Now that November and December are upon its trophy time in our New Jersey waters. The biggest bass of our season will be descending from our more northerly waters as they migrate to their wintering grounds to our south. Their migration route will take them along our beaches and will give both the shore bound flyrodder and boater a shot at hooking into a real wall hanger.
Whether or not these fish will move along the beach or just offshore will depend mostly on where the bait is located. If the bait is on the beach the fly fisher can expect some fantastic action as these burly brutes will pretzel any long rod in a matter of seconds as your backing screams to the east. At this time of year we are looking for the presence of peanut bunker, sand eels, and sea herring that will inundate our waters triggering typical 'Jersey blitzes' that will leave your rod pumping and body shaking.
In the past several migration seasons along the Jersey Coast we have had good action along the beach but by far the best action has been just off the beach from 25-65 feet of water. There were many crisp November and December mornings when surfsters were sitting high and dry just watching the boater hammer one fish after another.
Many traditional boaters are now accepting the long rod as an essential part of their arsenal rather than just looking at it as a tool for a select few. They have seen and watched the experienced flyrodder hooked into trophy fish without the aid of the heavy hardware and it is becoming contagious. With the momentum that this sport has been gaining in the last several years expect to see more bent longrods bowing over the gunwales than ever before.
The boat fly fisher will quickly find out that being successful with the long rod is going to be a based on a combination of two factors. First, the conditions that you are faced with, and secondly, the skills and know how that you possess.
Since you are not able to change the conditions that Mother Nature will toss at you, you will only need to recognize when conditions are suitable for shooting a line into the suds. Suitable conditions will be limited to when the wind isn't howling or when the swells aren't rolling. Ideal conditions will be flat, glass-like days, with plenty of bait and fish on the fishfinder or surface commotion that is attracting your attention.
For the boat fly fisher there will be two types of strategies to employ during the peak of the trophy fall run. The first will be to sight fish for schools of fish that are busting on the surface while marauding and devouring pods of bait. The second method will employ a more subtle technique. This will be to utilize the eyes of your fishfinder to put you onto fish.
Hooking into a trophy bass by either method will be something that you won't quickly forget but hitting the fish on the surface is the ultimate flyrodding experience. Even before my boat heads out of the inlet my mind envisions birds diving, bass thrashing, and bait being aerialized as it is submarined from below. As we break the inlet we scan the waters in 360 degrees looking for these telltale signs that will give us our fix. If we are lucky fish are sighted and the hot action begins.
To fly fish these surface blitzes you will do best with a floating or intermediate sinking line. Poppers, crease flies, or Bob Popovic's bangers will be good choices for flies. Cast your fly out and concentrate on making some noise. The more splash that you make the easier it will be for the fish to pick out your fly from amongst all the natural surface commotion that is going on.
If you are set up with an intermediate sinking line you will also be able to work the surface since the sink rate of this line is only one and a half to two inches per second. It also has the added advantage of allowing you to let you line sink slightly below the surface to work deceiver or clouser like patterns.
If you are right down the middle of the heart of the school and not getting strikes try increasing the speed of your retrieve. This will usually draw strikes. If a fish hits you fly but is not hooked up stop your retrieve and let the fly remain motionless. Many times a fish will stun the bait first and then move in for the kill. This is particularly true of bluefish, as they will bite the tail off of their prey to immobilize it first.
Casting directly into the busting school will undoubtedly produce strikes but casting off to the side or even switching to a sinking line to get the fly down quickly below the school may put the biggest fish into the boat. Most surface blitzes are set up with the smaller fish located towards the surface and the bigger fish located further below. This will particularly be the case if you are targeting big bass in a school of chopper blues that are showing. These fish will be patiently waiting for chunks of baitfish to sink down for an easy meal. Here is where you can strip with a jerky type of retrieve allowing your fly to imitate an injured or escaping baitfish. This tactic is usually deadly for hooking into some of the largest fish in the school.
Sight fishing will require a lot of cruising around looking for fish as schools change position quickly and are easily spooked by boat traffic that disperses and drives the schools down. It can be very frustrating when a nice school of fish high tail it away from your boat because another boater runs right through the school trying to cash in on the action. More than likely this will happen to you and more than once. Even though, sight fishing to schools of busting fish is one of the ultimate adrenaline rushes that the boat fly fisher can experience.
If no schools of fish are visible on the surface it will be time to use your fish finder to find them below the boat. When employing the second method your fly fishing will most likely be restricted to water depths of thirty feet or less. Here you should employ the use of fast sinking lines or shooting heads to get your offering down to the level of where the fish are cruising.
Trying to fish a fly line effectively below these depths will be difficult even if you are using a 650 or 750 grain line. A combination of the boat drifting due to the wind, the currents that are running beneath the surface, and the amount of line that you will need to strip off of the reel are some of the limiting factors that you will encounter.
If you are trying to get below these depths your best bet will be to anchor up and to bring the fish up to you. This can be accomplished by chumming or chunking. Lowering a chum pot over the side of the boat to a depth of twenty-five feet will begin to create a slick at that level. The same effect can be produced by cutting small pieces of bunker, spearing, sandeels, clams, or crabs into chunks and allowing them to slowly sink down next to the boat. This should draw fish up from the bottom and hold them at a level that is easier to reach and more conducive to hooking up.
The key to your success when drifting or anchoring is to locate fish first before you position the boat and begin casting. Don't fish where you are not reading fish. It goes without saying then that you must be completely proficient at reading your fishfinder. You must be able to distinguish the markings on your screen as either bait or fish. You should also be able to tell from these markings the size of the fish that are below the boat. At this time of year we usually have large schools of sandeels located below the surface. Any fly that has a long slender profile in olive, blue, or black over white is usually very effective.
The skills and tactics that the boat fly fisher possesses and applies are both important factors that will dictate the number of fish that you will put into the boat. Being out there on top of fish and not knowing what to do, or how to do it, will raise your level of frustration rather quickly.
During November and December the bait and fish are on the move. They usually don't hold in any one place for a long period of time. As a matter of fact on any given day you could be following the schools down the beach. This is the time when you will want to position your boat well ahead of the school, cast, and wait for the fish to come to you. This tactic is extremely effective when the fish are running deep at a particular level. By the time the fish have come within striking range your line will have already sunk down to the proper depth. All you need to do now is to start your retrieve. Hook-ups are usually common on the first retrieve.
The type of boat you are on will determine the optimum position for two anglers to fish effectively and safely. If you are on a walk around, it is obvious that you will be best served with one angler in the bow and one in the stern. If the boat does not allow access to the bow than both anglers will be casting from the rear. Which side you set up on in the back of the boat will dictate whether you will be shooting your line with a forward cast or with a more difficult backcast. Here is where a beginner can have difficulty especially if he is maneuvered into the backcast position.
Teamwork and a sense of awareness of your partner's space are always an important consideration to bear in mind. Alternating casting and limiting your number of false casts will keep safety in mind. Load your rod by picking the line up off of the water. This will greatly reduce the chances of foul hooking some part of your partner or other part of the boat. When you begin your casting try to keep your line over the water as much as possible. This will prevent hooking any antennas, rods, nets, or any other items on your backcast.
Here are some final tips to remember that will be helpful when using the long rod on your boat.
- Be conscious of any cleats, boat parts, and even your feet that your line can get tangled around. Consider using a stripping basket or a five-gallon bucket placed on the deck to hold your line.
- Safely stow all other flyrods and equipment out of the way. This will prevent any damage to them they may occur if you lose your balance or fall when the boat rocks or accelerates.
- Fish with at least a ten-weight rod and disc drag reel to maximize your power and leverage. Some manufacturers have now designed an eight foot six inch, ten-weight rod for this purpose.
- Remember to fish deep when you locate a surface school or a subsurface school of fish on your fishfinder. This is where the largest fish will be located.
Finally, remember to be courteous to your fellow boater and respect his space on the water. It's a big ocean out there and there is plenty of room and fish for everyone. Good fishin....fly fishing that is!
Jim Freda is a professional outdoor writer and saltwater flyfishing guide. He is a member of the Outdoor Writers Association of America and one of the owners of the Shore Catch Guide Service located in Manasquan, N.J. He can be contacted at (732) 528-1861 or email@example.com.
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