New Hampshire's Piscataqua River Striped Bass
September 29, 2010
The bite is on, and the striper fishing is great in the Piscatuqua River this month. Here's a look at how you can get in on the action right now!
By Mike Spinney
As my friend Dale and I pushed off from his dock on the Lamprey River, which feeds into New Hampshire's Great Bay estuary, we were excited because we knew there were lots of schoolie stripers in the river, typical for mid-June. The evening before, a school of stripers started breaking the surface alongside his Boston Whaler and he had to abruptly end our cell-phone conversation because he needed his hands free!
We headed toward the mouth of Great Bay, where it empties into the Piscataqua River at Dover Point. The fish were feeding steadily along a ledge and dropoff. Each drift through the area produced fish that slammed our surface lures.
Only one other boat was visible that morning, and soon Dale and I were alone with the fish. We continued to catch and release striper after striper, all within a range of about 18 to 24 inches.
A few weeks later, we returned to the Piscataqua with streamers and poppers that we cast to isolated pods of fish that had set up to feed in the rips and eddies of the Piscataqua's southern bank. We found plenty of willing fish in front of a Newington marina, inside a swirling cove, and at Dover Point at the mouth of Great Bay.
Our biggest problem that day wasn't how but where, and we moved from location to location, catching fish all the way from Dover to Portsmouth. There were more boats out that day, but not many considering it was mid-July and the bite was on. The sun was bright and warm, and the fishing fast and uncrowded.
Photo by Michael Skinner
So it is on the Piscataqua, a gem of a striper river sandwiched between Massachusetts and Maine. Locations like Cape Ann and Plum Island, Saco Bay and the Kennebec River get most of the attention from striper anglers, which is a shame. The Piscataqua is a beautiful, productive river that offers striper fishermen a number of angling options.
From Portsmouth, New Hampshire, where the river empties into the Gulf of Maine, the Piscataqua seems to be a large river. Broad and swift, its formidable appearance is amplified by the large cargo ships that regularly steam into port facilities along the New Hampshire shore, and by the U.S. Navy shipyard on the Maine bank, where nuclear submarines come and go for service.
But, the river is short - a little over 20 miles long. It is primarily a deep tidal inlet, but because it is fed by numerous freshwater tributaries and a considerable estuary, it is a rich 20 miles, and stripers come in large numbers to feed in the Piscataqua's rich waters.
"The watershed is very healthy, definitely an estuary that is in great shape," said Doug Grout, a marine biologist with the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department. Grout points to conservation efforts by private and public groups, such as the Great Bay Estuary Research Reserve, for helping to maintain the river's productive quality.
"A lot of people spend a lot of time working to keep the Piscataqua healthy," he noted.
It's difficult to miss the river. Driving north toward Maine on Interstate 95, all roads lead to the Piscataqua, where most of the traffic headed into the Pine Tree State is funneled over the river at Portsmouth via bridges on either I-95 or U.S. Route 1.
It can be chilly in the morning, even in midsummer, so be prepared by dressing in light layers, and bring your rain gear.
BOATING IS BEST Most of the fishing in the Piscataqua is done by boat. Open craft 18 to 22 feet with walk-around cockpits are good choices, though smaller boats will fare well if the weather is agreeable, which it often is in June and July. I've seen anglers in 14-foot bass boats taking part in the fun, but be aware that the currents in the Piscataqua are very strong, and while you'll make good time going with the current, a change in tide or reversing direction will be difficult without ample horsepower. Add a headwind to the equation, and you'll wish you'd planned better.
Open-style boats allow for casting anglers to conduct their business with good mobility and access to the fish. When the schoolies are feeding on the surface, quick changes in direction are often required.
WHERE TO FIND THEM Areas to try include the numerous points and ledges throughout Great Bay. Focus on the slick waters downcurrent and on the edges of eddies. Stripers will hold in these areas to ambush bait. The area around Dover Point is productive both upstream and outside the mouth.
"I concentrate on areas near deep water that change suddenly to shallow flats or structure," said Rick Vandenberg, Piscataqua River enthusiast and member of the Coastal Conservation Association. Vandenberg advises that the best time to be on the river is between 4 a.m. and 6 a.m.
"Sometimes the action lasts for several hours, and sometimes it only lasts until the sun comes up," he noted.
There are good holes on the Maine side of the river from Spinney Creek down through to the shipyard. Consult a chart and a local tackle shop, and keep an eye out for telltale currents as the tide ebbs and flows in the river.
Anglers without access to a boat will find that both terrain and an abundance of private property in this desirable location limit shore access. There are a handful of spots for the shore-bound fisherman to try, however, including the waters around Hilton Park in Dover. Because of its location at the mouth of Great Bay, Hilton Park can be productive. Bait and plug fishing in the currents here can yield good striper catches, particularly on a falling tide as forage pours out of the estuary into the river.
Hilton Park is also the location of one of the good public boat ramps that give seagoing anglers access to the river. Turn off I-95 onto the Spaulding Turnpike. Hilton Park is off Exit 5. The ramp is open 24 hours and is free. Trailer parking is available.
Other public ramps affording good access to the river are found in New Hampshire and Maine. In the Granite State, there are quality ramps in Portsmouth at Prescott Park as well as in Newmarket at Heron Point, where boaters will have to travel through the Great Bay estuary before reaching the main course of the river. But, this is no penalty because Great Bay is a fine fishery. Be careful to follow the bay's navigational aids because the waters outside the main channel are shallow.
On the Maine side of the
river is a serviceable public landing in South Berwick off Route 101 at William Bray Memorial Park. The Bray landing is gravel and not suitable for use at low tide. Three other landings are available farther down the river, including one in Eliot on Hammond Lane off Route 103, in Kittery on Williams Avenue at Traip Academy or at Kittery Point, where access at low tide is not satisfactory. Both Kittery sites have limited parking, although there is ample parking a short distance from Kittery Point at the Mitchell Elementary School. The small grocery at Kittery Point is a popular spot for conversation, coffee and other provisions.
Because the Piscataqua is a border river, the rules to follow are dictated by where you take the fish out of the river and onto land. New Hampshire's 2002 regulations allowed for the taking of one fish over 28 inches. Maine's 2002 laws allowed for one fish between 20 inches and 26 inches, and one fish over 40 inches. Great Bay, however, falls under Granite State jurisdiction; so contact the New Hampshire Fish and Game's Region III office at (603) 868-1095 for specific information.
Out-of-towners will have no trouble finding lodging in this area, where tourism is a major cog in the economic engine. To plan a trip to the Piscataqua River, try the New Hampshire Department of Travel and Tourism at (800) 386-4664 or visit their Web site at www.visitnh.gov. Also, try the Maine Office of Tourism at (888) 624-6345 or go online at www.visitmaine.com.
For the latest dope on Piscataqua River striper action, contact the Eldredge Brothers Fly Shop in Cape Neddick, Maine at (207) 363-9269 or (207) 363-9279.
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