Sizzling Nighttime Striper Action

Now's the time to slip 'em an eel after the sun goes down, because that's when striped bass are more active during the heat of summer.

by Gary Caputi

The day had been a scorcher, the temperatures reaching into the 90s. It was hot and humid. Mother Nature wasn't giving anyone who worked outside a break. Luckily, I spent my day in an air-conditioned office, but when I opened the door to walk to my car it was like being hit in the face with a hot, wet towel. With the weather so oppressive, going fishing for striped bass seemed somehow incongruous, yet after a light dinner I was heading out the door to the marina. There the center console sat waiting in its slip alongside the bulkhead at the edge of the parking lot.

Just as I was finishing my meal, the phone rang. It was Ricky Donofrio, an old friend who is even more afflicted with night-striper fever than I am.

"You heading up this way tonight?" he asked. Ricky runs his boat out of the next inlet north, a seven-mile run.

"Sure am," I replied. "Mark and Billy are meeting me at the boat. Should be at the rocks in a little over an hour."

"Bring some extra eels," Rick suggested, "the action was red hot last night."

Now you don't have to tell me twice, so on the way to the boat, I swung by our local bait and tackle shop, picked up an additional three dozen live eels to add to whatever was left in the eel cart hanging from the spring line cleat under the boat. Next, a quick pit stop at the local convenience store for a couple bags of ice and a few supplies was in order. Billy and Mark were waiting when I pulled up and the boat was ready to go. I hastily threw my stuff aboard. We slipped the dock lines and we were scooting down the river toward the ocean in no time.

Big bass love live eels after dark - here's proof! Photo by Gary Caputi

As we slid out of the inlet, the scent of the ocean hit my nostrils as a sweet and salty tang hanging in the humid air. The surface was calm and the air temperature dropped a few degrees, a fine shorts and t-shirt evening. When we got to the area of hard bottom to begin our search pattern, the depthfinder became the focal point of everyone on the boat. Ricky, who had arrived earlier, called on the VHF and said he had made a pass over the high spots closest to the beach without marking any fish. Due to this information, I started farther out in 35 feet of water. As the boat passed over one of the high spots, we watched the bottom rise 10 feet and then fall back off. Just as expected, the stripers were there. A grouping of well-defined arches appeared on the depthfinder. They could be only one thing: good-sized stripers.

I passed them by and circled around back to the south to position the boat for a drift right back over the high spot. Once in position, I killed the engine and grabbed an outfit, a 7-foot medium-action stick with a wide-spool baitcasting reel. It was loaded with 20-pound-test super braid. This was tipped with 10 feet of fluorocarbon leader material and a rig with a 6/0 circle hook. I picked an eel out of the ice water in the bucket in the splash well, impaled it carefully and slipped it over the side. As it hit the warm water it jumped back to life and swam off toward the bottom. Mark and Billy were way ahead of me.

The boat drifted slowly heading for the structure as I watched the depthfinder. Some of the mystery of catching stripers is stripped away when you take the time to find them before you start fishing. One of my old mentors, who passed away a couple years ago, always told me, "Hunters make the best fishermen!" In other words, if you take the time to find the fish before you start fishing, your chances of catching increase dramatically.

The bottom began rising on the sonar screen and then dropped off and there they were. Another minute and our eels were in the strike zone. Billy hooked up and so did I. When I quickly glanced to my left I saw Mark's rod get pulled down toward the water and then bend double. We had three fine bass running circles around the boat at the same time, but I still took a second to pick up the microphone and call Ricky over to repeat our drift. It never hurts to share. Ricky has called me in on the fish plenty of times.

IS IT ALWAYS THAT EASY?
Nah, but night-fishing for stripers isn't as hard as it was a few years ago, either. There are a lot more fish around. With some basic knowledge of the structure in your area most likely to hold these nocturnal feeders and a live well full of eels, that is, you can catch fish pretty much every night. The first thing you have to do is learn where they are most likely to be dining on sultry summer nights.

During summer's hot, bright days, bass tend to move off into deeper, cooler water well off the beaches during the daylight hours. Light penetration bothers their eyes, which are designed to provide acute visual perception under low light conditions. They will usually wait until the sun drops or it gets dark altogether before moving back onto nearshore structure to feed. Excellent places to start your nearshore search include areas of significant depth changes, hard-bottom structure, rock jetties or groins and areas around inlets. Water depths in the 20- to 24-foot range seem to produce best after dark when the bass are on a mission to make up for the eating time they lost during the day.

Live bait is the most productive thing you can put on the end of your hook, and the most readily available live critters are eels. You can buy them at many marinas and bait shops or you can catch your own with eel pots and some bait. Luckily, eels aren't just readily available; they are one of the stripers' favorite snacks at this time of year. And live eels are versatile. When bass are holding around bridge abutments or jetties, you can hook them on an 8- or 9-foot spinning outfit and plop them right into the structure area. If you are fishing offshore structure, you can drift-fish with them from the boat using a light baitcasting outfit; just don't go too light because there are frequently big fish around in the summer months, and the further north you fish, the greater the chance of catching a really big one becomes. Go fooling around really light tackle and you stand a good chance of being stripped or broken off by a 40-pound or bigger fish you can't control.

You can use the same basic rig for casting or drifting in relatively shallow water. I make up a couple dozen at a time that consist of nothing more than 50-pound-test fluorocarbon leader material, a barrel swivel and a 6/0 or 7/0 circle hook. Just tie the hook on one end of a 2-foot section of leader material and the swivel on the other. Bring plenty of extra rigs because at least one or two eels will curl up and tangle the leader beyond repair during the course of the night.

BUT THEY'RE SO SLIMY

!

Handling live eels can be a pretty dicey chore if you don't know the tricks, so pay attention and you will save yourself a lot of lost fishing time trying to get them on a hook. Remember the five-gallon bucket and ice I mentioned earlier? Good. Before you get to the first fishing spot of the night, scoop a dozen eels out of the live well with a bait net and put them in the bucket on ice. As they get cold, they chill, literally and figuratively. They become almost dormant and you can easily pick them up with a rag without the squirming. Get the eel's head sticking out of the rag and poke the circle hook up through the bottom of its jaw and out one of the eye sockets. This gives the hook a solid purchase and prevents the eel from pulling off on a cast or when a bass runs with it.

Once the eel is on the hook, get it in the water FAST because once its body begins to warm it will get very lively in a big hurry. Eels usually swim down toward the bottom, and if you are fishing from the beach, casting them to structure from a boat or drift-fishing them with conventional tackle in relatively shallow water, sinkers are rarely needed. On evenings when the boat is drifting a little fast or the bass are holding deeper, you might want to add a rubber core sinker just above the barrel swivel. An ounce will usually do the trick.

DON'T SET THE HOOK!
For years I used J-style hooks for live-lining and had a hook-up-to-hit ratio between 50 and 60 percent. Not too bad, or at least I thought. A few years ago I started working with some tackle industry folks who were experimenting with circle hooks. They found they almost always hook fish in the jaw. Circle hooks do less damage than when you gut-hook a fish with a J-hook, which happens a lot when you fish with live bait. It is important to do as little damage to these fish as possible because current regulations require the live release of most of the bass you will catch.

It is important to match the hook size to the size of the eels. Usually a 6/0 to 7/0 hook size is perfect. I began to discover a few things. First of all, never, ever, ever set the hook with circles! They are designed to work by letting the fish come tight on the line, which allows the hook to slide up out of the fish's gullet and catch the jawbone on the way out of its mouth. The hook actually wraps itself around the jawbone. If you try a hook set with a circle hook, you pull the hook right out of the fish's mouth more times than not.

Know what else? You'll hook more bass with circle hooks than you ever did with J-hooks. My hook-up-to-bite ratio started getting up around 90 percent when I switched to using circle hooks. Also, once you have a fish on, you'll rarely lose it because the hook encircles the bone. Neat, huh! Now I don't fish anything but circles because they work so well with live eels. Just note that circles hooks don't necessarily work well with large, live baitfish.

KEEPING EELS
Possibly the most important aspect of fishing with live eels is obtaining a supply so you can fish whenever you want. While American eels are relatively plentiful, an overharvesting of the young eels (elvers) was underway until just a year or two ago by a relatively clandestine commercial fishery. Elvers (also known as glass eels due to their transparency) were being trapped in streams throughout the Northeast. These eels were being shipped off to Japan, where there is a big market for mature eels, which are considered a delicacy.

Eel thieves were patrolling streams at night up and down our coast. With dip nets and flashlights in hand, they were catching as many bucketfuls of eels without permits or permission to be on private property.

Most states put a stop to the practice in recent years, and much of the underground market has dried up as demand for eels has fallen in Japan. However, millions of glass eels were taken from many streams for a number of years before restrictions were put in place. How much damage this secret fishery has done will not be known for years to come because it will take years before the remaining eels mature and reproduce. We may be missing substantial numbers of certain year-classes.

Obtaining mature eels for live-lining is not very difficult. You can catch your own by using a wire mesh eel pot or you can purchase them at many shore area tackle shops. When you buy them in quantity you'll usually get a price break - and you can go fishing at a moment's notice. Since the best fishing takes place at night, unless you have a 24-hour tackle shop, keeping a ready supply handy only makes sense. To keep eels all you need is a 5-gallon bucket and some ingenuity.

If you can find a 5-gallon bucket with a screw off top, you're even better off. Use a 3/8- to 1/2-inch drill bit to make lots of holes in the bucket's sides, bottom and top. You need to allow for a good flow of water to pass through the bucket. Next, wire a brick or anything else you have handy to the bottom of the bucket. This will allow the bucket to sink quickly. Of course, you need to tie a rope to the bucket's handle.

You've now got an eel storage "live well" to keep your eels. One bucket can hold up to six dozen eels at a time. If you need more room, just obtain another 5-gallon bucket - and you're in business.

That's pretty much all there is to it. Night-fishing with eels isn't exactly hard. In fact, the tackle and rigs are very basic. Getting bait is usually no more difficult than driving to your nearest tackle shop.

Night-fishing for stripers is exciting. The hard part is figuring out where they'll be feeding after dark. Once you do, you'll be in the thick of summertime's finest striper catching. See you out there!



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