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Saltwater Flyfishing: June/July 2003
OF SINKING LINES, BUNKER AND BIG BASS
The biggest, laziest stripers lurk beneath schools of mature bunker. Here's how to get down to'em
By Capt. John McMurray
It’s 5:30AM as the sun begins to peer over the horizon spreading amber light across a spring morning’s glass surface. There’s the slight, but distinguishing smell of menhaden oil in the air as we quietly creep up on a large school of adult menhaden and cut the motor. Our skiff continues to drift in the direction of the school. Small tail flips and fins agitate the surface as the vegetarian baitfish suck up the new spring algae blooms. No visible signs of predators harassing the big bait, but with concentrations this thick, common sense tells us they must be there, and if not, they can’t be far behind. The anticipation runs high as I pull 100-feet of line off the reel. To the left of us, a half-dozen 12-inch bunker (Atlantic menhaden) shower out of the water as something large boils in their wake… As we drift over the school, menhaden turn underneath the surface, flashing their golden flanks. Two false casts and a final haul sends heavy line zipping through the guides while pushing out a bulky 9-inch fly … I glance at the depth finder and it’s blacked out with fish symbols… Solid bunker to 10-feet below the boat. Counting down with the depth and feeding out line, I begin my retrieve once I’m close to the bottom. Two hard and long strips, and a pause… Three more quick erratic strips and the line violently thumps and pulls back sharply mid-strip on the third. A quick strip-strike and a solid hook-up! The tip of the rod strains and bounces as line flies off the deck… “Wow… this is a nice fish!!!” I scream as I look down and notice backing quickly disappearing from the reel… After a 20-minute battle I’m lipping with both hands a striper in the 25-pound class… Pictures are taken and hand shakes exchanged. A quick revival and the fish powers back into the depths with its broad tail… We’re off to get another one…
Big, fat monster stripers… The ones with a head bigger than an average adult human being’s cranium… That enormous gaping mouth… That full wide tail brimming with power and torque… The protruding white potbelly… And who could forget those handsome stripes that radiate shades of purple pink and green when held at certain angles to the sun. Us northeastern fishermen go nuts over these goliath specimens. Most hardcore flyrodders in the northeast and mid-Atlantic would agree that there is no greater feat than getting “a 30” on a fly.
It’s pretty great fishing shallow and clear water for bass… Sight fishing for these beautiful creatures can be fantastic. Casting to blitzing fish on the surface is just about as intense as you can get… But it’s a simple fact that more trophy stripers are caught on deep sinking lines than any other method, and spring adult menhaden aggregations offer what many believe to be the best opportunities to hook a colossal striper on the fly. Here’s why:
BIG STRIPERS RUN DEEP
Trophy stripers got that way for a reason… Under the current regulations, stripers get hammered both commercially and recreationally at the coastal 28-inch limit. Bass can live up to 30 years and grow to weights in excess of 100-pounds. But because of the fishing pressure, most fish these days don’t make it past half their natural life expectancy. In fact, the population now gets pretty slim before it reaches age 15. A 15-year-old fish is around 45-inchs and approximately 30 pounds. So, there’s something to be said for a fish with the veritable intelligence and survival skills that allow it to reach this respectable size. They are inherently the smartest of their species. Their attuned survival instincts have enabled them to lead a life that is considerably longer than most of their peers. For this reason, even when they’re around in numbers, they’re hard to dupe. And, for the most part, the monsters tend to stay deep and out of sight from potential predators (you and me.) Even in the rare cases when you can see big fish chasing bunker on the surface, most of the time, it can be very hard to get them to take a fly, especially when there’s a plethora of large bait around. But, with a good fast-sink line and the right technique you can up your odds significantly…
Large bass (for the purpose of this article we’ll consider “large” bass those that have reached weights in excess of 25-pounds) are considerably more lethargic than smaller ones and have learned to eat as much as they can and expend as little energy as possible, thereby conserving calories to sustain their large size… Big bass are most certainly opportunity feeders, looking for that proverbial “free lunch.” (Which by the way there is such a thing under water.) That’s why Atlantic menhaden schools, especially those being harassed by bluefish on the surface offer a prime scenario for a flyrodder to get a trophy bass.
The true hogs, more often than not, are caught right on the bottom in depths of 25 to 35-feet. These opportunity feeders will wait until pieces of bait are right in front of them before making a move. Stunned or dead bunker offer a big and easy meal full of protein for the big striped bass. Bluefish tearing through schools of bunker on the surface in the spring, more than likely, signals the presence of big bass underneath. Bluefish love to bite the tail end off Atlantic menhaden and play with them before devouring them. Witnessing the predator-prey relationship between big blues and bunker can be worth the trip in itself. It is neat to see the whole school of menhaden open up while rapacious bluefish tear through them, grabbing one now and then, and leaving scales and carnage in their wake… It can be quite a violent sight, and, during particularly big blitzes, the water can actually turn a shade of red from the massacre. On a large scale, bluefish can terrorize a school of bunker for hours, herding them into a tight, slithering ball of protein. More often than not, during this time of the year, big, lazy and fat stripers hang out underneath all this mayhem and gorge themselves on the leftovers that fall beneath… Wounded bunker will often swim and flutter in circles on the surface. Occasionally, you’ll see a giant bass rise from the depths and engulf these distressed baitfish, but for the most part they will stay deep.
When there are no bluefish around, such is the case in the early part of the spring bunker hatch, big bass will still feed on bunker, however, their behavior is a bit different. While smaller bass, usually those in the 10-to-15-pound range, attack the school from the surface and mid-depth range, the lunkers attack them from the very bottom of the school, preying on those bunker that are weak, injured, or stunned. Again, it’s not uncommon to see big fish get very aggressive and go after a bunker on the surface, but the majority of the bigger fish stay deep and, again, expend as little energy as possible.
When the bunker begin to migrate out of the bays in the summer, rips formed by moving tides fished with sinking fly-lines can be extremely productive… Once again, in this scenario, large stripers expend as little energy as possible. Strong outgoing tides and sharp depth changes allow big bass to stem the tide, and / or set up behind obstructions or extreme depth changes and pick off bunker as they move by with the current. Again, sinking lines can be deadly during this scenario.
HOW TO GET TO THEM
Big flies catch big fish… Most successful anglers know the truth in that phrase. Atlantic menhaden, however, are not so easy to imitate. They range in size from 6-to-14-inches, and require pretty massive patterns to imitate them. (See sidebar) When the big bass are keyed in on this bait, they’re most certainly not going to go after a small, yet user-friendlier common clouser or deceiver. The obvious benefit of fishing big flies on sinking lines is that the large offering gets down to where the bigger fish lurk. However, there is, in fact, another crucial reason to use them. Assuming the fish are on the surface and readily taking flies, try casting a 9-by-4-inch bunker imitation on an intermediate or floating line… It’s just not going to happen. Throw a little wind into the equation and the fly might just go in the complete opposite direction than you want it to go. Therefore, just to get that fly away from the boat or beach, you’ll need the weight of a sinking line, or at least a sink tip to punch that enormous fly out. If you are lucky enough to find yourself in a scenario where the fish are consistently smashing adult bunker on the surface, or in shallow water, a quick cast with a sinking line and an immediate fast retrieve will keep the fly close enough to the surface while allowing you to make a substantial cast.
There are hundreds of sinking lines out there… Most successful striper flyfishermen, as well as professional guides, use the sinking shooting head / floating running line combination. The sink tip is usually composed of 25-to-35 feet of small diameter, quick sinking line, meant to get down to the fish rapidly. How fast the line sinks depends on the grain level of the line as well as it’s diameter. The higher the grain and the smaller the diameter, the quicker the line will sink. Most line manufacturers offer distance per- second sink-rates on the back of the packaging. However, it’s important to keep in mind that these sink rates are only approximate, and do not account for drift or current. The sink tip is usually fused onto a floating or intermediate running line, which allows a portion of the line to be mended with the drift. In addition, the floating running line allows the leader end of the line to sink at a greater rate than the back end, rather than letting the whole line sink at the same rate. The end result is a sinking line system that allows for very little belly in the line and greater fly control while at the same time getting the fly down to the zone you want it. Full-sink lines are also readily available, but do not offer the same kind of line control that the shooting head / running line combos offer. For this reason, the pre-made shooting head / running line system has become the most popular of the two for use in the saltwater. Many seasoned saltwater flyfishermen like to create their own systems by fusing the lines themselves. Some swear by lead-core lines for their sink portions because of their small diameter and ability to sink quicker than conventional models. My experience is that conventional 450-grain shooting head / and floating sink tip combos are the best all around sinking flylines for striped bass. They get the fly down quick without too much belly in a moderate current, and they’re not too heavy to cast. Certain conditions might call for 550-plus grain lines, for example, strong currents, or very deep water, but I’ve found that anything over 450 usually creates a little too much belly between the fly and the rod, and the casting can be difficult. 550 to 850 grain lines usually involve “chuck and duck” techniques that can often be difficult, especially for beginners.
Leader length is also an important consideration when fishing big bunker flies underneath the school. It’s definitely true that you cannot apply the same principles to sinking lines as you can to floating lines. A nine or ten-foot leader, because the flyline will sink at a greater rate than the fly, will inevitably produce belly between the fly and line, and subsequently create less action in the fly as well as less of a connection between the fly and the line, which translates to less hits and more missed fish. Some claim that no more than 2 feet of leader is necessary on a sinking line. However, I believe finicky fish will shy away from a fly with a visible flyline in front of it. For this reason, I’ll use about 4, or in some cases 5 feet of straight 20-pound fluorocarbon leader. This offers maximum distance between the fly and sinking line while creating as little belly as possible. There is no need to taper the leader because the heavy line will turn that fly over just fine without it. Also, going with a lighter leader during an adult bunker hatch, is inadvisable. The bait is big and the likelihood of you hooking up with a fish of substantial proportions good. You’ll be awful sorry if you hook that 30-plus-pounder and your tippet is of 12 or 16-pound strength. I’ve also found that a 3-inch section of wire doesn’t scare the bass away so much, and helps you hold on to your fly longer when those bluefish are around.
There are a few things to keep in mind when fishing sinking lines under bunker schools… The first is, no matter where the bulk of the school is, always cast away from the drift of the boat. Casting with the drift of the boat, because you are drifting toward the line, will not allow the line to pay out and get down. Instead the line will belly and sink underneath the boat as the boat drifts in the direction of the line. Never have I hooked a fish while stripping line from directly below, or under the boat. If a fish does manage to hit, with the rod bend and the a belly in the line, a hook set is virtually impossible. It can be irresistible to cast in the direction of the school, especially if patients is not one of you stronger virtues, but doing so will only result in short hits, unhooked fish and possibly tangling line in the prop.
Once the line is out and away from the drift, depending on the sink rate of the line, the current and the speed of the drift, you’ll need to do some guesswork on how much line to pay out. If the boat is drifting at a good clip, you’ll need to pay out more line to allow it to sink farther down. Often times, people make the mistake of not paying out enough line, or just holding the line and thinking that the line will sink with the tension the drift is exerting on it. The tension invariably creates drag on the line, leader and fly, causing it to rise higher in the water column. So, once you get the line out away from the drift you’ll need to feed out line freely until you feel that your fly has had a chance to make its way to bottom. Then you can begin your retrieve.
Before getting out to the bunker school, it’s a good idea to see how that fly looks in the water while working it with a heavy sinking line. After doing so, you’ll notice that a big fly fished on a sinking line doesn’t react to a conventional strip like a fly being retrieved by an intermediate or a floater. Because of the fact that the line sinks at a substantially quicker rate, there is not the same level plane in which the fly and line operate that you would find with an intermediate line. Some sort of belly will always exist with a sinking line. Therefore, more accentuated movements to compensate for the belly are required to get that fly to swim in a way that is seductive to a big bass. Once the fly is out and down, I’ll immediately incorporate two long and hard strips, fully extending my elbow. Then I’ll give the fly a two-second pause, so it will sink a little and hopefully catch the eye of a big bass, then give it three more long and hard strips and repeat. This sort of retrieve causes the fly to look like a stunned and wounded bunker and seems to be very effective for big spring bass. Most of your strikes from bigger fish will come on the first few sequences. The smaller fish are more likely to take when you have worked your way up the water column. However, because these bigger fish are weary and by nature smarter, there are times you’ll witness enormous fish follow the fly, undecided, to the surface, only to have it turn away after seeing the boat. Sometimes they will take right at the boat, which can cause severe adrenalin rushes!
At times, especially during a bluefish feeding frenzy, you’ll notice bass cleaning up the scraps on the surface. When this scenario plays itself out, I’ve had some success with Richard Reagan’s (winner of 2002 Montauk Redbone tournament) “half bunker fly” (see photo). This fly resembles a menhaden that has been bitten in half by a bluefish. This particular delicacy seems to be a favorite of the outsized and opportunistic bass. While I’ve fished this pattern on a sinking line, with the intention of making the fly look like a sinking bunker head, I’ve had very limited success. Plenty of hits on the drop, but no real solid hookups. Again, too much belly on the line. While this fly is big and bulky, and not so easy to cast on an intermediate line, getting it out there and just maintaining line contact with the fly without stripping it can often produce visual, heart-pounding strikes from big fish.
CHOOSING A BUNKER SCHOOL
Adult bunker hatches can sometimes be immense. You can fish pods and pods of bunker all day and not hook a thing. However, if you know what to look for, you can increase your odds dramatically. Large schools of Atlantic menhaden, flipping and swimming in cadence are what we locally call “happy bunker.” “Happy” meaning they aren’t being harassed by predators. In choosing a school to fish under, look for the smaller, densely packed schools. Tightly packed schools and “nervous water” on the outskirts usually indicate that something is corralling those schools. Very low on the food chain, the Atlantic Menhaden’s only survival technique is grouping in numbers. They continuously vie for position in the middle while the unfortunate fish on the outside and the bottom get picked off by predators. So, tightly packed, nervous fish usually indicate game fish in the vicinity. Menhaden splashing in cadence, or in some cases leaving the water completely, is a definite sign that predators are around.
Now that you’re armed with the knowledge, go out and find your menhaden school. Atlantic Menhaden (A.K.A. - Alewife, Bunker, Pogy, Bugmouth, Fat-Back) can be found in saltwater environments from Nova Scotia, Canada to central Florida. They are forage fish to a number of predators, but from North Carolina to Massachusetts they are arguably the favorite food of striped bass. In the spring they swim in large schools close to the water’s surface and are easy to spot. They are very distinguishable by their tendency to create small splashes on the surface with their tails. Often, a vast number of fins protrude from the water resembling a huge school of bonefish. Individuals swim in close schools some of which number in the thousands. Throughout the spring, the schools stratify by size and age along the coast so that by the summer, younger and smaller fish are found in Chesapeake Bay and south while the older, larger fish are distributed to the north. These older and larger fish are what bring the enormous bass. Marshes and bays, in my experience, seem to hold the densest concentrations in the spring because of the rich algae blooms present in these environments that menhaden feed on. On occasion, however, we’ll run across vast ocean schools as well.
Atlantic menhaden are one of the most abundant fish species in estuarine and coastal Atlantic waters. If you fish in any of the Mid-Atlantic and Northeastern states in the spring you’re likely to run across these forage fish. Once you find schools of these fish it pays to employ the methods described above. It is, however, important to note that big fish are inherently tougher to catch, but put in the time with these schools of big bait and you are likely to be rewarded with a striper of trophy proportions.
Captain John McMurray is currently the Program Officer at the Norcross Wildlife Foundation, in New York, which has distributed over $15 million in conservation grants since 1982, much of it directly targeted for protection of fish and fish habitat. He’s also the owner of “One More Cast” Guiding Service, which operates out of Jamaica Bay, New York. He can be contacted at 718 791-2094.
(Side Bar) MORE INFO ON ATLANTIC MENHADEN
Atlantic Menhaden is bony, oily, and basically an inedible fish. It’s high oil and fat content, as well as it’s tendency to school in large numbers make it a favorite for many predators including tuna, and sharks as well as stripers, bluefish, weakfish. They are also a favorite target for herons, egrets, ospreys, and eagles. Juvenile menhaden, or “peanut” bunker are also a favorite of false albacore and bonito in the late summer and early fall.
A species of the herring family, Menhaden have a short fat body flattened sideways and a sharp-edged belly. The menhaden's unusually large head distinguishes it from other fish in the herring family. It feeds by opening its mouth and allowing water to pass through its gill openings, filtering microscopic plants, and in some cases, small crustaceans from the water. Atlantic menhaden are an ecologically critical fish species. Although menhaden rarely weigh more than a pound, each one filters up to 2 million gallons of water each year. Due, in part, to their tremendous numbers, their individual growth rates, filter feeding capacity, and seasonal movements, menhaden consume and redistribute a significant amount of energy along the Atlantic coast as well as its estuaries.
Menhaden are heavily fished along the entire Atlantic coast and are processed for oil and protein meal. They are used in dozens of products ranging from fertilizer and animal feed to margarine and lipstick and is a main ingredient in lubricants such as WD-40. Their habit of traveling in large, densely packed schools makes them an easy target for purse seining boats. Commercial fishing interests have historically dominated the menhaden management boards and have created a “fox watching the hen-house” condition. In fact, the Menhaden Management Board was the only ASMFC board that had specific seats reserved for representatives of the commercial fishing industry. Fortunately, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) recently voted overwhelmingly to approve a management plan that ends commercial fishing industry control of the Menhaden Management Board and is expected to restore what some consider depleted menhaden stocks. Hopefully, the ASMFC's action will provide conservation benefit for menhaden stocks, which will, in turn, provide a healthier food source for the big predator fish that anglers dream about. .
(SIDE BAR 2)
Author’s “Rainbow Bunker”:
If you pick up an Atlantic menhaden and turn it at various angles toward the sun it reflects shades of pink, purple and chartreuse. The body of the fish in the murky water of Jamaica Bay looks off-white or almost golden when the sun is out. I coined this enlarged yak-hair deceiver the “Rainbow Bunker” because it incorporates all of these colors. It’s simple to tie and large enough to effectively imitate a 10-inch bunker.