Chasing stripers on the Monomoy flats
Chasing stripers on the Monomoy flats
The rise and fall (and rise?) of chasing stripers on the Monomoy flats
- By: Tom Rosenbauer
- Photography by: David Skok
Return of the
Good Old Days
The rise and fall
chasing stripers on
the Monomoy flats.
by Tom Rosenbauer
Photographs by David Skok
In 1978, a giant storm blew Monomoy Island—just off the elbow at the south end of Cape Cod—IN HALF.
Miles of grass beds were covered with pure white sand from the outer beaches, spoiling one productive habitat but forming another. Striped bass soon habituated to cruising the clear, shallow water in search of warmer temperatures, not to mention crabs and shrimp, and perhaps to escape predators. People knew the fish were there, but catching them by the conventional methods of trolling or throwing big plugs was out of the question. In fact, most boats on Cape Cod—other than the skiffs used by clammers—couldn’t handle the shallow water and treacherous shoals.
In the late 1980s, a few charter captains and common anglers pulled shallow-draft boats, such as Capt. Tony Biski’s Jones Brothers Cape Fisherman, onto these extensive sand bars, and waded even farther onto the flats, chasing the fish with fly rods, which were best suited to the conditions. Then guides like brothers Rich and Bob Benson brought flats boats up from Florida and began poling the flats. Slapping big chartreuse Clouser Minnows at the fish worked at first, but these fish in shallow water got wise, and the best flies proved to be tiny, sparse sand-eel imitations, bonefish shrimp patterns, and crab flies designed for permit. The heyday of Monomoy coincided with the massive recovery of striped bass in the Atlantic, spurred by strict regulations on size and catch. Fishing a tide, it was not uncommon to catch one or two 20-pound stripers in knee-deep water, plus lots of smaller fish.
Monomoy became a circus worthy of Islamorada during tarpon season. Flats boats were everywhere. Getting on the flat you wanted required a lot of strategy, and once you were there it was no guarantee that another boat wouldn’t zoom in and cut you off from your drift. And the fish got tough, really tough. On some days the frustration level approximated permit fishing. You had to lead the fish by a long way with a Clear-Tip line and long leader, and even then they might make one pass at your fly, quiver with fright and bolt off into deeper water. You would still see thousands of fish a day, some of them reaching 30 pounds, all in shallow, crystalline water, over hard, white sand you could wade barefoot.
It seemed too good to last, and it was. The stripers kept getting smarter. Populations began to decline from what they were in the 1990s. And worst of all, Mother Nature gradually closed the break between South Monomoy and the South Beach of Cape Cod until it shut completely, preventing a twice-daily flush of cold ocean water, fish and bait. The fish were still there, but in smaller numbers—and they were still snotty. Flats boats disappeared. In fact, a lot of the guides traded their flats boats for open-water craft because the offshore rips continued to produce striped bass in great numbers and the fishing was—and is—much easier. In June and July you can catch 10- to 20-pound fish all day long on Gurglers in the rips. Outermost Harbor, which took scores of fly fishers out to North Monomoy almost every hour, stopped running its shuttles this past year. The flats have been empty save for a few intrepid kayakers who make the seven-mile paddle from Stage Harbor or Harding’s Beach. This can be a hairy ride when the southwest wind blows over 15 knots and there is an outgoing tide from Stage Harbor, churning the area called Chatham Roads, between Monomoy and the mainland, with six-foot seas. It’s a full-day adventure.
I’ve fished Monomoy since the early days with Tony Biski, and Rich and Bob Benson, and I can’t fish Cape Cod without at least getting a look at the flats, because I remember too many epic days from the past. And the west side, which still gets a flush of offshore water from Nantucket Sound twice a day, is not as stagnant as the inner flats; the fishing there, while not quite the old days, can still be about as good as flats fishing gets. Biski still loves to pull his boat onto the flats on an incoming tide, and this spring, after playing in the angling circus out in the rips, he and our mutual friend Bill Pastore and I hit the perfect incoming tide on our way home.
As soon as we pulled into shallow water we were surrounded by schools of bass, and while they were not stupid, we managed to catch several, including a beautiful 36-incher that Pastore sight-cast to with a tiny, sparse sand eel. At one point about an hour into the incoming tide we were covered up in fish, with squadrons of them pouring over shallow bars to get from the inside of the flats into Nantucket Sound. And we had the whole place to ourselves, with the exception of a single kayak way off in the distance.
If you go by kayak, make sure you go with a buddy and carry GPS and a cell phone, and don’t try it unless you’re an experienced kayaker. Or hire a local guide to take you, like Biski, Dave Steves or Dave Ruddick. In addition, it’s not wise to take your own powered boat to the flats, because the bars are tricky and if the notorious Chatham fog blows in you can run aground or get hung up for a full tide.
To do well at Monomoy you need a bright, clear day with winds under 18 knots and an incoming tide. If you can hit the Monomoy Flats under those conditions, you’ll get a taste of what it was like in the old days. And, maybe with smart regulations and a big storm that blows a new hole in Monomoy, those days will return in force.
Tom Rosenbauer is The Orvis Company’s marketing director. He was Fly Rod & Reel’s Angler of the Year in 2011.
The Power of Observation
A long, long time ago there was a group of us that fished for striped bass six days a week, before or after work. On some days we’d finish work and head right out to fish; if the tides weren’t right we’d go home, catch some sleep and head out again around midnight. This was in the early 1990s, and there were tremendous numbers of small- and medium-size bass to be had. Virtually every day we’d find schools of fish pounding bait on the surface.
In doing so, we hammered easy fish but learned very little about the fishery. That changed a few seasons later, when I started watching more than fish. And that’s when I really started learning about striped bass—the schoolies, the giants and all sizes between. What I learned can help you, too, so pay attention to these observations and you’ll see a new saltwater world open before you, while fishing the Monomoy flats or anywhere else.
Wind and tide
Wind makes a tremendous difference with migratory fish. Offshore wind pushes fish off the beach, far from casting range. A quartering wind pushes them down a beach. An onshore wind brings bass shallow, nearly to your feet. When you’re not catching fish in the usual locations, look elsewhere. For instance, watch for bass running on the edges of salt hay and salt cord grasses on high moon tides, where they will gorge on shrimp. In May and June, during full-moon phases, look for bass in the same salt ponds on the same tides, but expect them to turn from shrimp to cinder worms, which hatch out of the mud at that time.
Pattern fish on the flats
First, study the terrain at low tide and note all structure lines, as bass will follow them as the tide floods. Make notes of the beginnings and endings of bars, grass beds and higher ground; they are the travel paths of baitfish. When the current starts to run, cast shallow first and then move into the current. You’ll pass through non-productive water quickly and soon find the fish. Once you find the fish, check all of your points; if the fish are on the southeast edge of a point bar in two feet of water, look at other southeast edges of point bars in two feet of water. Bass like edges, so find where currents join as well as where they separate. Fish always move into the current, and if the current is consistent then all is well. But on a windy day, the surface current may be stronger than the water current, which means the fish will move to the surface. Fish the top at those times.
Birds tell us what kind of bait is in the water. Herring gulls, wouldn’t you know, favor herring. Terns focus on small bait at or on the surface, and plunge-diving gannets drop from heights of up to 70 feet to swim with their wings and spear herring with their pointy beaks. Shearwaters feed on mackerel and menhaden, while stormy petrels prefer shrimp. When terns hover above the water, like Harriers, you can figure there is a big school of fish under the bait; when those birds are winging high they don’t see bait and are searching for a meal.
During the last week of this year’s fall blitz I walked a shoreline and found nine types of striper bait washed onto the beach. I saw silversides, sand eels, mullet, tinker mackerel, butterfish, anchovies, herring, peanut bunker and snapper blues. Why all in one place at one time? Right now I can’t tell you, but maybe by next year I’ll figure it out. Always, there’s a lot to learn about wind, tides, birds and bait no matter how long you’ve fished stripers. Be observant when you’re on the water and you’ll become a better angler.
Photograph by Andy Anderson
During striper season you won’t see too many hardcores knocking down PBRs in a crowded bar. That’s because the beer makes ’em sloppy, and the trip starts when the sun goes down. Partake and you’ll spend the entire night fighting to keep your eyes open, and that cuts down on the number of fish you’ll catch during a season that runs only May through October. For a striper angler, fishing season is for fishing, which means you can knock ’em back when there are no fish to catch.
If you want to know who is heading out to catch the night tide you’re better off heading to a coffee shop. The fishermen are the ones swilling coffee at 7:00 PM and filling up a Thermos to go. When the dose of caffeine wears off you’ll find them copping Zs on the sand with dune grass blowing in the night breeze. That or actually fishing.
If the tides are right you can ease into the night gently. You’ll watch the big ball drop below the horizon line and light up the sky in a stunning array of orange, hints of scarlet and softer blues and greens.
Now it’s big bass time, and that’s why we’re here. Bass prefer low-light and night conditions, and while you’ll find cows in the rock gardens and in the rips during the day you’ll really find them pushing bait in the salt ponds, along the beach fronts and in the estuaries at night. They’ll be cruising along the bull-nose bars, the point bars and the offshore bars. If you find a parallel offshore bar that connects with shore, don’t tell anyone. When the timing is right, the odds are high that you’ll hook your best fish of the year off of it.
When the bait is in you’ll find the big bass coming up onto the flats on the flood tides and staying until the water begins to drop. You’ll hear pops that sound like a kid cracking a line-drive single with a wooden bat. The bass inhale a column of water and in that column of water is a mummichog, some shrimp or any variety of small baitfish. If they’re on silversides you’ll see the bait spray out of the water when the bass get close. To me, nothing is as exciting as feeling a spot set up perfectly with the tide and the fish moving in, turning a once-barren flat alive with feeding fish.
If you’re fishing up the moon you can see pretty well. On a cloudless night you’ll swear there are streetlights in the middle of the water. When you’re fishing down the moon you’ll need a light. But be careful when you turn it on, and by all means don’t light up the sky with a camera’s flash. Other night fishermen descend on lights like moths to a flame.
Night fishing is tactile. You’ll need to feel your rod load, you’ll need to feel your line swing in the current, and you’ll need to strip-strike the moment you feel any hesitation. If you listen carefully, you’ll understand the night’s sounds. They’re rhythmic, all flowing together, from the wave curls on a sand bar to the night heron’s squawks. Once you sense a pattern, listen for something different. It might be a sudden slap of bass tackling herring, or it could be the smell of fish in the distance, possibly off some other angler’s hands. That is a distinct smell, and it’s just like getting a whiff of your neighbor placing steaks on the grill. It should say to you, “Get over there, fast.” While wading at night you’ll need to shuffle your feet, and if you’re in a mucky area use zip ties on your bootfoot waders. Those zips keep your feet from pulling out of the boot when you try to extract your dogs from the ooze. Sharpen your hooks constantly and replace your leaders when needed. Even if you’re a great caster you’ll get dull points and frayed tippets when your fly and leader tick the sand.
There won’t be a lot of competition at night, but you’ll see fishermen in their usual haunts. The Dunkin’ Donuts at the rotary at 5:00 PM. The 7-Eleven just before closing time. The parking lot over by the jetty. And along the beaches wherever the salt ponds drain into the ocean.
Stripers At Night
From the air, the Monomoy
flats look like the Bahamas—minus turtle grass and mangroves, of course. These flats are just hard white sand and transparent water, often colored only by schools of striped bass.