Surfing For Early-Season Stripers & Blues

There's no more satisfying way to catch your share of these two fine game fish than to battle it out with one or more in the surf this season.

By Gary Caputi

Nothing gets a surf-fishermen's blood pumping like catching bluefish and stripers, the two premiere inshore game fish of the Northeast. The fishing doesn't get any better than the transition period that follows early spring. This is when water temperatures are still cool, and the fish are very active before the dog days of summer.

It's a time when you can enjoy fishing during daylight hours with a great chance of encountering birds working over a school of ravenous bluefish or finding large stripers with a pod of baitfish pinned to the beach. You can also take advantage of evening fishing, sneaking in a few hours after work under the cover of darkness, when stripers are even more likely to move in close and take a well placed bait or lure.

There are two questions I get asked most about late spring when conducting fishing seminars: What makes the fishing at this time of year so productive? Isn't it the highly touted "fall run" that provides the best fishing of the year for bass and blues? Taking the second question first, the short answer is "not in recent years," and there are a number of factors that have caused late spring fishing to rival the fall. The first question, however, begs a more involved answer one species at a time.

Everyone becomes a striper fisherman in the fall, when schools of bass begin their southward migration. Millions of large fish, which summer off New England, are making that long swim back to their wintering grounds off Virginia and North Carolina. The route frequently brings them close to beaches where feeding blitzes occur regularly. At the same time, resident bass become more active fattening up for the lean months of winter. But not all bass make the run south. Many stay slightly offshore from the New York Bight through Delaware Bay.

Big bass are still being taken from the spring surf. Surf-fishing fanatic Rob Stout caught this 58.6-pounder recently on a live eel and 14-pound test line! Photo by Gary Caputi

That's the fall run, so what about spring? Well how do you think all those stripers make it into our waters in the first place? They swim north from their wintering grounds after spawning in late March or April. When they are finished spawning, they form schools of fish migrating up the coast in intervals or waves.

These fish make frequent feeding forays into the surf, inlets and major estuaries along the way. The primary forage species are alewives (blueback herring) and menhaden (bunker). Using these large baitfish, alive or as cut bait, is a prime way to ambush a big striper. Fishing with lures that imitate these and smaller baitfish will also take them from the beach.

Here's a major bonus. Striper bass stocks are at the highest levels they have been in 30 years, and you can expect to see more action than at any time in recent memory. In 2002, biologists and assessment scientists determined that the total population of striped bass is just fewer than 60 million fish! And best of all, the stocks are still expanding. In other words, these are the "good ole days!"

Bluefish move into our waters under somewhat different circumstances. Unlike striped bass, which must return to freshwater each spring to spawn, blues are open ocean wanderers that go wherever the bait and ocean temperatures take them. Bluefish range from Maine to Florida, and they reproduce in numerous spawning events up and down the coast usually 10 to 25 miles offshore.

The appearance and availability of bluefish to beach fishermen varies with temperatures and bait availability. Thus, surf fishing for blues is far less predictable than fishing for striped bass; however, bluefish populations have also been on the rise in recent years from a decade long period of below average stocks size and that bodes well for this spring.

Blues can be found migrating into their northern summer haunts well offshore, following schools of herring and mackerel, or they can take the inshore route chasing menhaden, alewives and smaller baitfish like silversides and sand eels. Many large estuaries like Chesapeake, Delaware, Raritan, Long Island Sound, Narragansett and Cape Cod bays experience and influx of bluefish from harbor size fish of just a few pounds to big spring racers, those long, lean 3- foot long eating machines. These blues can begin arriving as early as late April and continue on into June.

During this feeding migration, beach fishermen will be able to take advantage of opportunities, if and when the fish move inshore and onto the beach. This occurs with even more regularity at entry points into estuaries. Smaller, shallow bays, like those found inside barrier islands, will load up early with small to midsize blues that chase baitfish around the channels and onto the flats. Of course, this makes for great light- tackle fishing.

Surf-fishermen have a unique set of conditions to deal with, not the least of which is less mobility than fishermen in boats. Even buggy fishermen, who can get in their 4X4s and head on up or down the sand, can be at a disadvantage when the fish move off the beach just a hundred yards. That's why really good surf-fishermen spend a lot of time learning the spots that attract stripers and blues and the effects of tides on each place that looks good.

Along open beachfronts that means hunting out prominent sandbars at low tide. Of particular interest are cuts in those bars, which create access points into the trough between the beach and bar. These also serve as ambush points for predators on the outgoing tide when baitfish must exit the protection of the trough with the falling water.

Not only do you have to find them, you have to remember where they are because while they are easiest to spot at low tide, once the tide comes in these sandbars tend to disappear. The advent of inexpensive handheld Global Positioning System (GPS) units has made cataloging potential hotspots on open beachfronts much easier.

Spring is a great time for fishing structure. Shore-based anglers will catch a lot of stripers and blues by working jetties, rockpiles around inlets and breach ways, bases of bridges and on the inside, deep cuts around sedges islands, gravel points and areas where channel edges come close enough to shore to reach with a well-placed cast.

Baitfish frequently gather in such places, and bass and bluefish are savvy predators that know when to be in the right place at the right time. Do your homework, keep a detailed log of your explorations and fishing trips, study the

m carefully for patterns, and you'll find it isn't too hard to be there at the "right time" too.

Probably the most productive way to catch big stripers and blues is live-lining the large baitfish that are most prevalent at this time of year, and that requires a pretty stout outfit. Alewives are anadromous like stripers, running up streams and rivers to spawn. They usually precede the bass-spawning run and really dedicated surf-fishermen will spend a lot of time catching them, usually on light spinning tackle, and penning them for later use.

Rigs for fishing live baits are simple stuff. Two or 3 feet of 50-pound fluorocarbon leader with a barrel swivel at one end and a 4/0 or 5/0 bronze treble hook, which goes through the nose or the back of the baitfish, and you're home free. At least something is easy about fishing big live baits.

If you don't want to bother with the live ones, you can get fresh bunker and fish cut bait on a fish finder rig (ditto for fresh surf clams on the same rig). I suggest you use a circle hook as it makes hooking fish easier, and you will get far fewer gut-hooked fish. Cut bunker is also a great way to fool a big bluefish that moves into the wash.

There is a lot going on for the shore-based angler in the late spring, and frequently it doesn't take a lot of effort to get into some great action. Stripers can be encountered along the beaches with regularity, and you stand a good chance of getting into really quality fish. It's a great time to be out, with the weather usually cooperative and the days warm. So break trusty surf sticks and hit the beach!

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