How to Fly Fish for Striped Bass in the Whitewater

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John Collins struggles to keep his balance as he casts into the turbulent water near an exposed ledge at the mouth of Rhode Island's Sakonnett River.


It’s not for the faint of heart, this fishing, but the rewards are worth it. Picture this: you’re standing in the bow of a center console 50 feet away from the face of rocky edifice rising out of the Atlantic. Swells are rolling in from the open ocean, lifting you high in the air and then falling out from under you. As a wave rolls toward the rocks you pick up your line and make a false cast. The swell meets the granite wall and you drop your fly into the blue water that surges up the sides.

This is the type of kelp-festooned ledge that should be worked throughly with a fly. Be sure to cast as close to the rocks as possible.

This is the type of kelp-festooned ledge that should be worked throughly with a fly. Be sure to cast as close to the rocks as possible.

The wave recedes and the sea pours off the rocks, sweeping your fly into a deep hole. Suddenly you feel a sharp rap. You strip hard and your fly sinks into something solid. For a moment you’re not sure if it’s a rock or seaweed, but then there’s the unmistakable head shake and the rod bends double. You’re in!

This is whitewater fishing for striped bass, and you won’t find another form of striper fishing that takes place in such a uniquely New England setting. I’m talking about fishing the rocky headlands, the glacier-scarred granite cliffs and wave-worn islands fringed with kelp — the type of coast that comes to mind when one thinks places like Maine, Gloucester, Marblehead, the Isles of Shoals, Cuttyhunk, Sakonnet, and Newport. That’s the stage for this pursuit.

Once you experience whitewater fishing, you’ll never be able to visit the famous cliff walk in Newport or stroll the rugged Marblehead coast without peering into the swirling water below and wondering what manner of enormous striper is slinking along the structure, lurking in the kelp.

What is “Whitewater”?

Captain Fred Christian works a fly in tight to the rocks of Cat Island off Marblehead. Note how he keeps the rod tip pointed towards the water so he's ready to strip-strike at the slightest bump.

Captain Fred Christian works a fly in tight to the rocks of Cat Island off Marblehead. Note how he keeps the rod tip pointed towards the water so he's ready to strip-strike at the slightest bump.

If the term “whitewater” brings to mind images of cresting combers smashing against the shore, don’t worry. You’re really looking for slow-rolling, one- to three-foot swells that wash gently over the rocks. Fishing in swells can be tricky at times, and takes concentration on the part of both the helmsman and angler, but once you get the hang of it you’ll see how productive it can be. And remember that the techniques described in this article will also produce fish in flat-calm conditions.

Two charter captains who specialize in this whitewater fishing are Fred Christian of Marblehead and John Pirie of Manchester-By-the-Sea. Both towns are located on the North Shore of Massachusetts. These two guys have it pretty good, for they’re virtually surrounded by prime whitewater structure. The North Shore is littered with cliffs, boulder fields, ledges, and islands, all of which hold stripers from May to October. In fact, both captains rarely have to run much farther than 100 yards from their docks to find productive, fish-holding structure.

But as in any type of fishing there are certain spots that produce better than others. The trick is knowing where to look. Fred Christian talks about reading the water. He can simply look at a chunk of coastline and imagine what the underwater terrain is like. For example, if he sees an exposed ledge sloping into the water, he knows that the ledge will probably continue underwater at the same angle. Then he can estimate how deep his fly needs to be in order to hug the contour of the structure. A sheer rock face plunges straight down into the water, he can bet that it will continue steeply towards the bottom, forming a deep hole — a good place to dredge with a deep-sinking line. A collection of boulders dotting a stretch of shoreline will most likely continue out from shore, and a point of land will extend underwater in the same direction. Once you picture in your mind what the bottom looks like you can fish your fly accordingly.

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Capt. Fred Christian demonstrates how to fly cast to striped bass

Both Christian and Pirie concentrate on cracks, pockets, troughs, or fissures along the face of the exposed rock, any place where the flow of water created by the waves becomes concentrated. When a wave meets the rock face, water rushes deep into these places, sweeping baitfish along with the flow. When the wave recedes, the water is again concentrated in a powerful flow that serves to suck the disoriented baitfish into deeper water, where the bass are waiting in ambush.

To fish this type of structure, timing and accuracy are everything. Ideally, you should drop your fly right at the base of the structure, just as a swell is about to wash over the rocks. This allows your fly to be swept into the rocks like a real baitfish, then sucked out again to tumble in the foam.

As the water pours off the rock, it’s important to strip in line so you can feel a fish strike when the fly reaches the deeper water. Even the slightest bump should be considered a take, so be prepared to make a strip strike at any moment. What’s always amazed me is how infrequently the fly will hang up in the rocks, even if it lands on the rocks. Somehow the wave action usually washes it safely back into the deeper water. This is one reason flies often out-produce lures and bait in whitewater fishing. If you do get snagged, test the hook point to make sure it is still sharp. It’s also a good idea to inspect your fly every dozen casts or so to make sure it isn’t fouled.

Careful boat-handling is a must in this fishery, since you have to get in tight to jagged rocks and ledges.

Careful boat-handling is a must in this fishery, since you have to get in tight to jagged rocks and ledges.

Another type of shoreline feature to look for is any place the waves are channeled between two rocks. A deep hole often forms on either side of these narrow passages, and this is where you’ll find bass waiting. Again, it’s important to cast ahead of the hole and let the fly be tumbled in the wash like a real baitfish. The fish will usually suck the fly in just as it reaches the most roiled, foamy water. Sometimes just letting the fly sit in the hole where it’s moved around by the current will draw a strike without the angler imparting any extra action, save for an occasional twitch. Just remember to keep tension on the line in order to feel the strike. You should be able to feel the current pulling on the fly as the next wave tries to wash it back into the rocks. After the fly has had a chance to sink, retrieve it with slow 6- to 12-inch strips, giving the line a sharp jerk at the beginning of each strip to make the fly pulsate.

Always keep your rod tip pointed at the water during the entire retrieve, and do not lift the rod when you feel a bump; otherwise, you’re likely to pull the fly away from the fish if it spits the fly or simply misses. To set the hook, simply make a smooth firm pull with your line hand, a technique known as a “strip strike.” By strip-striking you’ll achieve a more solid hook-set or at least keep the fly in the strike zone. Many times a companion fish may dart in and take the fly.

Matt Koenig works a deep hole that formed between two ledges (note the slick water). Bass like to lurk in the deep water, waiting for bait to be swept in by wave action.

Matt Koenig works a deep hole that formed between two ledges (note the slick water). Bass like to lurk in the deep water, waiting for bait to be swept in by wave action.

Even though most bass will feed very close to the rocks, always retrieve the fly right to the boat, since sometimes a curious fish will follow the fly a good distance before striking. Pirie and Christian have countless tales of stunned anglers removing the fly from the water just as a 40-inch bass darted up from the depths to attack. If you see a fish following your fly, but it won’t take, Christian recommends roll-casting a short distance beyond the fish once the fly is retrieved to within ten feet of the boat.

Submerged ledges and boulders are other important types of structure to look for. In clear water, these underwater rocks will appear as dark patches with a bruise-like color. Careful boat-handling is paramount here, especially in large swells, and the helmsman should position the angler so he can work both sides of the structure. Most strikes will occur right next to the structure, especially where there’s a steep drop-off. Sometimes the submerged ledge will form a channel between it and a stretch of rocky shoreline. Stripers often trap baitfish in these narrow passages, and flies should be worked lengthwise through the deep water of the channel.

Lines and Leaders

While floating lines can be used in this fishery, Pirie and Christian prefer fast-sink shooting heads, like those on the Orvis Depthcharge lines. These lines have a 30-foot section of fast-sinking line attached to a smooth length of running line. With this system, it’s easy to make one or two false casts and quickly shoot into a fishy-looking spot. Just be sure the running line is well lubricated to avoid tangles. Pirie lubricates his line up to three times during the day’s fishing.

A leaning or casting rail in the bow can make life easier for the angler, especially in rough seas. A stripping basket can be attached to the upper rail.

A leaning or casting rail in the bow can make life easier for the angler, especially in rough seas. A stripping basket can be attached to the upper rail.

Leaders need not be long or light. In fact, heavy stuff is preferred when fishing around barnacle- and kelp-infested structure. Lobster-pot lines can be another big concern. Pirie keeps it simple, tying on 4 1/2 feet of 30-pound-test butt section and tying that to 3 1/2 feet of 20-pound-test fluorocarbon tippet with a surgeon’s knot. He prefers fluorocarbon because of its abrasion-resistance, stiffness, and low visibility. If bluefish are in the area, he’ll attach a short (6-inch) trace of single-strand wire. The bass don’t usually seem to mind.

The Right Flies

Fly selection varies according to the season and the prevalent baitfish. Christian prefers small Clousers and Deceivers early in the season, then switches to longer snake flies, eel flies and large “slab-type” bunker and mackerel imitations as summer sets in. John Pirie likes to fish extra large chartreuse-and-white Clousers and six-inch green-and-white or blue-and-white “baby bunker” or herring-type flies. The latter are often tied with lead wrapped around the shank to get them down through the current and into deep holes, and Pirie will even squeeze a split shot or two onto the leader if he suspects the fish are holding very deep.

Another guide who fishes the whitewater is Gregg Weatherby of the Saltwater Edge in Newport, Rhode Island. He likes to use snake flies with long rabbit-strip tails that undulate in the current. His top colors are olive, purple, and black.

Be Careful!

As mentioned, working close to rocky structure in open water can be dangerous at times, and you shouldn’t continue to fish if you no longer feel comfortable with the size of the swells. It’s vital that you know the area well and are aware of any submerged boulders, and ledges. Pay attention at all times for it’s easy to get caught up in the fishing and forget about the rocks.

John Pirie, left, and Ralph Poness doubled up on stripers when they hit a feeding blitz off the rocks at dusk.

John Pirie, left, and Ralph Poness doubled up on stripers when they hit a feeding blitz off the rocks at dusk.

(Polarizing sunglasses are essential for seeing rocks and ledges below the surface, as well as the fish themselves. I prefer those with amber or brown lenses. )

Unless the seas are calm, always fish with at least two people in the boat, with one person manning the helm. And keep an eye on the incoming swells, since you never know when an especially large wave may come along. If you’re new to this type of fishing, try casting to structure in more protected waters until you get the hang of it.

Fishing in swells is not only tricky for the helmsman, it can be very tiring for the angler, who must often struggle to keep his balance while casting. A clever device for dealing with this problem is the leaning rail, which guides like Pirie and Weatherby have installed on the bow of their boats. The rail encloses the angler on three sides at the waist so he can brace himself while casting. Pirie reports that his clients tend to cast better and are less tired at the end of a full day of fishing because of the rail. It’s worth nothing that Boston Whaler has come out with special editions of their 17- and 19-foot Outrage models that feature leaning rails in the bow and on both sides of the transom. If you plan on doing a lot of whitewater fishing, I highly recommend one of these rails. It makes fishing in choppy water a lot more comfortable, allowing you to concentrate on making accurate casts. Furthermore, a large stripping basket can be attached to the rail for added convenience.

Even though whitewater fishing can get hairy at times, it’s also very exciting and the chances of tying into a big fish are very good. Another plus is that the action can be strong right through the hottest part of the summer, even during the middle of the day. Some anglers feel that the cooler ocean water keeps the fish active, and that the hyper-oxygenated water of the surf gets the fish “juiced.” While this theory is open to debate, the fact remains that whitewater fishing is one of the most exciting ways to catch stripers in the Northeast.

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Mark N. Cahill has been writing and editing for Reel-Time.com since 1995. He started fishing in the mid-1960's and caught his first striper off World's End in Hingham in 1966. From there on in it was an obsession. He loves fishing for tuna, and fly fishing for striped bass. In a pinch, anything with fins will do...

Posted in Articles, Saltwater Fly Fishing, Striped Bass

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