The Striped Bass is one of the most versatile saltwater fish species. You can catch stripers along rocky shorelines, down deep, in chaotic blitzes, marshes, rivers, salt ponds, and my all-time favorite, sand flats!
All around the world, shallow sand flats are highly productive ecosystems. Crabs, shrimp, and many small baitfish feast upon the algae and marine invertebrates that take advantage of the shallow, sun-baked water. Some sportfish, notably Bonefish, Permit, Tarpon, etc., have learned to take the risk of journeying into the shallow, unprotected water for the boundless food supply. Most anglers in the northeast have ignored the bare sand flats, due to the lack of structure that striped bass are known to love. This lack of interest and knowledge gives fly anglers a perfect opportunity to slide in and do what our sport allows us to do best, fool finicky fish in shallow water. Here are our tips and tricks to help you fly fish the Striped Bass flats.
When fishing the Bass flats, I recommend a 7,8, or 9wt rod, with either an intermediate or floating fly line. You can get away with a 7wt for schoolies (below 28”). Shots at 30”+ Stripers on the flats are fairly common, so an 8 or 9wt is the better tool. In all saltwater fly fishing, it is important to have a good large arbor reel with strong drag and plenty of backing, Stripers don’t mess around! I use an intermediate line for almost all of my striped bass fishing, so I would recommend those first, but you will always be running pretty close to the bottom of the flat and will hang up more than if you used a floating line. Long leaders are also necessary while flats fishing because the fish are so spooky. I’m not talking Colorado tailwater long, but a ten-foot leader down to 16-20lb fluoro gets the job done.
The most important piece of gear for fishing any flat is polarized sunglasses. The majority of fishing you will be doing while on the flats is sight fishing. Striped Bass are pretty great at blending into the sandy bottom, so without polarized glasses, they can be nearly impossible to spot. The last two pieces of gear I would recommend are a waterproof backpack and some kind of water shoe. I saved these last two for the end because they aren’t necessities, but they are very useful. Since you will be wading all day, your only hope to keep your gear dry and salt-free is a waterproof bag. Although they can be quite expensive, they work amazingly well. I would be apprehensive about taking some select items, mainly my camera, on the flats without my waterproof pack. As far as footwear goes, I normally go barefoot, but more often than not I come home with a few battle wounds. If the bass are feeding on crabs, then crabs are around and if crabs are around, you are bound to step on a few. So, consider yourself warned.
The main food sources on flats are crabs, shrimp, and small baitfish. When imitating crabs and shrimp, look to bonefish and permit flies. If you carry a few EP spawning shrimp in gray and tan and a few classic Merkin crabs, you will be covered on that front. Just remember, crab and shrimp flies are not efficient in covering water, so I only use them when I know I can routinely spot and stalk the Stripers or can drift the fly over a deep trough adjacent to the flat. The most predominant forage for flat-ridden Stripers are sand eels. These long, slender baitfish dart in and out of the sand and drive Stripers crazy. Classic Striper flies like Surf Candies, Clouser minnows, and Flatwings do a great job of mimicking sand eels. Look for those flies to be about 3-5 inches long and tied in either tan and white or olive and white. I know it can be hard to remember, but Striped Bass populations are in trouble, so do your best to bend down your barbs and keep the fish in the water as much as possible.
Every flat is different, so each one has its own set of characteristics that you need to learn to be routinely successful. A lot of Striper flats are near the mouths of estuaries, which are loaded with bait. On an outgoing tide, all of that bait gets flushed out of the estuary on to and around the flat, and you best believe the fish are there waiting. Also, at the beginning of an incoming tide, as the water starts to push up on to the previously dry flat, the stripers are not far behind, staging in the deeper water outside the flat, waiting for there to be enough water to begin feeding. Either way, make sure you know what the tide is doing and don’t be too daring with your wading, because the last thing you want is to be stranded out on a sandbar. As for fly presentation, the best advice I can give is to watch how the crabs, shrimp, or sand eels move. Crabs and shrimp don’t move very fast, so keep your strips short and controlled. When fishing baitfish flies, change up your retrieve speeds until you find something that works. I always start with a medium-fast retrieve and work down from that. When you are wading the flats, you need to be stealthy. The fish aren’t comfortable in the shallow water, so walk and cast gently. According to a friend of mine, flats Bass can at times be as hard to fool as Permit (which he’s caught), so don’t get discouraged, you didn’t get into fly fishing to catch every fish, it’s the challenge that keeps us going!
So, with all of that said, feel free to reach out if you have any questions and get out on the water!