A few years ago, we scribbled a piece about writing your own book on fly fishing for snakeheads in District waters. The gist was that the specie was an exciting new opportunity to pioneer a fishery and that it was up to all of us an angling community to figure out how to consistently catch these ornery critters on fly.
Well…the book is still out on that one.
Snakeheads are an entirely right time, right place quarry on fly gear. Right tides, water clarity, and water temp/time of year dictate how these mofos roll. Your window in and around the District to sight fish for these fish is relatively small. Blind casting is just dumb… May is rumored to be the best month. But I digress…
When writing that snakehead article, I never thought I’d tussle with large, migratory striped bass in the urban portions of Nation’s River on a fly rod. I considered it a myth - something that would require a lot of time to figure out and something I wouldn’t want to pass up for shad fishing every spring.
But after a few seasons crushing on Chad (shad) - I found myself pursuing a stronger pull.
From 2012-2014, I aggressively pursued striped bass in wadeable waters within the District. The usual haunts of the Tidal Basin, Gravelly Point, Four Mile Run, and Rock Creek Park fishing for schoolies in the 6-14” range the norm. But some nights we’d catch bigger fish. Real fish in the 20-25” range. A couple buddies claimed to catch 30” fish on the right night and the right tide…and from there the bar for “big ass fish” was set at 30”… the holy grail for a fly fisherman seeking stripes in the District.
A fish you’d generally have to fly somewhere else for…but they were here all along.
We all knew the fish were there. The upper reaches of the mighty Tidal Potomac in the spring are a logical place to find striped bass with its current, hard bottom, and generous structure. But the techniques required to catch them are…well… not what you’d think compared to most folks’ experiences in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast…so here are our striper tips for in and around The District. These techniques are more suited towards folks fishing out of boats but can be applied to shore or wade fishing as well.
It’s important to get your fly down and stay in the strike zone. Whether from shore or anchored up, casting directly upstream with a sinking line is pretty much your only bet to get down. That said, if you get down too deep - you’re going to run through a small fortune of big flies, fluorocarbon leader, and patience. Swung flies can definitely get bit but tend to get snagged often and or only briefly in the zone they need to be in to be chewed…. That’s why we prefer to keep the fly in the water and the boat moving versus anchoring up when targeting stripers on fly gear.
Drifting allows you to cover the holes on the current seams where big fish lie while keeping your fly in the zone. By in the zone, we mean near or close to the bottom....in order to achieve this, we typically cast at an angle upstream and when the fly comes even with the boat, start the drift of the boat and the retrieve. By allowing the fly line to sync up with the boat, you can successfully achieve the correct depth without worrying about that dreaded snaggy swing. In these occasions, the litmus test or visual queue is that we use is that the line is straight (no swing or drag) when you begin retrieving. You must be in contact with the fly in order to work it properly and avoid losing everything you own.
Be smart though - if you’re not fishing the right depths and areas - you’re not going to be on the fish you’re looking for. Once you have the pattern down or find a productive spot - only then do we recommend anchoring up and fan casting.
Similar to shad fishing - it’s important to not ignore the details when you catch your first fish of the day. Depth and speed of retrieve are your two most important factors whenever playing with sinking lines. When stripers are sulking - they’re just chilling on the bottom. You could bounce a live herring on their nose and they might sneeze at it, but they probably won’t eat it.
Suspended fish are usually the ones chasing bait and actively feeding. As is the key to any fishery - finding actively feeding fish will always be the key to successful fly tactics. If you can stay in the school - you’ll be having a legitimate pajama party with fish in the 18-27” class all day…or at least until the tide turns…
Stripers are pack hunters. They are apex predators in this river and all forage fishes fear them. Their only rival is the blue catfish but…we’re taking care of that (#catfishgraveyard)…Striped bass expect things they eat to try and avoid them. Or at least look like they’re trembling in their little fish booties. Quick erratic retrieves are the key here. Short, quick strips with a pause here and there will usually get them snapping.
I have a good friend who’s the most badass guide on the Chesapeake Bay named Tyler (check out tidewatercharters.com…). Tyler is very good at catching exceptionally large, spawning class striped bass. He’s also sick at catching large, spawning class trees (a real trophy fishery)….While his knowledge of the Bay and respect for the fishery separates him from the rest of the fleet, Tyler is not afraid to throw truly gargantuan shit during the spring. We’re talking 16” articulated thingamabobbers and other things that fit in that “things that go bump in the night” description. But it works. Spawning fish are gorging up on big baits - you’re average Herring is about 10-12”- so while a 7” fly will put you in the ball game…think musky size fare to get the big girls’ attention.
When schoolie class fish are around later in the season (15-28” fish) - it’s important to not stray too far from your shad roots. We’ve found that a double streamer rig works equally well for stripers. That short, choppy shad retrieve a killer. But when you rig up, make sure you’re seeing double when those flies get wet. Whether it’s a double Clouser or two baitfish patterns, rigging your flies up so that they swim in tandem about a foot and a half from each other will ignite a predatory response in a fish that’s easily excitable. Hell - you may even catch a double…which happened to us in May…26” and 24” respectively. Rowdy on the LevelX 7wt (smiling)…
But yeah - throw two flies if you’re feeling frisky.
The Potomac is rarely the same river for extended periods of time in the Spring. Seasonal rain, the inevitable rise in water temp from good weather, and a musical-chairs-like influx of spawning species acting as the culprits for seemingly daily change. For most folks fishing on the weekends in the spring and early summer - the river will drastically change over those fateful five days between shots. One week it’s 4ft flows, 55 degree water, and no baitfish to compete with. The next week it’s 3.5ft flows, 65 degree water, and a literal metric-ass-ton of herring. But as noted in the #Suspended section above - your choice of fly line will make a big difference.
You’ve got to be in the zone to get bit. The rule of thumb we go by is pretty simple - find the gauge height in feet and multiply by 100. That will roughly give you the right estimate for the sinking line you should be fishing. For example, when the river is flowing around 3ft (low and clear) - you can get away with a 250-300 grain sinking line or intermediate line with a sink tip. In the low flows, you’ll be able to get down to where the fish are feeding in that 10-20” range. Whenever the river is above 4ft on the gauge - you’ll want to be throwing a 400 grain line or heavier to get down. As always, a shorter leader in the 3-5’ range with your sinking line will keep your flies in the zone. When the water is murky we’ll throw 20lb test, when it’s low and clear - scale back to 12-15lb test.
Catching striped bass in The District does not happen overnight…unless you’re fishing for 6-12” fish which are essentially fingerlings and readily available at pretty much any tidal outflow…you’ve got to grind to get the goods. It changes every damn day.
We’re grateful and really lucky to have gotten to routinely pick the brains of the folks who pioneered this fishery on light tackle. They’ve been a tremendous help to us in understanding the river and why fish tend to hang out where they do, when they do.
Over the past two seasons we’ve gotten more comfortable calling certain shots based on river conditions but ultimately - you’ve got to grind for your opportunity on any given day out there. This past season was a great example of having the right mentality…and patience.
We absolutely smoked fish until Easter with over a couple dozen fish coming to hand in that weekend alone. After Easter - the bite slowed down substantially - going from 4 fish in a weekend to 2 fish in a weekend to 1 fish to the dreaded skunk. Whether it was water clarity, an influx of bait, or the fish more focused on procreation - there was a noticeable downturn in the striper bite.
As the flows lowered due to our dry April, more bait flooded the river and the water became even clearer. It was during this time that…well…we tried every trick in the book to no avail. More often than not - we came away catfished…which is a fun pull but not really what you dream about when you close your eyes at night (unless you’re having nightmares).
It wasn’t until the river conditions changed that the fish started snapping again…and they snapped hard. Before the river blew out in early May- we boated 25 fish in one morning all on fly. Which leads us too our next point…
Stripers are a well-known low-light predator. They love darkness, overcast days, sunrises/sunsets…and if you didn’t know - they absolutely despise cinnamon. It’s just the way they’re wired.
In early spring, this means lots of dark, cold mornings and in the summer, waking up even earlier to catch that window. Same goes for the evening. Once the shadows start coming on the water - you're back in the game. But as a rule of thumb, once the sun gets up high on the water (think 10am) in the morning- it’s usually game over and time to fish for other species or hit the barn. That said - the tide or a cloudy day can be a huge factor here and extend your bite. See below for more on that….
Stripers are also well-known structure prowlers. They use pretty much anything they can to give themselves an advantage when it comes to chowing down. For us on the Potomac that means bridge pilings, channel edges, bottom structure and humps, and places with rowdy depth change. Look for bad places to be a baitfish and you’re in the game.
Which brings us to our next point…tides.
When you combine the above two factors with the right tide - you’re setting yourself up for an encounter with the pajama man. Outgoing tides from tidal creeks during low-light hours will always offer up good opportunities to get into better fish. The same can be said for the incoming tide - but if you’re wading…your time is limited. Please don’t drown because “a stupid blog article told you to”.
Stripers, combined with their affinity for structure, use the current breaks on the tide swing to their advantage to snap on forage HARD. It is probably the biggest, single factor you can account for when targeting this specie on our river or any tidal fishery. Similar to when the sun gets on the water - the bite will often shut down the minute the tide goes slack. Think of it as a cease-fire between striped fish and their quarry…and you want to be on the water when the bullets are blazing.
Well, that’s all we have for now.
Until next time - keep rising up, pursuing the pull, and enjoying some good, clean livin’.
Remick Smothers is a native son of the District of Columbia and the founder of FlyTimesDC.