A Season for All Things Striped
Seasonal behavior and migratory patterns govern successful fly selection and presentation tactics. Stripers migrate upriver to spawn during spring. They seek cool thermal refuges during the summer, but may feed early and late in shallower areas near channel ledges. It also pays to think like a vampire and look for nocturnal activity, especially around submerged or overhead lights near lake docks and piers. Always remember that striped bass are negatively phototropic; all else being equal, they shun light.
As water temperatures drop during a lake’s transition from autumn to winter, stripers feed heavily on or near the surface. Migrating gulls and terns add drama to my favorite striper fishing season. After water temps plummet into the 40s, stripers feed deeper and less aggressively, and I’ve rarely had stripers take a fly in water below 40 degrees. You can locate the fish with electronic depth finders, but they are virtually dormant until water temperatures rise. Until that happens, it’s time to practice tying Bush Pigs.
While only occasionally color conscious, freshwater stripers are almost always size-selective. Indeed, properly selecting fly size may be the most common hurdle for striper anglers. Newly hatched thread- fin shad are usually the culprit . Astute striper angler and fly tier Henry Cowen has the perfect answer to this problem in the pattern he calls Somethin’ Else. Henry, a well-known striper guide on Georgia’s Lake Lanier (and a Fly Tyer contributing author), modified a simple Polar Fibre Clouser. Even short lengths of Polar Fibre create movement; many synthetics do not. He added a hot pink Fluoro Fibre throat, which he says “allows the striped bass to pick your fly out of a crowd of thousands of threadfin.” Retrieve the fly with short strips punctuated with three- to four-second pauses. If the fish are still finicky, allow the fly to drop even longer. I like to present the Somethin’ Else with a clear intermediate sinking-tip line, especially in clear autumn or early winter impoundments.
HOOK: Tiemco 811S, size 4.
THREAD: Fine monofilament.
EYES: Small painted lead dumbbells.
FLASH: Silver Krystal Flash.
BELLY: Fluorescent white Polar Fibre.
THROAT: Hot pink Fluoro Fibre.
WING: Gray Polar Fibre.
By the time you achieve Bush Pig–tying perfection, it should be springtime, and rising water temperatures and longer photoperiods will merge to urge freshwater striped bass to head upriver to spawn. Although successful spawning is a rare event in most inland waters, stripers and hybrids still do the tango. This upriver spawning urge is a boon for fly anglers. Stripers concentrate in tailwaters below dams. If your local water doesn’t feature an upriver dam, you can still find stripers far up a lake’s major tributaries. Look for tributaries with current and rocky areas; stripers earned the name rockfish for a reason.
Tailwater stripers are easy fly rod targets; they are relatively shallow, concentrated, and feeding. Whistlers are my go-to choice for springtime stripers. Current produced by a dam’s turbines triggers strikes. The best presentation is usually far up-and-across, swinging the fly down and with current while adding an occasional bump to activate the pattern’s flashtail. Some fly anglers liken casting to tailwater stripers to “swinging” for steelhead. Strikes come as solid thuds, followed by head shakes and strong runs in the heavy current.
Flashtail Clouser Minnows are always productive in tailwaters. Cowen’s Coyote, tied with heavy dumbbell eyes, is another great choice for springtime fishing. I like Whistlers simply because I’ve taken hundreds of spring stripers on Dan Blanton’s perfect striper fly. Tailwater stripers and fast-sinking lines go together. Rio’s Outbound Short integrated shooting lines and Scientific Anglers’ comparable Streamer Express lines are reliable choices.
Sinking lines are useful tools even after the spawning migration ends and stripers move downriver toward bigger water. Be aware, however, that not all stripers leave the tailwater or river areas after the lovemaking ceases; some remain throughout the summer and into the fall. Cooler water and abundant Clupeidae forage are hard to abandon. Fly fishing friends and I periodically revisit these areas during the summer. We strike out occasionally, but some of those warm summer mornings, with mist moving like silver smoke above the cool water, are interrupted by the sudden violence of a striper mauling a topwater fly.
Following the Fish
As most striped bass wander back toward deeper waters, they tend to follow river and creek channels. Before summer heat percolates still waters toward 80 degrees and forces the fish into thermal refuge areas, stripers prowl the edges of shallow flats, long lake points, or deep main lake coves. Low light is critical; concentrate your search early and late in the day or on dark, overcast days. If the striper gods are smiling, winds will be light.
Sometimes feeding fish show themselves, but more often it’s a blind-casting drill. I like Charlie Bisharat’s Pole Dancer or one of Lee Sellers’s Gurgler variants as a topwater searching pattern. If you haven’t experienced a striper taking a topwater fly, you’ve missed the most dramatic surface strike in freshwater fishing. It’s like having someone drop a hyperactive adult Labrador retriever on your fly.
Subsurface flies produce more but less spectacular strikes. Good searching patterns include Bush Pigs, Whistlers, Whitlock’s Sheep Shad, and Cowen’s Coyote. If the water is stained, Whistlers top the list. Under clearer water conditions, Sheep Shad or Bush Pigs get the nod. Clear-tip intermediate sinking lines are perfect for subsurface flies. Keep an eye out for spawning threadfin shad along shaded shorelines early in the day. Stripers can’t resist them. Bush Pigs tied to match threadfin color and size get mauled. Coyotes are especially good if there’s current.
LEE HASKIN’S GURGLER
Jack Gartside designed the Gurgler, one of the best topwater flies ever created. When Del Brown (yes, Del Brown of permit-fishing fame) showed Lee Haskin, a California striper angler and inventive tier, the Gurgler, Lee recognized the fly’s advantages: erratic non-popper action, ease of tying, and ease of casting. He also saw the fragility of Gartside’s softfoam original. Ultimately, Lee refi ned the pattern into a durable striper-catching marvel, complete with an effective weed guard, stiffer and tougher foam lip, and stinger-style hook. This is the perfect fly for when stripers are feeding on spawning threadfins near or under shoreline trees and vegetation. Nothing compares to Lee’s Gurgler for catching stripers foraging around any type of shallow cover. Compared to other topwater patterns, the Gurgler is balm for fatigued or aging shoulders and elbows. And the strikes are memorable!
HOOK: Targus 8089 stinger, size 2.
THREAD: White Uni-Thread or Kevlar.
UNDERBODY: Medium pearl Crystal Chenille.
THROAT: Red Foxxyfur (craft fur).
FOAM BODY: Stiff Evazote foam, precut from Lee’s Fly Specialties, or cut the foam using sturdy hobby scissors. (Do not use your best fly tying scissors!)
WEED GUARD: 20-pound hard monofilament.
By early summer, particularly in the Southeast, adult striped bass move to thermal refuges during the day. In many lakes, refuge equates to deep water along the thermocline. Stripers sheltering in these deep areas are not easy to catch on fly tackle, and even if they are, some ethical considerations arise. Hauling a hooked striper from its cooler sanctuary into much warmer water is usually a death sentence. This makes catch-and-release dubious. Consequently, I search for other fishing opportunities that are less stressful to striped bass.
Deepwater docks with submerged or near-surface lights create some exciting fly fishing nightlife, and the deeper the dock, the better. Shad, especially threadfins, drawn by the lights are magnets for stripers that go bump in the night. While you may see stripers moving through the lighted areas, it’s best to cast to darker water adjacent to illuminated areas; that’s where the strikes will come. Floating lines or clear intermediate sinking tips work perfectly.
My favorite summer striper fishing occurs in much shallower thermal refuges. Many striped bass lakes don’t provide sufficiently oxygenated deep water for hot weather striper survival. (Hybrids are stocked in these lakes.) Yet, lakes offering miles of flowing, cool, oxygen-rich tributary streams and rivers area balm for impoundment stripers fleeing warming still water. Once in the colder flowing tributaries, stripers thrive and feed until the first cool autumn nights beckon them back to the lake. Some of those summer refuges are large rivers, but others are small, sometimes less than half a cast wide. Fly anglers tend to keep such intimate streams to themselves, but a DeLorme or similar atlas, and time spent exploring by road and water, may help locate hidden summer stripers. Floating lines that load at close range are essential for success. Whistlers, weighted to match depth and current conditions, are my go-to flies. If you like topwater action, these little waters are striper heaven. Pole Dancers and Haskin’s Gurgler variants produce dramatic strikes, especially while wading or casting from a kayak or canoe.