Thursday, September 7, 2017

NEKF Striper Shootout 2017: Recap

Last year, I got to participate in my first ever New England Kayak Fishing Striper Shootout. The annual event takes place in Salem, MA, and all the proceeds go to charity, specifically, the Make-A-Wish Foundation. It attracts tons of kayak anglers from all over New England, including many of the biggest names in the sport. In 2016, I was fortunate enough to finish third in the fly fishing division with a 26" striper. This year, my goal was a 30" fish and to finish higher than last year. I guess one out of two isn't bad. Here is recap of my 2017 NEKF Striper Shootout.

The Wildy team at the event (minus Tom Adams)

MM, Cullen, and I got to Salem on Thursday afternoon and settled into our AirBnB before chowing on some local seafood. After putting Cullen to bed, I snuck out to hit the water. In actuality, I never launched the kayak. At low tide, I was able to drive to a few spots in Salem and Marblehead and see different channels, structures, and contours just before dark. I also located a couple spots where I could launch fairly easily and park overnight. After stop number 4, I had a game plan and opted to head back for a good night of sleep.

This year, my strategy was fairly simple. I wanted to fish the incoming tide in an area with some rocky points and gradually fish to another area I found last year that I was confident would hold some fish on the outgoing tide. Unfortunately, a wave of thunderstorms was projected to hit the region. Before registration, the storms were supposed to hold off until 5-6 AM, but by the time we had eaten dinner, the storms had shifted and were projected to hit between 9 and 10 PM. Although that timeline disrupted my plan, it gave me plenty of time to setup and fish the outgoing tide. So after prepping my gear, MM and I began binge watching "Orange is the New Black" on Netflix while I impatiently checked my phone and braced for the impending weather. However, the rain never came, and suddenly around 8:30 PM, the storms projected over Salem disappeared from the radar map. I threw on my gear, kissed MM goodbye, and headed for the water.

We got to visit the oldest candy company in the US, where Cullen got his first chocolate

I launched and began a 2.5 mile paddle to my first spot, stopping only briefly to throw a few casts around a school of bait I saw moving near a long dock with bright lights. Those casts produced nothing, and I eagerly finished the paddle to my intended starting spot. I began casting a 6" articulated streamer in a general baitfish pattern with mixed white, pink, and olive colors. On my first cast, a small schoolie flashed at the fly without hooking up. It was a sign of things to come. On my next cast, I allowed the fly to sink a little longer and slowed my retrieve, making short, abrupt strips. Midway back to the boat, my line went tight, and I set the hook into a small but tenacious little striper. The 14" fish was a start. I snapped a couple quick photos on the measuring board and watched the little guy dart off under my kayak.

My first striper of night one

On my next cast, I landed a 16.5 incher, which I also photographed. It turned out to be my last photo of the night, but not my last fish. I ended up landing fish on three more consecutive casts, and over the next two hours, I would land 41 stripers ranging between approximately 12" and 18". Although small, catching that many fish on the fly in the middle of the night from a kayak was insanely fun. Then, another wrench got thrown into my plans.

My second striper, and last photo, of night one

I began to see what I originally thought were small baitfish or baby squid darting around in massive schools. They were pinkish red, and many had black heads. However, I eventually caught one in my hand and realized they were worms -- slimy, creepy little worms. I suspected that they hatched in the warm backwater pools and were being pushed out with the current. They were everywhere, and the striper had clearly shifted from eating baitfish to eating these worms. I tied on a small red and orange clouser minnow and started casting it, but despite using a variety of retrieves, I didn't fool anything.

Stripers were rising everywhere eating these worms, but despite trying a variety of flies, areas, and techniques, nothing was working, Clearly, the fish were dialed in on the worms. Although it was an awesome spectacle to behold, it was beyond frustrating. Around 2:30 AM, I packed up my gear and headed back to our rental.  Still, the night would throw me one last curveball. About midway back, I was thinking about my strategy for the next night when it hit me: I had forgotten my identifier in the pictures. I couldn't help but laugh. I had the best night of striper fishing of my life, at least in terms of quantity, and I didn't have a single qualifying picture to show for it. Suddenly, my game plan for night two changed.

I cannot say enough about the ATAK 140

After picking up a couple hours of sleep, I began to think about my strategy. I decided I would rather put a fish on the board versus going for broke, so I decided  I would return to the same area as night one long enough to land a few and then move to another totally different area to look for bigger fish. However, I wasn't going back to the first area without a better plan of attack for fishing the worm hatch. A quick Google search was loaded with interesting info, much of which confirmed my suspicions. The worms are called cinder worms, and they are a notorious and fairly rare phenomenon in New England. The "hatch" isn't really a hatch, but instead a spawning ritual. When the temperature and lunar phase get right, the worms become active and come out of the mud in backwater areas. The current then carries them to sea, and they spawn along the way. These periods make for notoriously tough fishing due to all the bait in the water, but multiple articles noted that dedicated anglers can fool big fish. So, I scoped out a few worm patterns online and began to formulate some ideas. I had some materials with me, but my supplies were limited, so I made a quick trip to Orvis to grab a couple flies and some materials. In the end, I had four cinder worm flies made of different materials, but they were all floating or slow sinking flies with black heads and red bodies in the 3"-4" range. Admittedly, a couple looked much better than the others, but as I would soon find out, looks can be deceiving.

I'm not sure which one of us was more excited to visit the Orvis store

I launched from a different spot on night two, and after a short paddle, I was making long casts along a channel edge. Although the fish were around, they were clearly sluggish. I was getting a lot of short strikes and lazy strikes, as well as follows and flashes with no hook ups. Finally, I hooked and landed a 14.5" fish. The schoolie must have felt extra special after the 6+ photos--this time with identifier front and center. Two fish later, I hung a 15.5 incher and snapped a couple photos before the release. I ended up with seven fish before the bite seemed to shut off. Then, I expected the cinder worm bite to take over. Although I was seeing thousands of worms in the water, the fish didn't seem to be feeding as heavily as they were on the first night. I was hoping that would actually work to my advantage. In this case, I think the worms were more bunched up than the night before, so I paddled to what seemed to be the front of the worm hatch and began casting.

My first fish of night two

A few fish were clearly cruising around and sporadically feeding. I was trying to target single feeding fish with a rabbit strip fly, but was having no luck. I then switched to a worm pattern with a really basic body and foam tail section. I serrated the tail to give it more action. After a few casts near some feeding fish, I made a couple quick strips followed by a long pause. Suddenly, I saw my line begin to go tight. I strip set, and immediately a fish began to pull drag. In my experience, that is the sign of a bigger striper. The little fish like to shake their heads to try and spit the hook. The big fish just rip drag and use brute force before trying the head shake technique later. The fish would make a run, then I would get some line back. Then we would repeat the dance. Every muscle in each forearm was burning as I fought the brute on my 7 wt., the lightest rod I had brought for the weekend. Eventually, the fish came boatside, and I knew it was a nice upgrade. The 25" fish had a big old gut that I presume was full of cinder worms.

My biggest fish of the shootout

Unfortunately, the fish had bit/broke the tail off my fly. Thankfully, I had one more similar fly, so I tied it on and began casting again. About fifteen minutes later, I hooked into another fish, this one measuring around 20". Unfortunately, the fish bit/broke the tail off of the other fly. I am not sure if it was due to the worms seemingly overwhelming the channel or the fact that my only productive flies were in pieces, but that would end up being my last fish of the night. I did lose one fish that hit on a long pause and ripped drag, but I never got a good hookset. It felt like a nice fish, but I will never know for sure. I was back to the apartment around 4:30 AM and was able to pick up a few hours of sleep before Cullen was up for the day and making his presence known.

After cleaning up, we headed for Winter Island. I checked in my fish, and we visited with folks for a few hours while feasting on some delicious BBQ. I really  had no idea how I did, as most reports were either of tough fishing or giant fish. When it came time for the announcements, third place in the fly division went to Rick Hacker with a 20.25" fish. My name was next in second place, and first place went to repeat champ Joe Gugino with a 29-incher. On the Water magazine posted a full recap last week of all the winners in all the divisions. Needless to say, there were some impressive fish caught, including a bunch of mid-40" fish that didn't place in the open division.

Despite the physical toll this event takes (my stripping hand was all sorts of achy), it is one of my favorites. I think its partly because I don't feel a lot of pressure at this event. Sure, I want to do well, but it is such a different challenge compared to the freshwater fishing I typical do, and I love that. Particularly, I love the learning aspect of it. I like to pick the brains of the guys who fish the area regularly and chase giant stripers all the time. It is just really fun. Plus, what other event lets you fish all night, sleep a little, eat seafood all day, and then repeat the process!

After a few days of saltwater fishing, this is what the drying rack gets used for

This year was filled with extra learning. I went in hoping to land a giant striper on a big fancy 9" articulated fly, and I left with my biggest fish caught on what boiled down to a 4" strip of foam with some yarn wrapped around it that I colored with a sharpie. It certainly wasn't the prettiest, but sometimes, we as anglers get caught up in how a bait or fly looks in our hand versus in the water. Also, I know this probably sounds like a shameless plug, but I cannot get enough of the ATAK 140. I love my new Radar 135 with Helix PD pedal drive, but for fly fishing, stability, paddlabilty, and features, the ATAK 140 is really in a league of its own.

Like last year, we headed down to Rhode Island for a few days at the beach after the event ended. It was a great ending to the trip filled with more seafood and a couple beach naps.

More seafood feasts...check!

                       Family shot...even if someone was distracted                                          Did I mention beach naps?!

Loving the big waves on the last day

Until next time, tight lines!


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