Much how a dog provides a great reason to go for a walk, a fly rod gives you the world’s best excuse to get out on the water and a new way to enjoy the waters of the Chesapeake Bay.
I don’t like to use the word ‘expert’ to describe myself because there’s always someone that knows more than you. Fishing guides are experts. Biologists are experts. I’m just a writer.
But I know the Eastern Shore. Even though I wasn’t born here, it’s home. And even though I no longer live here, it’s still home. I’ve eaten its food, driven countless miles on its roads, and I’ve fly fished its waters for most of my life so if I’m an expert in anything, it’s exploring the Eastern Shore with a fly rod.
Most of my writing has been for fly fishing magazines that are read by fly fishermen so it’s a special thing for me to be able to introduce the concept of fly fishing to a different group of readers. Talking with the other contributors to this piece, all were excited about the opportunity to introduce the sport of fly fishing to a new demographic for two massive reasons: the health of the Chesapeake Bay watershed is directly affected by people who care about it, and fly fishing is an incredibly effective way to get people out on the water and actively aware of its value.
As a reader of Shore Monthly, chances are that you have a basic knowledge of two things: fishing and geography. If you’re familiar with fishing on the Chesapeake Bay and its tidal waters, you’re probably familiar with the fish that live here like striped bass, red drum, sea trout, flounder, perch, and croaker. While bait and light tackle anglers enjoy recreational fishing for these fish, fly anglers can easily and effectively target them as well. There’s no magic to it; it’s just another way to fish for the same fish with different gear and a little practice.
The waters of Maryland’s Eastern Shore, quite simply, beg to be explored. There is a spectrum of time and commitment that come with exploration. On the casual end, there’s the easily accessible mill ponds and headwaters of tidal creeks that are full of freshwater gamefish like bass, crappie and bluegill. Downstream, these creeks feed into small tributaries and rivers that are perfect for kayaks and small johnboats and hold good numbers of perch and small stripers. And finally, the open water of the Chesapeake Bay offers up the possibility of larger gamefish, nautical adventure, and schools of breaking striped bass. All of these environments hold fish, and all of these fish can be taken on flies.
Most “starting out in fly fishing” articles have some boilerplate instructions on what to buy and where to go, but I’m not sure that they’re always useful in the long term. In a lot of cases, they’re geared towards selling a beginner’s outfit, not a rod that you’ll use for years. This one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t take into account your specific application of gear.
My advice is a little less direct: Consider what you really want to fish for, and what environment you truly see yourself in. Is it the headwaters of the tidal creeks, the main stems of the rivers, or out on the Bay? If you can identify the water that resonates with you, then buy the right rod, reel, and fly line that are appropriate. Not sure what rod makes sense? Talk to someone (see below) who really knows fly fishing and Eastern Shore waters before you buy. And from there, practice casting. Practice on your own, practice with people who know, and just get out there.
The Real Experts
While I have my own view of what fly fishing on the Eastern Shore looks like, it is meaningful to share some words from four other fishermen who have helped shape and continue the fly fishing opportunities that we have here today. All of them are key parts of the Eastern Shore fly fishing community and are your best references for starting out, getting out, and catching your first fish on a fly rod.
Captain Steve Mason is a fulltime firefighter and EMT on the western shore but lives and guides on Tangier Sound. He and his family are Princess Anne natives, so he has the benefit of a lifetime of fishing the lower Chesapeake Bay.
“I think one of the advantages that locals have over visitors is our lifetime immersion in the fishery. Spots come and go, and conditions change from year to year, but we have a more complete backstory from fishing, and talking about things with our friends and families. That fluency is something that can’t be taught.”
Steve fishes out of Deal Island on his 21-foot Parker and tends to focus on the inshore waters of upper Tangier Sound for shallow water stripers but will also head south to Virginia’s Eastern Shore for red drum. He can be reached at beachtobayguides.com
“The fish that we find down here are healthy striped bass that really respond to flies. It’s like they can’t help themselves sometimes, and if you can make a halfway decent cast to shorelines or into breaking fish, they’ll hit.”
It’s not an exaggeration to call Tony Frederich the conscience of Chesapeake Bay fishermen and one of the loudest voices advocating for the health of its fisheries. He’s spent the bulk of his professional career driving conservation efforts here in the Mid-Atlantic and is currently the vice president, policy director of the American Saltwater Guides Association.
“When anything you learn, you learn the hard way, that’s probably what you’re best at. And when you suffer through the learning curve and keep coming back until you’re successful, you’re vested,” Frederich said. “And when something has given you so much, why wouldn’t you want to protect it?”
“It’s all I know how to do. I do it because when we do win it’s because of something way more important than me. I could not imagine a world where I could not go out and fish but I wouldn’t do what I do without hope.”
After talking with him about the current state of the fishery, it’s nice to hear him use the word “hope.” He’s mentioned poor striped bass spawning classes, the undeniable impact of recreational anglers, and a lack of action from state managers, so to hear him shift gears so genuinely takes me aback. Tony, along with his commitment to conservation, has been the principal driver of Tie Fest, now Lefty Kreh’s Tie Fest, the largest fly-fishing show in Maryland for anglers, guides, vendors, and fly fishers.
“Tie Fest started in my friend’s basement as a way for us to get together in the winter and tie flies and talk about fly fishing. But after a few years we outgrew the basement and moved it to the local fly shop, Winchester Creek Outfitters. We were expecting around 30 people but around 100 people showed up, all standing shoulder to shoulder. There were rumors that Lefty might show up and when he walked through the door the place just went crazy.”
Tie Fest Grew from there: people kept coming to learn about fly fishing, and vendors and speakers followed suit. The next year they were in the Elks Club, after that, they rented out the Chesapeake Bay Beach Club, and this past year, it’s 19th, they moved across the Bay to accommodate its largest turnout yet.
“Tie Fest is really about two things: teaching the next generation about fly fishing and driving conservation efforts to protect our natural resources. This was a promise that I made to Lefty after that first Tie Fest at Winchester Creek, and that promise meant something to me.”
Captain Chris Karwacki first fished the waters around Crisfield in 1994 and hasn’t fished anywhere since.
“I remember that my dad and I saw Crisfield on a map and just went exploring. It was all over after that first trip and my family and I just settled in. We own a house on the Little Annamessex River and the waters of the Chesapeake Bay are a part of our daily lives.”
Chris tends to focus on the shallow water fishery of lower Tangier Sound and the islands that are very conducive to fly fishing. He fishes out of a 23’ Jones Brothers center console and can be reached at chesapeakeonthefly.com
“What makes Crisfield unique is that we’re off the beaten path and fishing pressure is substantially lower than other portions of the Chesapeake Bay. On top of that, the water is super clean — even in the summer — the salinity levels are higher than the upper Bay. This means that we have a higher variety of gamefish available, more red drum, speckled trout, and flounder than you typically see up north. There’s always something to catch.”
Joe Capozzoli represents a cross-section of fly fishing on the Chesapeake Bay. He’s a writer, public speaker, rod maker, fly tie-er, and fly casting instructor based out of Shore Tackle & Custom Rods on Kent Island. He’s a transplant from New Jersey but has lived on the Eastern Shore for nearly four decades.
The fly rods that he makes are lovely, custom pieces unlike many of the mass-produced rods currently on the market. Because he wraps and assembles them himself, he can take painstaking effort in selecting the right components for each rod and matching them to the angler’s taste. Along with that, he obsesses over things like guide placement and blank choice so that the rod itself does as much work as possible in casting a fly line for the angler.
“Every rod that I make is the culmination of the rods that I’ve made before it. I’m constantly trying to improve, and I’ve been doing this for a long time.”
As a casting instructor and a natural caster of fly rods, he takes the same approach of constant improvement. Even at this stage in his fly-fishing career he still makes time to practice every week, constantly working to perfect the smallest nuances of his cast.
“I do casting demonstrations every year at the Waterfowl Festival in Easton, and one of the most common questions that I get afterwards is, ‘Where can I go and do this?’ And the answer is everywhere. There’s just a lot of fishable water here from farm ponds to creeks to tributaries that feed into rivers, there’s always a place to fish and fish to be caught whether they’re stripers or perch, or croakers, or even snakehead. If you say that you just want to catch stripers, you’re honestly limiting yourself.”
Brett Gaba is an outdoor writer who lives in Seattle, Washington. He holds bachelor’s degrees from Washington College and Salisbury University. He has written for The Star Democrat and Eastern Fly Fishing, the Mid-Atlantic Fly Fishing Guide, and Kayak Angler magazines. His book, “Fly Fishing the Tidewaters of Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay,” was published by Schiffer Books in 2015. He is currently the senior editor of Steelheader’s Journal, an annual magazine about fly fishing for steelhead.