There’s nothing like the signs of spring in New York City to get my excitement up. For the last five months of winter, the hard, cold concrete of the City has been intertwined with a grey sky, and the shrugging masses drenched in overcoats dominate the streets. It’s not a Rocky Mountain cold – there is hardly any snow and some months are sprinkled with surprise warmer days. However the nights remain cold and keep the fish, whatever and wherever they might be, down and away from human contact.
Not even basketball is a suitable cure to the madness between tying flies for both a summer in Montana and a short spring run of striped bass. The Knicks have let me down season after season since I was a young kid in the 90s glory days. I’m too old to skate more than once a week. Everything seems pointless and slow.
With the only warning being the end of spring training baseball, consistent warmer days string together and life suddenly takes form and you begin to think with a purpose. Noreast is updated with daily reports, the harbor temps start to rise. You pick a decent day and ride the train just far enough outside the hustle and bustle of the city and begin to prospect. Bang! Fish on. The air is warmer but the water is still cold.
The tidal waterways in and around New York City stretching from the Battery to the western mouth of the Long Island Sound comprise a diverse and plentiful fishery for the salt water angler. It is home to various species of fish including flounder, false albacore (in the fall), and aggressive bluefish. However the most sought after species is of course the striped bass. Native to the North East coast, “Stripers” are bull dogs of a game fish and have been commonly caught upwards of 50lbs. Often over looked behind more popular species of salt water game fish like bonefish and tarpon, striped bass are beautiful and hard fighting in their own right. Chrome silvers mixed with purplish and olive hues all blend behind a foreground of pronounced black bars.
The striped bass population is comprised of larger migratory adults as well as resident “schoolies.” The schoolies are what their name implies – smaller fish (ranging from 4″ to 28″) that cruise their naive inter coastal homes through the winter and until they reach the size needed to migrate with their older relatives in the open ocean. Even a modestly sized striper, especially in the cold spring water can feel like your fly has been hit by a subway car on the express track.
Going out and finding stripers in the spring requires a lot of searching. They move around following the first bait that arrives. That, combined with warming waters and moving tides, is a great start. Striped bass are ambush predators just like freshwater bass. Structure and deeper waters close by are always a good bet. However, sometimes they will chase and trap bait in the shallowest coves. A good early season bet is to keep your eyes peeled for areas with muddy bottoms as they tend to warm faster than sandy bottom areas that could be productive in the summer and fall. Tides, tides, tides!!! Visually learn how the incoming, slack, and outgoing tides affect a specific spot you are targeting to fish. Observe the structure exposed during low tide so you know how to fish it and walk around in it during the incoming, slack, and outgoing tides. Blind casting only works if you know a spot has already produced fish. Look for signs like nervous water caused by rushing baitfish, diving birds, actual top water slashes and eats.
Tying flies for striped bass is as simple and fun as fly tying can be. The flies are big and bright and typically don’t require many steps. Early in the season you don’t really need to match the bait hatch, these fish are hungry and will readily take a 1/0 fly that you can easily throw with an 8 weight rod. Clouser Minnows and Lefty’s Deceivers tied in Chartreuse over white are the most common flies you’ll use on foot.
As the water temps rise to the mid 50s, more areas of water become fishable. Jamaica Bay, for example, is a massive salt water estuary located on the southern coasts of Brooklyn and Queens…Yes you heard me right Brooklyn and Queens! Jamaica Bay is best fished from a boat and many famous North Eastern guides have made their living on skiffs and small boats for over twenty years. Imagine standing on the bow of a boat minutes from central New York City strip setting a fly on a huge striper beneath jets making their final approach to John F. Kennedy Airport. The guided fly fishing in Jamaica Bay could rival your most fun trip to Andros or any other saltwater destination. When you’re out on the boat, a 10 weight rod and 350 grain sink tip can be vital to getting the hefty 10” – 12” flies into the fray of a bait blitz. Make sure to have a floating line handy as well to throw big gaudy gurglers for some exciting top water action!
The prime time to fish New York City’s tidal waters is between April and June and then again in September through November. The waters tend to warm up and fish become less active during mid-summer. The fall fun of striped bass is when the biggest fish tend to be caught as they start their migration back south along the Atlantic Coast. In September you have a shot at some exhilarating fishing when false albacore run close to the shores like little bullets. Not very large, a small football “Albie” will spool your 9 weight very quickly. Soon thereafter, the winter creeps back in as quickly as it left, leaving behind fisherman with itches that a fly tying vice can only scratch for so long before cabin fever sets in.
Never in my life have I experienced such a diverse fishery as the greater New York City area. From the fabled Catskill trout streams where classic dry fly patterns were developed to chuck and ducking massive Hollow Fleyes to a thrashing and turbid bunker blitz. Only in New York can you can wake up amongst towering skyscrapers, fight the aggressive striped bass in beautiful flats, and be walking through Gate 6 of Yankee Stadium by 7:05 to catch the Bronx Bombers don their own pinstripes.