The springtime along the New Jersey Coast is one of the most exciting times of year for the fly fisher as striped bass, bluefish, and weakfish re-enter our local waters. In my last month's article "The Right Place and the Right Time = Springtime Trophies" I gave an overview of the when, where, and why's as to the reasons that these trophy fish are present. In our guiding area of Central New Jersey we are currently experiencing the peak of this springtime run.
The action so far for this spring season has been very good on the days that the wind has been cooperating. West to northwest winds have been cleaning the water up and north to northeast winds have been keeping the bait tight to the beach and warming the surf up. These winds are the favorable winds that we look for at this time of year.
Unfortunately these ideal days have been limited for us so far this season. Hard south to southeast winds have been dominating in recent weeks and shutting down the bite. Many days have started out well with hardly any wind in the morning but by mid to late afternoon a 20 knot southerly blow has been coming up. With all the fish that are around this is extremely frustrating if you have worked all day and had planned to get out in the late afternoon for some action.
If you do venture out in spite of these less than optimal conditions this wind will also wreaks havoc on your casting. Standing on the beach in a screamin' south wind is a sure fire way to end up with a clouser in your ear. Here the "Jersey haul", shooting the line on your backcast, is a must. These poor conditions are inevitable but are not the focus of this article. Rather let's focus on the positives when all things are in your favor. We see just as many of these days too.
Big Fish Now
The big fish are here, right now. Stripers in the ten to twelve pound ranges are dominating catches along the beach and in the back bays. In the boat the ante is raised with many fish in the low twenty-pound range hammering the flies. The tiderunners are in too. These are weakfish in the eight to fifteen pound range. Better opportunities exist for the wading fly fisher to hook into these trophies as these fish run all our backbay channels that border our flats. A boat is not absolutely necessary. And our racers, bluefish in the eight to twelve pound ranges, are also on the scene. These fish are in the surf and on the back bay flats.
Blues, Blues, Blues
All of these fish are exciting to catch but our big blues have to be some of the most fun because of the way that you can get them. This is where the "how" comes in that my last article did not address. The "how' in this case is on the top! Top water action for big blues is an electrifying way to start off your new season. Seeing one of these mean green machines torpedo along the surface as it chases down your fly is exhilarating to say the least.
On some days it can be like bone fishing as these racers can be spotted fining along the shallow flats. A cautious approach and a in your face presentation are necessary at times to draw strikes. Many times your line will spook these fish and they will just turn and tail away. At other times this big racers will behave like underwater submarines prowling the flats. For the most part they will remain unseen except for an occasional porpoise that will reveal their presence.
On the Prowl
This latter behavior is one that is almost surreal particularly when it occurs against the backdrop of a westerly setting sun in the placid waters of the bay. Here these big blues resemble the behavior of salmon as they stage around the entrance to river mouths. Humps magically appear out of no where and just as quickly disappear leaving only a wake to give us a target to shoot at.
Not seeing our quarry but still knowing that they are there adds a certain level of excitement to every cast. In an instant without warning the water in front of you will suddenly erupt as your line draws tight. The sound of the sting is just as tantalizing as the tactile sensation of the line ripping through your fingers, as your prey is now leashed.
Variety of Flies
There are a variety of top water flies that are easy to cast that will create enough commotion to get the attention of a big blue. These include foam poppers, balsa wood poppers, cork poppers, hard plastic poppers, rubber poppers, crease flies, surface sliders, deer hair bugs, gurglers, and seducers. All of these flies are designed to ride on the surface of the water or just below. All get the attention of predators by zeroing in on their senses of either sight or sound or a combination of both.
Poppers will cause the most commotion on the surface by making a splashing effect and sound. Most have a concave face that will catch water when stripped causing it to skip or pop through the water. Sliders have a cone-shaped or conical head that will make them dart while tracking and deer hair sliders utilize the buoyant characteristic of the deer hair to keep them afloat. Their semi rounded heads push water creating an attractive wake that scatters vibrations.
The front lip of a gurgler imparts its action by catching water and the folded foam of the crease fly does the same. Originally intended to be a sub-surface fly the crease fly can be effectively worked across the surface in water where there is not a lot of current. In seducers the hackle provides the flotation.
My favorite however has to a popper created by one of the industries most influential and creative fly tiers of today, Bob Popovics. This would be a Bob's Banger. The banger is just one of Bob's many creations. The surf candy, jiggy, hollow, siliclone, ultra shrimp, Pop lips, and shady lady fleyes are others that are also well known. Each in its own design has served to solve a problem when it comes to emulating baits or their characteristic behaviors.
When it comes to baits Bob is blessed with the uncanny ability to recognize and analyze perspectives of profile and to bring it to the vise. The fruit of his toil is evident by his fleyes' effectiveness. One will find that with the knowledge of proper presentation your cast to strike ratio will improve drastically. Just about all of Bob's fleyes have become my go to flies anywhere I go.
Bob is well known in the fly fishing community as one of the most innovative and creative fly tiers today. Having the pleasure to know Bob he says "that the ideas for new patterns come out of the need for something different to be done. If someone gave me a bunch of flies and I saw that I needed a different color, or that a particular fly consistently fouled, or I needed it to be more durable, or easier to cast, and I couldn't find anything to satisfy it, then that is what moves me to do it on my own. The point is once there is a need, then comes the idea. Never do I sit down at the vise and say how can I put something differently on the hook that has never been done before".
A Little Fly Fishing History
In the mid-eighties Bob was also very influential in fueling the resurgence of saltwater fly fishing along the New Jersey Shore. In January of 1985 Bob decided to break out a card table in his Seaside Park home and invite some friends over to tie some flies. His gracious wife, Alexis, whipped up some brownies and coffee for the guests and the tying began. Some of the men who came out on that first night and signed Bob's register book were: Don Wall, Dr. Richard Fort, Fred Schrier, Tom Fote, Eddie Morrison, and Lance Erwin. Sessions were repeated every Tuesday night and as word got out the numbers grew. No one was ever turned away from Bob's home. Bob recalls having upwards of fifty-five people crammed into the upstairs of his house all trying to catch a glimpse of what was going on. Guys and girls lined the stairs and even crowded into the bathroom for some space. Guest came from as far as Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Long Island and North Carolina.
Atlantic Saltwater Flyrodders
As the numbers grew it was obvious to Bob that the small room in his house was considerable undersized. So on February 18, 1992 Bob announced that this would be the last meeting at his house and a flyrodder's club would be formed with a much larger meeting place. The expected first meeting date would be in the early part of May of the same year.
Bob formed a committee to discuss a club philosophy, by laws, a constitution, press releases, costs, dues, speakers, and the like. This first group consisted of Ed Jaworowski, Lance Erwin, Hank Brandenburg, Don Wall, Joe Patton, Dick Dennis, Bill Hoblitzell, Tom Fote, Marie DeSaules, Doc Kaden, and Joe Cavanaugh. The club became the Atlantic Saltwater Flyrodders www.aswf.org. and met at the Tri-Boro First Aid Building in Seaside Park.
From that day back in May 1992 the Atlantic Saltwater Flyrodders has emerged as one of the premier fly fishing clubs in the state. Today the club hosts 240 members and is still growing. The clubs' philosophy is what has made the Atlantic Saltwater Flyrodders so unique and inviting. Bob says, "It's simple, if you want to do it with a fly rod the club will teach you all you need to know". There are no competitions, no awards, no political agendas, just open communication, teaching, and reaching out to any man, women, or child that wants to get involved in the sport. In essence, the club offers what is necessary to become a better fly fisher.
Back to the Banger
Bob's Banger is simply constructed and easy to tie. The long shank hook that it is tied on gives added protection from a bite off when targeting big blues. For complete tying instructions check out pages 108-109 of Bob's and Ed Jaworowski's recently published book "Pop Fleyes". Detailed illustrations are also provided. Bob says that the banger is one of his favorite patterns to tie because of its simplicity of design. Bob says that "there are no tools, no epoxy, no paint, and no glue." Bob says that the need for this fleye came from the fact that one bluefish would just kill any popper that they were fishing with at the time.
Bob also says that "the center hole construction of this pattern is what gives it control in the water. This design allows the banger to work particularly well in a current. It stays in the water and chugs along."
There are many retrieves that will work when fishing bangers and no set rules apply as to speed, length of pull, or splash. Try different tactics to see what produces a strike. Single hand strip-pause or two-handed retrieves can both be employed. Keep in mind however that unlike when working a surface popper with a spinning rod where you are using the action of the rod tip to impart the action to the plug, now your line hand is imparting the action to the banger. Using the rod tip can help to impart some additional action to the banger when it coordinates with the line hand in a follow-up motion.
A nice technique that will impart additional surface action and greater splash to the banger or other surface popper when applied during the two-handed retrieve is to pull straight up on your line with one hand for the last strip during a series of hand over hand pulls. Your hand should pull the line parallel to your body from your waist straight up to just below the chest. This stripping technique can be easily mastered with a little practice.
All of your top water poppers can be fished on either floating or intermediate lines. A floating line will be the easiest to manage and lift off of the water but is not a must to work poppers and bangers. Since your workhorse line is probably an intermediate line and will be on your reel you don't have to switch lines when you decide to go up top.
When using an intermediate line the key here is to quickly take up any slack in the line as soon as the banger hits the water. If you are on a jetty this is easier to do than if you are wading waist deep in the back bay. The height of the jetty above the water will help to keep the line off of the water. You can also elevate your rod hand slightly and strip the banger back with a one handed retrieve. Immediately at the end and following your strip you can gently jerk the rod tip. This will pull the banger across the surface for a slightly greater distance.
Keeping the intermediate line off of the water will be more difficult when you are wading up to your waist since you lack elevation. It is not necessarily a bad thing however when the intermediate line sinks a little below the surface. In this case when you strip the line and pull it towards you it will pull the banger just beneath the surface. Upon pausing the banger will then resurface. This action will resemble an injured bait that is trying to swim away but is in distress.
Fishing bangers or other poppers in a surface blitz is always exciting as you can literally watch the fish explode on your artificial. Most of the time casting and retrieving through all the commotion will draw strikes. But this isn't the only way to score a hook-up. Many times just letting the banger or popper remain motionless after the cast in all the melee will also produce good results. This is so because blues will perceive this as an injured or chopped up piece of bait that they are feeding on. This will make for an easy take. Be able to do this is easier said than done if you have never done it before simply because of all the adrenaline that will be surging through your body as you watch what is going on.
Being bit off is always a concern and quite a nuisance when the action is hot and heavy. Single strand wire from 10 pound, .004 diameters to 60 pound, .016 diameters can be tied in at the end of your tippet. This is done by tying an improved clinch knot from your mono to a haywire twist that is in the end of your wire tracer. Your banger is also attached to the wire with a haywire twist.
I like to have these wire tracers, fly and all, tied up before hand so I don't have to waist anytime when the blitz in on. If you find that this pound test wire is kinking and can't be straightened completely after a blue has been connected to it you can go to heavier wire in the 80-120 pound test range. This heavier wire will straighten out much more easily.
With wire you always run the risk that the blues may be wire shy since a lot of their feeding is visual. If this is the case you should switch to a six to eight inch piece of 60 to 100 pound fluorocarbon as a bite tippet. If this still doesn't work try dropping down to 40 pound. Remember to check this tippet section after each blue that is caught. If you feel or notice any frays replace it.
Always keep safety in mind when handling these big blues as they can quickly get a death grip on one of your fingers if you carelessly try to remove a hook. Long needle nose pliers or a hook disgorger will work best for this task. Trying to dislodge the hook by holding the hook shank in your hand and wiggling it out of the blue's mouth is not a good idea. Crushing the barbs down on your flies is a good idea for it will aid in a quick and easy release.
Catch the Window
The window of opportunity for this kind of surface action is right now. These big blues will remain in our back bay for only another couple of weeks. They will then head back to the ocean and remain offshore in preparation for their summer spawn. Don't be afraid to move around if fish aren't present where you begin to cast. These fish are moving around the bay so you should too. Also don't hesitate to go back to the same spot that you started at several hours later. Get out there now and "bang ‘em up." Good Fishin…..fly fishing that is!
Editor's Note: 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 for reservations.
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