So, you’ve caught some trout, panfish and maybe a few bass, mastered the roll cast, learned to tie nymphs, dry flies, and basic streamers and you’re looking for something bigger, tougher, and faster. Stripers, line-siders, rock bass, rockfish, chunks, whatever you call them, Striped Bass are a fantastic species to target with fly fishing gear on many lakes and rivers.
The cost of entry is higher than that of cold-water trout fishing, but not outrageous. Ditch the waders and 5 weight, because you’ll need a heavier rod and a vessel to cover some water. I recommend an 8 weight rod setup. I will go over rods, reel, lines, and options later, but to preface, you don’t have to spend a lot of money. A basic 8 weight setup will do just fine as a platform to start with. To cover water, these fish can be targeted via a kayak, canoe, jon boat, or larger lake boat, whatever is easily accessible to you. In some areas stripers are found in wadable rivers, but in South Carolina those places are few and far between. The state’s many lakes and reservoirs offer plenty more options. The following three articles will provide you an overview to answer the where, when, what and how of fly-fishing for Striped Bass.
Part One – Answering the “Where and When”
Before I dive into gear, flies, and techniques, it is important to first understand when Stripers move and where they are located at different times of year.
Location, Location, Location
Striped bass are an anadromous species, much like Salmon meaning they are capable of living in freshwater and saltwater environments. Except for land-locked fish, stripers will move from the ocean, up tributaries and rivers to spawn in the spring time. Then they move out in the summer and are found back in the ocean by the beginning of fall.
The same behavior is observed on lakes and reservoirs. For simplicity, I will interchange the verbiage “in and out” with “up and down” when referring to the lakes, reservoirs and rivers that striped bass traverse. It is important to understand the location of these fish in schools during different seasons, to maximize your success on the water. I don’t recommend fishing for striped bass in the summer months, as the water is hot and the fish are very deep. Catching a fish this type of year can be done, but it typically results in the fish being killed during or just after the catch.
Fall fishing for striped bass can be some of the most exciting and visual, as the fish are in massive schools in open water “down” lake. By “down” lake, I mean that the fish will be on the Southern, or lowest end of the lake, typically where there is some type of barrier like a dam. The reason is twofold. First, the stripers will be in these areas in the summer when the surface temperature of the water is highest, and this location allows for the most oxygenated and cool water. Second, this is where the baitfish will be.
An important thing to note, striped bass move to survive, and that survival is based on a food source. The major food sources for these fish are shad and herring. I will go deeper into the bait when I discuss fly patterns, but for now remember – Find the bait, find the fish.
In Fall, the striped bass schools will begin showing up on the surface when the lake has “turned over” meaning that the cooler, more oxygenated water is now on top (the upper 20-40 ft of the water column). When the surface temperature dips below 70 degrees F, it’s time to start looking. They can be off points, in deep water or in saddles.
The best place to anticipate a school to show up is to wait at transition points. A depth finder will not help you here, as the fish can move several hundred yards in a few minutes. For the fly fisherman this is exceptional, as the fish will be schooling on bait in massive pods and the surface of the water in these locations looks like a jacuzzi. Floating lines and intermediate lines shine here, but the crux of this scenario is casting. A fly angler must be able to double haul, typically in wind as this is where the water is widest and most unprotected, a large fly. That’s because if you get too close to a school, the school will “dive down.” This means that the bait feels the “pressure” from the boat or boats (as most of the time when this is happening there will be other boats and anglers around) and retreats to deeper water. And of course the stripers follow along.
A helpful tactic if the schooling fish are just out of range of your cast, throw a larger popping fly that makes a lot of noise. Get this as close to the edges of the schooling fish and focus on making loud erratic pops and gulps. This will often entice a fish on the edge of the school. Remember, you are trying to fool an animal into leaving food that is real, to eat something fake. So, your offering needs to be so appetizing and alluring that a fish cannot resist. One more thing, don’t focus too much on the big group or the bait. You only have one cast, and one fly, and (usually) can only catch one fish at a time. Make that one count, don’t worry about the rest!
Winter fishing moves away from the explosive top water chaos from the fall, and fish seem to move to the middle of the reservoir to feed on the very small shad and herring born the prior fall. The water is cold, and so are the fish, so they will camp out in warm pockets like creek mouths and coves. The schools will be very broken up, but will also stay in the general area.
The use of a depth finder is critical here, as you will need to find and mark schools of bait, then fish a fly down deep into the school. Sink tips and full sink lines are necessary at this time of year, as the small flies required will not sink fast enough or deep enough. But winter does provide a very fun late night activity. Night fishing on dock lights is the most ideal this time of year but requires a good bit of hunting to accomplish. However, once you find dock lights, they will continue to produce night after night as long as there are no drastic weather changes (+/- 20 degrees fahrenheit in outside temp).
Dock lights create warmth in the water, and this attracts bait, which then attracts fish. Stripers, like most predator fish, eat mostly at night, so finding a light holding bait and big fish gives you a high chance of catching a striped bass this time of year. Floating lines and a standard leader are all you need to fish this method. Flies should be sleek, and flashy. This is the greatest opportunity to sight fish for striped bass, as the fish are very visual, given the dock lights’ ability to illuminate the full water column.
In spring, the striped bass schools will have completed their migration “down” to “up” and will now be located at the highest and most northern reaches of the reservoir. It is important to note two things. First, if your particular reservoir begins below the dam of another reservoir, check the release or generation schedule of the upstream dam. In the spring hydro power plants generate a lot of water for power, and flows can change drastically in a very short time frame.
Second, if the area below the dam is very shallow and rocky, this can be a great opportunity to wade for striped bass. Just remember to check the generation schedule and heed the restrictions of how close to a dam you can access or walk up. This time of year fosters back the topwater bite, as the fish will be in shallow water, eating bait again in the upper water column. Floating line, intermediates and sink tips are ideal for this water condition, and the leaders can be shorter in most scenarios.
Early morning, and late evening are when this type of fishing is ideal, and you can find fish in the same manner that you did in the fall. Look for schools “blowing up” on bait and cast into them. Don’t worry too much about pressuring fish here, as the bait is trapped in the upper section with no depth to dive and escape.
Keep in mind the generation again, as these fish instinctively move up current to spawn, so fishing for them in current can be extremely challenging. Find eddies and pockets of slower water that are created by the dam release. Fish will typically be staged like trout in these areas of slower water. Sink tip lines and fast sinking flies work great here, as you pitch the fly into the hole and wait for a take.