If you had to pick a single fish species to label “America’s Fish” I think you would be hard-pressed to find a better candidate than the striped bass. Geographically, these fish can be found on both coasts (although they’re introduced in the Pacific), deep in inland lakes and tailwater systems, and in just about every major large river watershed in the country. Hell, there are even stripers in Texas. Wherever they swim, these fish have disciples, anglers who obsess over tracking their movement, preferred bait, and attitudes. But stripers don’t require that level of obsession to fool or even pursue. If you do a quick Google Search you’re likely to find that you’re closer to feeling the familiar thump and run of a bass taking a fly than you think – and all it takes to get in on the action is a fly rod, a clouser minnow and a few hours after work.
To take our understanding of these fish to the next level, we joined Sage Ambassador Capt. Zak Robinson on one of his favorite “guide’s-day-off” activities, chasing striped bass on foot along the Maine coast. During our adventure, we clamored over huge glacial rocks, dipped our wading boots in sand and mud flats, sipped a few choice beverages, and even fooled a bass or two to cap it all off.
This article is meant to do two things, tell you why you should add chasing stripers on the fly to your hitlist, and give you a great jumping-off point to chase these incredible fish in your own backyard.
Why Fish for Striped Bass
For Capt. Zak, striped bass offers an easy-to-access fishery where he can grab his Sage SALT R8 10WT, some fishing pals, a handful of flies, and be on the water in no time. In the water, everything is calm, there’s no stress from the day lingering, just the promise of an incoming tide and pushing fish. It’s a chance to take time for himself, something that’s hard to prioritize in the frenetic five-month season where he’s balancing guiding, family, and running his own contracting business.
Zak got into guiding at first to get friends on fish and to explore the vast flats of Maine’s Great Bay from the poling platform on his skiff. Since then, his goals on the water have shifted from focusing on catching big fish to showing folks the importance of these fish to Maine’s marine ecosystems and bringing anglers an opportunity to relax and immerse themselves in a new world and mindset.
Zak’s season (like many guides in the Northeast) is a quick burn taking full advantage of the bass on the move through Zak’s home water, Maine’s Great Bay. During this window, Zak is running to and fro between guiding and work, it’s during this time that finding time for himself in his own backyard is most rewarding.
There’s a beautiful contradiction in striper fishing where anglers can find inner peace while fishing through the harsh conditions the Maine Coast can throw at you during the summer. The intimate action of fishing off the rocks, the adrenaline rush of hooking fish in the midst of pounding surf, and the fight of these powerful fish all make for a truly unforgettable experience. And contrary to what you might think, it’s a way to find calm in the chaos. No matter how rough the conditions, Zak always comes back from a fishing outing with a smile on his face, and weight off of his shoulders. Something that everyone should aim to accomplish no matter where they’re throwing a line.
Where to Find Striped Bass
To have success fly fishing for striped bass in Maine, it’s important to know where to find them. One key is to find the bait, as the striped bass will typically follow the food. Rocky coastlines, jetties, inlets and river mouths, and mud or sand flats are all good spots to look for these fish and we pretty much ran the gamut with Zak, to get a full taste of what fishing each zone would be like.
Find the Bait, Find the Fish
This is the first phase of any search for striped bass. As predatory fish, stripers base a large portion of their movement decisions on the availability of food. As you’re exploring, don’t just look for the fish you’re chasing, look to the water to show you what’s around whether it’s crabs, shrimp, or baitfish. Wherever you find the highest concentration of these, you’ll likely find hungry fish pursuing them wherever the tide will allow.
Rocky Shores & Jetties
Rocky coastlines can be particularly productive, as they offer plenty of structure for the bass to hold and feed. Jetties are also great spots to look at, as they offer a break in the current and can attract large schools of baitfish. Here, bass often hold tight against the rocks where they can push bait into the wash and feed aggressively. This makes for some exciting fishing, as you’ll need to cast your fly accurately and quickly strip to entice a strike.
While we were game planning our day with Capt. Zak, he called out the importance of inlets and river mouths to striped bass feeding strategies. These structures create a bottleneck of sorts, where water only has one way in and one way out. The bass takes advantage of this on either end of the tide, taking up ambush positions to easily feed on bait getting washed through the bottleneck with the tide.
When you’re approaching these zones, think of reading the water as you would for trout. Find the easiest places for a fish to hold where they’ll have to spend the least amount of energy while maximizing the availability of protein. This is where you’ll likely find feeding fish eager to slurp up any fly that twitches past.
These zones are where Capt. Zak thrives. Flats fishing for striped bass is a relatively new strategy that’s come to light in the past decade or so. This isn’t to say that folks haven’t been targeting stripers in shallow water, they have for at least the last century, but what’s taken this strategy to the next level has been the availability of well-designed skiffs that can get skinny. With the influx of these boats and anglers observing fish behavior on them from above, new tactics arose that apply to fishing on foot and from a boat.
On the flats, bass are taking advantage of the skinny water to evade predators like seals and sharks, while getting uninterrupted access to the rich bait factory of warm shallow water. When you’re fishing here, look for pinch points in the muddy channels that form the arteries of the tide, bass will ride these puppies as long as they can before peeling off to forage for snacks. It’s not uncommon to find bass patrolling these flats like a bonefish might, tailing on crabs and darting after baitfish as they spook from the holes in the substrate.
Coastal Striped Bass Gear Essentials
When it comes to gear for coastal striped bass fishing, there are a few key items that you’ll need to have.
First and foremost, you’ll need good wading gear to stay safe and comfortable while fishing on foot. This includes a stripping basket to manage your line, an inflatable PFD for safety, studded boots for traction, a wading belt to keep water out, and waders to stay dry.
Rod & Reel
In terms of rods and reels, Zak is using a Sage SALT R8 rod in an 8-10WT is an excellent choice, as it offers plenty of power and accuracy for casting into the wind and bringing in big fish quickly. A Sage ENFORCER reel is a perfect pairing, as it offers a smooth drag, great stopping power, and plenty of line capacity for fish eager on reaching the horizon or the deepest water they can find.
Line & Leader
In terms of fly lines, we like to keep things simple in the saltwater. For a typical day chasing bass from shore, an intermediate line will be the best all-around line for fooling these fish. Of course, if you’re fishing deep drop-offs, you may want to consider a sinking line to get your flies into the zone, but for the most part, you can easily get away with intermediate to come tight to fish.
Leader and Tippet
If you hate squinting at 6x tippet while trying to tie on a #16 dry fly in the dark, you’ll find the terminal tackle required for bass a little easier on the eyes. Generally Capt. Zak recommends starting with a 20 lb fluorocarbon leader and then some tippet ranging from 10 lb-20 lb depending on water clarity and how the fish respond to casts. The heavier leader helps turn over bulky or heavy flies and the light tippet gets them in front of a fish without spooking it away from its feeding zone.
Striped Bass Flies
Luckily for anglers everywhere, stripers aren’t the most picky fish in the sea. Generally, they’ll take advantage of any available meal that they find. For our time on the water in Maine, clousers, crab & shrimp flies and deceivers were all on the menu depending on what we observed going on under the water. If you’re looking for more insight into striped bass flies and collections of our favorites, click here.
When to Fish for Striped Bass – Tides, Season, Time-of-Day
Timing is everything when it comes to fly fishing for striped bass along the Maine coast. One important consideration is the tide, as moving water can often be your friend. Striped bass will often be more active and feeding during tidal changes, so it’s a good idea to plan your fishing around these times. What’s nice about this factor is the convenience of picking your fishing window and just enjoying a few hours out on the water when fishing is prime. “Fish smarter, not harder” is a mantra where the striped bass is concerned.
In terms of season, the best time to target striped bass in Maine is from May through September. During this time, water temperatures are warmer and the fish are more active, making them more likely to take a fly. Finally, the time of day is less important than the tide, as long as you’re safe and the tide is moving, you’ll likely find fish.
Just get out there. Bass is a simple fish and doesn’t require much to be a fulfilling species to pursue on the fly. You can chase them in a whole host of strategies, and we highly recommend you try them all to find which brings you the most success, and the most relaxation. For some, that may be found in the rhythmic casting found while swinging current seams, or for others it can be found slowly walking across the flats, stalking fish in silence as they tail on a flat. It’s in these moments that the angler becomes a part of the natural world flowing past their waders, when a sense of calm washes over you, only to be broken by the thump and run of a striper ripping line out of your stripping basket.
Fly fishing for striped bass along the coast of Maine is an exciting and rewarding experience that any angler can enjoy. By understanding where to find striped bass, what gear to use, and when to fish, you can increase your chances of success and have a great time on the water. With a Sage SALT R8 in hand, you’ll be well-equipped to handle the challenges of coastal striped bass fishing.
Big thank you to Sage and Captain Zak Robinson for having us along for this shore fishing adventure, we’ll be back up on the coast chasing “America’s Fish” as soon as we can!