With one of the warmest winters on record behind us we can now look for an early start to this new season. Officially kicking off here in New Jersey on March 1st all of our back bay waters are once again fair game to target our striped friends. In retrospect however, some of us never ended our 2001 season and continued to fish the surf throughout the months of January and February. With surf temperatures staying in the low forty-degree range small stripers were still active.
The usual winter movement of these fish into the deeper holes of our backbays and rivers never happened for some of the population that was present during the late fall-early winter period. We also had a large population of sea herring this winter that remained around our central New Jersey inlets due to the warmer waters. These baits will definitely peak the interest of any bass that are still around. So it looks like getting serious about shooting the suds is going to happen at least a month earlier this year than last year. April is usually the month that this happens but since fish and bait are here now--it's time to begin.
With the warmer water temperatures that are present we will see a good assortment of baits this month in the form of spearing, killies, grass shrimp, large bunkers, and herring that will begin an early migration back to our waters. These baits will move along our beachfronts and then take up residence in our back bays. This will set the table for some early season action.
Schoolie size bass will become the common target that most longrodders will intercept but some rather large bass will also hit the feathers as they seek out suitable spawning grounds in our freshwater rivers and tributaries. To confirm that bass are around all the fly fisher needs to do is to go to any back bayshore and watch the anglers that are fishing with bloodworms. If they are catching fish than you can rest assure that the fish are there.
To be successful when targeting early season stripers presentation is going to be key. Slow steady retrieves are often the norm while fishing as close to the bottom as possible. At this time of year the bass are still somewhat lethargic and still in their energy conserving mode. Their noses are down as they root through muddy bay bottoms in search of small marine worms and other tiny invertebrates. Here is where a wide variety of sinking lines will greatly add to your success in the early part of the season.
Many fly fishers however don't carry the right tools, in this case lines, to get the job done. As we have grown in the sport the majority of us have spent our time or money accumulating a wide assortment of flies that we have to choose from. Deceivers, clousers, jiggies, poppers, half and halfs, etc., etc., and etc.
If you're like some fly fishers I know you probably have so many flies that you can't find room in your bag to carry them all. You probably also carry many flies that have never hit the water at all. These are the flies we label for that "just in case scenario", or the "confidence factor".
With the start of a new season I think it is time for many of us to change our way of thinking or the approach that we take when we start to measure how effective our time spent on the water actually is. Do you keep a mental note of your cast to strike ratio? Or do you just move along casting a bad day off with the rational that the fish weren't there or they weren't hunger?
Or does this scenario sound familiar? The fly fisher next to you is hooking up and you are not. You cast just about every fly in your bag but each one yields the same result, nothing. Or how about this, you move from a spot and another fly fisher steps in and hooks up on the very first cast.
I think all of us can honestly say that at least one of these scenarios has happened to each one of us sometime in our fly fishing career. I know they have to me and it can be rather frustration especially if they repeat themselves time and time again.
So what is the answer? What should go through your head when you are not producing fish and you know that you should be? The key to your success in saltwater fly fishing is going to rest with your presentation. You will need to look at two components of your presentation that are important. One is the retrieve that you are using and the other is putting the fly in the right place. In other words putting the fly where the fish are. Which of these is more important? Well, I think it is safe to say that putting the fly where the fish are should be your first and most important consideration. If you have the correct retrieve but there are no fish anywhere near your fly then good luck, because you are going to need it.
When we look at an expanse of water that we know fish are present in, putting the fly where the fish are is going to depend on in part the fly line that you have selected. Many fly fishers, and rightly so, will choose a WF intermediate line as their work horse line and fish this line throughout the season. For New Jersey waters this is the recommended choice but it shouldn't stop here. You should begin to compile as many different types of lines as part of your arsenal as you progress through this sport. So many fly fishers concentrate so much on the flies and not enough on the lines.
Think of this for a moment, if the only fly you ever fished was an olive and white clouser, deceiver, or jiggy you would catch ever fish that there is to catch on the long rod along the beach here in New Jersey. This would include stripers, blues, weakfish, false albacore, bonito, Spanish mackerel, and fluke.
But since many fly fishers limit themselves to only one line they simply are not in the strike zone enough of the time. Yes a weight-forward intermediate line will hook you into all of these fish but if you began to select the right line for the right application you will catch even more fish. Fishing the right line to put your fly in the strike zone is critical to your success. This is particularly true in the early spring when the fish are deep.
Adding more lines to your arsenal will also increase your range of versatility as a fly fisher. You will be more prepared to adjust your equipment when different strategies are needed. For the New Jersey longrodder the second line that you should add is a sinking line in the 300-350 grain weight. This line will sink at the rate of approximately six inches per second and be useful when fishing deeper holes, drop-offs, cuts, rips, and moderately strong currents.
This line now opens new opportunities for you that you may not have been able to fish productively with just an intermediate line. This line will also increase your versatility by facilitating the throwing of larger flies when needed and will also cut through a wind more easily than your intermediate line.
Because of its wider range of applications a sinking line is more advantageous as a second line than a floating line. But eliminating a floating line from your arsenal would be a mistake. Add this line next. There are many instances particularly when fishing the flats that a floating line will be absolutely necessary. By adding this line you will now complete for the most part your ability to cover the water in a vertical plane whenever the need arises at a particular location.
Building your line arsenal from this point on will now take you into the 400-500 grain weight lines and the 200-250 grain weights. You will want to build up both ends of the weight spectrum as you go. Which end you will purchase first will depend mostly on the types of locations that you will be fishing.
If a lot of your fly fishing is done around the mouth of inlets where strong tidal currents exist than I would opt for the heavier weighted lines. If you fish mostly the back bays where water depths are not as deep than the lighter line weights would serve you better. If you are fishing shooting heads the same thinking would apply. You would also want to consider some LC-13 heads for when you have to really get deep in a short amount of time or fish a very strong current.
You will find that carrying several different lines will have many uses throughout the season. I like to compare this to the analog of two carpenters that have exactly the same skill but are equipped with different tools. Which one will do the better job? I think it is obvious that the one with the better tools will. You can apply exactly the same kind of thinking to our sport.
For example, let's take a look at these two scenarios. The weakfish are in the back bay in good numbers and the tide is moving at a good clip so that a strong current is present. The water depth in front of you is in the ten to twelve foot range. An angler fishing an intermediate line is getting an occasional hook-up every now and then. Most of his time is spent casting and stripping without a strike. The occasional strike that does occur is satisfying so the time passes.
A second angler comes along and is fishing the same fly on a 400-500 quick sinking line and begins to nail fish on almost every cast. In this situation it is evident that the weakies are down deep and the intermediate line is not getting the fly down into the strike zone. It is floating over the top of the fish and only occasionally will a weakfish come up and strike out at the fly. The quick sinking line on the other hand is falling through the water column quickly and bringing the fly to the fish.
In another scenario you are fishing a jetty along the beach that has a good rip present along its side. A spin fisherman standing next to you if drifting the rip with a small half ounce fin-s fish and is hooking bass at the tail end of the rip when his jig is about four feet below the surface.
You need to duplicate this pattern with your fly. If you choose to fish this rip with your floating or intermediate line your fly will most likely be drifting to high in the water column. If you choose to fish your heavier sinking lines like the 400-500 grain lines that you had success with on the weakies mentioned above you will no doubt snag into the outcropping of rocks that lie just beneath the surface next to the jetty.
Here is where selecting a slow sinking line such as a 200-250 grain line would be most effective. It would sink beneath the surface of the water putting your fly in the strike zone but would not sink enough that you will be snagging the rocks that are beneath the water along side of the jetty. These two scenarios are only a few examples of many that you will encounter where the right line can make all the difference.
Acquiring an assortment of different lines is going to take time and can become rather expensive particularly if you like to cast full length lines. For each full-length line that you buy you will also need a spare spool or another reel to carry it. Trying to change a full line while you are out on the water is just not practical.
An alternative to full lines as mentioned is to concentrate on setting up at least one outfit or reel with a shooting head system. Shooting heads will cost about half the price of a full line and can be change rather quickly and without much difficulty while on the water. You can also comfortably carry many different weight heads in a wallet or pouch that will fit neatly into your bag or jacket pocket. This system will them give you the option of reading the water and then selecting the right head to put your fly in the strike zone.
When we look at the topography of our beaches or back bays fish can be located in a wide variety of locations. This will be dictated by many factors such as jetties, inlets, tides, cuts, holes, bars, drop-offs, ledges, rips, currents, presence of bait, wave action, night or day, wind, weather, and the list goes on and on.
Reading these factors and learning how to put all the pieces of the puzzle together is something that will no doubt come with experience as you log your time on the water. So the next time you hit your favorite location and are not seeing the results that you expected, think about changing lines before the fly. Since the line fishes the fly selecting the right one will put the fly in the right place in the water column and keep it there. With this approach you will quickly notice an increase in your productivity with time spent on the water. Good fishin...........fly fishing that is!
Jim Freda is a saltwater fly fishing guide and co-owner of the Shore Catch Guide Service located in Manasquan, NJ. His new book "Fishing the NJ Coast", Burford Publishing Company is currently available from www.shorecatch.com. Jim can be contacted at (732) 528-1861.
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