Back here in Europe, few people are familiar with Jack Gartside, but in the United States he is a legend in the fly-fishing circles, and even more so on the East Coast! Jack was a great fly-fisherman, who would spend more than 200 days a year on the water. His favorite fishing area was Boston Harbor (Massachusetts) where he would chase stripers, bluefish, and false albacore. He has been very influent in the fly-tying world, with innovative patterns (I am thinking especially about the BeastMaster and the Gurgler), and revolutionary materials (Gartside’s Secret Stuff, a hair-like synthetic material with incredible movement, also known as GSS). He has also written five books, of which four are about fly-tying (notably “Fly Patterns for the Adventurous Tyer”) and one about fishing strategies (“Striper Strategies Secrets of a Striper Bum”).
Unfortunately Jack Gartside passed away in December 2009 after a long fight against cancer. He entered the Fly Fishing Hall of Fame in 2010. Many people miss him dearly; however his legacy has not disappeared. Thank you Jack for all of your inputs and contributions to the fly-fishing world!
I had heard about striper fishing in New England for a long time, and was willing to try it, but had kept this project asleep for a while. Too long though, and when I heard about Jack’s departure, it kicked me and I decided to pay his home water a visit! In May of last year, I was able to combine a family trip to Boston with some saltwater fishing. Having fished quite a bit for sea-run brown trout on the Danish coastline, I was eager to try this new fishery, which seemed similar. I found out that it was indeed comparable, in some ways, but with the added challenges of big tides, large fish and hot action!
The striped bass fishing season in the Massachusetts area starts in early May, plus minus two weeks, depending on the water temperature. This is the time when the larger stripers (30 inches and above) come back from their winter stay in the Chesapeake Bay (Maryland and Virginia states), the largest estuary in the United States, where water is at a convenient temperature for them. After spending the summer on the New England coastline, they migrate back south in the fall (October-November). This means that during winter season there is virtually no significant striper fishing in the northeast United States.
In order to prepare my trip, I dug deep into Jack Gartside’s web site where I found so much useful information, both about flies to use, and how to fish them. I strongly urge you to have a look at his web site! I tied many large streamers after Jack’s recipes, and prepared my gear carefully according to his advice: an 8-weight and a 10-weight rod, equipped with corresponding reel and intermediate fly lines (I recommend Airflo’s Ridge Striper, which is smooth as silk and casts like a breeze), waders and stripping basket.
I was ready to cross the Big Pond and give New England’s stripers a hard time! I defined two distinctive spots where I wanted to concentrate my fishing: on the island of Martha’s Vineyard, and in Boston Harbor. Martha’s Vineyard, south of Cape Cod, is famous for its Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby, which takes place every year over five weeks in September-October. Hundreds of fishermen take part in this competition; fly anglers and traditional anglers alike. It is a great event during which the island is bustling with people from all over! You bet the beaches are crowded, not with sun addicts nor beachcombers, but avid fishermen!
The Yard, as the locals call the island, is traditionally a Democrat island. Recently Barack Obama and his family spent a few days on holiday in this marvelous place. The island south east of Martha’s Vineyard, called Nantucket, is on the other side Republican. Funny how things are split up in this country…
Together with my fishing pal Didier, we decided to make a two-day trip to Martha’s Vineyard, in order to see that stunning place, and try to make contact with its famous striped bass (and maybe bluefish). It took us about two hours’ drive from Boston down to Wood’s Hole, where the ferry sails to the island. The boat trip was awesome; we left the thick fog in Wood’s Hole a few hundred meters off the harbor, and saw the sun for the first time that day! We landed in Vineyard Haven, on the north side of the island. The Yard is a beautiful place, no wonder why it attracts so many tourists during the summer. Fortunately we were in May, and were not harassed by hordes of vacationers.
After a good night’s sleep at the Edgartown Inn, we met our guide and captain Jaime Boyle, a local fisherman with plenty of experience on the island. He came in his pickup truck pulling his flats boat on a trailer. The plan was to fish the saltwater ponds around the Yard. This is where the stripers like to move in during the early weeks of May, in search of spawning alewives and silversides.
We started off fishing Sengekontaket Pond, just north of Edgartown, on the east side of the island. Beautiful pond, with luxurious houses on its shore, perfectly mowed lawns, and even a golf course. Beware of flying balls!
Jaime poled us along the shores of the pond in search of pods of striped bass. He worked hard, but the stripers seemed to have vanished from the place. Didier and I took turns on the casting platform, without much success. I did manage to hook and land one striper that took my olive BeastMaster, size 1/0. A large fish in my book: 27 inches and roughly 6 pounds. But Jaime did not seem impressed, and in fact the legal length for keeping stripers in Massachusetts is 28 inches!
After countless casting and no cooperative fish, Jaime decided to move on. We pulled the skiff back on its trailer, and drove across the island from east to west! Really convenient and flexible to have that trailer system! We then put the boat back in Menemsha Pond, and started to fish again. Here we spotted many more fish, but unfortunately they were not turned on at all. They followed our flies lazily, without biting. Jaime was quite puzzled at that weird behavior, really unusual for early season fish that are supposed to be hungry after a tough winter out at sea. Anyways, the day ended with one sole fish landed, many fish spotted, lots of beautiful sceneries seen from the skiff, and a promise to come back one time, during peak season!
Should you be interested to travel to Martha’s Vineyard, I would recommend you contact Jaime Boyle for at least one day of guided fishing on his skiff. Being a newcomer in striper fishing, I found Jaime’s experience and advice invaluable. I urge you to visit Jaime Boyle’s web site for more information.
My second encounter with striped bass happened in Boston Harbor. A few years back, nobody could have dreamt of fishing in Boston Harbor, because it was heavily polluted. Today however, thanks to Boston’s new sewerage system, the Harbor’s water is very clean, despite its proximity to the large city. As you may understand, Boston Harbor stands at a sharp contrast to Martha’s Vineyard’s nature and landscape. At first I was not pleased with the idea of fishing so close to an urban area, but Jack had convinced me through his tales that it was a great place to try. So I contacted a local guide, David Skok, in order to shorten the learning curve. David has an extensive knowledge of the Harbor, which he used to fish extensively with his friend Jack Gartside during the last 10 years of his career.
David and I met at lunchtime, for an afternoon of guided fishing. David chose carefully the timing of our trip: it was during the water’s rise from low to high tide. I learned two important things during my New England visit: tides here are strong, and fishing in this type of saltwater is anything but fishing in stillwater.
It was pretty amazing to fish in such an urban surrounding. The first place David chose was a narrow tidal creek named Belle Isle Creek (which divides East Boston from Winthrop). When I saw the river, crossed by a busy road, I thought, where is he bringing me? But the water moved in a steady flow and the place looked fishy. I covered the place methodically, but found no fish, so we moved on to the next spot.
David stressed the importance of the retrieve for stripers. He told me to take long strips of 50-60 cm, and leave a distinctive pause in between. Usually the fish takes the fly during the pause, he said. So the best way to implement such a technique is to stick the rod under the armpit, and have both hands available for the retrieve. Also, I was equipped with a stripping basket, an item I usually try to avoid because of its clumsiness. However, in New England it is a required fishing tool when wading, as handling so much sinking running line in strong currents without one is really a hassle.
Later, David put me out on a small peninsula, right in front of Logan, Boston’s International Airport. Impressive to cast below those big flying aluminum creatures! Apparently not bothered by so much human activity, stripers like to hang around that place in search of anadromous river herring and sea herring. After a few casts, a fish hit my 20 cm long herring imitation just on the edge to deep water. Its splashing tail indicated a larger than normal bass, and David came out to me quickly with his camera in hand. The fight was hard but short; I was in constant fear that the line would get cut on the rocky edge, as the fish was digging deep. Fortunately the battle ended on my advantage, and we could land the beast with a firm grip in its bucket-sized mouth. What a fantastic catch for a start: 37 inches, weight estimated at 17-18 pounds! David photographed the fish, before we let it go back to foraging the coastline. My trip was more than a success; I had been lucky to land one of the bigger girls (all the big stripers are females)!
We then tried to chase down those famous “blitzes”, the events when large flocks of seagulls dive for fry, pushed up from the bottom by feeding stripers and/or bluefish. Unfortunately it seemed that everywhere we found a blitz, we had arrived at the end of the show. At the end of the day, we settled on a final spot, a large tidal saltwater river called the Pine River. Yes, it is called a river, but it doesn’t have any freshwater source, its flow is incurred by the ocean’s tide. During the remaining 3 hours of fishing I landed 5 more fish, all between 26 and 32 inches. Fantastic action, in moving saltwater! Who said urban fishing can’t be fun?
It was now time for packing, the tide was high and there was no more action to be expected. David drove me straight to the airport; my flight back to Europe was scheduled in the evening. I changed from waders and fishing jacket to regular clothing on the airport’s parking lot, and jumped into the check-in line! That was a quick transition and an effective use of time! Later, when the plane lifted from the airstrip, I could see just where I had been fishing a few hours before… amazing!
Next time I go to Boston, I will try to time it in September. It is said that the stripers fall migration back to their winter quarters in the south draws more and bigger fish, especially during the first full moon of September. As an added bonus, the nature in New England becomes a color orgy in the fall, with all the maple leaves turning yellow, orange, and red! I can’t wait to go back!
If you plan a fishing trip in the greater Boston area, I would warmly recommend David Skok’s services. David is a creative fly tier, great photographer, and efficient guide, probably the most knowledgeable in the area since the departure of Jack Gartside.