For many Chesapeake anglers Thanksgiving signals an end to fishing for the late season stripers. The weather starts cooling off, thoughts turn to turkey and football games, and boats start coming out of the water. But some years this is when the fishing really gets hot. Bigger fish from New England start making their way back into the Bay in October and really show up in November and December. This can turn into one of the best times to catch a great fish on fly.
Fall is often associated with excellent topwater and shallow water fishing for stripers. This is definitely the case but this fishing will also last surprisingly late into the season, thanks to fewer boats on the water and the related boat traffic that puts off the fish. Fishing shorelines with light-tackle gear and topwater baits is one of the most exciting eats one can experience when striper fishing – and the only way to improve on that is to do it on a fly. Throwing a fly under a tree branch or dock or some sort of structure and getting an aggressive eat is worthy of having your friend film on their phone. This takes more skill than open water fly fishing but the payoff is worth it.
I like to use eight-weights with floating lines designed for bonefish. The bonefish lines seem to turn over flies more effectively than a general-purpose line or a steelhead line, which is important since topwater flies meant for stripers tend to be difficult to cast and that difficulty is magnified by the fact that the angler is trying to hit a target that might be small and impeded by trees or docks.
Faster fly rods will push these big flies better and more accurately than slower rods. You can even overline them if need be, to get the cast you’re looking for. Slower rods seem to have a hard time punching the tight loop that is required place the fly exactly where you want it. The loop opens up with the slower rod allowing a ton of wind resistance on an already wind resistant fly and leader. Some anglers prefer a medium or medium-fast rod in this scenario as they feel it makes short quick casts easier, as is the case with bonefishing, but for me, in both cases I would rather have the power and accuracy of a fast rod.
When it comes to topwater flies my three favorites are crease flies, gurglers, and the “Bob’s Banger” type popper. Crease flies are easy to tie and cast pretty well. They also float high, don’t get waterlogged, and they definitely push a lot of water. Gurglers are great when one wants to make a slow and stealthy presentation. The flies land softly and the spun hackle on them move subtly in the water, to the point it almost does not need to be stripped. This fly is also a good shrimp-imitation if that opportunity ever comes up. Last but not least is the banger. This fly casts terribly, especially in larger iterations, but pushes a ton of water. When the water is off-color or the fish are aggressive, this is the fly to go to. Moving up to a nine-weight can help avoid wearing out ones’ arm with a big honking fly like this.
Striper leaders do not get as much attention and debate as bonefish or tarpon leaders, but in this context there are a couple of factors to consider. In most circumstances the visibility won’t be more than three or four feet; even so I like a nine foot leader. This way if the fish is stationary or cruising slowly it will not see the fly at the same time as the line goes by. If the fly line is off-putting to the fish I don’t want it to be anywhere near the fly. I don’t think a clear tip is necessary, but adequate distance between the line and fly helps a lot.
For the leader itself I do a three-foot butt section of 40 pound flouro blood knotted to 25 or 30 pound flouro, which then is blood knotted to 15 pound tippet. This strong butt section helps to turn over heavy flies or punch into the wind. The 15 pound flouro is enough to pull fish out of cover but also pull flies out of trees and weed without being so heavy that it puts off fish. When fishing deeper water 20 pound tippet is fine but I think lighter is better in this scenario. Some go with 40 pound mono in the butt section so that it floats, but these flies float well enough that flouro still works.
Many types of boats work when fishing shallow shorelines since it’s usually at least two or three feet deep where the boat is drifting. Having said that, I think it is fun to take our 14-foot Panga right up along the shoreline and pole it along as though we were stalking bonefish. This definitely is not necessary, but it’s fun and a huge change of pace. A jon boat works here, or a small Whaler. In bigger boat just be sure to figure out your drift so that you can run the motor as little as possible. Not only does this help to avoid scaring off fish but in the shallows in the fall there are leaves and sticks and all manner of garbage just begging to get sucked into an impeller.
Fishing open water in the late fall is not terribly dissimilar to the early fall and summer. Obviously, you would fish blitzing fish with a fly rod as you would over the summer. Floating lines and the same big topwater flies will draw vicious strikes. With sinking lines, try getting a big half and half or other menhaden fly below the frenzy to where the fish over 30 inches might be lurking.
When the blitzes are not showing or you want to look for a big fly rod fish, the same rules as light tackle fishing apply – with the exception that it’s tougher to get the fly down to the where they may be eating. Casting to the 11 or one o’clock positions and feathering a bunch of slack line out helps to get the fly down, and then a fast single-hand strip once it swings around can draw strikes from deep or suspended fish.
Despite the falling of the leaves and the tempting couch and football game, don’t put that fly rod away just yet – there are still fish to catch and you may even get your fly rod striper of the year, in the late fall.
- By Michael Behot