Bonefishing for Stripers

Bonefishing for Stripers

Angling on the saltwater flats of Long Island Sound

  • By: Ted Williams
You need a change," guide David Blinken shouted over the radio, as my 17-foot Mako bobbed in and out of his view. The 26-mile run from Niantic, Connecticut, to Montauk, New York, can be wild and wet. But this is a rocking chair compared to the rip off the point where one's outboard engine periodically submerges, where terns and gulls scream over bluefish swirls and tunoid geysers, where boiling bass under the mare's tails of breaking combers are so thick your fly won't sink through them if it doesn't carry lead, where the green backs of false albacore cleave the surface, splattering rainbait and moving faster than you thought any fish could swim.So there I was on the morning of August 11, 2003-two casts off the lee shore of Gardiner's Island, useless sea legs planted on the bow of Capt. Blinken's 16.5-foot flats skiff. It was as if he'd suddenly unplugged the electric bull and kicked over the jukebox. There was no sound save the crunch of his push pole against sand and gravel, the creak and rattle of oystercatchers and the swishing of my 8-weight. Schoolie stripers streaked from our hull like Perseid meteors, showing brown against the green-splotched bottom. Whenever they reached a certain density, Blinken would ship his pole and fling out the anchor. But then they'd thin out, because we'd spooked fish we hadn't seen. Photographer Richard Franklin waded toward shore, filling frames with black skimmers, golden beach and us. I threw sparse, brown Clousers on 14-foot leaders tapered to 10-pound fluorocarbon. A hard east wind had kept everyone off these flats for three weeks, so today the fish were less picky than usual and I was able to make mistakes. Still, they were harder than most of the bonefish I had known. If they were moving fast, I had no chance. "That's a spooked fish," Blinken kept saying. It was different when they came at me, into the sun. I liked it best when they moved in formations of three to half a dozen. Then the lead fish would scoot for the fly and suck it in. When you go sightfishing for stripers it's not about size; it's about fooling fish. Unlike bones, stripers didn't evolve to be flats feeders. They're here only because they're opportunists, and if you thought a bonefish was nervous, try a striped bass in three feet of waveless water and full sunlight. Deprived of depth, they always fight better in this environment; sometimes they'll even jump. Everything about the scene called to mind Bahamian bonefish flats-the sand, the sea turtle (a Kemp's ridley) that hunkered flounder-like on the bottom, then sped across the flat; the scampering crabs, the hovering ospreys, the flapping herons, even the thunderheads towering over Orient Point. In the rips and at sea the trick is throwing a tight loop, not stepping on your line and staying in your boat. On the flats though, it's seeing fish, leading them and gently laying down a soft line, often on your backhand. You get a lot fewer hookups, but you appreciate them more. In deep water you want cloud cover, but you'll take sun. Here sun enables your fishing; clouds end it, and today the ghost herd in the sky was snorting fire and coming hard from the west. "We've got 10 minutes of fishing left," announced Blinken. Ten minutes later I looked down to see the best fish of the day a foot off our port beam, picking something off the bottom, flashing like a pond shiner, almost tailing. The only way to keep the line tight was to hold my rod straight up, and the only way to set the hook was to high stick him. Of course, in such situations there is no real decision to be made. Not setting the hook on a fish that has inhaled your fly is one of the unpardonable sins Zorba the Greek forgot to mention. After the sickening snap I couldn't bring myself to look up at the tip section. But seconds later I saw the top half trailing like a loose rein along the striper's withers as he spun my reel handle and quartered toward Montauk. For an instant the line kicked up spray like it does with bonefish. Only 24 hours earlier a Reel-Time Website post had informed me that we were in "the summer doldrums." With the sun gone for good, we went looking for supper, checking out flocks of lackadaisical terns until Blinken hollered, "There! Those are the right kind of birds," then gunned the engine. Richard Franklin, who fishes with the same passion and precision with which he takes photographs, didn't need any encouragement to help us in our quest. Without bothering to tie on shock tippets we drifted into the raucous terns (which included the season's first black tern), and stripped fast. Bluefish slashed at our flies and spit up sand eels when we hooked them. And if we'd lose one, another would grab the fly before we could finish the retrieve. They provided perspective, contrast and a fine ending. Back at his house in East Hampton, Blinken provided another fine ending, serving us single-malt scotch and bluefish fillets sautéed in olive oil pre-simmered with minced garlic, then topped with onions, cilantro and lime juice. They reminded me yet again how good blues can be when you bleed them and don't let them sit around. But then, of course, reality set in and it was back to work. I hauled out my laptop, poured myself another scotch, and started writing: "Dear Sage Broken Rod Department: This time it wasn't my fault. It was the striper's fault…" If you would like to fish with Capt. David Blinken, phone him from May to November at: 631-324-2860. Or during the rest of the year at: 212-517-3474. Ted Williams is FR&R's Conservation editor.