Tips On 'Luring' Spring Stripers

Sometimes live bait is hard to find or you don't have time to get it -- that's when lifelike plugs, jigs and plastics come in handy for spring striped bass. (April 2008)

Jigging a parachute jig and pork rind on 150 feet of wire line resulted in this fine spring striper.
Photo by Milt Rosko.

My mom's lilacs were in full bloom and there was a light offshore breeze that resulted in a placid ocean. A clear sky and bright sun pushed the mercury into the mid-60s. Collectively, it was just a perfect spring day. And it is a day I vividly remember, for as a 17-year-old lad, I was leisurely trolling 100 yards off the beach, where gentle rollers tumbled onto the sand.

The pair of Calcutta cane rods in the rod holders thumped with a steady rhythm, a telltale sign that the Drone spoon and big wooden Russo subsurface swimming plugs were running properly, each sent to work deep with a pair of trolling sinkers.

I had been up before dawn, so the movement of the boat and the warmth of the sun had me feeling drowsy, with my head weaving and bobbing. Suddenly, the screaming ratchet of a Penn Surfmaster reel brought me back to alertness, as line peeled from the spool. It was a struggle just getting the rod out of the holder. After what seemed like an eternity, the striper on the other end finally slowed down.

I lifted back slowly and applied some pressure, but the striper was having no part of giving in. It took off on another line consuming run. Steady pressure eventually prevailed, and the big fish was alongside, gaffed and brought aboard with the Drone spoon clenched in its jaw. It was the biggest fish I'd ever seen, let alone caught. The shapely, fat striper weighed 42 1/2 pounds back at dockside, one of four I landed that day, fully 60 years ago!

While many anglers will watch the weather reports, look at tide charts and check the moon stage in anticipation of the annual spring striper run, I've found the most reliable indicator that it's time to get out the striper gear is when the lilacs bloom. Quite unscientific, to be sure, but for all of these many years it's worked for me, so I'm not about to stop believing.

Each spring, I'm surprised that so few anglers realize that spring striper fishing differs markedly from the fall fishery. In the fall, myriad schools of forage exit bays, rivers and estuaries, including mullet, bay anchovies, peanut bunker, spearing, herring and shad, to mention but a few. Most of these baitfish school on the surface as they migrate to winter quarters. During this time, there is great visual surface activity with stripers raiding the schools from below as gulls, terns and gannets attack from above.

Quite the contrary, during the spring, the ocean most often is peaceful, with nary a sign of small forage. Instead, adult forage species move northward, and in turn return to bays and rivers, where they spawn, with the fry providing the exciting surface action you'll be experiencing in the fall.

This calls for a different strategy where I've foundthe key, whether fishing from beach or boat, is to know the water you plan to fish. You need to capitalize on the experience of knowing where the adult baitfish congregate as they migrate, i.e., where fresh water flumes and rivers enter the ocean, where strong rip currents form, where jetties extend seaward, where there are cuts between sandbars and the troughs inside the bars, and at coastal inlets, to cite but a few examples.

Nowadays, there are many new lure designs on the market. However, I would caution both beach and boat anglers to select a few basic lures, learn how to use them properly, and concentrate their efforts away from the crowds, whether fishing on the beach or a boat.

Early in the spring, the baitfish aren't yet schooled up, nor are the bass. At this time of year, I prefer using big plugs that replicate adult bunker, shad, herring and mackerel. After all, these are the species that stripers most often encounter as they move northward. The Creek Chub wooden Pikie has long been a favorite of mine from beach and boat, with the silver flash and yellow striper finishes being my favorites. These plugs are metal-lipped and with casting tackle, depending on speed of retrieve, can be worked in 4- to 7-foot depths, and will swim as deep as 11 feet while trolling.

Basically, these plugs resemble a mouthful for a hungry bass, which is why I like them in the spring. The plastic Cordell Red Fins, Rebels and Stillwater Beach Runners also are good choices. Not to be forgotten are the myriad custom-made metal-lipped swimmers being marketed by most coastal tackle shops. Just remember to use a couple of good plugs -- you don't need a dozen or two models -- and master their use. If you do, you'll likely be just fine.

For trolling anglers who are targeting stripers, a big Montauk Bunker Spoon will bring strikes from lunker bass, while smaller spoons (like those made by Drone and Hopkins) will work well with schoolie fish. The thing with spoons is getting them deep, which may be accomplished while using wire line, or braided line in conjunction with a 4- or 5-ounce trolling sinker.

When trolling plugs and spoons, make certain to adjust your trolling speed so that the rod tips are pulsating steadily. Troll too slowly and the lures won't be working. Too fast and they'll be spinning. You have to constantly adjust your engine's speed. Work your plugs at a crawl when stemming the tide, but increase your speed when moving with the tidal current or wind.

Soft-plastic swim shad by Tsunami and Storm, and numerous other brands, are very effective. Whether I'm fishing from beach or boat, I'll carry and use the 5- to 8-inch-long models rigged with 6/0 or 7/0 hooks, with a choice in finishes depending on the prevailing baitfish. White is also a very effective choice.

Most often, the key is getting these offerings deep. Many casters err in that they begin their retrieve immediately upon the lure hitting the water. Instead, hesitate for a five or six count, allowing the swim shad to settle toward the bottom, and then commence your retrieve, working the lure right to the beach or jetty. Often, a bass will follow it and make the decision to strike at the last moment.

I'll often include block tin squids and Hopkins or Kastmaster metals in my surf bag when there's an onshore wind and rough surf. These conditions make for difficult casting. These old reliables aren't glamorous, but consistently produce when the surf is heavy.

Frequently, stripers will take up stations at themouth of an inlet, and the most effective lure to probe the swift depths is a 2- or 3-ounce leadhead jig and pork rind. Make certain to use a pork rind strip 3 or 4 inches long, as it'll double or triple your catch

rate. Cast up and across the current, permitting the jig to settle to the bottom and then bounce it along. Strikes will usually come just as the jig lifts off the bottom at the end of the swing, where the stripers are waiting in the rips.

Still another successful inlet technique is to use a metal-lipped wooden surface swimming plug. With an ebbing tide, stand at the end of the jetty bordering the inlet and cast out into the tide rips formed by the current. Often the current is sufficiently strong that you can "walk the dog," meaning walk back and forth across the rocks with the plug swimming actively on the surface, much like a bunker or hickory shad struggling in the current. The surface strikes are enough to give you an adrenaline rush, believe me!

There are times, however, when extremely rough conditions make it difficult to fish the surf, or when rainwater runoff muddies coastal bays and rivers, and onshore winds and rough seas make trolling difficult. All of these conditions will diminish the effectiveness of lures. While I love fishing with lures, as you're always active and doing something, I'm not averse to using natural baits when I encounter less than ideal conditions. Then it becomes a waiting game, where patience is the key.

But for sheer satisfaction of persuading a linesider to strike a replica of a baitfish fashioned of wood, lead or plastic, you just can't beat fishing with lures during the spring . . . just wait for the lilacs to bloom. That's when you know that stripers will be back and feeding with gusto!

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