Northeast Flats Primer

As interest in sight-fishing northern flats continues to grow, more and more Northeast anglers face unfamiliar fishing challenges that sometime lead to frustration and disappointment. Let’s face it, challenge is one of the big draws to this style of fishing, but success – at some point – and preferably consistent success, needs to prevail for the experience to be worthwhile. This article is intended to help those new to the sport understand some of the unique concepts of flats fishing.

Strategize

An angler prepares to attack the flats. Good planning puts you in the right place at the right time.

An angler prepares to attack the flats. Good planning puts you in the right place at the right time.

I realize most of us fish when we can, but try to plan your time on the flats as much as your schedule allows in order to stack the odds that you’ll meet the fish when they’re on the flats. Stripers appear in shallow water to graze the bottom or track down scattered baitfish when conditions are suitable under bright light. These conditions include water level and temperature, current, and availability of prey. Season, weather and tide are the primary factors that influence these conditions.

Without a food source, no flat will attract stripers. With this in mind, savvy anglers assess the fertility of a flat by looking closely at its prey content. This varies on most flats (inshore, offshore, or the surf) throughout the season. For example, sand eels are generally present in good numbers on inshore flats each spring, while in the surf silversides become plentiful in mid-summer. Furthermore, water level, as driven by tides, may influence when particular forage becomes available to stripers. Bass working inshore flats for green crabs in the summer may not appear until water levels are high enough for them to graze right along the shoreline, which may be for only a couple of hours either side of high tide. Strategizing requires paying attention to season and focusing on flats where forage is plentiful for stripers. By surveying the water and shoreline for evidence of prey a flat’s “magnetism” for striped bass may be assessed.

Water level is the next most significant factor. Stripers, like bonefish and permit, need a certain amount of water within which they’re comfortable while grazing in bright sun and clear water. While there are certainly exceptions to everything, I find that bass prefer a minimum depth of 20 inches to achieve that comfort level. That’s about knee-deep for most folks, but it’s a minimum, and stripers are equally comfortable in deeper water.

Most game fish prefer to feed while there is tidal movement, or current. Many flats exhibit very little flow, even during peak tide, but fish are extremely sensitive to this and that hour-long period around slack tide produces little feeding activity (fish observed moving during slack periods are usually relocating, not feeding). With this in mind, sharp anglers are on the water, in position to fish, when water level and current are right. While some flats are bone dry at low tide and too deep to fish at high tide, others, with little tidal range, are fishable during any stage of the tide, and anglers need only reposition to stay in an optimum depth to encounter fish.

Water temperature is tricky to plan for, but it’s a vital factor as striper activity virtually shuts down above 72 F. Offshore waters and beaches in direct contact with the ocean have relatively stable temperatures all season long. The cool ocean moderates these waters in all but the most severe summers, or within the southernmost fringe of the sight-fishing range (New Jersey). Inshore flats, however, are subject to rapid heating and cooling due to solar radiation, radiant nighttime cooling, and periodic tidal flushing with cool, ocean water. Anticipating suitable water temperatures and juggling this with adequate water levels, one can easily see why some professional fishing guides seem Godly in their ability to consistently find fish (they work with these variables every day).

Certainly, early season flats conditions are suitable all day, as coastal waters are uniformly cool, in the upper 50’s and lower 60’s. But as the season progresses, water temperatures in most inshore areas become “cyclic” resulting in daily windows of fishing opportunity. Knowing that radiant cooling can lower water temperatures as much as 10 degrees overnight tells you mornings are best from mid-summer on. But let’s say you’ve got afternoons available to fish in say august, when coastal water temperatures have peaked. An outgoing afternoon tide would likely be lousy. Water levels may be okay, but temperatures are roasting from daylong solar heating. But an afternoon incoming tide will cool the flats, often making them suitable for stripers and good fishing may prevail. However, some flats are too isolated from tidal flushing to remain viable all season long. They simply overheat and remain above the 70-degree-threshold for striper activity. Many anglers dismiss a flat as a dud simply because they neglected water temperature and missed the right three-hour, two-hour, or even one-hour feeding window for that day.

Spread Out

Flats fishing requires space...be mindful of other anglers and expect the same from them.

Flats fishing requires space...be mindful of other anglers and expect the same from them.

Whether you’re pursuing bonefish, tarpon, or striped bass, ideal flats fishing calls for space. Your best results come while fishing in solitude. The reason for this is simple: in contrast to situations where prey and game are concentrated, when flats fishing your quarry is spread out and grazing for forage that is also spread out. Hence, anglers need space to hunt for them, and they’re often on the move wading or poling in a skiff to do so. While solitude is not always possible in many popular fishing areas today, it’s high on my list of priorities when I set out to fish or explore new waters. I’d much rather be alone on a rock than crowded on a velvet pillow, as the saying goes.

Though you may be tempted to jump in where you know schools of hundreds of fish may be present, angling pressure makes these fish so uncomfortable that they easily become “lock jawed”, frustrating anglers by the dozen. Not enough space also leads to anglers imposing on one another – just getting in each other’s way as they stalk a flat. This is much like stepping in ahead of, or too close to, someone working a trout stream – conflict results. In my opinion, I would rather fish less glamorous bodies of water, see 15 fish, and catch four, than be surrounded by schools of nervous bass and hooking up only once for the day. When you encounter others while fishing each should strive to spread out, keeping the fish calm and “catchable” and averting conflict.

Fly Lines

Many new to sight-fishing for stripers immediately go with a floating line, and I can understand their reasons why. Floaters are easy to pick up for recasting, they help you visually keep track of the fly, and by God they’re all they ever use for bonefish – how could they possibly be a bad choice for stripers?

Well, those things are true, but in my opinion floaters are ineffective for striped bass for two reasons. First, they’re brightly-colored and, obviously, they sit on the water’s surface. Unlike bonefish, which are stalked in a foot of water or less, stripers are found in depths of about two to four feet. The angle of the leader from the fly to the fly line that results when bonefishing in 10 inches of water is very, very flat and the fish never see the fly line. On deeper striper flats that same nine-foot leader now forms a steep angle from fly to fly line overhead, which is easily spotted by the target striper. These lines are intentionally “bright” to improve their visibility. Stripers see them very well, too. Unless you’re fishing a very long leader it’s easy to line fish with a floater.

Second, presenting the fly at the fish’s level in the water column generally results in the best possible presentation. Furthermore, keeping the fly at that level while enticing the fish invariably produces more hook-ups. Again looking at bonefishing for comparison, most flies are barely retrieved in water so shallow that a floater never causes the fly to leave the bottom while enticing the bonefish. Stripers often feed on or near the bottom, too, where they expect to find prey. But unlike bones, stripers are usually enticed with a steady retrieve – sometimes over long distances. Floating lines draw the fly up in the water column in the process, often right out of the level that the fish are willing to take. I recommend clear intermediates and full fast-sinking fly lines to get your fly to the fish quickly, and keep it there throughout the retrieve.

Use fluorocarbon leader material. Its flat finish reduces leader shine that can spook fish, and it’s dense and sinks quickly relative to monofilament.

On-Time Delivery

The author delivers. On time and on target are the key words for flats success.

The author delivers. On time and on target are the key words for flats success.

Similar to hunting, sight-casting is unique in that the luxury of when you cast is gone. Anglers must make presentations in response to game that appears suddenly – and is moving – offering brief windows of opportunity. With stripers, particularly when wading, this is amplified as the fish often appear at close range leaving anglers little time to make a shot. Getting a cast off quickly is desirable, but never at the expense of good presentation – putting the fly where it needs to be.

Regardless the direction the fish are travelling, the longer you wait the worse the presentation opportunity becomes. Either the fish is getting too close, and may spook, or the angle at which you’ll be casting is becoming lousier by the second. The quickest possible delivery, while doing a good job, is always best. This skill is achieved through practice. All hardcore flats fishers practice a little (or a lot) each season. An extreme example of delaying too long is not casting at all. Every season I’ll fish with someone who, for reasons of fascination I imagine, does absolutely nothing when the fish appear and close in on us. They need reminding that they can actually cast to these fish. It’s remarkable – you need to be there to believe it.

Positioning The Fly

A fast moving, high riding fish - he is feeding into the current. A classic scent and sight feeder.  (Click image to get full size)

A slow moving, tailing striper. This guy is going to respond to visual enticement only

(Click image to get full size)

Getting the fly in good position to draw a strike and not spook the fish is more important than quick delivery. Remember that flats fishing is a two-dimensional game where you, the fish, and the fly are all essentially at the same level, so fly placement becomes more critical than when fishing deeper waters.

Fly position consists of two elements, 1) the angle that it will move relative to the fish during retrieve, and 2) how close to the fish it must be to be seen. The relevance of the angle the fly tracks relative to the fish is easily visualized and understood when examining a similar predator-prey event unfolding on land. Deer in the jungle never run towards a tiger – that one’s obvious. But those deer also never run across the path of the tiger, either. I imagine those species that had that tendency vanished from the evolutionary food chain long ago. Natural Selection saw to that. To survive, prey must move away from the predator. And that’s what the predator expects to happen, whether it’s a tiger, a shark, or a striped bass. Apex predators are not bloodthirsty. They’re careful, and when things appear strange or when prey appears aggressive they become even more cautious.

It’s important to present your fly so as to mimic the natural drama that unfolds under the water’s surface. The fly should always move away from the fish, never toward it. Less obvious, but as with the tiger and deer, the crab or baitfish you’re imitating should never swim into the path of the fish, which means certain death. It’s a temptation all anglers face – drawing the fly across the nose of the fish – but good anglers strive to place the fly right in the fish’s path so that it can only be drawn away during retrieve.

How close a fly should be to get a fish’s attention follows an equally interesting logic. Often, a fly is presented many times to a striper (usually a slow-moving one) that seemingly has no interest in the offering. Then suddenly, on the x-teenth try, it takes – it’s baffling. The opposite scenario unfolds when a seemingly horrendous cast is made, placing the fly way off the mark, but a striper charges ahead or swings way off its path to take it. Usually these were faster-moving fish. I believe this odd difference in behavior can be explained by considering how fish see and smell their prey, which gives you some idea of how near the fly must be to the fish to get its attention.

A fast moving, high riding fish - he is feeding into the current. A classic scent and sight feeder. (Click image for larger version)

A fast moving, high riding fish - he is feeding into the current. A classic scent and sight feeder. (Click image for larger version)

First, let’s look at how fish smell. We have a tendency to be anthropomorphic in our thinking – thinking in human or mammalian terms. Our breathing and sense of smell are linked. In fish they are not. Fish do not ingest water into their noses when breathing, nor can they flex their gills to make that happen, as we can with our lungs. A fish’s nose is a dual-nostril affair whereby water enters through one opening, passes over scent detectors and exits through the second opening.

Whether holding or advancing into a current, fish receive a continuous stream of scent information about what lies ahead. In contrast, fish moving with the current (especially slow-movers that are nudged along by the tide), or those tailing, motionless, in relatively still water receive very little scent information. These fish are locating prey visually. They move slowly and are intensely focused on the bottom for any sign of movement. Their vision becomes myopic in this situation, tending to focus only within a short field of view. These fish are often feeding on shrimp or crabs and your fly must be very close for the presentation to be seen. In contrast, stripers advancing up current, or swimming quickly through still water, receive a great deal of “long range” scent information. The visual focus of these fish, I believe, becomes distant. They’re looking way out in front to spot the prey they smell first. These bass are often looking for baitfish and will see presentations made well out in front, or off to the side. The need for extra-close fly position vanishes and the fishing gets easier.

When you take the time to understand what is really happening on the flats, you will increase both your success and your enjoyment. Knowing why the fish are there and what is motivating them will put you ahead of the other anglers. Oh, and don’t forget to cast!

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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...

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