The arrival of spring for fly anglers in the Chesapeake area means we get to dust off our fly rods, get back to saltwater fly fishing and finally hook up with some fish for the long awaited tight line. The first fish to arrive are generally the yellow perch followed shortly by the white
perch. These fish move into the upper reaches of the western and eastern tributaries of the bay and provide a great opportunity to put a good bend in your four or five weight fly rod. While perch provide some action it is the arrival of their not too distant cousin, the striped bass, and the opening of the catch and release Susquehanna Flats season in March that really gets saltwater fly fishing anglers heated up. This is the opportunity to break out your eight and nine weight fly rods and chase striped bass in shallow water with a shot at a trophy striped bass. Here is how to do it.
The Susquehanna Flats is an approximately twenty five square mile area located at the furthest north reach of the Chesapeake Bay. The top of the flats is marked on the western side by the mouth of the Susquehanna River and the town of Havre De Grace and on the eastern side the Northeast River. Water depths range from less then one foot in the middle of the flats, to twenty feet in the two channels that straddle the flats area, one channel leading into the Susquehanna River and the other into the Northeast River.
The legal fishing area extends from the western side of the flats starting within the Susquehanna River down-steam from a line connecting the Susquehanna State Part Boat Ramp in Lapidum to Twin Rocks to Tomes Wharf in Port Deposit, on the eastern side at the mouth of the Northeast River and then south upstream from a line from going from Sandy Point on the western shore to Turkey Point on the eastern side.
The dates of the season are subject to change on a yearly basis as the Maryland Department of Resources takes the striped bass stock health into consideration when setting the season; this year the season opened March 1 and will remain open until May 3rd for catch and release only. Starting May 16 through May 31 anglers can keep one 18”-26” striped bass daily.
While you can find striped bass on the Susquehanna Flats from May through December the primer season for saltwater fly anglers is the catch and release season March and April time frame. The flats is a staging area for striped bass to fuel up on the herring and shad that are moving through the flats to reach the Susquehanna and Northeast River to spawn. Striped bass are following, and sometimes waiting on the flats, for these fish to arrive so they can have an agape in preparation for the spawn. I’ve found the magic water temperature range to be between 48-50 degrees Fahrenheit that marks the arrival of the herring and shad. Once these fish are on the flats the striped bass fishing begins to heat up. While dates vary depending on the type of spring weather we encounter, I’ve always targeted and found the last two weeks in April and beginning of May to be the prime time. Usually we experience sunny days and see water temperatures in the 51-57 range which is what I’ve found to be the prime range for good fishing.
Where to Launch
If you are located on the western shore the best most direct place I would suggest to launch is out of Havre de Grace’s City Yacht Basin which is located down town at the southernmost end of Havre de Grace, adjacent to Millard J. Tydings Memorial Park. The ramp fee is $8 per launch. The facility has ample parking and rest rooms. Launching here puts
you literally at the top of the flats, which have historically proved to be a good fishing area. A word of caution, the flats are a tricky area to navigate and jumping on to the flats from the northern end is not advised unless you know the area very well. In order to get on to the flats you should follow the main channel which winds around to the south west and approach the flats off plane at idle when you reach just past what is called the fishing battery, a series of small islands that you will find just to your east as you run south down the western channel edge.
If you located on the eastern shore, your best option is a Cecil County maintained boat ramp called Stemmers Run. The ramp is located on Pondneck Rd. in Earlville about seven miles off of RT 213. Yearly boat launch permits can be purchased through the Cecil County Treasurers Office, $10 for Maryland and/or Cecil County Property Owners, and $35 for non-residents. A honor box is on site with a $5.00 daily fee. Given the treasures office is located in Northeast and I always forget to send in the application, I use the honor box. The only word of caution using this ramp is that south side often gets sanded in and north side gets a decent amount of sand as well. The county comes in pretty often to clear it, but my best advice if you use this ramp and have a boat 21ft+ is to make sure you have four wheel drive
Stemmers run ramp will put you on the Elk River and it’s only a short run across past the southern boundary fishing line of Turkey Point. Using this launch gives you the ability to start on the south side of the flats and work north. Often times you will find a flotalilla of boats working the deeper water on the south east side which can be a great place to start your fishing.
Areas to Look for Fish When Fly Fishing on the Flats
I would be doing you a disservice to give away exact locations on the flats; after all figuring out the puzzle of new locations is half the fun when you are saltwater fly fishing for rockfish. And then there’s the fact that it took me many years of pushing my boat through shallow water, getting stuck in spots for a tide cycle, a lot of skunks and the risk of fielding angry phone calls from fishing friends for giving away gps coordinates of holes that are located through out the flats. However, some general tips will get you started and provide you with the framework to have a successful trip.
First, water temperature. The most important variable I have found when locating fish on the flats is water temperature. Water temperate can vary widely through different areas of the flats due to tide cycles, water depths and bottom color. What I look for is water 50-56 degrees, find that temperature and you’ll generally find some fish.
Second, structure. The flats do not have visible points of land that create rips that you can easily find. What it does have is an abundant amount of underwater structure in the way of ditches, holes and drop offs that great perfect areas for striped bass to ambush prey. Check your noaa chart and check for marked holes, ditches and drop offs. Also you might want to check out a 3D map like the ones from ChesapeakeFishingMaps.com that give you a 3D view which I find better enables me to identify fishy looking spots. A helpful hint to get you started on the ditches front, look in the western quadrant of the flats on our charts.
Third, birds. I never paid much attention to them on the flats when I first started fishing the area because I thought that diving birds only happened later in the fall. But, on the flats you will find diving birds, under the diving birds are bait, you can guess what is near the bait. So keep your eyes peeled when you are out there and if you see a wad of birds dipping and diving go check it out.
Fourth, tide. I like the two or three hours before and after high tide on the flats because it floods shallow water areas that can be very productive spots. Having said that an incoming tide can bring with it some colder water, so that can be a downside. Any which way, what I like on the flats is moving water. You can almost rest assured on the slack at the top of the bottom of the tides things will be slow. If you do venture into some shallow areas on the rising tide, make sure you get out of there as the tide falls, when the tide falls on the flats it really falls and you do not want to find yourself stuck in a spot with out enough water to float your boat out…that’s experience talking.
Saltwater Fly Fishing Equipment and Flies
You do not need anything fancy to chase striped bass on the Susquehanna Flats. My go to rig is a 8wt Sage XP rigged with a Rio 250 Striper Line with 3-5ft of Ande 20lb Fluorocarbon tied directly to my fly with a palomar knot or loop knot.
Rods: An 8wt. or 9wt rod will do the trick.
Line: I prefer a sinking line. It casts well and gets your fly down in the water column. Some people look at me strange when I say I fish a sinking line in shallow water, especially in and around the flats. My theory is that a sinking line allows me to fish the whole water column and I can control which depth I fish by the speed of my retrieve. It also allows me to cast a little bigger flies what I like to fish on the flats. My go to line is a Rio Striper 250 line. It casts well, the running line is hardy and withstands some abuse and as importantly to me does not tangle like some other lines on the market. I also like the Scientific Anglers sinking lines, I’ve found them to also be hardy lines that cast well and I especially like their uniform sink attribute which they design into the line.
If you are not comfortable with a sinking line, a floating line will work fine. I like something like the Rio Clouser Line. It has a little bigger head designed to cast bigger flies. You’re almost certain to encounter wind at some point during the day on the flats, and this line will help you get your fly out there.
Saltwater Flies: I like big flies when fishing the flats for striped bass, look at the size of the herring or shad that the stripers are feeding on, they are no small fry. I mostly fish a fly pattern I call my Grande Blanco fly. It is a clouser/deceiver (half and half) style fly on a 5/0 hook with all while bucktail, hackle, silver flash that extends out at least a half inch from the bucktail topped with baitfish or chartreuse angel hair. I also fish a lot of large baitfish yak hair flies on 4/0-6/0 hooks. With these flies I generally tie in a few wraps of lead under the head to give them that diving action. Other hot colors of flies I like on the flats is all chartreuse and white and grey with a red head.
I leave you with one last tip, when you are saltwater fly fishing the flats, remember you’re on flats. Skinny water means spooky fish, spooky fish means zooming in and around the flats will negatively effect the fishing. If you are doing a drift, turn off your engine. If you go back up on your drift, idle. If you’re looking for fish or moving from one spot to the other, go at a slow idle in the shallow water. First you might actually spook some fish and you can quickly turn off your engine, drift and maybe catch an few. Second, keeping it as quiet as possible when approaching fish is key not to spook them.
Give the Susquehanna Flats a try for what can produce some amazingly large stripers; it’s some of the best saltwater fly fishing on the east coast. You’ll have a blast. See you out there!
Written by: Brandon White is Chief Angler at Lateral Line, Inc., a technical year-round fishing clothing company . You can learn more about Lateral Line’s clothing and Brandon on the web at: http://www.LateralLineCo.com