Merrimack River Retrospective 2003

One Sunday I enjoyed guiding for a couple novice saltwater fly fishers. After some instruction in using the saltwater fly gear they each caught some schoolies and enjoyed the experience – they will be back! It is always a pleasure for me to introduce anglers to our great saltwater fly fishing.

I had a couple days off and with the weather (rain and fog) and I was glad to stay home. Then one morning the weather was great with lower humidity and pleasant temperatures and I didn’t have a charter so I decided to check the inshore striper fishing. I began on the high tide out on Joppa where I found lots of big stripers. They were easily spooked but I managed to get a nice fat 30-incher to hit soft bait on the surface while using my light spinning rod. It was a fun battle. Later I fished down near buoy #11 where I caught and released half dozen stripers on flies and light spin gear including a healthy 25-inch striper on an olive/white clouser. When the action slowed I went back up the river to the AYC mooring area. I saw a tight bunch of terns diving into the water. I got a hit on my first cast (20-inch schoolie). I switched over to the fly rod and had hits on almost every cast for over an hour. They were mostly schoolies but I did get one surprise, another 30-inch striper that fought hard taking line into the backing on my fly reel. It was a very enjoyable morning of striper fishing!
13 Pound Joppa Bluefish

One morning during a slow Joppa Flats period I caught a nice 13 pound bluefish. It followed and took a sluggo near the boat in about five feet of water. It fought hard with a couple of good leaps out of the water. I managed to get it to the boat without breaking off.

As we moved well into August with the weather was wet. The Merrimack River was dark with rain water coming down stream. Surprisingly we enjoyed some very good striper action. It was like early season fishing where schoolie stripers attacked flies with abandon and fought like crazy. On several outings I had stripers hit flies on almost every cast. Most of the good fishing was in the river on both incoming and outgoing tides. Besides stripers, there were bluefish. Stripers were feeding on sand eels so flies that imitated that bait worked best. Olive/white clousers, deceivers or epoxy flies were effective.
Pete’s Nice Striper

Shore fishing slowed down as evidenced by the absence of bait chunkers on the beach. Big stripers were in short supply in the inshore waters.

I hauled the boat for engine maintenance and to clean the hull along the water line. After re-launching, I spent some time fishing and I was rewarded with many stripers and a few bluefish near #15 buoy. They took flies and soft baits. My fish finder showed fish stacked in the area. Most fish were in the 18 to 15-inch range and had lots of fight. I took a few stripers on the surface with sluggos. I was surprised at the good fishing when I noticed the surface water temperature was 77 degrees.

In mid-August I went to Connecticut to attend a Sage, Ross Reel, Rio and Umpqua sponsored fly fishing seminar for a couple of days. I got to try out the new Sage Xi2 fly rods catching some bluefish and stripers. When I returned, I found the Merrimack estuary fishing continued to be outstanding, even though the water temperatures at the surface were in the low seventy degree range. There were stripers everywhere. Many were schoolies, but not all. Keeper size stripers were also caught. Sand eels were still the main quarry but I did see some minnows leaping out of the water as they were pursued by stripers or bluefish. The inshore fishing with flies or light tackle was very good


The stripers continued to hold and feed in the Merrimack estuary. The high tides produced some excellent fishing. On three successive days my clients experienced the great inshore fishing of this area. Stripers were feeding on small bait fish so flies imitating those minnows gave good results. The strong northwest winds drove the bait fish into the lower end of Joppa Flats. That resulted in good striper fishing. Also, in those areas, there were days when surface action was going on, as stripers chased the minnows to the surface, so that poppers or sliders took some very nice fish.
Dan’s Nice September Catch

The harbor seals returned and could be seen anywhere from the “toothpick” to Joppa flats.

There were no reports of football tuna in the area. But, overall, the tuna catches were few and far between.

Labor Day the offshore boats were getting bluefish in fifty feet of water off of Plum Island .

With the weather and wind changes of Sunday and Monday, of the Labor Day weekend, the Joppa fishing slowed. However, I found excellent striper action by going to the Parker River area. On Labor Day we caught and released well over a dozen stripers there, around the high tide, most over 20-inches. The largest was about 30-inches. They were great fighters in shallow water.
Parker River Catch

The summer was winding down but the fishing was picking up for the final blast of the season! It was the time for some spectacular action as stripers fed in preparation for their migration south…

With the advent of the hurricane that hit Bermuda , the local fishing changed in mid-September. The stripers had been actively feeding on the high tides out on Joppa Flats. But, that changed as the effects of the hurricane hit our area. I took clients out. We hit some lively fast moving striper action in the river in the early morning. It was “run and gun” type of fishing.. Terns showed where the stripers pushed bait to the surface. Then, in a matter of minutes they were gone only to show at another area.
Gary ‘s Catch

In late September, the fishing remained in the fall mode. That is, stripers fed voraciously and then disappeared. They were often found right up against Salisbury or Plum Island beaches. The main food source was peanut bunker. Therefore the best flies were those that resembled baby bunker (about 2-inches long) and in color (silver, blue, black and flash). One fly that has worked well for me and my clients, was a clouser with gray, white and lavender.

The blue fishing slowed down with cooler water and marauding football size tuna just offshore. I had no reports of mackerel in the area. Tuna fishermen continued to complain of dogfish taking anything that they put in the water.

The stripers were averaging in the low twenty inch size range – great for the fly rodders.

One morning my client from Georgia got his first striper plus many others. Interestingly, he had spent three recent days with a guide on the Cape and did not catch a single fish! I think he is convinced that the Merrimack estuary is the place to go for good striper action!


Well, we were close to the end of another season. It had been terrific. We enjoyed catching many schoolies and big stripers. We caught and released more keeper sized fish than the year before. I am pleased to be able to say that, in my boat, well over 90 percent of the fish that were caught, were released. I expect that most survived since I bend down barbs on the hooks and don’t bait fish. Large stripers were always revived prior to release. Flies and light spinning gear was used for our sport fishing with emphasis on catch and release. I have no problem with an angler taking a legal size striper for an enjoyable meal, but my personal preference is catch and release.
Late Season Striper

There were good catches of stripers and bluefish but weather conditions with near-miss hurricanes precluded some good fishing. I enjoyed some very good striper and bluefish action close into Salisbury and Plum Island beaches and there was some very good fishing in the Parker River area.

How was the 2003 season. From my perspective, the Merrimack River estuary area had a banner season. We were blessed with extraordinary striper and bluefish fishing. Bait, lures and flies all produced exciting action.This area continues to be one of the best for inshore light tackle fishing. Whether you fish from shore or on a boat you can get fish from May thru September. Plus, you can enjoy the beautiful surroundings of the Massachusetts north shore. Newburyport has so much to offer to anglers and those who just enjoy the historic seacoast.

Consider this area for your next season. Thanks to all of you who have been out fishing with me!


Mark N. Cahill has been writing and editing for 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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