American Fly Fishing

By Pete Barrett

Southern New Jersey’s pristine coastal marshes are an amazing contrast to the densely populated suburbia of its northern counties and nearby Philadelphia and New York City. Looking west from Sea Isle City, over the lush green backcountry marshes, it’s hard to imagine you’re in the same state, and it’s delightful to know there are more shorebirds and striped bass than people.
   Captain Joe Hughes of Jersey Cape Guide Service fly fishes these waters from mid-April through Columbus Day. “This is a unique saltwater fly-fishing experience, definitely out of the mainstream,” he says. “It’s secluded and quiet, no crowds, no other boats to contend with—just the chance to catch striped bass.”
   Sea Isle City is bordered on the north and south by Corson Inlet and Townsends Inlet, respectively, and the backcountry marshes are interwoven like a spider web with creeks, bays and coves, and deep-water channels and thoroughfares. Ludlam Bay is the largest, split right down the middle by the Intracoastal Waterway. Good striped bass fly fishing is found from Beesleys Point to Great Sound. To anyone not familiar with New Jersey’s coastal marshes, the vision of thousands of acres of untouched wilderness is shocking.
   Hughes fishes Florida-style, poling the marsh sedges, searching for striped bass on a high tide to get far back into the grassy flats where there’s a well-stocked pantry of bay anchovies, grass shrimp, killies, and spearing. “This isn’t sight-fishing, although you sometimes see bait dimpling or an occasional feeding bass. Most times you’re blind-casting, hunting and waiting for an explosive strike,” he says.
   Making a surface commotion to draw strikes is part of the game plan. Hughes is partial to the Crease Fly, which he ties in bright colors such as chartreuse; to get more noise from the fly he exaggerates the mouth so it holds more air. By varying the retrieve tempo and the length of the strip, he can play any tune—pops, splashes, and gurgles. For added visual and sound appeal, he adds large doll eyes to the flies. “Other patterns work,” he notes “but this is shallow water and the surface patterns are best.”
   A 7- or 8-weight rod gets the nod as the most versatile fly tackle because you’ll be making a lot of casts in your search for strikes. According to Hughes, distance is critical: the farther you can cast, the greater the odds are in your favor.
   “Anyone who can repeatedly throw 60-foot casts will do OK, but if they can push out to 80 feet, they’ll definitely get more strikes,” he says. “Some bass will strike close to the boat, but others will follow the fly for a long distance and strike the fly just as the caster is ready to lift it for the next cast. It’s important to work the fly through the entire retrieve and make it look happy and alive at all times.”
   Everyone who fishes the Sea Isle City backcountry marvels at the bomb-burst strikes. After you’ve made many casts and concentrated on breathing life into the fly, the unexpected jolt and the explosion of water provide an adrenalin rush more powerful than a cup of
strong java.


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