The North Shore of Massachusetts has served as an annual gathering place for friends and relatives in my family for generations. My girlfriend Alex and I are lucky enough to make the journey out East every year or two to enjoy sunny New England summer days surrounded by good people, local brews, and breezy beaches. As is often the case, travel provides opportunity to pack a fly rod and experience a species and style of fishing different from the array of local Trout and Steelhead waters. My progression as a fly angler through the years has brought my focus to the tremendously exciting surf fishing New England has to offer, and chasing schoolie Striped Bass has become a daily pursuit when I find myself on the North Shore of MA.
While not unheard of, it is rare to find the 15-30 pound Stripers every New England fisherman dreams of from the beaches I typically fish. What the fish lack in trophy size, they more than make up for with their aggressive disposition and explosive runs. I fish an 8 wt to be prepared for strong winds and the rare run in with a large fish, but even the smallest of schoolie Stripers will put more than a sufficient bend in the graphite. In addition to a stout rod, a coldwater intermediate Striper line and stripping basket for line management are essentials for fishing off the beach. I’ll occasionally utilize a small rowboat to access deeper water, in which case a S3-S6 sink tip can be helpful for getting flies deep.
The standard schoolie we saw this year.
The weeks prior to trips East are spent tying Clousers and Deceivers, ammunition for the 8 wt and intermediate line I use for the sandy beaches, rocky points, and tidal rivers that make up the Northeast coast. A variety of sand eel and crab patterns will also find fish depending on the time of year, but I find it tough to beat a Deceiver when the Stripers are focused on bait fish. Fortunately, a cottage that has been passed down through my family is a short walk from many coastal features that have proven to hold the voracious, juvenile Stripers that relentlessly harass schools of various bait fish near shore. Each year is different, with numbers and size of fish varying dramatically depending on time of year, weather patterns, and ocean conditions, and I was happy to find greater numbers of fish than I’ve ever seen this year.
As the fish vary in size and number from year to year, so do the most productive methods of finding them. Fishing the tides can be quite important, typically I prefer to fish either side of high tide, when the rocks and other structure I typically fish are submerged amongst the sand bars that make up the ocean floor. A moving tide provides current that is sufficient to wash herring, mullet, and other small bait fish into turbulent waters that surround the rocky points and beaches I fish. Low light conditions make for aggressive fish, and can bring some of the larger, more solitary mature fish close to shore as they hammer the frantic schools of bait fish.
A good Deceiver is tough to beat when the fish are keyed in on various schools of herring, mullet, and other small bait fish. Clousers work just as well, but I prefer fishing the unweighted Deceiver when conditions allow.
Blind casting chartreuse, olive, and blue Clousers and Deceivers into likely holding water at the right times can result in some incredible days on the water. This year good numbers of fish meant a good two hour session could easily bring 10-15 fish to hand, each stopping the fly like a rock before demonstrating the power and speed necessary to survive the choppy Atlantic waters. Even more exciting action can be found targeting fish early in the mornings and late in the evenings with poppers and other surface patterns. For a fish that is typically not acrobatic once hooked, watching one explode entirely out of the water on a chugging Creasefly is a spectacle to behold.
It was good to see a few larger schoolies in the mix. We did see a few trophy class adults but couldn’t get them to eat.
Unfortunately, fish are not always so prevalent and I have experienced many years in which landing a few fish over the course of a week was considered a success. As is the case with many species, population is cyclical by nature. Atlantic Stripers do, however, face more than their fair share of challenges from commercial fishing pressure to polluted spawning grounds. I’m glad to see the strong numbers this year, and optimistic that large fish will be more common in the next year or two as a result. Anyone who has had the pleasure of feeling a Striper on the end of their line will testify to the strength and resilience of the species. For those who haven’t, don’t pass on an opportunity to pursue these beautiful, hard-fighting fish.