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My first memories of fishing in saltwater are at Hampton Beach, over the bridge from Seabrook.  My father would drive my brother and me over the bridge and drop us off while he went to the local store to buy the Barrons’ weekly paper.  Ah, the days of dropping kids off at the bridge!  My brother and I would drop our sinking line to catch whatever we could on worms, and we almost always got flounder.  I remember wanting to keep the Pet Flounder alive for a few hours … this was before my catch-and-release addiction.

Fast forward a few decades, and I am coming out of the best ever striper on a fly season that I have ever had.  I discovered how to catch stripers an hour from my home.  Many thanks go out to a local guide who gave me confidence to hunt and find the spots.

Stripers are migratory fish; they travel up into New England waters chasing bait.  In early spring, (mid-May) you can start fishing for them, straight through to, well, when you no longer want to get out.  Striped bass derived its name from the early scientific name given; Roccus Saxatilis.  They are also called Atlantic striped bass, Stripers, Linesiders, Pimpfish, Old Pajamas, Green Heads and Rockfish. Stripers are anadromous fish, meaning they migrate from saltwater to spawn in fresh water and can live in both environments: oceans, rivers, creeks and estuaries!

photo courtesy of - Cynthia Harkness

Pardon the dust, getting a striper to hand is not easy on your own!

They are found primarily along the Atlantic coast of North America, feeling right at home on the rocky shoreline around the Boston Harbor and Cape Cod.  When you fish them, plan on engaging in the study of bait, or “baitology,” that makes striper fishing fun.  I enjoy it the most from March until it gets way too cold.  Not sure when that will be this year since layering has become my newest fashion expression.

The striper fishing I prefer to do is a result of my not being so good with motion; I stay on shore, not in a boat, unless there is a tournament … then I Dramamine-up and get off shore. Fishing from shore this summer really got me close to this passion. There is something special about standing in front of the ocean looking out into the vastness, and casting your Clouser, Deceiver, Half/half, Kinky Muddler, Todd’s Wiggle Minnow, Flexo - or a whole bunch of other flies that are trying to imitate the natural bait.  Decide where to cast, make the cast, and enjoy the amazing scene!

The early morning drive into the sunrise, on a weekday morning when I have someone else sharing the car pool for the kids, is magical. I think the no-traffic part of the drive is really special. I ‘wade-up’ in a local parking lot that is well lit, then with the sun coming up, I visit my bay, ocean, creek, or harbor and get excited to hear the slapping of early morning stripers.

Stripers will crash through any type of water to get their morning breakfast, afternoon snack , or evening dinner. Deciding what to put on the end of your line is based on what you see or think you see as bait. Then you look at the tides, the moon, the structure, the blogs, the super secret text messages, and all other sorts of commando style info that gives you the hope of hitting a stripset.  I told my sister, it’s my version of hitting it big on a slot machine whenever I think of ‘the keeper,’ but the average size of 20-inch schoolies that I commonly catch are wonderful.

They hit hard on a streamer stripping in, regardless of where you are on the strip.  I was scared of the gear at first, thinking that I wouldn’t be able to handle a 9wt rod after many years of trout fishing with 3, 4, and 5 weights. What a relief to see that not only can I handle the 9 wt, but the presentation is not so delicately challenging, to say the least. The wind, finding the bait and fighting the fish are the challenges.

Nothing requires flip-focals; big eyes on big flies do the trick. Forget 5x and think more of 4 feet of 20 lb., or heavier, line. Mastering the ‘no slip mono loop knot’ now will help to give your heavier flies, (like the big dumbbell-eyed clousers) more bait-like movement in the water.

photo courtesy of - Cynthia Harkness

I caught a Hickory shad on the fly while fishing for stripers early in the season and was quickly told that it’s striper bait.  Several moments passed and then, Wam!  I heard and saw the stripers feeding on the surface. Casting into them is a bit of a havoc moment, but, to my huge delight, I was able to strip set and bring in a striper.  Also, delightfully, one striper in particular had a bunch of sea lice crawling on her. That was the sign that I needed to see, to know it was a “fresh” fish; a migratory fish arriving fresh from the open Atlantic Ocean.  Check out the photo of both the Hickory shad and then the “fresh” striper.

A stripping basket is a must.  It keeps the line off your feet and holds it ready for a knot-free cast regardless of the wind and waves.  Plus, it doubles as a rod holder, walking up the beach.  I also like stripping guards, which are protective finger coverings from the salt. It makes the day pain free, unless you forget your sunscreen. I also invested in a hip bag or fanny pack that is made out of wader material with a waterproof zipper. It’s got a great smooth profile, and carries just the essentials: small box of flies, water bottle, stainless steel nippers, car keys, phone, long forceps, spool of 30-lb fluro, and a salt glove for that pesky blue fish.

This last October, on my birthday week, I gave myself the personal challenge to catch a fish every day for a week. My local ponds and rivers were freshly stocked with trout so I found great personal success. Then on the 12th, I decided to go for broke, and went striper fishing. I could hardly sleep the night before thinking about whether or not my week would end with striper success. I packed up lunch, grabbed some extra granola bars and off I went.

photo courtesy of - Cynthia Harkness

The must have flies!

photo courtesy of - Cynthia Harkness

YES! I did it, the Autumn stripers and I were hanging out playing in the bay, and all was right in the world. And then it happened.  My 909 rod hit a big striper, the biggest I had had all season long.  I stripped in what line I could, letting some out, stripping some in, for what seemed like an eternity. I was alone in the bay.  Nobody could see my total fear and excitement about what was at the end of the line. The backbone of my rod was just breaking, I wished I had done more curls, and then I made the decision to let it go. My left hand dropped the stripping line, and poof, just as fast as the hit, the shake off came. I saw the ripply shadow swim away. My decision to let it go, was just as special as my decision to fish for it. Sometimes you just have to let it go, and marvel in the moment of where you are. A perfect birthday gift.

Being a female striper angler has its challenges.  Mostly good ones.  I fish in the sunrise, not the sunset so the nighttime willies aren’t there.  I have been asked to take pictures with tourists when they see me with the stripping basket and rod which was really weird at first!  The fishing guys who see me are just eager to talk about the bait, the weather, the parking.  I have learned that you get what you give, and with that has come a boatload of really positive experiences and friendships.

I’ve hosted a number of ‘women only’ striper classes for novices. We met at 5 AM in the early summer;  strung up our rods, checked our gear, put together our flies and hit the beach.  Ok, some of us caught flounder, some got seaweed, a few schoolies and tons of fun.  Nobody was scared of the gear, and my girl gang came back joined me for some late morning coffee, with a feisty conversation about mothers-in-law.

I am off for early morning striper fishing on the shore down at the Cape.  I used to wonder what to do when the Fall was making leaves change, the kids had a ride to school, dinner was all set and I had the day off.  Now I know!

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