Bass or Bust! Cape Cod striper fishing with Austen Goldsmith
Not long returned from the Cape Cod area of Massachusetts in the USA, Austen Goldsmith of UK Saltwater Flies reports on another stellar trip chasing the Striped Bass on the eastern seaboard with his clients. Check out the details also of how you could be joining him next year at the end of the report.
by Austen Goldsmith
Two Years ago I was lucky enough to visit Cape Cod. I still remember that first striper perhaps on my third cast. I insisted that my companion took a photo. He laughed and suggested that I waited to hook a better one…
In June 2006 I visited Cape Cod on the Massachusetts coastline for the first time. A strong bond was formed with this place very quickly I have now completed my third June trip and have spent 48 Days on the shoreline. The relationship has deepened as it's a special place that finds its way into your heart. The generous good natured locals, the architecture, the scenery and the sheer marine biomass off the Cape and its ability to provide some of the best fishing you could hope for are addictive and I have fallen for its charms. I have to return, I must return, the Cape has become a home from home.
There's no doubt that the last couple of trips have been relatively easy fishing in comparison with 2008. It soon became apparent that the fishing was going to be tougher than previous years with the spring migration running late according to the locals. Many of the locations scribbled on my map and stored in the GPS from 2006 and 2007 were almost barren of fish. For the first couple of days shoals of menhaden swam past my rod tip, sand eels nestled between currents and all were unhindered by bass or the aggressive attention of bluefish. The fact that we had experienced charter skippers with fast boats booked along with great shore guide lined up for later in the week helped to ease the pressure - at least we had a back up plan! Initially the weather could not have been a great deal worse. These fish don't like change. They will adjust to anything given time, but winds that swing from south westerly to easterly and then back to northerly or the approach of a cold front can shut down the fishing for a couple of days while the fish re-adjust . A couple of mild sunny days can lift both the spirits of your fishing companions and stimulate a change in the behaviour of both predators and prey. Clouds of immature sand eels would soon appear and soon after bass would follow. A swing back to easterly could easily send you back to square one. Despite these circumstances we still managed to land a few, very special fish during week one. Gary was lucky enough to land a 38 inch bass from shore moments after Russ had landed a 30 inch fish. I had a great session sight-casting on a newly discovered beach to a shoal of bass, dimpling the surface with their spines and drifting over a shallow reef. These fish were casually lapping up juvenile sand eels as the tide carried them closer to the shore. This was great fishing, sight casting to a shoal of feeding fish in open water. These are the possibilities that draw me to the Cape every year. The next day the shoal had moved on, the moment had passed and the search would need to continue.
The Boat fishing was proving to be excellent during week one. We had 4 charters lined up and every trip would provide memorable fishing with large fish and happy clients. Never had I experienced such changes in the weather though as on the Friday we battled on in the face of a strong north easterly and lashing rain. The following day we were hit by a heat wave with temperatures topping 95 degrees! The first week was over too soon, a great trip for all involved and never before had I seen so many empty wine bottles next to the recycle bin.
It's a strange feeling to drop off a group of guys that you have built up fishing camaraderie with over the course of a week, shake hands, say farewell and then brush yourself down and pick up the next eager troop half an hour later. The weather was roasting hot and the forecast was for a heat wave. I had little experience of fishing the Cape in these circumstances. Striped bass do not favour warm water and will seek out cooler water to feed. I have been told that their behaviour changes with the higher water temperatures; they will slow down and look at a fly rather than instantly hit it. Over the course of the following week I would say that this theory was compounded by our experiences, more on that one later.
The first couple of days shore fishing were rather slow to start with, perhaps those bass needed a couple more days to re-adjust to the heat wave. Perhaps we had ventured to the wrong beaches. Loyalty had sent me back to a couple of the old 2006 - 2007 spots and as with the previous week the fishing had been pretty slow at these locations. We did however have two days boat fishing arranged for Monday and Tuesday.
I joined the gang afloat on the Tuesday and was lucky enough to join in with what must be the most memorable days fishing in my life. Four of us shared the 24 foot long boat and headed out to sea which was mirror flat and the temperature was already up by 8am. Memories of the events that followed and the number of fish that we landed that day will stay with me forever. I had a video camera and an SLR and had every intention of bagging up on photography. I failed ! When the fishing is as intense as it was that day it was just too hard to put the rod down and pick up the camera. Subsequently I have a handful of photos and some of the worst video footage imaginable. I will try to edit the film sometime as there were a few great shots of both fishing and the Humpback Whales. With four fly rods on the go and constant hook ups you would expect there to be spaghetti of fly lines and tangled up anglers. We did really well ducking under each others rods during multiple hook ups and stepping aside while two cast from the bow and two cast from the stern. It was chaotic and wonderful fishing. The number of fish over 35 inches was a blur. The number of fish over 38 inches was also a blur. Anthony had seven fish around the 38 - 40 inch bracket, his best that day was a wonderful 42 inches. If you're into stripers you will know that's as good as it gets. All these fish were taking sparse DNA Clousers size 2. Once again the Bunker flies and Squid patterns remained redundant
The Humpback Whale
If you boat fish around the top end of Cape Cod then whales become an ever present part of the scenery. I had not forgotten my first sight of feeding whales in 2006. In 2008 the whale experience was one that all of us involved will remember fondly. We had already marvelled at the acrobatics, sheer numbers, size and the sounds of whales all around us. We headed away from the main whale watching arena and began drifting over an offshore reef. As we were fishing and drifting a humpback whale approached our starboard side at forty five degrees. As the whale came closer we gasped - the whale was accompanied by a shoal of bass. All big fish, every one of them. As the whale came within twenty yards, the shoal vanished. The Whale stopped in its tracks right next to the boat and just suspended there right next to us checking us over. We were making eye contact with this creature. The whale was as fascinated by us as we were by he/or she. This was a special moment for all aboard. I felt slightly emotional then and I do as I write about it now. Our skipper had never had quite as close an encounter as this. The whale proceeded to slowly circle the boat for fifteen minutes. It became apparent that we were not going to be able to get back to the fishing with a whale circling us, so we bid the Humpback good bye and gently motored away and set up another drift. As we looked to out to the stern we realised that the whale was following our wake! Once again the creature arrived and began to circle us. We enjoyed a few more moments together and then headed off. This time being sure to put a little distance between us. We did fish for one more hour, by now the fishing had slowed down. It was time to head back to shore, there was nothing more that we could have hoped for from a days fishing and we knew it.
The following day we had arranged to meet with our shore guide for the day. The previous Fridays guided session had been a pretty tame affair. We had managed to pluck out a load of small fish from a short blitz but in fairness to our man the weather conditions that day had been horrific. We embarked on the gin clear flats under the mid day sun and began to spread out in formation and look for signs of fish. Anthony and Richard stayed close to our guide and John and I found ourselves lagging behind. I have to confess that after an hour or so with no signs I was starting to have a few doubts. I turned to Johnny and we both wondered if we were flogging a dead one. Moment's later our guide shouted out a few expletives and pointed out the massive shoal of bass lurking in the slightly deeper water. By now it was slack water these fish were sunbathing and preparing to enter the flats with the turn of the tide. Anthony took the first shot and the largest fish in that pod quickly grabbed his fly. He landed a fine fish. Our search had been rewarded. I'm sure our guide must have been relieved.
Soon after we were all hooked up. As the tide began to flood the flats increasing numbers of bass seemed to emerge from nowhere there were thousands of fish everywhere, with trophy sized specimens in the mix .
The numbers of fish we landed that day were low given the number of fish that we had within constant casting range. I landed eight fish or so with one just below the keeper size of 28 inches. The others in the group had a similar numbers. Johnny had quite a few to 35'. These fish were all feeding on the clouds of young sand eels on the flats. A large shoal of fish would casually swim straight toward you casually grazing . The feeding fish would flash and turn over and show their flanks straight in front of you while ignoring our flies. They were transfixed on a particular size of prey and our size 2 offerings were way too big. You would cast and retrieve a fly. The Pod would follow the fly sometimes to your rod tip before suddenly spotting your legs in the water before dashing off. We would turn around and see a further 500 fish behind you or alongside you. There were thousands of bass selectively feeding and we were standing on the dinner table.
As with week One our time together was over very quickly and it was time for the guys to go home and pick up group 3
I went into week 3 full of optimism. The previous week we had experienced the best the Cape has to offer and the tides were growing stronger as we approached the full moon. We fished the flats over several tides and found the early morning flood tides to be most productive, although we never encountered the volume of fish that we had on the previous week. I would say that the fish we sight-cast too were more aggressive thanks to cooler water entering the flat at dawn. Sight casting with cloud cover or no sun was still possible as the fish were willing to enter very shallow water, at some stages they swam on their sides in the shallows while engulfing dead sand eels as the tide flooded. Based on our previous experiences with fussy fish, I tied a few very small sand eel patterns and tiny Clousers on size 8 Hooks. These resulted in a greater number of hook ups but inevitably more dropped fish. I did however manage to hook and land my best shore based bass to date. In the excitement and jubilation of spotting, hooking and landing this fish I lost or could not place my tape measure. An excited local kindly measured the fish against the taped markings on his rod and proclaimed the fish to be forty inches. I was over the moon. As I released the fish I did wonder as to the size. I had become pretty accurate at guessing sizes and I felt that the fish lay more in the 37 - 38 zone than 40'' with the big fish a extra couple of inches makes a great deal of difference to the general body mass of the fish. Regardless I was over the moon to land this one. I have been dropping the cows from the shore for three years, none more so than during week two when I dropped a very large fish on the flats. They don't bust you they tend to shake the hook. Small hooks and large tough mouths don't mix. You need to learn to hit these fish a few times to set the hook.
The following cast resulted in a 28', the next a 26', the next a 24''! Four quality fish in four casts. John and Doug were having a great time casting at stripers further along the shoreline. John had his first keeper and had a smile to prove the fact. In the meantime Chris and Leanne fished from the boat. They had a pretty tough morning with a couple of keepers to show for the day. That's slow for boat fishing, but that's fishing. Over the course of the week we fished many locations all over the Cape. With the increased water temperatures we opted to try the ocean side of the Cape. We had a few nice fish but the fishing was tough. A nasty mushy weed known as 'Mung' had been pushed up onto the shoreline and caused havoc with our fly lines. We fished the final day with our shore guide and managed a handful of fish. The previous day at this beach had provided great sport with pods of Stripers chasing Menhaden up and down the beach. A pod did hit the beach at one point and everyone hooked up, Doug was lucky enough to hook a nice fish at 32 inches. That hopefully made the journey worthwhile.
Despite the slower fishing this year I would say it was a success with more trophy sized fish landed than previous years. We all had a great time both on and off the water. My knowledge gained from widening the search this year will hopefully prove to be invaluable for many years to come. Our approach to the Stripers changed with far more emphasis on sight fishing in 2008. Fast sinking lines were replaced by intermediates . Large flies by sparse offerings. Being able to stalk 20 lb Fish on the flats and cast too and lead the fish into a visual strike was fascinating.
2008 was a coming of age in terms of technique and knowledge. Our accommodation was great and the food provided by Fran every night was a real treat. The pile of red wine bottles next to the recycle bin stand as a reminder of a great time had by all.
Thanks to all of you I have the pleasure of sharing those memorable days with.
Please contact me if you wish to join in with the next trip scheduled for June 2009.
And now the 'worst video footage ever'!
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