For many folks, striped bass conjure up images of fishing the surf, tossing long casts off the terminal end of a jetty or cutting through chop on a boat to chase birds out into the swell. Days spent wading or poling the flats, on the other hand, are commonly associated with bonefish, redfish, tarpon and permit, just to name a few. And while stripers in skinny water certainly aren't a secret, there are plenty of folks who have yet to make the acquaintance of the striped bass on the flats.
Count me on that list. Well, that is, until last week. On my second consecutive annual trip to the preposterously fishy waters that surround Martha's Vineyard -- and after failing to find stripers on the flats on my own last year -- I enlisted perhaps the island's best known fly fishing guide, Jaime Boyle, to help with this year's chase. Jaime and another go-to Vineyard guide, Tom Rapone -- who both run flats skiffs in addition to more traditional center console fishing boats -- are the two guides on the island who spend the most time chasing stripers on the flats. And it's easy to see why. As any experienced fly angler knows, taking the blind factor out of the equation ups the adrenaline. Sight fishing is simply more fun.
After winds kept the fly rods and boats off the water for the first few days of my trip, sunny skies and calmer winds allowed for a chance to hit the flats mid-week. "Calmer" isn't terribly instructive, as the 15-20 mph winds that clung on all day (and lingered throughout the week) rendered my already shaky double haul considerably more so. Murky conditions on some of the flats Jaime sought out complicated things further. Days of hard blowing winds and hard hitting surf had churned up the fine sediment that falls into the waters surrounding many of Martha's Vineyard's shores thanks to the clay-ridden cliffs of the island's southern shores.
Still, despite the conditions, Jaime put us on fish. My handicaps caused us to miss more than we took, but before long stripers were coming to the boat. The shots come fast. Stripers cruise the flats and blend in well. "Bass can be harder to spot on the flats than bonefish", Jaime informs me. And I don't doubt it. Jaime has spotted and watched ten fish pass before I spot my first. Even by the time an experienced eye spots them, there's usually only time for one shot. False cast a few too many times, or fail to pick up the fish your guide has spotted quickly enough to target it, and you'll likely miss your shot. Sometimes the shots are long, 60 to 80 feet or more. Sometimes, however, they're in close. Real close. As in 20 or even 10 feet. And when I tell you that the 70 foot shots are easier than the 10 foot shots, even for a mediocre caster like myself, well, you'll just have to take my word for it.
When you do put the fly where it needs to be, however -- a task which gets progressively easier once your casting stroke and your eyes get trained -- the bass are aggressive. A spotted fly is usually chased, and often eaten. And once hooked up, the bass don't disappoint. Sure, they're not bluefish, but once on the line even the short bass seemed to fight harder than their counterparts in the surf or in deeper water.
The whole gig is one not to be missed. The flats that you find yourself chasing stripers on are beautiful, and are completely reminiscent of bonefish and redfish flats more than 1000 miles south of northeastern waters. Training your eyes and your arm to hit your spots when chances come is challenging, but incredibly rewarding when everything goes right. If you're like me, your best casts will come when tossing practice strokes in between spotted fish and your worst will come when you've got an easy 30-40 foot shot at a big bass. Still, the hookups will come, and when they do -- it's a hell of a lot of fun.