My rod surged and bucked, and for a moment it threatened to shatter like dry spaghetti.
That’s what happens when you are under-gunned. I debated slamming my hand onto the reel to break the fish off, when suddenly it changed direction and brought my fly line swooshing straight at me. A quick backwards scramble onto the sandbar was the only thing that allowed me to land the fish. Minutes before, I had been sliding down the steep sides of Atlanta’s Chattahoochee River, leaving the roar of traffic behind as I carefully threaded my thirteen-foot Spey rod between rhododendron branches.
That’s right: a two-hander, in this case a light 6-weight designed for trout. But as I soon learned, two-handed or not, a 6-weight is not enough stick for the hardest fighting fish in fresh water: striped bass. Native to a surprising number of inland drainages, the modern-day range of Morone saxatilis now extends from coast to coast. The Atlantic strain is the version most anglers are familiar with. These fish run the seaboard from northern Florida all the way to Maine, and they will enter just about every river along the way if the time is right for spawning. These are the fish of Montauk, the kind which used to grace the table of the Mayor of New York. There is also a Gulf of Mexico strain of striped bass, which biologists believe entered the Gulf during the last Ice Age when the circumnavigation of Florida was still possible for them. Today, they are cut off by thermal barriers and reproduce separately from their Atlantic brethren, historically running up the rivers of the Deep South.
And finally, of course, there are America’s stocked stripers. From California to Ohio, Texas to Tennessee, stripers have been placed in just about every suitable reservoir or impoundment in the country. All of these far-flung members of the striped bass family have one thing in common: They run up rivers from time to time, and that means shallow water. In Middle America, the stripers’ run out of man-made reservoirs is the equivalent of a full-blown salmon run in fly-over country. Once they get in the river, stripers have similar behaviors to salmon and steelhead: they hold to structure in predictable ways; they eat streamers; and they often travel in pods.
One day, it occurred to me that these characteristics make stripers a perfect target for two-handed rods and modern Spey tactics. Of course, as soon as I had the thought, I realized that others would surely be ahead of me, and so they were. Anglers like biologist and artist Mark Yuhina had already begun targeting stripers in Alabama with Spey rods. I heard rumors of secret Spey sects on the Red River in Texas and California’s Central Valley, and right on my home water on Atlanta’s “Hooch,” there were anglers like American Angler contributor James Buice, who had perfected the local tactics. Once I had run these far-flung Spey anglers to ground, a few of them agreed to share their techniques.
The most shocking thing about the striper that nearly shattered my 6-weight was its size: it was relatively tiny, only about five pounds. I remember glancing at my slender, 13-foot 6-weight, then back to the fish, as Chief Brody’s famous line from Jaws echoed in my head: “We’re gonna need a bigger boat.”
Atlanta’s James Buice agrees: “I use a 13-foot 8-weight for most of my striped bass Spey fishing. You want a modern, fast-action two-hander, not one of the older European-style [meaning slower] rods like we used to use in the Pacific Northwest for steelhead.” Alabama’s Mark Yuhina, fishing the Tallapoosa drainage, also sticks to 7- and 8-weight rods, and he’ll go so far as to carry a second, heavier-actioned two-hander for bigger, weighted flies. As a general rule, two-handed rods are significantly beefier than their one-handed cousins. The butt section on an 8-weight Spey rod is at least as thick as a 12-weight single hander. Of course, all of that extra mass carries a toll: You can’t just stick any old 8-weight line on one of these rods. “For a beginning Spey caster,” says Scientific Anglers’ chief line designer Tim Pommer, “we recommend a Skagit line or a Scandi line, depending on what you’re trying to accomplish.”
Skagit lines were developed for steelheading in the deep, wide rivers of the Pacific Northwest. They are shooting heads at the most basic level, typically with very short front tapers and equally short heads. This means even an un-accomplished Spey caster can use them from the very first day. If you can form up a thirty foot roll cast, the extreme weight-forward profile of a Skagit system allows you to power out sixty to eighty foot casts almost without trying, because the head will carry the running line behind it once you let fly. “You just don’t want to over-power it,” explains Buice, an old hand at Skagit fishing from his steelhead days. “Keep your tip high, go slow, and let the rod do the work.” Skagit lines have enough mass to turn over heavy sink tips as well, letting you get the fly to where the fish are: “I use Skagit lines for my heaviest or biggest flies, or those with dumbbell sinkers,” says Alabama’s Mark Yuhina. The downside of a Skagit system is obvious from the first cast: it can be ugly. Like, really ugly.
Stripers in extremely skinny water can be just as spooky as largemouth bass or trout, and they will flee if you crash a cast on their heads. That’s where Scandi lines come in. Scandi is short for Scandinavian, where these tapers were developed, and they work on the same principle as the Skagit system but are less extreme. Where a typical Skagit head might be only twenty-four to twenty-six feet long, a Scandi head could stretch up to forty feet. The longer a line’s head is, as a general rule, the more line the angler will carry in the air (as opposed to shooting) and thus the line’s “turn over” will be more gradual. Scandi heads also have less aggressive front tapers than Skagit heads, meaning when the line does turn over, it will do so much more softly. Consequently, Scandi lines are best for conditions where fish are running in clear water with depths less than six feet.
Stripers in extremely skinny water can be just as spooky as largemouth bass or trout.
In sum, use Skagit lines for booming big heavy flies a long way where stealth is not an issue, but use Scandi lines in low, clear water. “If I’m using small flies in the summer, I’ll go with my Scandi setup,” says Mark Yuhina, “but when it comes to big dumb-belled leeches, it’s Skagit all the way.” Scandi and Skagit lines are available both as “heads,” which can be interchanged on a shared running line using loop-to-loop knots, or as “integrated shooting lines,” meaning the head is fused permanently to the running line and cannot be swapped out. For a rank beginner, an integrated Skagit line will probably be the easiest system to manage. Once you’ve got the flavor, if you really want to learn to Spey cast properly, it would be a good idea to pick up a Scandi or even a mid-belly line (most typically used for steelhead and salmon), which will allow the broadest range of true Spey casts.
Casts and Tactics
It’s been said that writing about music is like dancing about architecture. Unfortunately, writing about casting is about the same: Spey casting is best learned from a live teacher, not a book or magazine. If a book is all you’ve got, Simon Gawesworth’s Spey Casting is the definitive authority. For striper fishing with Spey rods, I’ve primarily relied on two casts: the Snap-T and the Double Spey. As with all Spey casting, these are simply fancy names for the setup moves necessary to get yourself and your line into a standard roll-cast position. All Spey casts are roll casts at their core. Both of these casts have the advantage of lifting your flies right up to the surface before you begin moving forward, which is helpful when trying to pluck a heavy striper fly off the water. Meanwhile, I’ve found that Single Spey and Snake Roll casts can be more difficult to execute with a six-inch long, wet mop of a fly, though there are certainly casters who can handle it.
River fishing for stripers gets truly interesting when it comes to patterning and fooling the fish. Most stripers spend the majority of their year out in deep water, either in a reservoir or in the lower stretches of a deep river. In places where it gets truly hot, like Texas, Mississippi, Alabama, or Georgia, some lake-dwelling stripers will run into rivers seeking thermal refuge in the summer months. (The rest just go below the thermocline and stay on the bottom of the lake where it is cool). Typically this run occurs around the first of June, and those stripers which make the move tend to stay in the rivers until the end of August. Moving water contains more dissolved oxygen, which is leeched out by hot weather, and which may be why some stripers prefer rivers to the lake bottom. Alternatively, they may just be following baitfish, which are themselves looking to beat the heat. Either way, once in the rivers, they tend to stay put for the summer.
In places where heat is not as much of an issue, such as Tennessee, Arkansas, or parts of California, stripers will still run the rivers in the Spring in order to spawn. Typically, stripers are the last of the temperate basses to run up from a given lake. Around the first of March the white bass will run, followed a couple weeks later by their hybrid or “wiper” cousins, and then finally a couple weeks after that by pure-strain striped bass. Striped bass are often a by-catch of late season white bass anglers, for instance on the upper White River in Arkansas. Thus, depending on the part of the country you live in, chances are good that your local reservoir stripers will swim into shallow water for at least a few weeks a year.
The first push of fish is usually the best fishing. Watch for a “fresh,” which can be either a rain event or a period of extended generation from a tailwater that raises river levels by at least six inches. Stripers (and other fish, for that matter), will move and assume new positions when the waters are high, then stay there when the waters recede. Initially, before they get a lot of pressure, you are likely to see pods of stripers camped out on sand or gravel in water sometimes shallower than two feet. This can be an intense fishing time as the stripers will be heavily feeding and may even compete for your fly. After the fish have been in the river for a couple weeks, the pods will often break up into smaller groups or even individuals. As a rule these smaller groupings orient themselves around structure; you can find them holding just out of the current in a log jam, or on the front side of large boulders or rock shelves. Stripers seem to prefer the cushion of water on the front of a rock far more than trout or other basses, which are more likely to hide behind or to the side of the same structure. Later “freshes” may also bring up new fish, and the cycle repeats itself.
The End of the Line
Fly selection depends entirely on the local forage fish; the only constant is that stripers invariably eat some kind of baitfish. In places like Tennessee’s lower Caney Fork or Clinch River tailwaters, stripers have easy access to stocker-sized trout. (Bait anglers actually catch and use trout as striper bait in those waters). Consequently, large-profile trout-colored patterns, such as Enrico Puglisi’s baitfish, in size 5/0 and lengths up to nine inches, are worth trying.
In other areas, such as Arkansas’s upper White River near Fayetteville, or in Oklahoma’s Illinois River tailwater, the predominant baitfish is likely to be a gizzard or threadfin shad. Patterns like Kintz’s Major Mullet or Cowen’s Baitfish, in size 3/0 and lengths from three to six inches, accurately imitate these deep-bodied but shorter-length forage fish. As a general rule, whenever stripers push into a river where they don’t live year-round, they will eliminate the largest, slowest and dumbest baitfish or prey (especially trout) first. By the month of August or by the end of a spring spawning run, you can count on smaller flies, such as a simple gray-over-white Clouser Minnow, in size 1/0 or even size 2, working best. Spey casts are also made easier by floating foam flies, such as the Gurgler Minnow or the Wiggle Minnow, both of which will dive and produce fish laid up on the front-sides of rocks.
The final key to approaching stripers successfully is the kind of terminal tackle you use. Both Skagit and Scandi lines are available in a wide variety of sinking tips and full-sink configurations. The best bet seems to be a clear intermediate sink tip or intermediate full sinking head on a floating running line. Stripers strike upward: They sit below bait and wait for it to pass by overhead, then spring like a viper. At other times, pods of stripers work together to wound or injure many fish in a baitfish ball, after which they will rest below the pod and pick off sinking casualties at their leisure. Consequently, you don’t really need a type-VI fast-sinking head to be successful; instead, you want your fly to be in the top two or three feet of the water column. Clear tips help eliminate the line’s profile in clearer water but are not necessary for stained-water fishing (for instance, if your fish are mostly in a spring spawning run triggered by colored runoff).
Most of the stripers I target run between six and ten pounds. For this class of fish, four or five feet of straight 15- or 20-pound test fluorocarbon is all you need for leader. I tie the fluoro directly to the tip of the fly line with a Turle knot (which is stronger than a standard nail knot), and if I need to add tippet at any point, I use a Double Uni knot rather than the trout fisherman’s Surgeon’s Knot, which is weaker. For the fly-to-tippet knot I always use a No-slip Mono Loop, which allows the fly to move freely in the current. Small, stealthy knots are less of a priority than brute strength when it comes to striped bass.
As a Spey caster, look for a rock or level section of shallow water, where you can get good solid footing, above a deep pool, ideally with a sandy or gravelly beach on one side and a rock shelf or boulder line running across the tailout. A Spey rod is ideal for the angler afoot, because it gives you such tremendous reach (100- foot casts are fairly normal with these rods). Because you can cast so far, you don’t need to approach the fish as closely as you would in a boat, which can also disturb the water and alert them to your presence. Consequently, despite Spey casting’s commotion in the water near you, in many cases you can still be a stealthier angler with the long rod, at least over where the fish are.
In our hypothetical pool, I would first cast toward the gravelly beach area, seeking cruising fish in shallow water looking for an easy meal. It’s not uncommon to get a strike on the very first cast when you reach a new pool. If the beach was unsuccessful, I would next cast directly in front of the shelf or each boulder sitting in the tailout, stripping the fly a couple times as it landed, then letting it settle to suggest a wounded baitfish. Sometimes I wonder whether stripers take these fish to be presents dropped by a bird of prey. Whatever the reason, they will frequently pounce on such a presentation. The ideal way to assure yourself of stripers is to throw a cast into a surging baitball; this results in a fish practically every time. Of course, first you need to find a baitball!
Get a fly in front of him, and he’s yours.
Stripers are crepuscular fish—that is, they prefer low-light conditions, whether on a cloudy day or in the period when the sun is rising or setting. In the evenings, as soon as the sun leaves the sky or drops behind a hill or trees, stripers will quickly move into the shallowest water to prowl for lazy baitfish not yet aware of their peril. Thus the ideal fishing times are two hours before full dark on a hot summer night when the low-light period stretches the longest, or during a rain shower causing rising water, if you’re fishing the Spring runs. During these hours it’s not uncommon to see a 10-pound or larger striper thrashing and splashing as he kills baitfish trapped against a beach or rock shelf. Get a fly in front of him, and he’s yours.
The best thing about Spey fishing for striped bass is the style of fishing itself. Spey casting can be frustrating, but when you catch a cast right it can also be a pure joy. Stripers provide the perfect off-season Spey diversion; they are the strongest-fighting fish in fresh water and plenty challenging, without being overly difficult to locate. For all those anglers who Spey cast only once or twice a year, you’re now out of excuses: Get out there and swing for striped bass.
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2012 issue of American Angler magazine.