Every time you enter a new fishery there are a few moments of complete doubt.
I had never fly fished for striped bass before this year’s Cheeky Schoolie Tournament on Cape Cod. With my northern New Jersey, trout fishing background I was a little skeptical about the whole concept from the start. To me, waders are for freshwater and salmonids, not cold oceans and juvenile striped bass. Flats? Those are in the Caribbean, not off the coast of Massachusetts. But when my buddy Pat McEvoy called and asked me to be his partner, I was too interested to say no.
I took the day off work Friday to drive up in time for the pre-tournament meeting at the Swan River Restaurant in Dennis Port. For me, a gathering of fly fishermen is the best party in the world. All you have to do to start a conversation is say something like “hey man, white and chartreuse flies tomorrow?” and you’re comparing notes on various striper fishing tactics (which I needed badly). Luckily for me, my teammate Pat grew up on Cape Cod and knows all [some] of the good spots for schoolies.
Friday night at the Swan River went as you might expect. Conversation rarely varied from fly fishing, lots of people left after the raffle, and at one o’clock there was just a small collection of drunks left at the following bar in Hyannis. A lot of teams take this tournament really seriously, but with my limited knowledge of the fishery I wasn’t too concerned with winning and put an emphasis on enjoying the company of 240 other fly fishermen. The Cheeky Schoolie Tournament is in it’s 5th year now, and boasts the title of the biggest wading/ fly fishing/ catch & release tournament in the world. This year was the biggest ever, with 120 teams of two competing. The winner would be the team with the top 4 longest fish, but there are multiple other prizes including the smallest fish prize and the “skunk” award for those who didn’t catch anything.
Check in for the tournament began Saturday morning at 5:20 am. Pat and I pulled into the parking lot at 5:45, sipping down an extra large coffee and not quite feeling hungover yet. The beachside lot was packed with fly fishermen pulling on waders and drinking coffee, discussing strategy in hushed tones. We picked up our captain’s bag, complete with tournament photo puck and measuring tape, and waited for Ted Upton of Cheeky Reels to send us on our way.
A reminder of the rules was shouted down from the top of the Cheeky van, and when the whistle sounded a few fishermen took off with the composure of someone trying to put away their overhead luggage. Others were just strolling in, bags under their eyes and coffees in hand.
Pat and I shit-talked our way back to the car and drove west about twenty minutes to our first spot. Rods were strung as the Allman Brothers played and a few spin fishermen pulled up next to us. With the sun about 3 fingers above the horizon, we strolled out onto the beach and began walking to our first schoolie flat. I was beyond excited at this point. All the conversation in the past 24 hours was leading up this moment when we were finally going to wet a line, and in the back of my head I thought I might even be able to win this thing.
We pushed out onto the flat about 30 yards apart, blind casting. I was kind of aiming at where the birds were diving, just because I knew there was at least bait there and I wanted a target to practice with a sinking line, specifically designed for striper fishing.
This is where the doubt starts to set in. Early on in a new fishery, there’s a small inkling in any angler’s head that it’s all just a big joke on you and there aren’t actually fish there at all. Cheeky just sets up this tournament every year to fool guys like me into thinking that waders are for salt water and that there are flats in the Northeast.
But the doubt didn’t have long to settle in. Ten minutes into the day I was hooked up to my first fish. Pat was yelling words of encouragement and sloshing his way over to me for the picture, but after a few seconds we realized that I had actually hooked a fluke, not a schoolie! We took a picture anyway.
Just feeling a rod and a line come to life will do wonders for confidence (fish smell confidence), and within another 15 casts I was hooked up to my first and biggest schoolie of the day. The fight was more than I expected on an 8 wt Sage Salt, and I may have indulged myself momentarily and let him flirt with my backing. Pat thumbed the fish and we were faced with taking the photo – an impossible task that took at least 3 fish to figure out. According to Cheeky tournament rules, photos must be taken with a unique photo puck and tournament tape measure, given out in the captain’s bag that morning.
It took us a few attempts, but we figured it out in the end.
And there it was. Fly fishing, wading, and catching striped bass were all possible on Cape Cod.
With the smell off my waders and a smile on my face, I landed another ten-incher a few minutes later. Small fish were equally exciting as big fish because Cheeky had cleverly included a prize for smallest schoolie. At the end of the tournament, I overheard most anglers asking what the smallest fish was, hoping that their nine-incher may have made the cut. I think the smallest was 8 inches in the end.
Throughout the rest of the day, Pat and I had about 12 fish and as many beers between us. We brought two 8 weights, but the only one that caught fish was the one with the sinking line – clearly a necessity for striper fishing. After about 6 hours of double hauling this heavy sinking line, we called it a day and headed back to the bar to get a jumpstart on cocktail hour – all smiles and 75 inches of schoolie stripes between us!
Enter today for a chance to win:
– $300 for any fishing trip on Amberjack
– Tyro 375 reel from Cheeky
– Fly lines, leaders, and tippets from RIO
– Two hats, sunshield & performance shirt from RepYourWater
– All kinds of essentials from Loon Outdoors
Help make striped bass a gamefish at Stripersforever.org