The Compleat Guide to Fishing the Summer Doldrums - The Compleat Angler

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July 16, 2021

Ah, who doesn’t love summer? Birds chirping, beaches open, barbecues, light beer, and flip flops. For humans, it’s great. We have air conditioning, beach days, pools, and any one of a thousand ways to stay cool when the mercury reaches 90+. But, I'll tell you who doesn’t like summer - fish. They have far fewer options to beat the heat, which leads to sluggish, indifferent behavior and that period of the year the most anglers know as the “The Summer Doldrums.” In fact, the worddoldrums itself originated in the 19th century to depict something dull, particularly among sailors who found themselves stuck in the largely windlessIntertropical Convergence Zone. Since then,doldrums has broadened in usage to describe anything lacking in activity, excitement, or progress. For many of us anglers, it’s also an appropriate word to describe summer fishing in the Northeast, when many of our fisheries tend to be awfully slow.

However, if you’re still yearning to do more than simply stand around the barbecue or hide in the air conditioning, we have a few suggestions. You see, to the untrained eye, the summer doldrums may seem like a lost cause, however, there are still often many good options available, if you know where to look and are willing to be a little creative or intrepid. While many anglers simply stick to the same approach they did during the spring and early summer, making a few adjustments can really help you stay on the fish. With that in mind, here is our Compleat Guide to Beating the Summer Doldrums, designed to help you do exactly that. Enjoy!

Trout

Trout are by far the fan-favorite within the fly fishing community. More fly anglers target trout than any other species and for good reason. They are the perfect fish on a fly rod. However, during the warmer months, targeting trout can be incredibly difficult due to increased water temps. Many streams simply become too warm to ethically fish, dramatically reducing your available options. In this case the first step to beating the summer doldrums is to find tailwaters. Of course, you’re probably not the only one to have made this assessment, so many tailwaters across the Northeast are hammered with crowds this time of year. The second step is to be a bit more “tactical” about where and when you fish. If you can, steer clear of weekends, go mid-week, and try to get on the water early. Furthermore, it may pay to hit some of the less well-known pools, or even the pocket or “fringe” water in between them. This can help you avoid rubbing elbows with other anglers, and it may help you find fish that have themselves been a little less pressured and more likely to take a fly.

The third step is to adjust your actual fishing tactics, to compensate for the summer conditions. What I have found over the years is that fishing smaller flies under the surface is often the key to success. There is something to be said for big flies like stonefly or Iso nymphs during these hatches, but during July or August it seems like the majority of my fish taken in tailwaters are all on flies 18 or smaller. I think it is a function of the prevalent hatches at that time of year coupled with months of sustained angling pressure that many fish have seen. A size 20 zebra midge is tough to beat and I'll fish those right on the bottom. Using split shot to get down and making sure your drifts are perfect is mandatory. A wide variety of midge patterns will generally take fish. Another little secret I will share with you is to try fishing some unweighted midges. By that I mean midge nymphs with no beads or wire. I have been extremely successful with this style of fly and I think it has to do with how it tumbles through the water. I will still fish them with split shot and/or a leading larger attractor nymph in many cases, but later in the season, unweighted midges fished deep are very, very effective. Remember that this applies to indicator nymphing, not euro nymphing.

Of course, nymphing is not the only option in the heat of the summer. One especially effective technique among hardcore anglers is to fish at night, which can really stack the odds in your favor. And yes, for most fly anglers fishing at night is synonymous with mousing, which can be very effective and can take very large fish. For that reason alone, this technique has grown in popularity over the years and a lot of anglers new to the sport are all fired up about catching “bucknasty browns” on mice. And there is nothing wrong with that. However, I’d also encourage you not to limit yourself to mice alone. If you think about the rivers in the Northeast, there are not masses of mice swimming across these things at night. Sure, a few field mice may roll the dice every once in a while, but it is not a common occurrence (if it were, you would hear all the nighttime mousing guys talking about it!). For example, there is another air-breathing target that is way more common that the trout do seek out: frogs. Throwing what is essentially a black Largemouth Bass popper at night can get some very ferocious strikes. And because the target is smaller but just as noisey, you will catch more fish in a wider range of sizes. The poppers will take big browns as well as 14 to 20 inch trout. This keeps the action way more consistent and matches the hatch better. And of course simple black streamers fished at night will also take a lot of fish. In fact, this may be the most productive way to fish at night, period. Big browns tend to feed more aggressively at night and when they get really big, tend to feed on frogs and fish more than insects. So, if you are looking to do something different, give it a shot. Forget the mice - try frog sized poppers and streamers.

So there you have it on the trout front. In sum, pick your water carefully (think tailwaters), get a little more tactical with when you fish, adjust your fly selection accordingly, and don’t be afraid to get creative, including getting out there at night to give yourself a chance at a real trophy this summer.

Striped Bass

The marquee saltwater fish of the Northeast, Stripers are probably the second most sought after fish on fly in the Northeast. In the Spring, they are everywhere, but as Summer rolls around, they can be notoriously difficult to pin down. Even the schoolies, which are seemingly endless in May, seem to vanish in late June or early July.

Striped Bass Fly Fishing

Now, it is no secret that the Striper populations are in real trouble. Lack of enforcement, reckless overfishing, and rampant poaching has brought our Striper number back down after rebuilding the fishery once before. While steps are being taken to address declining numbers of fish, it still remains the primary focus of most saltwater fly anglers to release all fish unharmed. So please consider releasing all Stripers, even if it is a slot fish.

Now in terms of strategy, the first thing you need to understand about Stripers in the summer is that they are looking for cold water. Most fish will be congregating and feeding in deeper water since it is much colder than shallow coastal water. That alone puts them out of the range of fly tackle, more due to that depth than anything else. Despite that, there are still windows of opportunity that can keep you on fish.

The first thing that you need to realize is that high sun will shut the bite down completely. This is often an adjustment compared to the much more tide-oriented approach you likely took during the Spring, when the fish would feed whenever the tides are good. In the summer, it really pays to be on the water during the low light hours - that’s your bite window. In fact, I would say that fly fishing is likely to be an exercise in futility after 9am and before 6pm. Sure, overcast or cloudy conditions can extend that window a bit, but usually by a few hours at most.

Now that you have that bite window established, you’ll want to consider the tides next. New and Full Moons are the best as they have the “hardest” swings, where the velocity is the greatest and the height is often much greater. The falling tide has always been considered the best Striper tide and once you get a good tide during the bite window, you should be in business.

Lastly, there is one final consideration to take into account, which is the structure associated with deep water. During the tidal swing, the fish will push up into the shallows as the tide rises, bringing cool water from the deeper areas into the shallows. This typically happens in areas adjacent to water 40 feet or deeper and the more abrupt the drop-off the better (and the closer the structure is to that deep water the better as well). If you are there at a falling tide, during a good moon, in the bite window, and on structure adjacent to deep water, there is a good possibility of Stripers being there. Maybe even some large ones. Sure using this formula takes a bit more planning and thought, but it has paid off for me many times in the past. Give it a try!

Bonito

The first of the Epipelagic fish to show up, Bonito have been more and more numerous over the past decade and have become a very viable target in late July and August, if you know where to look. Similar to Albies but far less picky, Bonito are absolutely beautiful fish that take real skill and luck to land on fly. One of the worthiest adversaries in the area, these toothy tuna blur the lines between the two “subfamilies” in theScombridae family of fishes. Half mackerel and half tuna, these fish are high speed predators that will test your fly tackle. If you are lucky enough to hook one, the fight is somewhat like an Albie. These fish think like mackerel and can be very squirrely on the end of your line. In, out, up, down, you never know what these fish will do next, which makes them a far more unpredictable fight than their cousins, the Albies.

Bonito Fly Fishing

Bonito begin to show up around the Cape, Nantucket, and Block Island sometime around the 4th of July, if it is going to be a good year. These are Northbound fish that are moving in to feed during the summer. They are often offshore in search of slightly cooler water and large schools of bait, but in late August - Early September everything changes. Bonito begin pushing inshore in larger numbers and working schools of bait within range of fly anglers. These are Southbound fish that are fattening up for their migration. One of the first places that tends to see good numbers of fish is the Bonito Bar off Nantucket. This is one of our early indicator locations that will tell us numbers and average size for the rest of the Northeast. If they show up thick and are large at the bar, that tends to hold true for the rest of the season regardless of location.

The nice thing about Bonito is they act a lot like False Albacore in terms of where they tend to hang out. Drop-offs, rips, and reefs that consolidate bait are all perfect spots to search. However unlike Albies, Bonito are far less selective when it comes to what flies they like to eat and will hit a far wider range of patterns. The electric chicken color combo on a size 1 or 2 hook has been a proven baitfish pattern for me over the years. I find these fish like brighter flies, but I would not get too caught up on fly selection. Something in the Surf Candy, Mushmouth, Fleye Anchovy, or Flatwing family will be just fine.

One misconception is that because these fish have teeth, you need a wire bite tippet to prevent getting bitten off. That simply is not true. At the risk of jinxing myself, I have run 15 or 20lb fluorocarbon and have never been bitten off. Fluoro is stiff and abrasion resistant enough to hold up to Bonito. What’s more, these fish have spectacular eyesight and running wire will only decrease your hookup rate. A 9 foot leader is just fine for this situation. You do not need anything longer like you would for Albies.

Another helpful tip is that these fish tend to like a rising tide. There are a few theories on why this is, but I personally think it is because the cooler water pushing in has better clarity than the falling tide. Remember that tunas and mackerels are primarily visual feeders. They obviously use all of their senses to locate prey, but when it comes to the actual act of feeding, they use only their eyes. As such, water clarity is very important. Rising tides push in clear water making conditions far more ideal for Bonito. That said, any moving water is better than slack tide.

One challenge, of course, is that Bonito are most easily targeted by boat as these fish tend to be in water 20 feet or deeper. And while it can be difficult, there are places to target these fish from shore, and even a few that will work for fly anglers. A little research should be able to get you into locations where the odds of success are high. You will want to look for areas close to the deepest water you can find. Jetties are a good place to begin your search, but are by no means the only places these fish like to pop up. You will want at least a 9 weight as well. Not only because these fish fight hard, but because you will also need punching power. Long casts with intermediate sinking lines are key to get the most out of each opportunity.

Blues

In the past, Bluefish were often looked down upon by fly anglers. They tear up flies, intercept great casts to Stripers or Albies, and were at one point so prevalent that they were regarded as a nuisance fish. However, poor regulation led to what was essentially unrestricted commercial fishing and this, combined with overharvest on the recreational side, decimated bluefish populations. Unfortunately, they are now a fraction of what we used to see and while we try and rebuild a collapsing fishery, a renewed interest and love for these fish has found more and more anglers targeting these “Yellow Eyed Devils.”

Bluefish are perhaps the best “filler fish” that we have. While overall Bluefish numbers are way down, it seems like mid-sized fish are still quite numerous. Even though these fish only top out at around 8 pounds, with the right gear they are a blast on a fly rod. These fish can save a day and are a worthy target in their own right, especially in the Western Long Island Sound when there is very little going on in the summer. If you are able to consistently locate schools of Blues, you can have a blast with these fish all summer. The key is being prepared for the size of fish you will run into. If you want to maximize your “fun” then having 8, 9, and 10 weights rigged up is best practice. That way if you run into smaller fish you can bust out the 8 or 9 wt. If you find gators, then you can deploy the 10.

Bluefish will be all along the Northeastern coast throughout the summer and you can find them almost anywhere during July and August. Thankfully, they tend to tolerate warmer water better than most other fish. Focusing on areas with structure will help narrow the search. These fish also tend to like deeper water, so if you can find reefs and drop-offs you will have a high probability of locating fish. Once in these locations, you will want to look for surface activity to see if anyone’s home. Ripples, nervous water, and boils are harder to spot, but they are a sure sign of feeding activity below the surface. The ideal scenario is to find these fish busting bait on the surface. “Blitzing” fish are not only easier to locate, but also more susceptible to a fly rod as they feed in a frenzy and will take almost any fly.

Another way to locate these fish is to look for birds. Especially when Blues are on smaller bait, birds will be all over the fracas. “Running and gunning” is often the best way to find these blitzes. Covering water at speed and looking for diving birds with busting fish under them is a proven approach. Once spotted, Blues could be on anything from Sandeels to Bunker. Having flies in a few different sizes and silhouettes is important, but you seldom need to match that hatch. It’s more a “big fish, bigger flies” and vice-versa type of thing. Flies with a lot of flash will work best and remember to strip them fast as speed seems to get these fish fired up. If you are fishing from shore the more subtle signs will be key. While locating a blitz is the ideal scenario, even if fish are not busting that does not mean they are not around. Look for fast swimming bait around structure during moving tides.

Smallmouth Bass

The Smallmouth is one of the unsung heroes in the Northeast, especially among fly anglers. While they get far more attention in other parts of the county, they just don’t have a huge following here in the Northeast. This has always surprised me since smallies are a spectacular gamefish and fairly numerous. They are not everywhere, but are scattered in coldwater fisheries all throughout the Northeast. I have always suspected that, because they tend to coexist with trout, they are often simply overlooked by fly anglers for that reason alone. While I myself would certainly rather catch trout on a regular basis, I do not look down on Smallies at all. They are incredible fighters, and if tied tail-to-tail, a Smallmouth would drag a Largemouth twice its size backwards through the water! They jump and do all the things that bass should do, like inhale poppers. They are a great fish for all the right reasons and a great species to target during the Doldrums.

Smallmouth Bass Fly Fishing

You can find Smallmouth Bass in deeper lakes, reservoirs, and colder rivers. They are typically a very structure-oriented fish, though Smallmouth will abandon that behavior and seek out the coldest water in the summer months. That can pose a few issues for the fly angler as depth is never our strong suit, however there are ways around this. First, you will want to fish early in the morning and late in the evening when the water is coolest. That will accomplish two things. The fish will typically be in shallower water making them more accessible, and they are also more likely to take a wider range of flies. They tend to feed best at low light making it a perfect time to throw poppers and these fish will crush a well popped frog or baitfish. The other option is to fish some type of sinking line later in the day. As the bite slows, getting deep is the key. The sink rate of the line will depend on where you are fishing and what weight rod you are using, but using the fastest sink you can get away with without snagging bottom is best. Crayfish and other baitfish streamers fish low and slow will often take fish all day even as fish activity slows.

Largemouth Bass

The Largemouth Bass could arguably be considered the most accessible fish for fly anglers. They are found in ponds, lakes, and rivers throughout the entire country. They can survive in such varied habitats that almost every decent sized body of water will have Largemouth. They are not a very common fish to target on fly, however their explosive strikes and aerial displays make them a blast.

Locating Largemouth Bass is not that difficult. Really any decent sized body of water has the potential to hold good numbers of Bass. The trick is finding public places to fish for them. Town parks, public reservoirs, town ponds, and even some wider and slower rivers are good places to check. Different states often publicize where some of the better bass ponds are, so that is a good starting point.

Once you find some good areas, now you need to find where the fish are. Bass are a very structure-oriented fish, even more than most others. They will hold deep in structure and are often found in thick cover. As such, these are the places you will want to start looking. Any submerged timber, aquatic vegetation, boulders, drop-offs, and points are all good indicators of where Largemouth are likely to hang out.

During the Summer months, this fish will be most active during the mornings and afternoons, so plan on hitting these structured areas then. That is when the water is coolest and fish will be actively seeking out prey. While sinking lines have their merit, I recommend using a 6 or 7 wt and a floating line to cast a wider variety of flies. Granted what line you throw will depend entirely on where you are fishing, though I find a floater is generally best. A floating line also allows you fish poppers, which is probably the most fun way to catch these fish. Watching Largemouth blow up on frog or baitfish patterns is exciting and a great way to get the most out of these fish. A frog style popper is probably the most popular option. There are thousands of options out there, but the great thing about Bass is that they are typically not that picky. You can have fun with your fly selection. I think fly size is the most important thing. Try to throw something reasonable in relation to the size of the fish. If you have no idea about the average size of the Bass in a particular body of water, err on the side of caution and fish something on the smaller side and work your way up.

Largemouth will take poppers during the cooler hours of dawn and dusk, but during the middle of the day the fish become a little more suspicious. That is when you should go sub-surface. Weighted streamer-type flies will get you back in the game, and again, you can have fun with your fly selection. “Creature” flies are a great starting point. Flies with curly tails, rattles, rubber legs, and flash are not out of bounds. Anything with good movement has potential. The key is varying your retrieve. If the water is very warm and the fish are sluggish, slow your presentation down. Fish slightly smaller patterns and try to draw a reaction strike. If the water temperatures are cooler, the fish will be more active and you can speed up that retrieve with a larger fly. Another nice thing to have is a weed guard. Bass will often be tucked right in amongst weed, logs, or rocks. Having a fly that bounces off all that stuff really helps.

Conclusion

So there you have it. Summer can pose some challenges for us fly anglers that are trying to stay on the bite. Warming water is certainly the driving force behind it all, as it will limit your options across all fisheries. Fish begin to act differently in direct response to the heat and their aversion to warm water is the dominant consideration anglers need to take into account. But it should keep rods bent if you think about this from the fish’s perspective and consider how it is likely to change their behavior. Hopefully, a few of the suggestions here will spark some insights about fisheries that you frequent most, or maybe prompt you to check out some new ones. After all, there is almost always a good option out there somewhere, if you’re willing to do a little thoughtful planning. While we enjoy summer just as much as the next person, we just enjoy it a little more out on the water with a fly rod still in hand. Good luck out there!


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