There are many ways to catch a striped bass on a fly, but not every way works year-round. If you can figure out four different ways to target these fish, and master the cast, strip, and mechanics, you will be successful. The four different techniques needed are: a surface or topwater approach, a subsurface approach, a finesse approach, and a deep-water approach.
Surface and Topwater Approach
For surface and topwater fishing, a fly with a large profile that makes a lot of noise and pushes a lot of water is a must. And the strip needs to be fast and almost erratic. A double handed strip can be used, or simply popping the rod tip with your wrist; almost like fishing with a conventional rod.
Point being, the fly should be matching the disturbance caused by the schooling baitfish. Cast the fly into the blowups, and strip back to the boat. The fly doesn’t need to come all the way back to the boat. Once halfway back, make a roll cast to pick up the line, then punch a second cast to get the fly back into the schooling fish. You want to maximize your time in the feeding frenzy to maximize your chance of a hook up.
For the subsurface approach, you want to use swimbait-, jerk bait- or jigging-style flies. This type of fishing is done in the spring and early fall, and around dock lights in the winter. Longer leaders on floating lines can work, but the best approach is an intermediate or sink tip line. The goal is to make the fly move, swim, dive, and dash to elicit a strike. Swim or strip the fly all the way back to the boat, as takes can sometimes be right at the end of your retrieve. Make a cast as close as possible to the bank or structure and strip the fly back at varying speeds. This approach is similar to streamer fishing, or conventional fishing, with the goal being to cover as much structure and water as possible.
For the finesse approach, this is a specialized version of the subsurface approach but typically used when sight casting to fish. The goal is to make a cast in which the fly passes in front of the fish but does not spook the fish. Most commonly used around dock lights, this method is also effective when fish are staged on points, in eddies, behind rocks, or just swimming slowly in clear water.
Use a longer leader for floating lines and intermediate lines, because if the fly line lands above the fish, it will typically spook. Once the fly is near the fish, use small strips or even just wiggle the rod tip to make the fly shake. Keep tension on the fly line when doing this because you might see the take before you feel it on the rod.
The deepwater approach is mostly done in the late fall and winter months. Flies are very heavy and small to get deep and match the bait in the creeks and lakes. When using this method, the retrieve is similar to jigging a conventional lure, like a ned rig or shaky head. You can lift the rod tip some, but most of this is done with strips. The goal is to make long strips with pauses in between to make the fly rise and then dive. A very important technique to work towards is to become comfortable making these retrieves with the tip of the fly rod in the water. In the colder months the fish are more lethargic, and the takes are very subtle. If the tip of the fly rod is underwater, the whole fly line is submerged, and it’s easier to keep tension on the fly line during those strips and pauses.
Making a double haul cast is a MUST. Between casting large flies, casting in the wind, and casting long distance, getting as much line speed as possible is a necessity. If you have a hard time making the double haul cast, line up your fly line as I mentioned earlier. This will help you feel the rod load more.
Of the many YouTube videos of “How To Double Haul,” I recommend Pete Kutzer’s video produced by Orvis. Practice that cast in your yard or in any large grassy area. Once you can make the cast, get a few frisbees or paper plates and set those out at varying distances from 20 to 60 feet.
Tie a fly with the hook broken off or cut off on your leader and make casts trying to land on the frisbees or plates. Once you have confidence doing that, turn around, and try to make those casts backwards. When fishing from a boat or kayak, sometimes you will make more such back casts than forward casts, depending on how the boat is angled and where the fish show up.
Lastly, work to make them, forward or backward, in just two or three false casts. If you can consistently make a cast to 60+ feet with two or three false casts, you will have no problem casting to striped bass in any of the above situations.
Ten Hot Tips
- For starting out, I recommended buying a few packs of leaders. but as you advance, and buy more tippet, I recommend switching over to tying your own leaders. The leader design is a basic “two-tippet” taper. Tie an overhand loop knot on the end of the larger diameter tippet as the loop to tie to the fly line loop. To connect the two different tippet diameters, use a simple three times twisted blood knot. Tying your own leaders allows you to create unique tapers to suit your needs.
- A general rule of thumb regarding leaders is to use 7.5’ – 9’ nylon or mono leaders for floating lines, 5’ straight fluorocarbon for intermediate lines, and then 3’ – 4’ straight fluorocarbon for sink tips and full sinking lines.
- For floating lines, a bright color is fine because it can be used as a visual aid, but for intermediate line, sink tips and full sinking lines, find something that is neutral, clear or dark so as to not spook the fish in the deeper water.
- When utilizing intermediate lines, sink tip lines or full sinking lines, each has its own sink rate as I mentioned before. When fishing in deeper water for fish in schools, if you mark a school at a certain depth, you can calculate the time needed to get your fly down to that school. Multiply the depth by 12, then divide by the sink rate, and then multiply by 1.5. This is really an estimation, but for example if I am using an intermediate line with a sink rate of 2-inches-per-second, and the fish I’m marking are at 30 feet, then I multiply 30 by 12 to get 360. Divide by 2, which is 180, then multiply by 1.5. So that means once I cast, I need to count to 270 before I start my retrieve.
- An important thing to note about the 1.5 multiplier – the marked fish are directly under the boat. Your fly is cast out horizontally, so it takes 1.5 times the amount of time to get the fly to the desired depth because of the sinking angle. Keep tension on the line while it sinks, because sometimes a fly will get eaten on the initial fall.
When fishing dock lights, if fish are acting spooked by the fly or fly line, rest the light for a half hour, and come back to the light with a leader that is approximately the length of the diameter of the circle of light on the surface. This will allow you to cast the fly to the other side of the light, but your fly line will land on the outer edge of the light where the fish aren’t feeding. And try never to have your fly line show up in the light rays, as it will cast a shadow that is unnatural.
- When fishing dock lights, don’t focus on the fish “flashing” in the center of the light. Look at the light and use your peripheral vision to see fish on the edge.
- If you find yourself fishing more baitfish patterns rather than topwater, you can purchase an inline popping device called a “Pop-N-Fly” from Flymen Fishing Company. These can be tied in-between your leader butt section and smaller diameter tippet. This device works similar to a “Pop-N-Cork” utilized in saltwater fishing. A lot of water is pushed and noise is created, while your baitfish fly is suspended 18” – 24” behind the popper.
- When buying flies for striped bass, always buy flies that are as long as the bait is at its greatest length during the year. You can buy a dozen clouser minnows or baitfish patterns that are 5” – 6” long, then trim them into a few 4”, 3” and 2” baits. This way you have flies for the whole year, but don’t have to search to find smaller patterns.
- Here’s another tip when tying flies or buying flies. A pink or red sharpie, or a product like Loon Hard Head Red can be used to add a hotspot to gray and white baitfish patterns. This can be helpful when trying to match the bait in the lake.