May is a busy month. While B.A.S.S. pros are trailering glitter ships below the Mason Dixon line—and pro walleye anglers are pursuing post-spawn fish across the mid-North—competitive fly-anglers will convene for the 12th year in a row on Cape Cod waters to catch, measure, and release striped bass on-the-fly—all while wearing waders—sans boats of any kind.
And you won’t find any big stages, lights, smoke machines, and giant purses. The 12th annual Cheeky® Schoolie Tournament is all about raising funds for striped bass conservation groups including Stripers Forever, Keep Fish Wet and the American Saltwater Guides Association. 100% of the proceeds go to striped bass conservation efforts. In 2022, the 11th Annual Schoolie tournament donated almost $28,000.
At its core, the Schoolie Tournament is a vehicle for continuing to spread the word of striped bass catch & release.
The Schoolie Tournament, held each spring on Cape Cod, is the largest fly-fishing tournament in the world and is adamantly catch & release, with teams being disqualified if fish are not photographed at or below the waterline.
Going beyond raising funds for striped bass conversation, 2023 will see the Cheeky® Schoolie Tournament working in tandem with University of Massachusetts researchers on a massive catch & release study during actual tournament hours. The goal is to collect lots of real-world data for both research fisheries biologists and anglers.
“The Schoolie Tournament is about doing something to help further our understanding of striped bass fisheries, bring in commerce to the Cape, and above all, have a really good time on-the-water,” says Peter Vandergrift of Cheeky Fishing.
Largest Fly-Fishing Tournament In the World
“It’s also the largest fly-fishing tournament in the world, which we hang our hats on,” continued Vandergrift.
“Last year we raised $28,000, which we split between non-profits. This year we hope to exceed those numbers. Although we’re not talking millions of dollars, the funds are significant for these organizations. The Schoolie Tournament also gives these organizations a platform to talk about striped bass conservation.”
Vandergrift calls striped bass “an interesting creature,” quarry he’s chased coast-to-coast—from the California Delta, through mid-South reservoirs, to fish on the eastern seaboard that migrate from the Carolinas all the way up to Maine.
“We’re at a precipice with striped bass conservation,” notes Vandergrift. “Historically, striped bass have been poorly managed—and sadly, that continues today. Last year 30,000 tons of fish were taken out of New Jersey and New York waters alone.”
Diversity, Camaraderie, and More
Vandergrift says the Schoolie event gets a lot of the same tournament registrants every year—from global jet-setting anglers to Cape Cod regulars—and everyone in between. All share the same passion: stripers on-the-fly.
“There’s incredible camaraderie at the Schoolie. It brings striped bass anglers of all skill levels together. We have lots of fathers and sons and fathers and daughters competing. There are also lifelong friends. And we have people who fly in. In 2022, our youngest registered angler was 11 and our oldest was in his 80s.”
Vandergrift notes: “We keep the registration fee low so any angler can afford to participate, but registration fills up quickly after we announce it each year. The other great thing about the tournament is there’s plenty of elbow room. The Cape of Massachusetts’ many public beaches provide easement to countless miles of striper-filled waters.”
Cheeky has also aligned itself with Keep Fish Wet, so the tournament does not allow scoring of any striped bass under 20 inches, making sure juvenile fish are released quickly and healthy. And again, all tournament fish length photos must be taken at or below the waterline.
Interestingly, only a third or so of the “competing” anglers actually compete.
“About a third of our anglers don’t even submit a score card. They just love fraternizing, showing up to the Captains’ Meeting and the Award Celebration, and the chance to fish with like-minded anglers. Of course, we also give out a great bag of gear. For the $125 entry fee you get a Captain’s Bag stuffed with well over $200 of fishing-related merchandise from Cheeky, Costa Del Mar, YETI, and SIMMS.”
Tip The Waters
On Earth Day, Saturday, April 22, Cheeky also pledged 3% of their revenue to conservation, specifically water-borne organizations. They created two programs—one for Cheeky called ‘Tip The Waters’, and one for their sister company, Windigo Outdoors, called ‘3% for the Wild’. Along the way, the brands joined 1% for the Planet and have adopted their framework.
What does it take to win the Schoolie Tournament?
Constellations aligned, good fishing conditions, and willing stripers, competitors typically need four 25-inch or better fish to qualify into the Winners’ Circle.
“Last year was our longest total winning length of 116 inches,” offers Vandergrift. “That means there are a bunch of fish pushing 30-inches in the area. The largest fish ever caught in the tournament was 36 inches. We’re still waiting for a 40-incher. I saw some giants out on a flat last year, but they totally disregarded my fly. So, trophy 40-plus-inchers roll in, but catching them on a fly rod is not easy. But all the participating anglers have their tactics and spots and keep trying. It gets pretty interesting. The stories get pretty good.”
Looking Back: The 2022 Schoolie – How It Was Won
In 2022, Bedford, New Hampshire-based fly angler, Mark Kasok, and Maine-based partner, Jared Mertens, (aka Team “Playing Hooky”) won the Schoolie Tournament, the most recent of two first-place finishes in five years of fishing the event. Kasok and Merdens set the Schoolie Tournament winning length record with 116 inches for four fish—besting second place by nearly four inches—as well as receiving honors for the largest striped bass caught during the event.
Kasok reflects on his past 15 years fly-fishing after decades of conventional angling: “Six or seven years ago—when my brother-in-law and I were prepping for the first Cheeky tournament—the same angler I won the event with in 2020—all the guys at my local New Hampshire fly shop were convinced only Cape Cod locals could win the Schoolie,” laughs Kasok. “We proved that wrong.”
While Kasok is a relative new-comer to fly angling compared to some, it’s his lifelong experience on-the-water that has put him in the Winners’ Circle numerous times. He makes sure to spend hours driving and walking the Cape shores to dial in on conditions and form a yearly strategy.
“Anytime I go down to the Cape I always bring my fly tying kit and I look to see what’s going on. The night before I’m typically up late tying patterns based on what I saw. I even go so far to keep my vice and materials in the truck on shore near where I’m wading so if there’s a pattern that’s working, and I’m losing flies, I can walk in and tie more right then and there.”
Depending on where you are on the Cape, Kasok says striped bass can be feeding on any variety of forage—from baitfish like herring, shad, mackerel, porgies, and bunker—to crabs, sand eels, or squid.
“For the most part, I’m imitating sand eels, but also throwing Deceivers and other baitfish pattern. I’ve also fished squid and crab patterns; just depends on what the fish are feeding on,” continues Kasok.
Kasok continues: “I fish a Thomas & Thomas 9-weight with a Cheeky reel, a combo that handles the Cape’s current conditions well. In terms of fly patterns, everything I’ve caught in the past five years at the tournament has been on a fly I tied—nothing store-bought. My patterns are hybrids of Clousers, Deceivers, and other generic bass patterns. Nothing too off-the-wall, but I do like to mix up the colors and materials so they’re very much my creations,” notes Kasok.
For the first time in its 12-year history, the 2023 Cheeky Schoolie Tournament is working with fisheries researchers in real-time to gather more data on striped bass behavior and catch & release mortality rates.
“This year we’re working with Dr. Andy Danylchuk, a prominent research scientist and professor at the University of Massachusetts—Amherst. He’s the foremost researcher on catch & release mortality and best practices. Recently, Dr. Andy received a Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution Sea Grant to do a two-year study on striped bass catch & release and mortality, and we’ve become an off-shoot of that work,” notes Vandergrift.
“So, we’re conducting experiments before, during, and after the tournament. In terms of logistics, there will be researchers following teams cataloging data with accelerometers that are attached to sample fish caught on the fly, which will allow the researchers an opportunity to monitor fish behavior for approximately 20 minutes after the release. The device will tell the researchers how far the fish moved in distance, how far up and down in the water column, and even reveal how much the tail is beating, an indicator of catch & release recovery. All that said, we could be collecting the most striped bass catch & release data ever in a single day, which is pretty cool,” offers Vandergrift.
- Cheeky Schoolie is a one-day, catch-photo-release, fly-fishing tournament with two-angler teams
- Scoring is a team’s top 4 striped bass photographed and released safely in accordance with Keep Fish Wet guidelines. The team with the most total inches wins.
- Tournament fishing boundaries are all of Cape Cod (you cannot cross the canal), and no use of any boats, paddles, flippers, ladders, etc. of any kind. Two feet on the ground and no swimming. If you can’t get there by walking, it’s out-of-bounds.
- The minimum size fish you can measure and enter in the tournament is 20 inches; this ensures small fish are released safely and quickly.
Vandergrift concludes: “When we first started the Schoolie Tournament it was all about fishing and hanging out with like-minded striper fly-fishing nuts. But over time it’s really become a way to give back to these awesome gamefish, and it’s now something we look forward to every year.”
Learn more about the 2023 Cheeky Schoolie Tournament here.