette. Just remember to wear proper eye protection and a hat.These tactics are versatile and will work season round especially with the latter fall run. On top of it all I cannot express the importance especially for the novice to keep a journal of the days fishing. Take note of the moon phase, tides, weather, and speculate what had happen (while it is still fresh) and why it might have panned out this way. Come round next year you will already have a wealth of knowledge dated and ready to go.