Fly Fishing for Coastal Gamefish
This piece first appeared in Saltwater Fly Fishing Magazine in 2001.
I hate mornings. I really do. I can't say I hate them with a passion because I don't have enough energy in the morning to be passionate about anything. Walking a straight line can be tough. I usually stumble around a bit before getting the autopilot in gear, but apparently I can have coherent conversations. I know this is true because sometimes, later in the day, a fishing buddy brings up a point I apparently made in one of these early morning conversations. I usually just nod and agree, having no idea what he is talking about. It's rare that I get called on it. I've always assumed the occasional bumps on my forehead are from walking into a doorjamb on the way to the bathroom in my dawn stupor, but now that I think about it, maybe I said something that pissed someone off and don't remember paying the price for the snide remark.
My ability for coherent thought in the early morning is so bad I have to get my fishing gear ready and either in the truck or in a pile next to the door the night before. Even then, I've left items laying on the floor at home, and remember them later only by their absence. It might even happen that my night-before packing is done at a late hour, when I should be getting the few hours sleep I will need for the next day, so getting all of the right items into the pile is not assured. Still, my success rate for these late-night packings is respectable. Failures in late-night packing have been of the excusable variety; they have made a day of fishing less comfortable, but I can=t remember leaving an essential item at home (like a rod or reel). The few times I have tried to get it all together in the morning have resulted in disastrous outcomes. I think the most frustrating of these failed attempts at morning consciousness was when I took the wrong rod, well, rods.
After unloading the canoe from the roof of my truck, piling my gear into the canoe, and dragging it to the edge of the bay, I grabbed the rod tube and started setting up the 6-weight. This was to be a pursuit of schoolie stripers on an outgoing tide at dawn. I locked the reel onto the reel seat, and threaded the fly line through the guides of the first of the two rod sections. This rod is a soft 6, it may even really be a 5-weight to someone who knows, and shows a good bend to the small schoolies found in this backwater.
I grabbed the tip section of the two piece rod, threaded the fly line through its guides, and put the rod together. But the two pieces didn't fit. The tip section was too large for the lower section. The rod was unuseable. In my early morning stupor I had grabbed the butt section of the 6-weight and the tip section of the larger 8-weight, each a self-made, all black rod. The rods were splayed on the table drying from the previous trip a couple days before. I had grabbed from the table the first two rod sections my stumbling hands had felt that morning, and hadn't been able to discern the obvious (to a conscious person, anyway) mismatch of my choices. I stood there dumbfounded for a while, as the blood started moving through my veins, energizing the neurons that carried the message of what my eyes were seeing to my brain. I then watched for a while as small stripers slurped silversides from the surface as the bay=s waters slid slowly out toward the sea. Even as the soft glow of dawn slowly became full light, I remained alone in the bay. It was pretty, but the memory of that morning still brings me pain.
For all the pain (both physical and mental) that is morning to me, I fish the dawn hours often. Dawn is a special time in that the water is as alive as any time of day or night, but most of my fellow anglers are not out and about. In New England, the night-time striper addicts are either home or well on their way, and the day-timers have not yet stirred from the comfort of their beds. Very often I am alone in my pursuit of early morning stripers. More importantly, if there is to be a calm time of day in New England, where the winds off the ocean can have a cooling effect even in mid-summer, it is dawn. Calm winds bring calm seas, and silence. Often, there is a mist, or even a fog, that gives the dawn a surreal feel. But amid the silence are the sounds of stripers.
Sometimes there are slurps, similar to the sounds made by early-risers sipping coffee in the shop in town. More exciting are the popping sounds, almost like a firecracker, as the striped bass suck in a hapless prey - perhaps a shrimp or sand eel trying to hide in the water's surface film - with such force that they suck in air along with the mouthful of water. This is a sound that, once it has been heard, will not be forgotten. When the bass are especially excited, there is a lot of splashing as they chase fleeing baitfish through the surface waters. If there are schools of small baitfish, they leap from the water en masse in their attempt to escape death, falling back to the water like heavy rain as they crash back into the water. The stripers thrash the schools of baitfish, mouths agape, tails slapping the water surface. These are the sounds of a good dawn at my favorite spots on Cape Cod.
I am a creature of Cape Cod summers. In the spring, and again in the fall, mornings can be cool enough to cause me to hesitate before getting out of bed. In the spring, I am eager to chase stripers after the long winter, and the possibility of energetic fish on a spring day is usually enough to get me out of bed. But there are times when I give in to temptation and leave fishing for later in the day.
In the fall, I am often able to get myself rolling with s simple reminder of the proximity of the approaching winter, and just how long that winter can be. Other times, the images already etched in my memory from falls past may be all I need to put the autopilot in motion. Fall presents the greatest possibility at witnessing the carnage of large schools of large bass and bluefish feasting on menhaden, herring, sand eels, and silversides, often right up against the beach. The fall mayhem provides the greatest shot at the biggest fish of the year since so many fish are so close to shore and feeding with such careless voracity.
But wind is more likely than cold to keep me from a dawn patrol. A strong wind, regardless of time of year, can erase the sounds of feeding fish, send the baitfish toward the bottom, and make casting a fly rod a frustrating affair. Worse, the shorelines and shallows that I prefer to fish become filled with dirty water - suspended sediment and dislodged algae. But I have gathered a collection of places that are suitable for fishing at first light, so I can usually find a lee if the weather is not too bad. So, if the wind is not unreasonable, I had enough presence of mind to pack the truck the night before, and the promise of fish starts my autopilot, upon waking I will find myself standing on an empty shoreline, greeting the dawn with a hopeful cast of a fly.
The Fisherman's Coast approach focuses on how coastal gamefish interact with their habitats and prey. The more you know about the gamefish you pursue with a fly rod, the more often you'll be in the right place at the right time with the right fly making the right presentation. It's about catching more fish.
Our sister site Tribal Bonefish is all about conservation through responsible fishing. Tribal Bonefish shows you how to become a better steward of our coasts to protect our fisheries today, and ensure future generations get a chance to experience these fisheries.