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Weakfish on a Fly

Posted 09/17/05
By Paul Kerlinger
Outdoors Editor

If I had to design a saltwater fish to catch on a fly rod, it would be just like a weakfish. There is no accident that weakfish are often called sea trout. They superficially look like some freshwater trout, they are streamlined and delicate looking, and they generally eat smaller food items that are easy to imitate with a fly. Hence, their suitability for catching on a fly.

Weakfish are generally not huge, rampaging fighters, so a light fly rod can be ideal. I usually use a 9 weight, although I have more fun with a 7 or 8 weight rod. The 9 weight (with a 9 or 10 weight line) works best because in salty environs there is almost always some wind and, or tide, and I like to use sinking lines.

These demand a bit more backbone and the 9 weight works just fine. Similarly, reels for weakfishing can be relatively small. Weakies normally don’t run enough line to require 300 feet of backing, although if there is a chance of hooking a large striped bass you will be sorry if you don’t have lots of backing.

Understanding weakfish feeding habits helps greatly when planning your fishing. Fly fishing for weakies is an activity that works best in low light (dawn, dusk, and night) and relatively calm water. Weakfish feed more actively in low light and at those times they also feed closer to the surface.

There are times at night and at dawn and dusk when weakies feed within only a few feet of jetties, sod banks, or beaches so long casts usually aren’t needed.

Weakfish feed on a variety of marine life. Grass shrimp is an important forage, partly because these 1-1 ½ inch morsels are so common in estuaries, marshes, bays, and other near shore habitats. The next larger prey include small fish such as silversides and bay anchovies. Like grass shrimp, these fish account for a large chunk of weakfish diet. When available, crabs, including shedder blue crabs and calicos, can be come the preferred food. Finally, during late summer, weakfish start chasing mullet and even small bunker as those fish school up and become more available.

Selecting a fly size that is similar to what the fish are eating is always appropriate. For most weakfishing, only a few flies are needed. Because these fish spend much of their time on or just above the bottom, I focus on that area by using relatively small (1/0 hooks, 2 ½-3” flies) weighted flies like Clouser minnows or jiggie heads, often on a slow or fast sinking flyline. Chartreuse and pink have proven best when fished slowly along the bottom in a jigging motion (short, sharp strips of the fly line). Clousers and jiggies induce strikes that are often rather delicate and difficult to feel. This is especially the case as the fly drops to the bottom between strips. Small weakfish are particularly troublesome this way because they often short-strike, hitting only the tail of the fly. When this happens, pros like Capt. Ray Szulczewski of the Tiderunner tells his fares to retrieve the fly steadily, with jerky strips. This allows an angler to feel the light strike of a weakfish and set-up instantly.

Weakfish aren’t always a bottom fish. When light levels are lower, such as at dusk, dawn, and during the night, weakies do come to the surface and you can sometimes see or hear them chasing small bait or sipping shrimp or other small food items. Deceivers fished below the surface or even near the bottom can work at these times. Late season flies (September into October) can be bigger, imitating mullet and even peanut bunker. Large Clousers (including half and half Clousers – with hackles included in the wing), Deceivers, and even some spun deerhair flies that push water below the surface can work very well. It’s simply a matter of trying flies until you discover which one will work and testing how you should retrieve that fly to elicit a strike.

At night, black snake flies (black deer hair spun to make a head a trailer of black mylar) can work well when fished slowly and seductively. An intermediate or slow sinking line works best, although a floating line can work if the fish are right on the surface. Short, very slow strips or a slow steady retrieve can do the trick. If there is a moon out, simply try dawn and dusk tactics – a chartreuse or other Clouser minnow fished on or near the bottom. Always fish your flies slower at night.

Dredging the bottom for weakies using clousers or jiggies often yields other treasures. Summer flounder (fluke), croakers, small bluefish, and striped bass are the usual bycatch when fishing for weakfish, but seabass, northern stargazers, sea herring, and some others are not uncommon. I’ve even foul-hooked skates, blue crabs, and horseshoe crabs. If nothing else, foul hooking these bottom dwellers tells you that your fly is where you should be.

Fly fishing for weakfish seems so natural. The food that weakfish eat are easily imitated with a fly and weakfish usually feed very close to shore in calm conditions. This makes it easy to present a fly to them. And, finally, weakfish fight beautifully on a flyrod. It almost seems as if weakfish were created to be caught wth a flyrod.

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