Fly Fishing for Stripers on the Flats

Everything new I learn has an addictive thrill that makes me want to do it over and over again.  Fishing fits into that quite well.  I’m always almost, but not quite, achieving my goal.  When I do, I’m so thrilled that I need to repeat it.  Ha, you should have seen me right after I learned to play craps.  Watch out.

*Side note, I was just talking about this to my brother, in the context of Chuck E Cheese.  I opined that with the “unlimited play pass”, we are contributing to a culture of future gambling for our children.  He opined that video games already do that with their structure. That is, small stupid quests/rewards lead to larger ones, which keeps you playing for hours/days on end.  Then he said- at least with fishing, you have something to show for it!  I agree, don’t you?   

Is anyone still reading this? Ha ha. Okay I’m getting to it.

So, all winter I looked forward to going out for stripers on the fly with the awesome Cynthia, up on the salt flats of Cape Cod. My girlfriend Rae Ann, whom I met on a women’s fly-fishing trip to Belize last year, accompanied me on the epic trip, and hijinks ensued.  She still out fishes me, dangit, but I got back at her by forcing her to listen to my choice of podcasts on the drive up. 

What is a Striper?

This is a fish of many names.  It’s called rockfish, striped bass, and simply “striper” depending on where you are.  I first became acquainted with them on menus designated as rockfish years ago and found them to be extremely delicious.  In fact, I’ve trolled for them in the Chesapeake Bay, in the winter.  That’s some cold fishing. 

Maybe bring a thermos

Off the coast of Virginia Beach in the Outer Banks I’d heard them referred to as striped bass when I saw individuals catching them in the surf.  But up on the east coast and in the New England area they are simply called “stripers.”

This fish is metallic and has 7-8 dark stripes running along its sides, and a dark tail.  It lives in deep channels during summer/winter, but in spring, returns to fresh water to spawn.   It’s only semi-anadromous, and most do not travel all the way to freshwater river spawning grounds, instead laying eggs in fresh or brackish water near shore. 

Striper habitats range from Canada to Florida, but in the Atlantic, you’ll find them most prevalent from Maine to North Carolina.   In summer they are a New England thing, in fall and winter- a Carolina/Chesapeake Bay delight. 

Stripers on the Flats

First of all, it was an all-ladies weekend and the plan was to stay in a “cottage” on Cape Cod.  Cynthia had it all planned out for us, and she was very excited.  I, for one, was rolling my eyes a bit.  Suuuuuure . .  . . . . a “cottage.”

Just for your reference, in Georgia where I grew up, here’s what we call a “cottage.” 

On Cape Cod, this is what passes for a “cottage.” 

In Canada, it’s also dismal.  These are their “cottages.” 

Roughing it in Nova Scotia

So, you know, I figured I’d be greeted by a butler.    Aromatherapy in the rooms, eucalyptus spray in the shower, things like that. 

When we arrived at this legit cottage, I grinned.  No butler in sight- we were cleaning our own gear for sure!  Buuuut . . . . one of the group had arrived early and had a very welcome charcuterie plate ready.  😉  sweeeeet.

Now, this wasn’t just any weekend.  This was actually Mother’s Day weekend, and that’s a difficult time of year for me every year.  My mom has Early Onset Alzheimer’s, and the best I can describe her condition is that she is a prisoner in her own body. 

From the time of her diagnosis until now, we walked a journey with her where she went from being a competitive swimmer and all-around daredevil, to her limbs, speech, and body betraying her completely.  Now she is in a care center and can do virtually nothing for herself.  I am also divorced, with two young children who are too young to really do anything on their own to recognize Mother’s Day yet.  Divorce is an extremely lonely road to walk, and for all you divorced moms out there- hugs.  You get left out of a lot of things, or outright excluded.  All I can say is, thank God for fishing!

My siblings and Mom cheesing it up a few years ago

Ok, enough of the mushy stuff! 

Flyfishing: Gear for Stripers

That night, all the ladies (we all happened to be mothers 😉) got our gear ready.  Our fearless leader, Cynthia, handed around a new contraption I’d never seen before that allows you to urinate standing up.  It’s greatly appreciated by women in the military and would have been appreciated by my mother, an avid outdoorswoman who despised crouching and risking tick and mosquito bites.  I didn’t personally use it during the weekend but some of our crew gave it rave reviews. 

As far as gear goes, an 8 or 9- weight fly rod with a commensurate saltwater reel is what you want for stripers. I use my favorite Helios 3 rod from Orvis. You need a sinking tip or intermediate line on your reel, as stripers swim below the surface. A 10 lb leader, preferably 7 feet long, was recommended, nice and strong and resistant to abrasion. 

For flies, it was all clousers, deceivers, and sand eels. 

Depending on the weather you’ll want your waders and rubber wading boots. I only have one pair- they are complete with cleats, so I don’t kill myself on slippery river rocks. Cynthia was wearing smart rubber boots- they were cool for the sucking sand. 

Most of the women on the trip had plastic square buckets attached to their hips called stripping baskets. I wasn’t into spending any extra money and I regularly strip line in the water next to me anyway, so I figured it was a wussy contraption people were trying to make me spend extra money on and I decided to go without. It’s unusual for me to shell out money on convenience items. An example is the bar exam preparatory course which was recommended to me my first year of law school. I didn’t buy it because I thought I could study just fine on my own for the bar exam. Boy was that a mistake . . . but I digress . . . so we geared up at 6 a.m. 

Originally, we were going to go out on a boat and cast into the channel for the big ones. However, the weather wasn’t right or they weren’t coming through for some reason because the water temperature was still too cold that weekend.  So, we had the delight of flats fishing. To get ready to do this you simply get in.

Walking down to the ocean, the weather did NOT look friendly. In fact, it looked like it was going to storm. Cynthia laughed at us.   

“Yeah . . .” she said.  “We’re going OUT THERE.”  She pointed to the color change out in the distance, under the horizon.   “Start walking.”   

It took about 15-20 minutes to get to where the color change occurred, and it wasn’t easy walking.  The water level changed, and we walked up and over different sandbars. When we got out to where the channel was, we just started casting at the fish coming through. 

Between this and any other fishing I’ve done, this is the most physically taxing. My cast turned out better than casting from the skiff, though, I felt.  You get a benefit from being able to water load your rod every single cast, and that sinking/intermediate line has its own special zing.     

It is in fact a toll on your body to do that for 5 hours in a row nonstop though. You’re simply casting into the channel and over and over again. When you’re on a drift boat you might cast most of the time you’re drifting but you’re not also bracing yourself against the current and trying to make sure you don’t topple over in almost chest-deep water. When you’re on a flats skiff, you’re sight casting so you’re waiting until you see the fish to cast to.   It’s certainly tiring to do both for an entire day, but it is still not 5 hours in a row of constant casting.

We moved spots several times and began to hook up after about an hour.   Double and triple hookups occurred as the schools swam through.   After a couple of hours, there were about six other people on the flats with us- it was about half and half fly and spin anglers. 

But here’s the cool part!  When we were done fishing our faces off and about to fall over, we turned around to walk back to shore and did a DOUBLE TAKE.   There wasn’t any water behind us!!  There was simply a sandbar.  Blinding white sand stretched out all the way back up to the dune. It took us less time to walk back because we didn’t have to slog through the ocean.  

After devouring snacks, we went to our afternoon spot in a nearby saltwater cove and the same thing.  These stripers were jumping like mullet, I swear.  What a fun fish to cast to.  Cast, sink, strip, repeat.  Apparently crabs like clousers, too.  😉 

That night we did what every group of exhausted anglers does- we ordered pizza and talked trash to each other before passing out. 

Mother’s Day dawned stormy and ruined fishing plans, so we talked some more trash, cleaned our gear, and headed home.  What a great time getting slightly out fished by Rae Ann again . . .   ha ha.  I’ll have to even the score as soon as possible.

If you have any questions about striper fishing, feel free to reach out! I’d love to swap fishing stories with you.

Andrew Lang

I inherited my passion for fishing from my late father. I often write about my experiences with trout fishing, inshore fishing and deep sea fishing.