By Jerry Audet
The first of my projects, as previously alluded to in the first post describing “In Pursuit”, is to finally land a 25lb striped bass, from shore, on the fly rod. If you missed that post, you can find it here. For the next couple weeks, I'll be starting each post with this standard statement so those who missed it can catch up. The short-premise of In Pursuit is that it is an honest, informal, journal-like documentation of a season’s worth of chasing specific angling goals from both Dave and Jerry.
I was driving home this weekend after a less than successful night-trip fishing for holdover striped bass (only a couple small fish), half listening to Howard Stern on the radio, and started thinking about this “In Pursuit” series. I was rolling it around in my mind, and started considering why I haven’t already begun fly fishing for stripers in 2019. After all, these fish I’m targeting are likely very catchable on the fly for a few reasons. As I have proclaimed to Dave several times, “this spot would be PERFECT for fly fishing”…as we continued to bang away at it with Redfins.
As I mulled this over, I started to come up with all the reasons why this location in particular fit very well as a “fly fishing spot”. As I built the list in my mind, I had a very simple- but likely critical- thought which popped into my brain.
The theory goes like this:
I have a handle on what big fish want, and have been successful in catching them on plugs. I know I need to fish the moons, tides, and certain (specific) conditions. I know these things. They have become so ingrained in me, they are essentially instinctual. This instinct helps make me a better angler. Dave and I have talked a few times about what makes a great fisherman. One of the things we agree on is that the better the angler, the faster and more effective they are at dissecting and capitalizing on a new spot. While I am not insinuating that I am the best by any means, it has been very satisfying in the past few years to identify new spots on satellite imagery or nautical maps during the winter, show up in person in the spring, and have success (albeit more or less, depending on the season and the spot). It makes me feel like I know something- even if it also feels like the more I learn, the less I (we) actually know.
However, for some reason, I tend to just throw all this knowledge, intuition, and instinct away when I fly fish in the surf.
This is what occurred to me when I was driving home at 1 am on Sunday. It dawned on me that for the last few seasons I have been subconsciously categorizing my spots. I definitely already knew I was a spot “collector”. I like to have all kinds of options with different kinds of terrain and conditions, covering the spectrum of striper habitat. I like this because it gives me options, and allows me to, as John Skinner puts it, “have a play for any condition”. And, I’m always looking for special spots which very few, or no, anglers fish for a whole host of reasons- which could be an entire series of posts in itself.
What I hadn’t realized up to this point, at least overtly, was that I was also building a hierarchy of my spots; spin vs. fly.
That is, I have identified and sorted some of my spots as “fly fishing only” spots. As the name insinuates, they are places I only fish with a fly rod. For the most part they are locations I have deemed 1) to only hold small to moderate sized fish, and 2) places I feel I can cast my offering easily into some kind of deep (relative) or moving water. This means they often are sidled up next to a drop off, or at some kind of outflow, and are sheltered from strong winds.
And this has worked great…for catching numbers of fish. It’s served my purpose so far really well. I have become adept at casting, fighting, and landing fish on the fly rod in these spots; or dealing with a stripping basket when I have to wade up to my belly button; or how to fish moderate current with a sinking line; or how to use a popper in a seam to draw strikes deep into the night. Etcetera. These select spots have lead to hundreds of fish, and some great memories.
What they haven’t led to, and likely never will, is landing a really big fish on a fly.
The key thing that occurred to me while driving: if I didn’t fly fish I likely wouldn’t fish many (or any) of these spots every again. One in particular I am thinking about has yielded exactly 1 39-inches fish (on the spinning rod, 5 years ago), and everything else has been 36-inches or under, with the vast majority under 28-inches. It can be a fun “hit every cast” spot if conditions are right, and it’s one of my oldest spots to boot. So I continue to fish it for nostalgias sake, but only because the fly rod has made it justifiable; that is, it has made it fun. I think, otherwise, it would feel like a waste of time. At the very least, I would fish it a whole lot less.
But therein lies the problem. As I stated in my previous post, fly fishing has always been the second class option to the plug and surf rod. Moving forward with this goal of finally getting a quality fish on the fly rod, I need to find ways to integrate it into what I’m already doing with the surf rod. There can no longer be this huge dichotomy in my “fly fishing spots” and “surf rod spots”. Sure, there are definitely spots at which I will never be able to effectively use a fly rod. One I can think of I’ll never reach the fish, ever. Not even shooting 30 yards of backing. Another, I believe I would struggle to get my line down deep enough from shore; the combination of deep water, good current, and a very consistent swell would make it exceedingly challenging even with very heavy sinking shooting heads.
However, I need to get creative at all my other spots. The challenge is often casting distance, especially with very large flies. The runner up is not getting broken off once I hook a big fish. To combat both of these, I think I will need to really focus on calmer nights as the a) lack of wind will allow me to cast further, and b) the calm surf will allow me to wade/swim out further so I can get around structure that would break me off from casting perches closer to shore. I think this will allow my surf spots to be more accessible to the whippy stick. Further, it will likely even strengthen and support the use of the fly rod, since the calm conditions often call for a more subtle and nuanced approach.
The hard thing will be giving up those prime tides when I “know” I could be landing big fish on the plug, and instead chose the fly. There is certainly some risk there- risk of both smaller fish, and less fish overall. However, when I made the switch to hunting bigger fish on the plug, I had to change my mind set- and at first, it also lead to fewer fish. So why wouldn’t I have to do the same thing as I make the identical transition with the fly rod?
And so, I think my mantra for the up-coming season will be: There are no fly fishing spots; It’s all just surf fishing.
By Jerry Audet
The first of my projects, as previously alluded to in the first post describing “In Pursuit”, is to finally land a 25lb striped bass, from shore, on the fly rod. If you missed that post, you can find it here. For the next couple weeks, I'll be starting each post with this standard statement so those who missed it can catch up. The short-premise of In Pursuit is that it is an honest, raw, journal-like documentation of a season’s worth of chasing specific angling goals from both Dave and Jerry.
When it comes to surf fishing and my gear, I try to ascribe to the KISS principle- Keep It Simple Stupid. What rod is the cheapest, which can throw the biggest plugs I use, and stand up to the abuse I dish out? What is the fewest number of plugs I can buy that cover the widest range of profiles and water depths? You get the idea. Once I’ve found what works, I don’t feel a need to find something new, until I get into a situation my “tools” are no longer effective. Then, I’ll go buy something to mitigate this limitation.
Now that isn’t to say I’m not trying to improve what I have. Sure, if I see a lure that is clearly superior, or provides something new, I’ll buy it. And, using lures as another example, I’ll pay good money for something that I find has increased efficacy- yeah I fish some $50+ lures, and if I found an $80 one that I thought was really going to make a difference, I’d fish that too. I wouldn’t hesitate. It’s why I buy the best, most expensive braided line- because I think it makes a difference.
This principle has applied even more substantially to my fly rods. When I first started I was buying cheap combo rod and reels, and they were more than sufficient for the freshwater fishing I was doing. When I first started, I really liked my Redington Crosswater combos, and I stuck with them for a while. Actually, I still have a 7.5ft 4wt Crosswater rod, and I still enjoy using it for largemouth bass, trout, and panfish when precision isn’t necessary. It’s a sweet little rod, which was like $80 with the crappy reel that came with.
And more to the point, I don’t find rod choice is exceedingly complicated for freshwater fishing, especially pond and lake fishing. I’ve found even for heavy, weedy structure, a variety of rod lengths and weights can work for bass fishing from 5 to 8wt. And while I’m certainly not a trout expert, I’ve had no problem catching trout on rods ranging from 6ft 2wts to 9ft 7wts. Yes, there are times it can make it easier to have a special rod- especially when delivering small dries or drifting nymphs. But honestly? For me, I just don’t see that big of a difference between weights, lengths, and brands…and cost. They feel nicer, and some cast better, but really you can get away with pretty modest gear and catch a lot of trout, bass, and pickerel in most situations. Line matters a lot more, and I’ll talk about that in the future.
But surf fishing is not freshwater pond and river fishing. Pond fly fishing is a mall parking lot on a Tuesday, and surf fly fishing is nuclear World War IV.
All this is leading me to this one point: I know a lot of guys that fish for stripers use an 8wt rod, and there is a lot of consensus out there that this is a suitable weight.
I think that’s a bunch of bull shit.
Sure, if you’re catching 20-25” fish on a sandy beach, in a river, or in a boat (HUGE difference from surf) that will work. It’s extremely fun, and in the summer I do still occasionally partake in this extra-light tackle fishing with small fish in the 20-25” range. The 8wt is plenty capable of casting a size 1 to 2/0 deceiver or clouser with a good line, even in a breeze, and that’s pretty much all I use when targeting schoolies at night (I’ll have a whole post about this later). If you’re in an estuary, it can work too.
However, I think an 8wt is dumb for larger stripers, especially in the open surf. Look, if you’re a plug or bait guy, think about the lightest rod you use when targeting big schoolies or keeper fish (forget about actual big fish for a minute). I can virtually guarantee, that rod you’re thinking about, is stronger, stiffer, and thicker than even a 12-14wt fly rod. Even if the spinning rod is 7ft and rated to like 1.5 ounces, it’s a telephone pole compared to an 8wt fly rod. The worst way, in my opinion, to kill a striper is by undersized gear. What a terrible way to die; I think it’s irresponsible if you’re trying to catch anything but very small fish. And, yeah, obviously right here in these posts I’m telling you I haven’t caught a truly big cow on the fly rod from the surf. But I’ve caught plenty on the surf rod, and a bunch of 14-18lb fish on the fly, and I’m telling you- fighting a teen bass on an 8wt takes forever. I can’t imagine trying to fight a 25 or 30lb striper on an 8wt from shore, especially in boulders or current! I would never land a fish that size in the places I fish. You know, the places you actually still have a chance of catching a large fish in this fishery…
However, I’ve held and casted a couple 13-15wt fly rods and they’re pretty intense. They are really stiff, obviously physically heavier, and the action on the ones I played with was extra fast. This all makes for a tiring rod. If I was chasing big stripers (40lb+) from a boat? I would have a 13-15wt rod, no question. I’m seriously considering getting a shorter (8ft) 13-15wt for the surf for using in heavy structure, from boulders, and in inlet-like situations, even given the above noted limitations. However, since I’m in the surf blind casting (not sight fishing) 95%+ of the time, I need a rod just heavy enough to be strong enough to handle a 25lb fish and cast a big fly into a wind, while at the same time being light enough I can cast over and over and over for 3-5 hours straight. I get crazy sore after a night or two of casting, especially if I get into a couple dozen big schoolies and fish into the teens; or worse if there is a stiff breeze. I have to take this into account, because if I do get into a good bite, I’m certainly not just going one night! I’ll stay on it for multiple nights, and this can be really hard on the body. I weight lift in the winter just to prepare myself for it; and yet I never seem to be completely prepared. My wrist and biceps hate me after a few nights.
So, given all this experience and data, I settled on an 11wt. A 12wt would be just as good, or better, but I got an 11wt because I got a great deal on it. I still think it’s a bit undergunned for the fish I am now setting out to catch, from the surf, in current, in the wind…but it’s a compromise. It’s got some good backbone, but it’s light enough that my wrist isn’t about to fall off after a few hundred casts a night. Just to reiterate though, I am still worried it’s a bit underpowered for what I’m doing now. Especially given the size of the flies I’m now using…and I get broken off with my 11ft surf rod and 30lb braid semi-regularly. And that thing is a freight train in comparison to the mini-cooper that is my 11wt fly rod (an 8wt would be a Radio-flyer wagon in this analogy).
Another reason I like this rod is it carries a 25 year unconditional warranty. This might not matter to some of you, but I think for me, in the surf, it’s important. It’s an incredibly unforgiving environment, and stuff breaks (just wait until I write about my reel experiences). I’ve broken my 11wt rod three times, it was fixed twice, and then on the 3rd time, they just sent me a totally new rod as a replacement. Yeah, it’s not free- companies that offer this usually have some kind of handling fee of $50-75- but that’s a hell of a lot better than shelling out another $500-1000 every time! Several companies offer this sort of service on higher-end rods, and I would highly recommend investing in a brand that offers this. I won’t specifically mention a brand by name, because fly rod preference is like ice cream flavor inclination- it’s very personal.
MUCH more to come on gear in subsequent posts.