The Wiper Fly Fishing Experience

Wiper, the hybrid striped bass/white bass, is gaining a lot of popularity in fishing circles across Colorado and surrounding areas that have wiper fisheries. The greatest excitement is probably found among the relatively small circle of fly fishers who pursue them. Once you find these fish, fooling them with a fly is not difficult. The powerful fight that entails is something that will almost make you wonder why you’d fish for anything else.

Now, wiper are fairly mysterious fish and volumes have not been written on the subject of fishing for them. As with any type of fishing article, authors offer information based on their experiences, leaving the door wide open for an array of other tactics, insights, and opinions. It seems everyone I talk to about wiper have their own thoughts that have been formulated not by magazine articles and fishing shows, but from their own personal quests. This article is nothing different. I have put in many hours behind the reel searching for these steamrollers, and the following is a compilation of my experiences.

Fly fishing for wiper can be humbling, but if you get that one trip under your belt where you really get into them and figure them out, you will be hooked for life. Having these hybrid-vigor fueled fish tear line out of your hands is an amazing feeling, and we should consider ourselves lucky to have this fish available to us. It’s like saltwater fishing in the Rockies.

Wiper will eat forage fish about the width of the gape of their mouth, entitling this 6-inch shad to be dinner for the big boys.

Finding the fish:

The most important thing in any type of fishing is locating the fish. If you’re fishing trout in a river you look for pockets and runs of the right depth, size, and water speed. When smallmouth fishing in a lake, you look for certain structure and depth depending on the time of year, or you survey with your electronics. Whatever the scenario, if you find the spots where the living is easy and the food aplenty, you will find big fish.

It is often assumed wiper travel constantly and randomly around the lake in schools at generally high speeds picking off whatever food they come across. My thoughts are that this is partially correct. I have witnessed their schooling mentality and their speed of travel. One moment they will bust near the surface 50 yards to the east, and the next you will see them flashing underneath your boat and onto the west. But I don’t think it is completely random. Those frustrated by this thought, hang in there. This may not be an easy fish to locate, but I don’t think it’s a crap shot.

Every fish has some level of energy conservation written into their DNA. If they did not, they would exhaust themselves swimming about freely all day long. Think about trout in a river – the biggest fish will take the best spots where current is slight but carries plenty of oxygen and food so they can keep growing big and fat.

Wiper are no different. They have spots and patterns on each body of water that provide what they need – food. With little current to speak of in general, forage is the key. They are not so much like bass that they need cover and structure to ambush fish. They are more effective schooling and taking a team-based approach to feeding. The best example of this is when they corral baitfish to the surface, bay, or other type of trap so they can perform their signature “busting” feast.

Wind blowing into any structure makes that structure better. This complex has plenty to offer wiper, especially traps for schooling baitfish.

But what about when they are not busting baitfish near the surface? I believe they are doing similar things subsurface. Here’s where experience with a lake, knowing structure and water temperatures on the lake, and understanding wiper movement comes into play the most. Wiper like other fish will use underwater structure, edges if you will, as their highways. Perhaps it is a depth breakline, submerged road beds, rocks, sunken trees, or humps. Perhaps it’s a weed line, mud line, or inlet/outlet channel. Whatever it is, these edges define a path for them. These fish travel in a route consistent with edges and the availability of food.

The “available and abundant” theory expressed by a variety of authors is alive and well. Wherever there is an abundance of food that is highly available to predators, you will find fish. So is the case with wiper. However, don’t expect the schools to sit still in one area for long. Instead expect the schools to travel paths between or with abundant food sources. That’s right, I said “with.” Wiper are ravenous beasts. They have been known to decimate forage populations. They are living vacuums. In understanding this, definitely consider baitfish schools structure. Wiper almost certainly corral and follow schools of shad and other forage fish when abundantly present. One of the best indicators in finding wiper is prevailing wind. Always check the leeward side of a lake which may harbor schools of baitfish.

Chasing wiper around a lake is not often considered a smart thing to do. It wears out trolling motor batteries and may tear your heart out. Don’t get me wrong, I do it myself all the time – especially when the busting activity is moving slowly in semi-predictable fashion. I am not the type to sit in one spot and fish for hours even if it is the best choice. My only recommendation is to find a happy medium.

Surface water temperatures are one important piece of the puzzle that will help you find wipers. These temps combined with knowledge of the fish’s movement and preferred forage will provide a good starting point to finding wipers on any given day. In the spring as surface water temps approach the 50’s, wiper will become more and more active. Optimal temps are relative to a body of water and strain of fish, but in general the farther away you get from the optimal range for any fish, the lower their metabolism and thus the less they are compelled to eat and the slower their actions will be.

One of the reasons we put the Fish Explorer website together is to provide information that will help you find fish in individual water bodies. Our focus on water temperatures is not simply a novelty. If you understand how water temperatures affect fish on a particular lake, you are one step ahead of the game.

As wiper become more active in the early season, they reportedly go into a false-spawn. At lakes with active, accessible inlet streams at the right time of year, as Jackson Lake in northeast Colorado often experiences, wiper will actually run up the inlets as if spawning. In other places such as Union Reservoir, we have seen hordes of wiper stacked outside the inlet in a typical pre-spawn staging. It is also possible that these fish are relating to the shad that are in spawn mode. Whatever the reason for this activity, it would be a good place to check these inlet areas early in the season and any time of year, especially when the water is flowing.

Outlets are also a good place to scope out wipers any time of year, especially when the faucets are turned on. At Jackson Lake it was reported that several hundred wiper escaped into the outlet river, compelling officials to put in a screen downstream to capture the AWOL and return them to the reservoir.

In both of these cases, one thing is for sure – food organisms up and down the chain are drawn to these areas at any time of the year, which may prove to be enough draw to concentrate these ever-feeding fish.

When surface water temps are in the mid 50’s to mid 60’s wiper fishing seems to be the best in Colorado. They will be active in the upper column of water meaning they are more readily available and recognizable to the fly fisherman. The upper column feeding means that fish will be in the shallows, or they may be over deeper water but up high. During this period, you will also witness good wiper fishing all day, as opposed to the oft-assumed theory that wiper are only low-light feeders. I believe wiper feed all day just like trout in a river, because they inherently like to expend energy by swimming around and thus must eat accordingly.

Analyzing satellite images can help you determine lake structure. In this image of Jackson Lake you can easily see where the “flats” are versus the main basin, which may lead you to warmer water areas in the early-season.

As water temps rise, the fish will typically move deeper to more comfortable water. The temps are better, the forage thinks so too, and sunlight/UV rays will be more dispersed. This is the most difficult time to find wiper, and you really need to put your time in and get to know a lake for its structure and tendencies. Often experimentation and time on the water will be the primary key to your success. During these times you may find wiper moving back to the surface column at night, dawn, dusk, and very cloudy days. This is the typical low-light feeding scenario aforementioned. Wiper will still be feeding mid-day, just deeper. If you’re like most people and like to see fish in the upper column or in close to shorelines, fish the low-light times.

As fall approaches and water temps lower, wiper will move back into the upper column and you will again be greeted with more optimal fishing conditions. As is typical with most fish species, the pre-ice season turns wiper into ravenous beasts. They will feed heavily. Catching this period will often produce larger fish due to the fact the fish have been growing all season and are eager to eat whatever they can before they slow down for the winter.

Two thoughts come to mind at this point as I run out of ideas to express on how to find these fish: non-standard structure and rise identification. As Dick Pearson describes so well in his book “Muskies on the Shield”, structure is not necessarily always stationary and permanent like points, humps, and weeds. Often edges can be defined in less physical terms. Other edges you may consider are baitfish schools, wind current, and my favorite, carp pods.

If you see a swarm of seagulls or diving birds congregating in the middle of a lake, go over and check it out, you might find a nice school of baitfish that has drawn not only flying critters, but wiper as well. If there’s a good wind, look for current or places where the wind makes a “spot” a better “spot”. Examples are wind blown vegetation edges, a wind-blown point, or a saddle. Current will concentrate forage into certain areas and the wiper will be there.

Regarding carp pods – don’t overlook them. We have fished around carp pods and hooked really nice wiper. Stay as far away from the slow-moving mud-stirring pods as you can so not to spook them. Cast right over their edges and off further to the sides, but not right into them. Spooking them may break up the pod and in turn you may lose your structure. We will often fish bugger or crayfish patterns in this scenario, as we think the wiper are taking advantage of the plethora of food items being stirred up by the scrounging carp.

By rise identification, I mean being able to look at a fish breaking the surface and determining what kind of fish it is and what it is doing. One calm day on Union Reservoir, we were looking for wiper and having a tough go at it. There were rises all over the lake that we initially determined were trout or bass taking insects. As we studied the actions more thoroughly we began to notice a difference in rise forms. One type of rise was different than the others – it was more of a quick “pop” than a quick splash or slurp. Soon we discovered these somehow transferred into wiper – although we aren’t sure if they were wiper eating insects or small fish near the surface, or perhaps a school of shad that were semi-frequently slurping the top. We spent the rest of the trip looking for this rise form, quickly casting streamers into the vicinity, and hooking into several wiper.

Observation is key no matter what sort of fish you are going after. Continuously observe everything around you such as water temps, lake structure, bird activity, insect activity, barometric pressure, weather changes, wind direction, wind speed, your partner’s headache, and anything else that could play into the overall puzzle you are trying to solve. Even the smallest things may trigger a thought process that could lead to success.

First, bring binoculars with you. When you have a lot of water to cover, extending your eyesight could give you the edge. They are an invaluable tool on the water when trying to locate busting fish. If you see or hear some splashing on a distant shoreline, break out your binoculars and see if they’re spawning carp, shore birds, or really wiper crashing bait in shallow water. Scan over the lake to see if you can find any surface disturbance or any birds actively feeding. One day a pair of binoculars might be the difference between boom or bust.

Second, it should be mentioned that we don’t always find wiper in large, tight schools. We often see sporadic wiper spooked by the boat jetting away from the boat. I don’t think these are necessarily solo fish, but I don’t think they’re in large schools either. If you see this happen, take some time to fan-cast the area looking for more. Take note of where you saw the fish and come back later. And more importantly try to find some other spots that fit the same makeup where you saw the fish, paying attention to wind direction, structure, depth, etc.

Now on to actually fly fishing for wiper…

Presenting Flies to Wiper:

Presenting to wipers with a fly is not rocket science. Consider the fly and setup you use to be a tool. When you are fishing to wiper in the upper water column, present your fly there. When fishing to wiper down deep, present there.

The type of fly rod you use is determined by what you’re throwing. You will often want to cast far, so I’d recommend not going lighter than a 6wt rod. If you’re finding wiper relating to the surface you will want to throw poppers or high-riding streamers, therefore a 6wt is adequate with floating or short sink-tip lines. If you want to fish a few feet down, throwing a 150-grain RIO 24-foot sink tip is the ticket, and again a fast 6wt rod should do the trick. When you need to get deeper, say 5-10 feet deep, throwing a 200 or 250-grain RIO sink tip would do the trick and you will want to be using a 7wt or 8wt rod simply to be able to handle the heft of these lines. Go to a 300-500 grain line to get deeper, upgrading to a rod between an 8 and 10 weight to carry the load. With a well-made rod with some backbone, you should be able to play even the largest wipers available in the state.

Having a fly rod with a strong backbone is essential for landing the biggest wipers Colorado has to offer.

The main factor with what tippet to use is strength. I am not a firm believer in leader shyness when fishing streamers to stillwater fish. As long as you’re not using telephone cable and you’re not fishing super slow, I don’t think wipers will be deterred by your tippet. I will most often use 15-20 pound fluorocarbon tippet which for me has not broken off on a strike yet. The worst mistake you can make is to go too light and break off on a fish. I’ll use a couple of feet of 40-pound mono looped to a couple feet of 20-pound mono looped to the fluorocarbon tippet. So typically my entire leader is not much more than 6 feet long. However when I fish on or very near the surface, I will go longer.

When you’re fishing to wiper, you will want to vary your retrieve until you find what works best. Typically you cannot strip fast enough through busting schools. But often you will find that quick short strip-strip-strip-pause retrieves work better in other conditions and to well-fed wiper. Vary the pause length….you may be surprised to lose hold of your line as you look up to say something to your buddy on one of the pauses and a wiper grabs the suspended fly and turns at Mach 1 in the opposite direction. One thought that should play into your technique is the belief that some of the biggest wiper will sit below schools of shad, waiting for easy pickings. If you drop your fly through and under the baitfish school you may find a heavy surprise down below. Experiment every time you go out, the mood of the fish seems to change daily.

Bait size is a factor. In some studies on bass feeding, it is proven that fish in certain bodies at a given time of year will have a preferred bait size. For wiper, I have been told that they like to eat baitfish that are as long as the width of the gape of their mouth when open. Experiment with streamer sizes if you’re having trouble locating and hooking fish. If you’re fishing with a partner, start off the day fishing different colors and different sizes until one of you has more success than the other, then switch over to the hot bait. We have had success with streamers as short as one inch to streamers as long as six inches.

Which color fly to use is opening a huge can of worms. As my good friend and perennial fisherman Phil Small says, “If it ain’t chartreuse, it ain’t no use.” That often may be the case, although we fish chartreuse very often which may skew the numbers. One theory I believe in is contrast….to use a fly that is two-colored, often with a light and a dark. The reason this may be effective is that fish see colors differently throughout the day, and therefore may pick up on the contrast if one or both of the colors is less visible at the time. You may try to “match-the-hatch” or go with more of an attractor pattern….and either may work, but I do not know of any tried-and-true pattern that works every time all of the time. It took me a long time to believe in any color theories, but I now believe color has something to do with the equation. So again, experiment daily with color, determine if one pattern is working more so than another, and run with it.

These are some of my most commonly used flies when fishing for wiper. From top, l-r: A saltwater popper, perch-colored Rainy’s CF Baitfish Streamer – unweighted, a home-tied big clouser-style shad imitation, chartreuse/white clouser, another big shad imitation, a streamer weighted body with wrap-around lead, and my favorite crayfish/bugger pattern with twist-tail.

Whether you use weighted streamers or not is another item to experiment with. We have had success fishing very light flies, lead-head or clouser-type flies, and weighted-body flies. Clouser-type flies work very well when using the strip-pause retrieve and when fishing a little lower in the water column. Weightless flies seem to work better when fishing high and fast especially on a sink-tip…but don’t fail to experiment fishing very light flies on floating line quickly right in the surface film which gives an injured baitfish kind of look. You may also try fishing clouser-type flies on floating line to fish just under the surface. If you’re looking for fish down deep, sinking lines and heavy flies will allow you to cover more water quickly.

Whether to use a sparsely tied or a very hairy fly is yet another option that the wipers will help you decide. To give some guidance based on my observations, try sparser streamers in water with good clarity, and thicker, hairier streamers in discolored water or mudlines. Flies that produce more water disturbance as they’re retrieved will appeal better to the lateral line senses utilized more so by fish in darker waters. This is also the case for night fishing.

One area I have yet to experiment with greatly is the use of surface flies, namely poppers. Definitely give poppers a chance, especially in low-light conditions or in busting schools. Vary retrieves from a pop-pop pause, to ripping the popper through the surface film. The typical rule of thumb in top water presentation is to create just enough disturbance to attract fish. You’ll want to try fishing larger poppers that make more noise in choppy conditions, and smaller poppers in still conditions.

And do not forget flies other than streamers. As I mentioned before, we’ve caught plenty of wipers on bugger and crayfish patterns, especially around pods of carp when we were most inclined to throw them. The rule of abundant and available applies anytime you fish. If there’s an abundance of crayfish available to wiper, you better give it a shot. One way to know for sure what the fish are concentrating on is to look for undigested food coming out of a fish you’ve caught. One weekend fishing on Horsetooth Reservoir for smallmouth, we noticed a small orange chunk of crayfish spewed from the mouth of a bass we had on the hook next to the boat. It had been a tough day finding any smallies that day as we rotated between a variety of streamer patterns and retrieves. Truth is the smallies had turned onto the molting crayfish much like trout key in on insect hatches.

Presenting crayfish with a fly rod is not as easy as fishing a tube jig on a spin rod. You want to fish them slow and low, preferably in areas with various sized rip-rap and boulders, even ticking the rocks. Doing so will often lead to plenty of hang-ups and lost flies. To improve your efficiency, fish a short sink-tip line with crayfish patterns designed to ride hook-point-up. The best crayfish patterns are those that are tied more like a wooly bugger, with short or no pincers (chelae), and in a color leaning more towards orange/tan than dark brown. In studies that relate to this subject, smallmouth bass preferred softer molting crayfish over larger hard-shell crayfish, the former tending to be of lighter color.

The jury is still deliberating on whether fishing insect imitations to wiper is effective. I myself have not tried this one lick. Whenever I have found wiper smacking the surface in a manner that might suggest that they are eating insects, a streamer always did the trick. But, perhaps this is a technique to consider. I believe all fish eat insects at some time or another – and I would guess that wipers may do so more than one might think.

For slower fishing, and when letting our fly drop below shad schools, I like to go with a shinier and more active streamer like this sparkly clouser-style streamer.

The Battle:

The wiper fight is what you came for. These fish take a fly in what was described by Dennis McKinney’s DOW Outdoor’s Journal article “Wiper Watch” as a U-turn fashion, which I completely agree with. The initial take is a hard thump, as if they hit it going 30 MPH in the opposite direction. Setting the hook should not be a problem as they tend to hook themselves.

Getting the fish to the reel, meaning picking up all the slack so your reel drag is activated, is not difficult to do with wiper. They will typically take all the slack line at your feet out with them on the first run. Just make sure you’re not wrapped around your feet, bushes, or items in your boat before the strike. Doing so may bring the fight to an abrupt halt and will cost you about one fly.

The fight can vary, but typically they will make a very pronounced initial run followed by a rest period and subsequent sharp runs. Do not overplay the fish to the point it is exhausted, and do not try to net the fish so green that it will injure itself flailing about. Take advantage of their “rest periods” by turning their heads gently, pumping your rod, and reeling in line to bring them closer to you. Let them take drag when they want to run. Do not put too much pressure on the fish as you may wear a hole in their lip that will make escape much easier for them. And do not, by any means, give them slack line.

After a few runs, if the fish seems to be losing some steam, put more pressure on the fish to bring it to the net. Once landed, if you plan to release the fish, handle it gently, support its weight fully when lifted for a photo, and return it to the water promptly. I have had no problem reviving wiper when handled in this manner. We always fish barbless and have not lost any fish due to this factor alone (if we do lose a fish it’s typically our own fault for allowing slack.) I encourage barbless fishing for any type of fishing you may try…hooks are easier to get out of your skin when the inevitable occurs, the hooks set deeper, and as long as you keep your line taught I do not believe you will ever lose a fish due to barbless hooks. But you will lose fish to weak hooks, so use strong saltwater hooks for your wiper flies or they might come back as straight as an arrow.

Smaller Wiper can be “thumbed” out of the water, but if you plan to release the fish, be sure to support their full body and don’t leave them hanging by the lip.

In conclusion, if you have not hooked into a wiper on the fly, you’ve got to give it a shot. But be aware that it may turn you into a wiper junkie. Finding wipers is a majority of the battle, so concentrate your efforts there, and when you do find them get ready for a battle! These observations are only from my experiences and a lot is yet to be written on this subject.