March broke, cold and windswept here in New York. While there was a host of things to worry about, there was also something to look forward to. The season's first stripers would be arriving shortly and I would be there to greet them. These fish are dawn-breakers. They would be chasing down blue-back herring and the first glints of sun on the horizon would be all that was needed to fire them up. Knowing when the herring arrived was simple.
Each day, on the way home from work, I would drive by the beaches with a pair of binoculars in the passenger seat. If, on the horizon, I was able to glimpse the churning low white cloud that the gannets made when dive bombing schools of herring, then I knew I would be rigging up and out on the water the next morning before the sun rose.
By the second week of March, the gannet-clouds had appeared.
It had been a mild winter, so the brutality of a thirty-two-degree morning was shocking, but needed to be tolerated. The only saving grace was the lack of wind. I suited up in wools and fleeces and neoprenes in layers and strung the 9 weight. Normally, March is not as cooperative and I wind up mostly throwing blue-hued epoxy jigs and jerk baits with my spinning gear, but if and when the opportunity presents itself, I prefer the finesse of the fly rod. This is why I spent much of February preparing a box-load of flies all with a hint of blue.
My Blue Herring
The meal du jour for early season stripers. Credit Duane Raver, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
My fly selection for first-light fishing in early March is fairly simple. I stick to stimulators and basic imitators. While the water is gin clear and having a good imitator is useful, most of my fish are caught right at first light so movement with a hint of color is much more important than photo-realistic accuracy. That is why my first cast fly is almost always a hollow fly.
The undulating movement of a hollow fly through the water with a hint of blue has proven the perfect combination of castability and movement. In past seasons, I have used dyed blue schlappen tied in as a tail for coloring. This coming season, with the introduction of Fish-Skull Faux Bucktail in blue, I will be adding those fibers to my natural bucktail hollows for better effect. With herring that can run up to 15 inches, I make sure I have hollows tied from a size 2 all the way up to a 3/0 on hand, but the single most productive version of this fly is tied onto a 1/0 3x long hook. While I am a hollow purist, you can't go wrong with pairing a well-tied hollow with the appropriate sized Fish-Skull Fish-Mask to create a nice finish or a Fish-Skull Baitfish Head for a weighted version.
This hollow fooled a nice first light March striper.
My personal recipe – the Tip of the Spear-ing fly – was originally designed for summer stripers and fluke, but works well to imitate a smaller injured herring. By combining a bead-chain for weight, a size 2 90-degree jig hook, a Fish-Mask that can be – with some "encouragement" – slipped over the bead-chain, Faux Bucktail, and natural bucktail, I've developed a Clouser-esque fly that will rise and fall and flutter like an injured baitfish.
This fly is much more effective once the sun has risen and the fish can get a better look at it. It can be scaled up, but I do find it becomes a little more chuck-and-duck once it gets above a size 1.
It was more than an hour before sunrise when I stepped back into the bay for the first time since November. The blackness of a pre-dawn March sky is different than at any other time of the year. It is softer but still holds a certain menace. In the gloom, I step cautiously knowing that winter storms have shifted the topography considerably. I shuffle my feet and bump into new boulders. I chuff when I sink a little crossing newly formed bars. I have to go by instinct and my little cheat-sheet of an indicator – If my stripping basket starts to float - I am out just far enough. Maybe a little too far, but the tide is falling so it won't be this deep for long. I am pleased to find that the sandbar that proved so productive all summer and fall is in pretty good shape even after a few good December storms. I gain a high point, strip line into my basket, survey the nothingness, and make the first cast.
I know they won't bite in the complete dark, so I take this time to shake out my arms and work through a cast that has grown stiff from lack of use. I can't see where my fly lands or how far I am casting, but I can feel the clunkiness of it, the awkward hitch at the end that I know is causing my fly to slap down instead of land softly. I avoid casting into spots where I think the fish might be cruising. It is hard to spook them in these conditions, but why risk it? I haul, I haul again, I let it loose. I can feel it getting further and better each time. There are some truly awful casts, but they are fewer and further between than I expected.
All of this in silence and darkness. I am alone and it is the complete and absolute aloneness, which allows me to focus my thoughts, tighten my control over them, so that – soon – the mechanics of casting are all that I can think of. Which is why I nearly scream and fall over when somewhere far off, a loon cries out. But, I am glad.
Dawn is breaking and with it, practice is over.
Pause for Reaction
It is still too dark for me to see where the fly lands, but I feel the cast is long, straight, and rolls just right. I am using a RIO InTouch Striper Intermediate line with a sink rate of about 1.5" a second, so I count in my head – 1,2,3 – 3 is just about right for this tide as it will put the fly about 5" or so under the surface.
Herring tend to be mid to upper water column fish close to shore. While I have had some success on topwater flies in the early season, I find that working below the surface for the first week or two of the herring run is much more effective. At this time, while wading out at least, you're casting to solitary stripers that are chasing herring that have broken off from the school. A solitary herring will not breach so a fly worked just below the surface draws much more attention. If you are lucky to be able to get on a boat that can get close to the herring schools, topwaters are an excellent choice to flick to blitzing fish. In this case, I prefer the more subtle "spook" fly with a walk-the-dog action over poppers. Regardless of the fly, there is one rule that seems almost absolute this time of year when striper fishing... It's the pause that kills.
This is why, when I start to strip back I use a slow, jerky, motion that allows the fly to wobble, stop, fall, stop, pull up. The hit always comes on one of the stops. This has a lot to do with how a striper feeds and knowing this has made a big difference in my hook-up rates, especially in the early season. A lot of this knowledge has come from hard-earned observation and a little bit of luck. The observation part is hard-earned because it generally means watching fish feed when every part of you is screaming to cast to the fish and I've been lucky to observe feeding stripers under dock lights in the Chesapeake.
What I learned is that stripers tend to hit from below and at an angle. Unlike other saltwater predators, stripers don't have the explosive speed or the jaws to chase down and snap up prey. They can move pretty fast for sure, but they rely on that over-sized vacuum-generating mouth to seal the deal. That technique does not work from directly behind a baitfish. It is far more effective from below and just to the mid-section of the bait. With this knowledge, it is simple to see that a falling bait – or fly – is far more enticing than one that's moving in a straight line at speed. This is also why even though hits on a hollow fly are never subtle, they often come on at a point in the strip where you have the least contact fly. This can lead to missed fish without a little patience and forethought.
Unless your reaction times are measured in nanoseconds, there is a good chance you will miss your first chance at a striking early season striper. You will, however, feel the pull of that same fish trying to mug your fly a second time – and they will more often than not come back at a fly after the first hit – this is where you need to be focused. If you started fly fishing for trout, then the tendency is to lift high whenever a take happens. With stripers, this pulls the fly out its mouth before they've closed down and rarely leads to a hookup. It is also a great way to snap a rod should you be lucky enough to hook into a cow. Or so I have heard, not because that has happened to me – twice. With that cautionary tale well ingrained, I always keep my rod tip underwater to slow my initial reaction.
This is also a good time to remember that unless the fish is pinned and you feel a head shake, there is always a chance for you to recover that fish. I had one March striper hit a hollow four times before I was able to close the deal. Each of the previous times, he would inhale it and spit out before he felt the hook. On the last one, I did a full 3 count before I stripped back and planted the hook right into the bottom of his jaw.
Right place, right time.
After a series of fan casts, with nothing to show for them, I take a pause, reach into my breast pocket, and pull my pipe and tobacco tin. It is a bad habit that I have no doubt about but, as the son, grandson, and great-grandson of pipe-smokers, it is a habit that I am in no real rush to break. I fill the pipe, tamp down the tobacco, and light it. My hand cupped around the bowl to guard against the slight breeze. It lights easily and I draw in. As I do, there is an arch of brilliant orange gaining height off to my left. It creeps up and the clouds scatter like ash.
I turn toward the sun and load. The rhythm of my casting, the slow pace of the strip, the occasional loon call, the smoke drifting down, the sun on the water are hypnotic and I can almost feel myself drifting somewhere above, but I am drawn back to the here and now when my line – at one moment retrieving – the next in full flight out – zips through my fingers.
I pull back hard on the line and lift the rod slowly. The tension curves the rod enough for me to know that it is going to be a decent fight. Line spools out of my basket and through my fingers. I am in the reel now and thinking, "it's a bit early in the season for this." Usually, the fish this time of year are smaller with a little less spunk than say a late April fish, but I am not complaining. I don't have time to complain, because in my start-of-the-season-fog, I never tightened the drag so I am losing more line than I am gaining.
The fish is bigger than I expected for this time of year, but not so big that I need to tighten down too much. Just enough to even the playing field a bit, just enough to end this sooner rather than later for the benefit of the fish. If it were up to me, I would fight all day, but a fast-landed fish is more likely to survive and I want all the stripers I can to survive.
He does come to hand reasonably quickly, but that also means he's still green and he jumps twice as I try to leader him. Finally, I manage to get a good grip and haul him close. The hollow fly is firmly planted in the right corner of his mouth near the hinge. Well-set and sharp, it wasn't going to come out as long as I played him well. The dropping tide has exposed the perfect rock to use for a photo. I move quickly, snap the photo, and release.
First light, first striper of the year.
The sun is now nearly fully up and the water has gone from black to steel. The loons fly off without a sound. The breeze fades completely. I draw down on my pipe, I readjust all my gear and my head. A few false casts and the line flows out ahead of me into the metallic waves.
The Far End of Things
By the time the sun had begun its transit, three more fish would come to hand. Two were smaller, more in line with what I would expect for March, but one was about the same size. That one, the second to last one, was more fun than the first.
Often, a striper will chase down a hollow fly for a good distance before striking which usually results in hits coming fairly close to the rod tip. I have, on more than a few occasions, brought a hollow fly all the way in without a hit only to have a fish launch itself out of the water when I raise the rod to recast. I have caught a few like that, but more often it only leads to a stream of expletives that would have made my grandfather – a Navy man and sailor for life – very proud. The second to last fish made things a bit more interesting.
I used about three false casts and let it roll out a little to my right where I believed the sandbar dipped and a trough had formed last season. I was unsure whether the trough survived the winter. Often these bay structures will get filled in during the late fall Nor'Easters. I usually do a scouting trip to my favorite spots during the winter spring tide lows to see what's changed, but I hadn't gotten around to it this year. Without the reconnaissance and with the tell-tale seam in the water impossible to spot in the low light, I had no idea whether it was still there. Had the timing been different, it would have been easy to spot by both the swirling seam that denotes the bar and the greasy slick that forms over a trough. If it was gone, it would have been a minor tragedy.
From late summer to the end of the fall run, there was one spot that out produced all others and it was the shallow indentation that had been cut by current, wind, and storms along the inside portion of the sandbar I was perched on. Nearside or shore-facing troughs are excellent spots to find stripers at almost any time of the year because they provide excellent hunting grounds. In the first weeks of the season, they are even better because herring that have wandered too far from the school are frantic to get back and in their mania, they are easily trapped in the swirl. Stripers, particularly larger ones, will stage on the outside edge of the trough, wait for a herring to run in and get bounced around by the churning waters, and then dart in to swallow up the confused bait. Knowing where these troughs form and targeting those edges often results in some very intense fishing.
It was a gamble that the trough didn't get filled in over the winter, but one that I was willing to take as it seemed that the smaller fish had started to patrol the shallows and I wouldn't mind seeing a bigger fish again. Once the fly hit, I counted down to 5 and on the first strip, I felt the current push it sideways. The trough survived. I didn't have to strip more than once, because during the first pause, there was weight and I pulled back sharply. Head shakes immediately ensued.
Now I had a fish hooked on the very far end of my cast. It would take all my nerve to play him back in without easing up, without horsing him and breaking the tippet, and it would require me to go to the reel for the second time in a morning. When I did engage the reel, he rocketed out of the water well over a foot. He made an audible slap when he landed and then proceeded to jump four more times on the way in. My heart was pounding and so was his. I unhooked him quickly and cradled him until he had regained his composure, kicked his tail, and disappeared.
Like a Magic Show, Once the Lights Come Up – It's Over
Once the sun had fully risen, the bite was turning off, at least on the fly. The stripers would be feasting on herring all day, but they would be less inclined to take a fly once they could see all the strings. Full sun was for spinning gear and I could have gotten a bunch more if I had been willing to trudge back to the house and pull it out, but I was satisfied with these first fish on the fly.
They fought hard and made me optimistic – at least momentarily – about the coming season. Besides, hot coffee and a lit fireplace seemed like a really good idea right about then.
On the horizon, the gannets were flocking and beginning to dive. It took some willpower not to make a few more casts, but I turned my back to the sun and walked to shore. There was work to do and I needed to get to bed early if I wanted to be standing back here at first light tomorrow.
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About Robert Nelson:
Robert S. Nelson is a career educator, writer, saltwater fly fishing guide, and poet living in New York City. Over the past decade, his articles, essays, and short stories about fishing have appeared in On the Water Magazine. His fly fishing poems have appeared in Tail Fly Fishing Magazine. He is currently developing a website dedicated to providing videos and stories about fly fishing as well as a manuscript of fishing stories. He is also a two-time recipient of a Fund for Teachers Fellowship to support his fish-tagging expeditions in the Gulf of Mexico. The second expedition will be conducted in the Summer of 2021 and seeks to demonstrate to students the interconnectivity between recreational fishing and science. With the help of the Gray FishTag Research group, Robert will be tagging near-shore species in both the Northeast as well as the Gulf of Mexico to highlight how citizen scientists, such as professional and recreational anglers, can aid in both high school education and the professional study of Marine Biology. Robert is available for guide work, interviews, and freelance writing. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.