American Fly Fishing

Flats Fishing in the Far North
By King Montgomery

Our guide leans a bit forward as he stops poling the shallow-draft flats boat—yes, the same kind of craft you see in the Florida Keys, the Bahamas, Mexico, and Belize—and points the long pole a little to port.
   “Fish at 10 o’clock,” he says in a low voice. just loud enough to be heard over the freshening breeze, “about 40 feet.”
   Fly-angling legend Lefty Kreh and I are in Casco Bay in the Atlantic Ocean just off Yarmouth, Maine, and the quarry is not bonefish, tarpon, or permit, but striped bass. Yarmouth is above Portland and below Freeport, and our guide, Eric Wallace, often launches here in summer when the stripers are in the shallow flats where angler can sight-fish to them.
   The Pine Tree State has about 3,500 miles of shoreline influenced by the tides. The southern part of the state has the majority of the beaches, farther up the coast the shores become rocky, and all along the way rock ledges create boating hazards and prime fish habitat. The coast of Maine doesn’t run on a north–south axis, but rather traces an east–northeast route. Hence, the phrase “Down East” refers to sailing on the prevailing winds easterly along the coastline. 
   Casco Bay is an inlet of the Gulf of Maine, roughly bounded on the east by Cape Small and in the west at Two Lights State Park in Cape Elizabeth. Portland, the largest city in Maine, sits on the southeastern limit of the bay. Portuguese explorer Estêvão Gomes mapped these waters in 1525 and named the island-pocked bay Bahia de Cascos, meaning “Bay of Helmets,” although other scholars contend the name comes from an Abenaki Indian name for the bay, Aucocisco, which means either “place of herons” or “muddy place.” All three of these meanings seem
to fit.
   The “helmets” on the bay refer to what now are called the Calendar Islands, once believed to as numerous as the days of the year, but later shown to be around 200, depending on what is defined as an island. The islands are the peaks of three old parallel mountain ranges whose flanks and valleys were carved by mile-thick glaciers more than 13 millennia ago. The varied surface and subsurface terrain affords a good mix of habitat for a number of game fish, including striped bass, to hang out in at various stages of the prodigious tides that fluctuate from about 7 to 13 feet in a cycle.
   Casco Bay offers deep water, channels of varying depths, rocky points, ledges and cliffs, and over 18,000 acres of saltwater flats with muddy, vegetated, or rocky bottoms, and in some places all at the same time. The flats draw fish of all stripes, from the smaller baitfish to stripers, from spring through fall. Find the food and find the fish; it’s a food-chain thing, and the fertile flats are a case study in how the smaller get eaten by the larger.


Fish Factory
There are dozens of species of fish in Casco Bay, and many of them—particularly striped bass, bluefish, mackerel, several shark species, and smaller bluefin tuna locally called “footballs”—are routinely targeted by fly anglers using 8- to 10-weight rods from as early as April to sometime into October and perhaps beyond. As Maine waters continue to noticeably warm, the fish arrive earlier and stay later. Once the northern limit of the striped bass seasonal migration, Maine has seen the water temperature delineation move farther northward each year, and stripers are moving with that rise in heat. 
   The stripers move out of Chesapeake Bay and surrounding areas in the spring and head up along the Eastern seaboard as the waters warm and stimulate other marine life forms, from the lowest creatures to the great shoals of baitfish, to become more active, greatly accelerating the eat-and-be-eaten chain of life. By April, some of Casco Bay’s flats warm before other places nearby, and that’s where the bass gravitate early. By late spring and early summer, the flats teem with biomass, coming and going with the large tidal movements, and one of the top predators is the striper.
   Much of the fecundity of Casco Bay and its striper fishery derives from its freshwater inflow: it is fed by the Kennebec, Androscoggin, Presumpscot, and other, lesser rivers, providing a fertile mix of nutrients and fresher water that allows marine life to prosper.


On the Flats
I can see why the Abenaki said that Casco Bay was muddy back in their day: it still is. As I gaze out from the Yarmouth Town Landing as the day dawns, all I can see is a slender ribbon of water snaking through a vast expanse of glistening mud, drained of liquid by the tides that reach over 10 feet in a cycle. The channel of the Royal River here will soon fill as the flood tide begins. I snap a few photos into the rising sun while Captain Wallace and Captain Mike Roy launch the comfortable skiff.
   It’s an August morning and we’re wearing fleece jackets—it is Maine, after all. The cool is exaggerated as we follow the channel to beyond the river’s mouth and more open water, beyond the no-wake zones. The colors of the early daylight play across the bay, and the tones change every several minutes. The sweet light at dawn is truly part of nature’s art exhibit. The tide has turned, and water rushes in with noticeable force and soon covers the exposed mud and rock fields. And with the flood, hopefully, the striped bass legions will advance to attack the baitfish and crustaceans that love the moving waters. On the flats, the fish will be in fly-rod range.
   Wallace has been an angling guide from coast to coast during his decades taking folks fishing. He’s guided for steelhead, trout, and tropical saltwater-flats fishes such as bonefish, tarpon, permit, and snook. For the past decade or so, he has been splitting his year between fishing for striped bass in Casco Bay in the warmer months and searching for bonefish and friends in the Florida Keys. Not a bad life when you can get it.
   Roy works with Wallace on the bay and has fished these waters for some time and knows them well. He’s learning more at the foot of the master, Wallace, and is a knowledgeable fly and light-tackle fisherman and guide. He’s also enjoyable company in a boat. He lives in nearby Freeport, just up US Highway 1 from Yarmouth, and trailers his boat to the best spots for sports to score on fish. 
   Generally, fish of the seas, and certainly those that seek inshore haunts, prefer moving water generated by the tides. The best times to hook these critters are during the first several hours of an incoming tide and last hours of the outgoing. At other times, it’s best to seek fish in and around solid structure such as rocks, jetties, points with deep water nearby, and current rips where water is channelized by a number of natural features.
   The two guides pole their boats, eyes searching for signs of fish. Sometimes the bass are obvious, breaking the surface as they feed or moving in such skinny water that the tops of their dorsal fins and their tails are above the surface, like a silvery shark on the prowl. But more often, the fish are subtle: a shadow here or a flicker of light there, or the presence of nervous water as they move gently farther down in the deeper flats. These guys see these things; they are good at what they do.


Gear Up
One of my habits when I take my own gear fishing (sometimes I use the guide’s equipment) is never to take just one rod. I usually have a 9- and a 10-weight rod rigged for action for striped bass. One has a baitfish pattern tied on, usually a Clouser Deep Minnow in chartreuse/white, blue/white, or green/white. The other carries a green crab fly that represents an Asian green crab, a species that likes shallow water, preferably with marine grasses around. This destructive invasive species has been moving northward with the warming waters for years and now is firmly established along the Maine coast into Casco Bay.
   I’ve seen the crabs in nickel to half-dollar sizes and larger. They can be imitated by some of the standard permit patterns, but the best one I’ve used is tied by James Brown at Eldredge Bros. Fly Shop in Cape Neddick, and it’s called the Crab Pot Fly. One encouraging note on these invasive creatures: a bunch of them apparently died off last winter, when it got wicked cold up here and parts of the bay froze over. So they came up on warming waters, but hopefully they can’t tolerate the nastier winters and will go away or at least be somewhat controlled.
   The reels are spooled with weight-forward intermediate or floating saltwater specialty lines. Intermediate lines are often easier to cast in the nasty winds that can kick up on the Atlantic Coast at any time. Keep the lines and leaders clean while fishing. I find a washcloth held tightly around the line while reeling in gets pretty dirty after an hour or so of fishing. Clean and dress the line after each use in salt water and these expensive, critical pieces of tackle will last for years. 
   There is no need to get fancy with leaders. Seven- to 9-foot knotless leaders tapering to 12-, 15-, 17-, or 20-pound test tippets, depending on where and for what you’re fishing, are ideal. If you’re casting around or into very rocky structure, going to 25-pound test is not a bad idea. I prefer a monofilament loop knot on my striper flies because it allows flies to work more realistically during the retrieve through the water column or when bounced along the bottom. Keep some wire handy in case bluefish are around. I prefer the kind you can tie to a piece of straight or tapered monofilament leader with normal knots, and I use TyGer Leader.
   In Maine, expect the air to be cold out on the water early and late in the day, and when running the boat to the next good spot, and maybe at other or all times too. A medium- to heavyweight fleece jacket with a hood, with a waterproof jacket over it, plus a pair of wool or neoprene fishing gloves, covers most situations, but it’s best also to be prepared for more extreme weather. And wear a face shield for sun protection and a little warmth too.
   Because the tidal change along the Maine coast is so drastic, the flats are fishable only when water depths are nominal as the water moves. At other times, hit those other places where stripers hang out, and keep an eye open for blitzes farther out when the birds tell you carnage is on. However you choose to fish in Casco Bay—from the beach, from rocks or rock jetties, from a kayak or other watercraft, or with a guide—you will have a great time in a pretty place that is not overrun with other fishers or nonangling pleasure craft. Certainly the best way to catch fish and learn an area is to hire a guide and let him or her do all the work, which is a pretty good idea.
   I remember Bob Clouser telling me a story years ago when he guided on the Susquehanna River near his home outside Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. He often made after-work fishing trips that carried into and beyond sunset. On one such trip, his two clients were casting into calm waters reddened by a gorgeous setting sun and were catching smallmouth bass in the shallows. One sighed at the basic goodness of the experience and said to no one in particular, “I wonder what the poor people are doing?”
   There was a brief silence, broken by Clouser’s answer to the rhetorical question: “They are poling this damn boat—that’s what they’re doing.”


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