“Ok, finals end at 10:30 and our game doesn’t start until 6; that leaves us the whole day free.”
My buddy Landon’s “close enough” math strategy treated him a little kinder just then than it did minutes before during our math final, but he was right; we had some time to kill and the only reasonable solution was to go fishing.
Back at my house, we loaded our packs with flies and snacks and hopped on bikes for the 10-minute ride down to the flats. The weather had been terrible all morning; the constant downpour mixed with high winds and even thunder may have struck fear in the hearts of our fellow test-takers, but by the time we were cruising down the road with our fly rods in hand it looked like it could clear up.
After catching a few quick schoolies along the way, we finally made it to our spot. We ditched our bikes in a bush and started the trek down the marsh. There was about a 100-yard stretch of marsh that we had to trudge through before we reached the fishy areas. The tide was dead low when we got to the first hole high up in the estuary. These flats, outside and especially inside the estuary, fish best on the flooding tide, so I figured we could mess around in the deeper holes where fish hold constantly while we wait for the tide to switch. Almost right as we started fishing, Lando and I doubled up on some small schoolies in the first hole. Finding fish at slack tide is always a good sign that there will be some action when the tide changes, so we were pumped to see these guys. It felt good to bend the rods, but as we released those two fish the sun started to peek through, and the hopes for good sight fishing flooded our minds.
We made our way down the estuary to an area I had been having success recently. It was a long, straight, shallow sand flat with a slightly deeper channel running sling the marsh grass on the other bank. Unlike the first pool, this spot didn’t really have any structure that attracted fish to hold in; it was basically just a highway for cruising fish. Our game plan was to wait for some bass to cruise through the channel and then plop our crab fly down in front to let it drift down where the bass was cruising. The current had just started to switch and almost on cue a bass appeared on the flat making its way up the channel. The fish was moving quickly from the way we came from so I hustled to the sandy bank where I could jog up out of the water to get in front of the bass. As I hustled in front of the fish I got a better look at it. The sun still wasn’t giving us great visibility but it sure was enough to see this fish in a couple of feet of water. I could tell it was a solid bass, and my heart started pumping as I waded out onto the flat again to get my cast in front of the fish.
My cast sat down right on the bank about 6 feet up current of the cruising bass; perfect. The fish was moving fast so my crab was in its sights almost immediately. A lot of people retell stories and say “everything happened in slow motion”, but that was not the case with this fish. In what felt like an impossibly short amount of time, the bass ate, I set, and my little crab ripped straight out of the fish’s mouth! A faint, “Noooooooo” escaped from Lando, and my heart dropped. I gave my fly two hard strips in hopes that the bass would turn on its will to kill even though it just got picked, and to my surprise, the bass turned on a dime and hawked my little tan crab down. Without hesitation, the bass inhaled my fly and I ripped my second hookset of the past 5 seconds, but this time the hook stayed home and I was tight. Landon and I each started jumping up and down yelling and high-fiving each other as I came tight (which is a stupid thing to do while fighting any fish)! At this exact moment, I saw this fish and realized I wasn’t playing with some solid schoolie. This guy had some serious shoulders and was a true flats beast.
The bass took off up-current with the force of a truck, instantly clearing my line uncharacteristically smoothly. My 8wt was doubled over as this fish slowly and steadily ripped drag off my reel. The thing about fishing a fish in an estuary like this is there isn’t too much space for a fish to run. They can run up or down the estuary, but other than that it is a clinic in the short game. This particular fish was too big to get straight into the short game, so Landon and I took off chasing it down the flat toward the ocean. In my head I’m praying, “please don’t get to the ocean, please don’t get to the ocean” because I know how difficult this fish would be if it got out to some open water.
Apart from a few strong runs, we were able to stay relatively close to the bass, and it soon became a delicate game of tug of war. I had to forcefully coax this king of the flat to swim on over to Landon’s welcoming hands, without pulling the tiny size 4 crab out of its mouth. It would be heartbreaking to break off this fish and watch it swim away in the same shallow, clear water I first spotted it in. It took some convincing, but in what actually felt like slow motion, the fish came close and Landon grasped the leader. This is where it could all go wrong, our striped buddy was not cooperating and would not open its mouth to let Landon lip it. After a few seconds (or hours) of struggle, Lando reached down, grabbed the tail with one hand and the stomach with the other, and scooped up our catch in the most dramatic, and fitting way possible!
In my eyes, there is nothing better than sight fishing Striped Bass on the flats. The hunt is like none other, and the feeling you get when you watch a wild fish come to slurp down your ball of fur and feathers is truly the best. This experience is only heightened with good friends and a fish like this. To date, this was my biggest flats Striper (which I’m obviously already trying to beat), and I could not have been more excited! Days like this go to show that you never really know what might swim around the corner, and if you put in the time at a spot, it is bound to pay off.