Homing In On Early-Season Stripers

Homing In On Early-Season Stripers

Live bait is the way to go during the spring and early summer runs of big stripers along our coast. Here's how to use these baits effectively!

As I packed my gear in the car in the pre-dawn darkness, I couldn't help but enjoy the fragrance of the lilacs, a harbinger that spring was indeed here. Just an hour later, with the horizon line now visible as the eastern sky brightened, our skiff lifted on a gentle swell, the wave slowly moving shoreward, tumbling in a shower of white water on the rocky breakwater that extended seaward.

Big stripers can't resist a live eel presentation. Eels may be hard to find and harder to handle, but the extra effort will usually pay dividends like this.
Photo courtesy of Milt Rosko.

As we approached, there was a school of menhaden readily discernible just off the promontory. With each incoming wave the prettily hued forage would lift with the wave, and then excitedly swim seaward to avoid being tumbled onto the rocks. There were literally several hundred adult menhaden, popularly called mossbunker, or just plain bunker, packed so tightly that they seemed to be touching, yet all swimming in unison.

I took but a single cast, as I shot a shank-weighted 4/0 treble snatch hook over the closely packed school. As soon as it tumbled into the water, I quickly took up the slack and lifted my rod tip smartly to begin the retrieve. It took only two sharp jolts with the rod tip and the treble found its mark in a bunker, snagging a typical spring run adult of 1-pound plus, that had moved north from the Chesapeake Bay, and was now anxiously looking to move into a coastal bay of the northeast to spawn.

In less time than it takes to tell, I could feel the snagged bunker excitedly pulling to gain its freedom from the treble hook. In an instant, my rod was yanked downward hard. I instinctively lifted back, only to have the rod yanked back just as forcefully, with line immediately screaming from my reel. This occurred just a couple of feet beneath the school of adult bunker, which immediately became airborne in the excitement as one of its clan headed seaward.

It was give a lot, gain a little, repeated several times over until the step was reversed. Soon enough, I had the beauty alongside, a fat female striped bass that had already spawned. A Boga Grip scale stopped at 36-pounds, and fortunately only a single barb of the treble was lodged in the striper's jaw, which facilitated unhooking then releasing the bass. Hopefully it would continue for another season of lavish living in the northeast's fertile waters, and perhaps spawn again early next spring.

We landed several nice stripers that morning, using essentially the same technique. We did, however, have several live hickory shad in the live well as backup baits while fishing choice locations that at the time were devoid of the bunker schools. Thanks to Sabiki rigs the hickories were easily caught, and really a lot of fun to catch as well, as they not only look like tarpon, but they jump repeatedly before being brought to boat side.

When seeking early season stripers the old adage "big baits catch big fish," never was more appropriate. Stripers in the 20- to 50-pound plus class don't want to be bothered with searching for the fry of many baitfish species, but will aggressively seek large forage. Within the framework of big forage are menhaden, Atlantic mackerel, hickory shad, alewife, blue-back and Atlantic herring and hickory shad. All of these species generally travel in sizeable schools, often numbering in the thousands. Stripers will also readily wallop whole squid, and the piece de resistance is the American eel.

As these big stripers migrate northward they will also dine on such bottom feeders as croaker, spot, black sea bass, cunner and scup. As the season progresses and these bottom feeders become available, many are used as hook bait, but make certain to adhere to minimum size limitations where a particular species is covered by state regulations.

If you choose to go the live bait route when targeting big stripers, the prime consideration becomes obtaining the "livies." By far the easiest to obtain is the American eel, which is easily kept in captivity, and as a result many tackle shops along the coast have a supply on hand at all times of those 10- to 18-inch beauties. In my opinion, eels make the best live bait. With bottom feeders like spot or croaker they can often be caught using a high-low bottom rig with No. 8 or 10 Claw- style hooks baited with tiny pieces of bloodworm or clam.

One forage species that won't take a hook bait is menhaden. Some boaters will employ a cast net to obtain a day's supply of these prime baits, quietly approaching a school of the forage as they swim in a tight school on the surface. By far the most popular approach is to employ a weighted-shank 3/0 treble snag hook. The snag hook is cast over and beyond the school of bunker, and retrieved with sharp yanks of the rod tip, which will invariably snag a bunker. Oftentimes, I'll immediately stop retrieving and permit the snagged bunker to excitedly swim about, resulting in a strike from a striper searching for a meal.

However, there are times when bunker schools don't have stripers visibly feeder on them, and you can remove the hook from the bunker and place it in your boat's live well for later use.

In the case of Atlantic mackerel, tinker mackerel, hickory shad, American shad, blue-back and Atlantic herring, they can easily be caught while using a light outfit and Sabiki rigs. Many of these species congregate in bay waters, but are often found in breachways and along the beaches.

Most Sabiki rigs have four to eight tiny flies or jig heads tied to the primary leader at 8- to 12-inch intervals. A small leadhead jig or metal squid is snapped to the end of the rig and simply cast out and retrieved with a twitching action of your rod tip.

It's not unusual to catch double or even triple-headers of the fine baitfish. Promptly unhook and place them in a livewell and you'll be set for the day. Indeed, I often enjoy catching mackerel, shad and herring on a light outfit almost as much as catching the bass!

When I'm using big baits I pretty much know I'm not going to catch small bass, so I use either spinning or conventional tackle rated for 20-pound test. I spool with either monofilament or braided line, and employ a 4- to 6-foot long leader of 30- or 40-pound test fluorocarbon leader material, which I tie to the main line via a tiny Spro barrel swivel.

As to hooks, after many years of using primarily a "J" style O'Shaughnessy or Eagle Claw hook, of late I've found circle hooks more effective. With the circle hook, stripers or whatever you're after, will usually hook themselves in the corner of the mouth, making catch- a

nd-release easy, whereas with the "J" style the fish usually swallows the bait and winds up deep-hooked. Sizes 7/0 or 8/0 are fine for the "J's" whereas 9/0 through 11/0 will serve you best when using circle hooks.

In placing the bait on the hook I've found it effective to hook the live baitfish through the lips or just forward of the dorsal fin, or through the nostrils, which permits the bait to swim more naturally. With a big circle hook a very effective approach is to place the hook through the bait's eye sockets.

Each of these methods enables the bait to swim as your boat drifts along with the current. It's best to keep your reel in free spool or with the bail open, so that when a striper first picks up the bait, or is toying with it, and not moving off -- sometimes the baitfish excitedly swims to the surface, where a striper circles and occasionally nudges it before finally inhaling it in one gulp.

In addition to the treble snag hook rigs, a plain double strength treble in 3/0 size works well, too, for any forage from your live bait well. An effective hooking technique is to place one barb of the treble just behind the dorsal fin of the bait, or around the anal fin, which permits the bait to swim in any direction it wishes. This approach is especially effective when you're fishing along rock-studded surf, breakwaters or breachways and can cast the bait into water not conducive to drifting techniques.

A free-swimming live baitfish is difficult to beat, but there may be occasions when you just can't obtain live bait. All is not lost, as using a whole dead baitfish often works well, too. I've also had fine success with chunk bait, either a head chunk cut from the fish at a 45-degree angle with the entrails hanging from the stomach, or a slab chunk from the mid-section of the fish.

When using either dead or live bait, there may be times when you're reading striped bass on your electronic gear and they're hugging the bottom as opposed to up near the surface. It then becomes incumbent upon you to get the bait down to where the fish are and tempt them into feeding. This calls for switching to a bottom rig, and all it requires is replacing the Spro barrel swivel with a small three-way swivel.

Live baits and these varied methods of obtaining and fishing them is Plan A and only part of the equation for success for spring-run stripers. Ideally, when stripers are on the prowl, schools of bait are clearly visible on the surface, and you can do your thing. When they're not showing, you've got to move to Plan B, and simply employ both free-swimming surface baits and bottom baits as you either anchor in a choice locale or drift through known haunts of old linesides. If there are four of us on board, two of us will fish our baits up and two fish them down, and if there are any bass being read on the electronics beneath us we'll wait them out.

However, I seldom give any spot more than a half hour or so, as experience has taught me that stripers regularly cover a great deal of area, sometimes moving parallel with the beach as they search for forage, while other times they'll move from the ocean into bay or river waters to feed. One spot that can regularly be depended upon is fishing the waters of inlets and breachways, for often baitfish are moving through the constricted waterways. Stripers will wait in ambush for any unsuspecting school of bunker, herring or hickories to happen by.

With all the controversy about yo-yo rigs, which are made by placing a sinker inside the mouth of a live porgy or other baitfish, and then tying the mouth shut, it would seem appropriate that recreational anglers not employ them. During the past couple of years many stripers have ingested these rigs and they retain the hooks and sinkers in their stomachs, and it's suspect a great deal of mortality results among the big breeding fish that either break free or are released. Simply stated, the yo-yo is a favored tool of commercial fishermen who are just concerned with putting fish in the boat for market, and those desiring to win tournaments.

Catching big stripers on big live baits is challenging and very enjoyable as the princely linesiders migrate each spring to summer quarters. I'm prone to use small lures when I'm targeting a small keeper size bass for the table. Otherwise I try to rig my baits and use hook styles that enable me to release the big fish without injury.

Towards this end, I've noticed during the last couple of seasons a downturn in catches of big stripers; it would serve the recreational fishing community well to minimize keeping the big breeders, thus ensuring they'll breed again next season, and continue rebuilding the stocks of this fine game fish.

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