Peter Brookes: Saluting veterans with stripers
“Hey, Sweetie,” my wife yelled giggling from our kitchen down the hall, “You that know this flyer you gave me says ‘Stars and Stripers,’ not ‘Stars and Strippers‘, right?”
“Yeah, yeah, I know … very funny .. .it’s an annual charity fly fishing tournament on the Chesapeake Bay for active duty military and veterans. They fish for stripers – striped bass. You know the fresh rockfish you pay ungodly prices for at the store? That’s a striper.”
Still laughing at her lame attempt at wordplay humor she said, “Well, since it’s a fish and not a female, I guess it’s OK if you go – and, oh yeah, bring home some awesome rockfish.”
Thankfully, the flyer wasn’t a victim of an all-too-frequent “auto-correct” spelling error – because in late August we’d be hitting the Chesapeake Bay off of Kent Island, Maryland, for this famous saltwater fish.
The Stars & Stripers Fly Fishing event is a day on the bay for veterans and service members who are active in Project Healing Waters (projecthealingwaters.org) programs. It’s a community gathering where local fishing guides, watermen, and businesses on Maryland’s Eastern Shore give back to those who serve.
Even after seven years of practice, putting together an event for a 100-plus folks is no small task. Mark Eustis, a local fishing fanatic, conservationist and computer maps expert, manages the event.
He selflessly makes sure I understand that, “The local Kent Island community is the reason Stars & Stripers succeeds.” Some of the people behind it are Captain Richie Gaines (anglers-connection.com) and Gary Neitzey (flyfishthechesapeake.com) who have been involved since the start. They recruit dozens of guides and their boats so everyone can go fishing.
Ed Fulton at Dominion Marina (dominionmarina.com) donates his docks and marina space for the event and the fabulous local shore dinner, including blue crabs, after the fishing.
Sharon Burns and John Dyer arrange for the big tent, marshal the volunteers, cook and arrange other boats so families can get out light tackle fishing, trot line crabbing or cruising while Mom or Dad are out with a guide fly fishing for “rocks.”
Which brings me to the fabulous fishing. After breakfast, the guides and “the troops” head out to Eastern Bay on a gorgeous, not-too-hot, bluebird sky day.
I ask my boat’s skipper, Jim Talbott, how we find fish. He says, “Look for flocks of birds.” Deeply skeptical of the answer, I mumble, “Uh, OK … birds.”
He went on to explain seabirds dive-bombing the water was the telltale sign schools of bait and stripers were below. Seeing a flock across the water, Talbott spins the helm of his skiff in that direction.
When we get close to the gulls and terns performing acrobatics above the water, we can see the sea beneath them almost boiling like a pot on a low simmer. It’s what locals call “breaking fish.”
Talbott explains this is a striper feeding frenzy – they’re gorging themselves on a school of bay anchovy or menhaden swimming near the surface, trying to escape their piscatorial predators. Marauding stripers will slash through the bait, leaving the birds to dip and take either a whole baitfish, or what’s left of one.
There’s clearly some finesse involved in striper fishing but, for the beginner, it’s best to cast an 8- to 10-weight fly rod with a baitfish-imitating fly (e.g., a Clouser minnow or Lefty’s Deceiver) right into the breaking fish, stripping it back toward the boat.
You’ll know when you’ve hooked one – believe me – either by the ridiculous bend in the fly rod, straining the 20-pound test leader and tippet, or from a violent, splashy surface take.
There was a time back in the 1980s when rockfish schools almost disappeared from the Chesapeake; indeed, there was a moratorium on fishing. After better management, that’s changed significantly as the event showed: everyone caught at least some fish, one veteran caught and released 80 stripers by lunch; and others took home “keepers.”
It was a great day.
It’s no wonder the Chesapeake is now considered a world-class fishery for stripers. With a bit of pride, some even say that the Chesapeake Bay is the Rockfish Capital of the World. I can’t argue that.
Equally important is that while “Rock-tober” has passed – maybe the best month for striper fishing on the Chesapeake – the angling is still good into December before it tails off until the water warms in the spring.
It’s no surprise that I’m asking Santa for an 8-weight fly rod this Christmas.
Dr. Peter Brookes has a Fort Valley home and writes about the great outdoors here whenever he can. Email: BrookesOutdoors@gmail.com.