“You should have been there, Beau,” said my good friend, fishing guide Captain Tommy Mattioli of Matty-J-Charter Service. “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; they just kept landing one striper after another. 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.
I try to make it out to the Chesapeake Bay a couple times each season, but especially like going out in the fall. I can always count on a few good fish and though you can catch bluefish, reds and a few croakers on the fly, striper fishing is the best. There is little to compare to seeing a school of breaking stripers, busting bait on the surface of the water and headed straight to you. The only thing better is when your fly rod is bent over and your reel is screaming for relief.
Mr. Pajama Pants
Striped bass 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.
Keep this in mind when fishing for stripers. If know of an area that has good holding structure, be sure to give the area a few casts. Something as small as a channel break or a large pile of rocks can be good holding structure for stripers. In other words, don’t be in such a rush to fish that you aren’t paying attention to these small details.
Fall striper migrations can begin as early as late September. The date varies greatly, however, because of the weather, which of course determines baitfish migration. If the baitfish move, so do the stripers. October, November, and even December can be great months for striper fishing, and in warmer years some die-hard striper anglers have even been known to call in “sick” to work as late as January.
What you will need to chase stripers will depend on factors like the wind, the size of the flies you intend to cast, whether or not you will fish from a boat, whether you will be fishing from the coastline or further out. Because fly anglers aren’t throwing the most aerodynamic flies, most striper nuts I know depend on 8- and 9-weight rods, which are often moderate to fast action. After all, casting a sleek 1/0 Clouser Minnow with the wind at your back is one thing; trying to heft a 3/0 flat-faced popper into the wind is quite another. Flies for stripers may be colorful, complex, and expensive streamers—or poppers made out of old sponge sandals. Stripers are known to eat baitfish like menhaden, shad, sand eels, and croakers and may also eat shrimp, clams, squid, bloodworms, and sand flees. Patterns that mimic these creatures will all work, and sizes generally run from No. 2 to 3/0. Colors and styles of flies vary widely for saltwater fish, so don’t be too surprised if you need a bigger fly box this season. Lucky for you, many of these saltwater patterns can also work for bass and other warm water fish.
Most fly anglers I know use intermediate lines for subsurface fishing. If the fish are deeper than 5 feet of water consider a 200- to 300-grain sinking line. I like Airflow’s Depthfinder, (www.rajeffsports.com) but other good products are out there as well. Of course you should always keep a rod rigged up with a floating line for those times when stripers break the surface in a mad dash to eat baitfish.
If you haven’t tried striper fishing in the fall you don’t know what you’re missing. This is some of the best fly fishing imaginable and it’s not as hard as you think. Give it a try this season and you won’t regret it. Remember to take a good fly reel because Mr. Pajama Pants isn’t like to come to your slumber party without putting up a good fight.
Tommy Mattioli, Matty-J-Charter Service; www.mattyj-com
Beau Beasley (www.beaubeasley.com) is the author of Fly Fishing Virginia: A No Nonsense Guide to Top Waters and serves as a career Captain with Fairfax County Fire and Rescue on Engine 431. He’s a proud member of local 2068 and lives with his wife and children in Warrenton, Virginia.