“You should have been there, Beau,” said my good friend, fishing guide Captain Tommy Mattioli of Matty-J-Charter Service (www.matty-j.com). “The stripers were everywhere, breaking the surface of the water all over the place. The water was boiling with fish strikes, the birds were diving and squawking, the bait fish were leaping out of the water, and my fish monitor turned black-a solid mass of fish was right beneath the boat. It was all I could do to keep up with my clients. As soon as the fly hit the water, boom! a fish would hit. Then seconds later, boom another fish would hit, and we’d have double hookups. It was nuts!”
Tommy, who guides out of Hampton Roads, Virginia, rarely gets excited when talking about fishing since he’s such an old hand at it. Hearing him gush made me green with envy. If that weren’t enough Tommy’s brother Joe Mattioli of On the Bite Charter Service (www.flyfishnyc.com) out of New York is also a fishing guide, and does the exact same thing within sight of Coney Island. Both of these fishing guides know what most of the public doesn’t, striper fishing in the fall can be red hot even in highly populated areas like Hampton Rhodes, Virginia or New York City.
Mr. Pajama Pants
Striped bass (Morone saxatalis) are anadromous fish (they live in salt water but return to fresh water to reproduce) and go by a variety of pet names. Anglers will call them stripers (or the more whimsical Mr. Pajama Pants) because of the seven to nine black horizontal stripes that run along their flanks, squid hound because squid is one of their favorite foods and rockfish because they seem to like rocky shorelines and other structure such as concrete bridge abutments and oyster bars. Steep drop-offs, areas with submerged structure like coral reefs, or even manmade structure like crab traps can also attract stripers. Underwater ledges are also popular with stripers because they often ambush their prey.
On the East Coast stripers range from Florida all the way up to Nova Scotia, but you’ll find the heaviest concentrations of stripers in the New England area and in and around the mid-Atlantic’s Chesapeake Bay. In the late 1800s, stripers from New Jersey’s Navesink River were transplanted to California’s San Joaquin River Delta. As a result, West Coast stripers range from the San Francisco Bay to the Oregon coastline. The main East Coast striper nursery remains the Chesapeake Bay, where some experts believe that as many as two-thirds of stripers are born.
If you have access to a boat, put it to good use. First, look to the skies: Diving birds are a really good sign that stripers abound. No birds? Try blind casting to areas that have good holding structure. Oyster beds can be a great place to find small schools of stripers as well as bridge abutments and marker buoys. Some guides are aware of locations that where old boats have met their fate and their sunken hulls make a great hang out for these fish.
If you don’t have a boat, don’t give up hope. Rock jetties are quite common in places like New Jersey and places like Island State Park and Barneget Light provide good access for wading anglers. It is important to note that if you’re fishing off a jetty, or wading in the surf, you must keep your personal safety in mind. Be sure to have good wading gear that keeps you warm and dry and above all else, wear boots with cleats or felt that give you good traction. Going swimming instead of fishing in the fall is not pleasant.
Traditional anglers often live line, meaning they use live menhaden or some other bait like spot and put them in areas that stripers are likely to be. Cut bait like squid can also work but since fishing is greatly determined by locality check with your local tackle shop. Fly anglers will need eight- to nine-weight fast action rods with Clouser Minnows or Deceiver’s in size No. 2-3/0.
Never been striper fishing? You don’t know what you’re missing. These hard-fighting fish are beautiful, will eagerly take flies or bait and make for excellent table fare. Check your local fishing regulations for what can be kept and when, since striper harvesting laws vary greatly from state to state. You certainly don’t wait to hear “You should have been here.”
Beau Beasley (www.beaubeasley.com) is a member of Local 2068 in Fairfax County, Virginia. His next book Fly Fishing the Mid-Atlantic is due out this winter.