Today we're launching a new informal series called "Short Hits". It'll be a catch-all for all the things we want to share that we find, think of, or run into while out fishing.
This short video I took a few weeks ago while out surf fishing. I was walking through shin-high water when I ran into, literally, a group of 5 pretty big needle fish. They were probably about 15" long or so. They were all in a tight group right at the surface. It took me a moment to get my light on and my camera rolling, but I did get a couple on film.
It's not every day we get to see these in the surf, and I thought it was pretty cool. I also was pleased to see just how closely the bigger needlefish I use match this bait. Although I'm not really interested in matching the hatch with needles in most cases, damn if this isn't a perfect brief look at how a sub-surface needle mimics this ubiquitous prey species.
More coming soon!
By Dave Anderson
Let me start by saying that there is absolutely no way I can cover this subject in one post, I’m going to have to break this down into several parts—I could see it going as many as 10 individual parts, but we’ll see. Just to stay on trend with what we’ve been discussing recently, I am going to focus on deep presentations with plugs.
When I look at the blackfish footage in last week’s video I always come away with the same pointed thoughts in my mind; I see how tight they are to the bottom and how subtle their movements are (unless they’re moving frantically). I feel it’s important to stress the point that blackfish are only one of these ‘bottom species’ that double as reliable baitfish, and pretty much all of them stay tight to the bottom and tight to structure: scup, fluke, sea bass, choggies, kingfish, pollock—and I forgot to mention lobsters in my last post. Lobsters conjure—at least for me—images of the rich surfcasters of the 1800’s tossing lobster tails into the Cuttyhunk suds. And I have found numerous lobsters in the guts of the bass I have kept over the years. These crustaceans are active at night and absolutely are a favorite target of big striped bass.
Ok, hopefully I’ve made this infinitely clear: a deep presentation is a natural presentation in the boulder-strewn stretches of the Northeast coast that most of us fish. So that’s the first point: get comfortable with fishing deep. One of the best sentences I’ve ever read about fishing deep was written by my friend and elite surfcaster John Hanecak, it’s simple but so true: “You can’t be afraid to lose plugs, if you’re afraid you’re going to lose it, then you’re not going to fish it where you’re most likely to catch a big bass.” That’s paraphrased, but the point should be well taken. Which brings me to another quote from a YouTube video posted by swimbait pro Mike Gilbert, you think losing your $50 to $75 metal lip hurts, these guys are fishing baits that cost as much as $500! Mike takes a very pragmatic approach to it, he says, “Consider it gone. Once you cast it out there, you have to think of it as if you’ve already lost that bait.” Plugs are tools, and by the nature of what we do, they must be considered disposable. This is why I have backups of everything I like and why I build many multiples of the plugs I make for my personal stash. When they inevitably leave me, I have another to take its place.
So how do you know when you’re fishing deep enough? When you start banging into the bottom and hanging up periodically, you’re there. I currently only use metal lips and needles when I’m trying to dredge the bottom. And I am fully aware of the fact that there other ways to get this done, but shads, leadheads and bucktails don’t fit into the way I do it. I like to play on the buoyancy of the plug to keep my presentation natural.
Referring again to the underwater footage, notice how fluid their motions are and how often they really aren’t moving much at all. I can’t do that with a bucktail, I don’t doubt that someone out there can, but I can’t. I can do that with metal lip, especially one that’s weighted enough to slow its rise during a pause. I can also do this with a heavy needlefish, particularly those that are made to sink level. A properly made level-sink needle will not rapidly ascend through the water column like a conventionally made (tail-weighted) needle. It’s the riding angle of the plug that dictates it’s track, if the needle rides head above the tail, it will climb, if it stays level it will remain—more or less—at the depth you sink it to (until the line angle steepens to the point that it has to ride toward the surface).
Presenting these plugs is all about getting them to depth and then maintaining that depth while feeling your way through the retrieve. I’ll begin with the metal lip. Let’s assume that we’re fishing in 10 feet of water with a good sweep running from left to right. I’m going to cast out to about my 10 o’clock and put four or five hard cranks on the reel to get the plug down fast. Now I have a tight zone in which I can work the plug properly before the sweep begins to affect the action of the plug and its ability to stay deep—let’s say that’s from about the 10:30 position to the 1:30 position. When I have the plug down, I focus on a steady, subtle rhythm, I don’t want the plug to swim hard or to wobble out of control. Everything I do is dictated by what I feel and what I’m feeling is directly linked to the how the current is affecting the plug. My reactions are all made to maintain that slow, thumping rhythm. But with some mental footage of bottom species swimming in my head, I will also allow the current to move the plug while I stop cranking and lower the tip to cease the wobble and swing a stationary target through the tide. If I’m doing it right, I will bump bottom here and there and that’s another time when I’ll pause the plug, allowing it to swing and float over the obstacle before resuming the retrieve. To me, this method closely resembles what I see in those videos. Am I overthinking this? I really don’t know. But it helps me stay alert and confident, so regardless of its necessity underwater, it has a positive effect on me and therefore it has a positive effect on my fishing.
With the needle the basics are very much the same, except I often find that I have to make a few ‘test casts’ to find the perfect cast placement so that I can get it down in time to fish in that slice of bottom where the current works in our favor. A perfect cast would have the needle hitting the bottom at about the 11 o’clock position. Once again, the retrieve is completely based on feel and I make several casts every night where something seems to go wrong, the plug never gets all the way down or—for some reason—swings harder and I never really connect. But, on that same plane, when it does work properly the feeling is 100% different. I can feel the weight of the plug and how the current is playing off of it. I keep my rod tip high and when I feel like I’ve lifted it too far from the bottom, I drop the tip sharply, allowing a loop of slack in the line which the weight of the needle quickly takes up, sinking it back down a few feet. Here again, the goal is to tick bottom once in a while, keeping the plug in the lower 2- to 3-feet of the water column, swinging right through the strike zone. The hits are THUNDEROUS using either method.
All of this working with and working off of the current and all this talk about feel and reacting to how the plug is reacting to the current are why I made that video about “The Water Environment”. These places of increased water movement and abundance of life are the places where your presentation matters the most and the harder you work to complete your picture of what makes these spots so special, the better you’ll be at finding fish and presenting a plug to them. All of this stuff is important, you can’t fly the plane if you don’t know how to take off and land.
This series is about trying to catch a 50-pounder, but it’s all pertinent information that’s relevant to catching quality stripers from the surf. Understanding the relationship between a reliable source of food, water movement and how that water movement changes your presentation will take you a long way if you take the time to learn this and implement it in your own fishing.
I originally wanted to make this into a video, but the more I talked to the camera, the more I realized there was potential for a much more in depth video that would require a lot more 'in the field' footage, look for that sometime over the summer.
By Jerry Audet
As you'll hear in this post, I'm not always the bravest surf fisherman out there. Although, some might actually call me "smart" or "cautious". I feel that given the short-comings of the fly rod, I need to figure out ways to get myself as close as possible to areas where big fish are known to "hang out". As I put rather strongly in this video, casting distance is always an issue with the fly rod, and to overcome this I need to swim further. While I swim rather regularly (3-4 days a week) for short distances with my plugging rod, I have yet to undertake the kind of swims I'm talking about in this video.
And let's face it, swimming at night in the ocean in any kind of current is pretty "exciting". Or, nerve-wracking, depending on your point of view.
In this video, I'll talk to you about a lot of things, but primarily my surf belt and the limited gear I'll be taking with me on my long swim. Enjoy!
By Dave Anderson
There are probably 8-million ways to lose a big fish, but nothing hurts more than losing them at endgame. I have one particular painful experience that happened in the Canal about nine or 10 years ago. The tide had just turned east and it was late-May and I was throwing a pink mackerel Guppy pencil popper. The fish hit way out at the end of the cast and I knew, instantly, that it was big. She made two good runs and I was lucky that the tide was slow or else I don’t think I would have had much of a chance of even coming close to landing her. Finally I had her close, and she made a wide circle around my position on the shore. I could feel my heart beginning to race a little as she sounded and laid on her side, to this day I feel confident saying she was at least very close to 50 if not over. She was all of 50 inches and built like Magnus Ver Magnusson, as she glided toward me, I stepped into the water so I wouldn’t have to strain any of my tackle trying to drag her onto the rocks. I could see that the fish was only hooked on one hook point and it wasn’t exactly a rock solid connection, but I didn’t panic. I had her coming in, the line was tight, the plug was visible, she was barely a rod length off the tip and appeared to have given up. Then she rolled over and tried to turn to dive. She disappeared for a minute and then… the pencil, unceremoniously, popped up in the widening rings of her last splash. Gone. I was so crestfallen that I called my fishing partner at 5:45 a.m. when he was away on a family vacation to Florida. Given the fact that he was going to Disney that day, and most certainly would have preferred dental surgery, never mind fishing a hot tide at the Canal, he didn’t provide the type of sympathy I was hoping for.
So much has to go right before you even get the chance to screw up the landing, and because of this, we don’t get enough opportunities to practice landing giants in the surf. This is where so many hearts are broken. And too many of them break as a result of complete panic. I once took my aunt, Betsy, on a fishing trip aboard a friends boat in the Housatonic River. We were catching stripers in December and as the morning turned to afternoon, the bite cooled off. I think Besty kind of tuned out for a bit and was just, kind of, dangling her small soft plastic over the side while daydreaming when her rod went down with authority. This fish put on a real show, ripping drag, staying deep and really putting her to the test. Then the fish surfaced, it was not a striped bass, it was an Atlantic salmon! Betsy totally lost her shit! She actually dropped the rod and practically dove over the side, for a split second, I thought I was going to have to grab her ankles! I insisted that she CALM DOWN, grab the rod and let me land the fish, which, luckily, we were able to do.
So, how do you prepare for this moment? If you haven’t—yet—landed what you consider to be a real giant, (and just to be clear, there is no cut-and-dried definition of ‘giant’ here) then let me just tell you now, it’s not likely to be a ho-hum moment, unless you’re heavily medicated at the time. Big fish, look HUGE when you compare them to the average catches that all surfmen make on a typical night. And if that doesn’t get your heart racing, then… why the hell are you doing this? This factor is only multiplied when the fish is caught in full dark, and only comes into view when it glides into the halo of your light.
This may sound like the musings of a person who has totally lost touch with reality, priority and what really matters, but when the season gets close I use visualization to prepare myself for that first big one of the season. For the sake of the exercise, start by stretching a tape measure out to 50 inches and look at it, I mean really LOOK, now imagine the width and girth and power of a fish that size. Now imagine the mouth of that fish, the eye, the gills and then remember that it will be alive and pissed off when you reach for that jaw to land the fish. This is the moment that so many people botch, because they are not mentally prepared.
I visualize this moment all the time, usually as I’m trying to fall asleep. I concentrate on the size of the fish and the visual impact of seeing that big fish. I also concentrate on diminishing the moment, making it more of a routine, the same routine that I use for every fish. Using these visualizations helps me keep my excitement in check when that moment comes—because it is a really exciting moment, every time. But I have learned through practice and through these brain exercises, not to get excited until I have a firm hold on the fish, because—as that day at the Canal taught me—the battle really isn’t over until you are holding that fish.
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.