Sun, Sea And Fly Casting

The twin spires of New York's World Trade Center are shimmering needles on the horizon as we exit the Saugatuck River and head for the deeper water of Long Island Sound. Our destination is the Norwalk Islands, a fishery just a stone's throw from the bedroom towns of Westport and Darien, Conn. The five small islands offer the shallows, rips, sandbars, and waving stands of salt grass that attract feeding striped bass and bluefish from spring to late fall. But it's only in the past few years that they've become a fly-fishing mecca.

As a Connecticut local, I'm no stranger to the Sound. I had taken scores of blues and bottom fish and an occasional bass from it as a youth. But no one ever showed up with a fly rod, unless to practice for stream casting. Real striper fishermen worked the heavy surf off Rhode Island and Cape Cod, flailing with 10-foot rods.

LIGHT GEAR. On this trip, we're using an 18-foot Hewes Redfisher, a popular Florida Keys boat about as likely in New England as a barracuda in Alaska. We've got four fly rods on board to handle lines classified from 6- to 9-weight, an assortment of flies furnished by our guide, Jeff Northrop, and a cooler stowed under the hatch. With no tackle boxes, bait buckets, or heavy rods, it's the least encumbered saltwater fishing I've ever seen.

Abruptly, Northrop veers the boat sharply to the left and guns it down the coast. We're bypassing the islands to look for a rock. I can't see anything special in the light chop, but our guide throttles down where gulls are bobbing around a break in the wave pattern. I'm supposed to drop the fly past the rock, but I botch the first casts so badly we might as well be fishing from a pier. Unlike stream fishing, saltwater fly casts need scope. They should be 60 feet or longer and the retrieve of the line, or strip, should be fast and steady to keep the bass chasing the fly. Switching to a lighter rod with line weighted more to the front improves my wimpy throw, and I'm soon in a crouch, vigorously stripping line.

We hit pay dirt about 20 minutes later. Northrop has taken us into a cove right off Westport's main beach. He is poling the boat like a gondolier into less than a foot of water. Suddenly, the rod tip shudders, and we've got a thrashing 19-inch striper on the line. With a trout-size 6-weight rod, it's a thrill to bring in a fish this size.

In the next 30 minutes, I land two more stripers of about two feet each and miss strikes on five others. Then my son Mike, with no fly-casting experience, connects with a 30-inch, 16-pound battler that takes 17 minutes to land. His fish turns out to be the day's prize. An ecstatic Northrop stows his pole and drops anchor, declaring: "We're in a blitz." We have settled over hundreds of stripers gorging on small sand eels that have surfaced with the tide change.

Our fly, an epoxy minnow with large pasted-on eyes, sequins for scales, and a three-inch white streamer for a tail, matches the bait fish. We've now broken all the surfer's striper rules. The sun's too bright, the tide too low, and we're so close to shore the motor scrapes bottom. Yet within the next two hours, we'll have lifted 18 stripers and one blue from this suburban cove, with no fish smaller than 24 inches. We take pictures but release the fish. Stripers under 36 inches may not be kept, and Northrop, like many guides, uses barbless hooks to reduce injury to the fish.

NO SURE BET. The shallow-water Keys skiffs have opened up a range of possibilities for flycasters on the Sound. "Among fly fishermen, the area is now recognized as a world-class fishery for stripers, blues, and even some bonito," Northrop says. August through November is the peak. Guides will work winter months, but it's primarily a three-season sport, with bass action resuming in May. It's also chancy. Our catch was exceptional; one can get skunked.

Northrop's four-hour trip is $375 for two out of Saltwater Flyfishing Charters in Westport (203 226-1915). Roger Gendron offers skiff fishing for two at $250 a day through Connecticut Island Charters in Westport (203 221-0763). Guides Tom Shubat and Scott Loecher at the Compleat Angler in Darien (203 655-9400) charge $150 for a half-day shore-fishing session. If you'd like to read up on saltwater fly fishing, Inshore Fly Fishing by Lou Tabory (Lyon and Burford, $32.95), offers good background. The saltwater sport is as addictive as fly-casting in the middle of a stream.