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There is a whole group of striped bass feeding behavior that has nothing to do with baitfish at all and it is an important part of their normal day in and day out feeding pattern.
Striper fishing in the Northeast and New England is very complex. The days of one fly, one line, one rod and one approach to fit all situations if you cast far enough are rapidly coming to an end. Salt-water fly fishermen are no longer satisfied with techniques that are not suited to the actual behavior of the fish. As fly fishermen move along in their journey and pass from the early stages of developing some familiarity with the equipment and casting, they often discover that the fish, especially big fish, will not respond to the techniques they have been taught - the way that they have been told to expect. For years now the same type of limited beginner techniques that are helpful for catching aggressive fish have been promoted to the exclusion of acknowledging the complex behavior of stripers in relation to their prey. Fly fishermen are beginning to want more real information that will help them understand and be better informed about how bass actually do relate to their environment, and they want to know more real facts about all the prey animals that the bass feed on.
There is a whole group of striped bass feeding behavior that has nothing to do with baitfish at all and it is an important part of their normal day in and day out feeding pattern. When there is a "hatch," or "bloom," of small animals such as worms or scuds or any of the thousands of small crustaceans that swarm near the surface at certain times to mate, the bass and other fish such as sea robins, skates, dogfish, tautog (blackfish), bluefish, false albacore, weakfish, and many others will rise and feed on them for hours. This is normal and not at all unusual behavior. When it is occurring, the fish are very difficult to catch using standard methods and flies.
The heavy-handed approach of casting and stripping is totally ineffective and frustrating. There can be many reasons for this and they are all operational until you discover which one is the key. How does a bass pick out one little critter to eat out of all the millions that are present? I do not know -nor does anyone else but even so they are feeding on these little animals, and they are eating them to the exclusion of everything else and this behavior happens quite often.
There are two completely different observations that have to be made if you want to have success and they have to be made separately until you become familiar with both of them. The first is the feeding routine or the behavior of the fish in relation to the food and the second is the type of animal present and its behavior in relation to its surroundings. When bass are feeding on these swarms of small animals they often are easy to approach and seem to have no fear or caution. They are easy to observe and if you resist the urge to cast and cast and cast again every time a fish swims by your rod tip, you will begin to see a pattern to their behavior. Seeing the pattern is very important because it will tell you what they are doing in relation to the bait in order to feed. It is not always apparent at first glance, and sometimes it will never be recognized, but over time it will give you clues and, if you follow them, you may discern the pattern. For instance: If the fish are moving from right to left and then circling back, that is a pattern. If they always turn at the same or close to the same place, then that is a pattern. If they are moving in circles and then going down, time it and be ready when the fish re-appear. If the fish are moving over the bottom and wandering back and forth in a random manner, then see if there is a structural depth change that is affecting where they move by limiting it to only the water that is perhaps ten feet or less. Are the fish only feeding on the bait that is in current, or are they moving through still water picking it up as they swim? There are many ways to watch how the fish are feeding and moving in relation to the bait, many more than I have mentioned, and all and any are important for forming a presentation strategy that may work.
Second observation: the bait. Capturing a specimen is the best action that you can make. It is the singular most important piece of the puzzle. It eliminates almost all misinformation and speculative experimentation with flies. That does not mean that putting on the right fly will catch fish for you, but it won't hurt. It is a good place to start. What you are going to find out is that stripers feed heavily on very tiny animals. Some of them are less than 1/4 inch long, and what they lack in size, they make up for in density of numbers. There are thousands of pounds of these creatures in a small amount of space, and that is why they are preyed upon by the bass. It is easy for them to fill their stomachs without a lot of effort. They are grazing, not chasing, and they do it often. Some types of these little animals suspend in the water and do not swim around at all. They rise up to the surface and are carried along by the current and, because of the density of their numbers, they find partners to mate with right next door and so do not swim around to any large degree. When the bass are feeding in one of these swarms, they move slowly and keep their mouths slightly open and swim through like a self-propelled vacuum cleaner, very relaxed and peaceful. They are not easy to catch.
I have some information that may be helpful to those who have an interest in finding out more about all these little animals that stripers are feeding on that are erroneously being called krill. There are thousands of these small crustaceans and worms, etc, and they are all important from time to time if the stripers are feeding on them at the moment. This behavior is not new, and it has been going on in the ocean for as long as there have been little creatures and fish. For some reason, some people want to disregard this phenomenon as being unimportant and not worth finding out about. This approach is self defeating and, when faced with bass that are intent on this type of feeding, which does happen quite often and in every type of environment from flats to offshore rips, they do not have a strategy that will be consistently effective. There are no easy answers to this "hatch" fishing. There are answers, however, and they will be discovered and revealed to us by those who want to find out what they are.
Most of the information, which follows, is taken from The Peterson's Field Guide to the Atlantic Seashore # 24, by Kenneth L. Gosner (©1978, Houghton Mifflin Co; ISBN 0-618-00209-X). This listing is not complete nor is it meant to be. It is an overview of what may be found and is present in our waters. I will give the names of some, but not all, and their sizes. All of these abundant crustaceans are found along our shores, and many of them are very important from time to time to stripers.
|Slender Isopods||Several species up to 1"|
found in our waters
|Greedy Isopods||Several species up to 1"||Pg. 221|
|Gribbles||Up to 3/16"||Pg. 221|
|Sea Pill Bug||3/8" long||Pg. 222|
|Idotea Isopods||Three species up to 1" long||Pg. 222|
|Little Shore Isopod||Small, to 1/8" long||Pg. 224|
|Sea Roach||To 1 1/4"||Pg. 224|
|Big eyed Amphipods||To 3/4"||Pg. 226|
|Plantonic Amphipod||To 1/2"||Pg. 226|
|Beach Fleas||To 1 3/16"||Pg. 226|
|Scuds||To 1 1/4"||Pg. 227|
|Four Eyed Amphipods||To 5/8"||Pg. 227|
|Seed Amphipods||To 1/4"||Pg. 227|
|Digger Amphipods||To 3/4"||Pg. 229|
"These are the most numerous marine crustaceans - both in number of individual animals and in number of species: 300 to 400 occur in our area". Most are quite small, 1/16" or less. There is a good description of them in the Peterson Field Guide.
This is a glance at what the bass are feeding on. I do not know all of the important species but there are a lot of them hidden under these groupings. I see them often and especially at night, although they are very numerous in the daytime also. I have caught many large bass over the years that have been stuffed like sausages with these tiny creatures. Most of these fish have been caught at night on bars, both hard-bottomed and sand-bottomed, that these creatures call home most of the year. Many other surf fishermen that I know have had the same type of experience. Bass do feed on lots of things that we are just beginning to find out about, and some of this feeding is quite important to the bass, and it does give us clues to why the bass are sometimes so difficult to catch.
Fishing for stripers during the clam worm hatch is a lot of fun because we have an understanding of what is occurring. To catch fish that are focused on a certain species is not a waste of time or effort. In fact, it is quite satisfying to many fly fishermen and fits in with the traditions of fishing with the fly rod that many of us learned in fresh water. Salt-water fly fishing is not all that different, once it becomes apparent that much of what is going on in the ocean is quite similar to what happens in fresh. The emphasis that has been placed on learning about equipment and casting, rather than on learning about the habits of the fish, has hindered, rather than broadened, the growth of our sport. There is room for much more experimentation with new methods and more suitable tackle based on a clearer understanding of what is actually important to be aware of when striper fishing. Perhaps the growing awareness of these small animals that the stripers feed on, and the change in tactics that will be required to catch them with regularity, will change and open the eyes of many fly fishermen, both salt and fresh, to the richness of fly fishing opportunity that the ocean contains.© 2001