By Milt Rosko
As striped bass begin their migration from winter to summer quarters, they encounter forage that differs greatly from what they were feeding on during their fall relocation. All of the forage species have added weight during the winter. The peanut bunker have almost doubled in size, with the same being true of hickory shad, American and blueback herring, mackerel, sand launce and most any other fish on which stripers dine.
A change from fall tactics is called for, most noticeably switching from smaller to larger lures. Included in my spring tackle is a selection of plugs, spoons and leadhead jigs. Properly presented, these lures will bring you success whether used from boat or shore.
Among the most popular lures are subsurface swimming plugs, bottle plugs and rattle plugs. These plugs are designed to probe the depths, swimming enticingly with a pulsating action.
Boatmen will find trolling to be an extremely effective technique while using big plugs, for they’re able to cover a lot of water, including key feeding areas. Forage species tend to congregate in rips and eddies, along the edge of dropoffs or adjacent to points of land. Likewise for rocky ridges and high bottoms. Stripers, in turn, will move from spot to spot at various stages of the tide intent on positioning themselves where their potential food is apt to congregate.
When trolling plugs and other lures, it’s always important to take the time to watch a lure’s action as you prepare to trail it behind the boat. Plugs are very sensitive to speed, and you should adjust your throttles accordingly so the plug maintains an enticing swimming action as you slow-troll through known striper haunts.
Anglers who cast from the surf and jetties regularly post fine scores with big plugs. I like to rig my plug with a 3- to 4-foot-long, 30- or 40-pound-test leader, most often with a Clouser or other saltwater fly fished as a teaser where the line and leader meet.
A favorite spot of mine, which has produced from most every coastal state where stripers roam, is to position myself on the seaward end of an inlet jetty on an ebbing tide. As the water flows seaward, it tends to carry forage species with it, and they often congregate in the rips and eddies. By casting out and across the inlet and permitting the plug to swing seaward with the current, it will then settle into the rips, much like a struggling baitfish. Here the key is a slow, irregular retrieve, replicating the movement of a small fish struggling in a strong current.
Still another favorite spot is to fish the waters adjacent to any flume outflows from a freshwater source emptying into the ocean. American shad, hickory shad, blueback herring and American herring are attracted to fresh water during the spring as they pursue spawning chores. They’ll often congregate in the ocean, waiting for an opportune water flow to access these sources of fresh water. Stripers in turn congregate in these areas, and will readily strike a plug that resembles the forage on which they’re feeding.
Trolling spoons consistently land many big spring stripers each spring. Large bunker spoons, measuring from 8 to 12 inches in length with a weighted keel to take them into the depths, are proven producers. The bunker spoons, in either stainless steel finish, painted all white or all yellow, resemble the big, flashy forage in residence, such as menhaden, American shad, hickory shad, blueback herring, American herring and Atlantic mackerel.
In spite of their size and weight, to get bunker spoons down deep it’s best to use wire line. A favorite rig of trollers is to use 100 feet of wire for each 10 feet of depth to be achieved. By adding a trolling sinker between the line and an 8-foot-long leader, additional depth is achieved without the need for more wire. It’s not unusual to employ upward of 200 to 300 feet of wire to get the spoon to the correct depth, especially when probing 30- to 40-foot-deep water.
With spoons, as with most lures, it’s important that you achieve just the right action: Too slow a trolling speed and the spoon doesn’t have the enticing action, while too fast will result in a spinning spoon. The key is to adjust your trolling speed, taking into account wind direction and currents encountered in the area, so that as you watch the rod’s tip you see a steady, pulsating action, an indication that the spoon is working properly.
The last lure included in the favorite three for spring stripers is the lead- head jig. These jigs are available in a wide array of shapes, weights and colors. Essentially, most have no action as they’re retrieved. After all, these lures are little more than a lead- head molded around a hook. Some are dressed with feather or bucktail skirts, while others have soft plastic bait tails. Here, too, the tiny 1/4- or 1/2-ounce leadheads that produce so well during the fall take a back seat to the large 2- to 4-ounce models that are used to probe the depths during spring.
Of all the leadhead types available, the parachute jig is by far the most effective trolling leadhead I’ve ever used. It utilizes a basic torpedo or bullet-shaped leadhead, where strands of artificial fiber are tied to the jig where it meets the hook; half of the strands extend forward and half extend rearward. When drawn through the water, the forward-facing strands are forced rearward, where they undulate enticingly. Fish the parachute jig on an 8-foot-long leader of 40-pound-test line in conjunction with monofilament line in shallow water and wire line in deep water.
When simply trolled along, the parachute jig is totally ineffective. It requires permitting it to be extended astern until the lure bounces bottom, then reeling up several turns of the reel handle, getting the lure just off the bottom.
Then the work begins, as you’ve got to jig the lure to give it action. This is easily accomplished by facing astern and standing at the transom. Point your rod tip downward to near vertical position, and then sharply snap the rod tip forward, causing the jig to dart forward and falter, much like a struggling baitfish. This is hard work, make no mistake about it, but on a cold spring day, it’ll keep you warm as you troll the parachute jig and pork rind through a rip line or just above a rocky ledge where bait and stripers congregate.
Because of its shape and weight, a leadhead with a bucktail or soft plastic skirt is a favorite of surf and jetty casters, too. I always add a 3- or 4-inch-long piece of pork rind to the hook, as it triples the fish-catching effectiveness of the lure. It’s espe
cially successful in heavy weather, for a 2- or 3-ounce jig can be punched into a strong onshore wind, whereupon it will immediately settle deep into the water, enabling you to get into the strike zone with ease.
When using a leadhead from the surf or a jetty, always time your cast to go over and drop in behind a breaking wave, as this prevents the wave from pushing it toward the shore. Always permit the jig to settle, and alternate your retrieve, sometimes reeling steady, and then using a whip-retrieve, causing the jig to zip ahead and fade, much like a stressed baitfish. This technique is especially effective when sand launce are schooled up and hugging the bottom.
When fishing from inlet jetties, cast up into the current, permitting the leadhead to settle and bounce on the bottom as the ebbing tide carries it seaward. Extend the distance of your cast each time you cast, thus fanning or bracketing all of the water where a striper may be stemming the tide waiting for a morsel of food to be swept its way. Most often, the strike will come as the jig sweeps off the bottom at the end of the swing.
It’s those little details that will enhance your score this spring, and reward you with a heavyweight striper or two as they complete their spring migration.
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