In the glory days of striped bass fishing, as you'll hear them referred to by any striper fisherman born before 1970, the fall was a season of unparalleled promise. Between September and December, from Maine to Ocean City, the fall run was something striper sharpies waited all summer for. Times have changed.
There is still great striped bass fishing to be had when the Boys of Summer are playing the Fall Classic, but there has been an increasing shift that has seen the best fishing coming in the spring. Experts will debate exactly why, but why bother when it's June and there are bass to be caught? In the coastal states there aren't 30 more precious days to striped bass anglers. Use these 15 secrets to make sure that you're not wishing for the "good old days," of June when warming water temperatures slow the bite in July and August.
And, first and foremost, regardless of whether it's a month that produces your personal-best bass or just 30 days in which you make some time to spend on the water, soak in the beauty of one of the greatest months on the calendar for Northeast saltwater fishermen.
1. Become a Night Owl
Stripers feed throughout the day, but your best shot at a gigantic fish will come in the last hours of light and into the night. After dark, striped bass become reckless. They're wary of eating a hook, or becoming a shark's next meal during daylight hours. They're not unlike us; and think about it, weren't most of the biggest mistakes you made after the sun went down? At night, striped bass move closer to structure and shore, pushing bait up against the beach to feed. Whether you're a surfcaster or a boat fisherman, sleeping means sacrificing fish in June. Head to the beach or the boat before sundown to become familiar with an area while light remains. This will help you navigate the surf or coastline when night falls. Get yourself a flashlight or headlamp, but use it sparingly so as not to spook fish. Fishing in the dark takes some getting used to, but it's also a special experience. After a few hours under the stars your other senses become acutely attuned and the heavy thump of a bass bending your rod is a magic midnight feeling. This 22-pound bass came from the surf when most normal people were in stage 3 of R.E.M. sleep.
2. Know the Tides
In June, think of a tide chart the way you would your license: Don't go anywhere without it. Stripers are caught on every tide, but unless you can afford to fish 24/7, you need to maximize the effectiveness of your fishing time. The last two hours before low tide and the first two hours afterward have been the most productive tides for me. This is when water seriously starts moving and pushing bait around structure. Fish that are lazily swimming around at slack and high-tide periods will suddenly put on the feedbag when moving water concentrates bait. Concentrate your fishing efforts during those periods, instead of wasting time soaking bait during a slack tide.
3. Become an Astrologer
You don't need to identify Orion's Belt, but there is one enormous rock up there you need to keep your eye on: the moon. All good striper fishermen and Tom Petty fans have Full Moon Fever. The phase of the moon affects the strength of the tides, which has everything to do with striper fishing (see tip #2). During periods surrounding new and full moons, the tides will be cranking the hardest. The stronger the tides, the more concentrated the bait will be. If you can only fish one week this month, make it the week surrounding June's new moon. It's the week we are likely to see the most and biggest striped bass being brought to boat and beach. Full moon tides can be productive as well, and the extra light is helpful at night (see tip #1). A new moon was overhead when this striper hit.
4. Learn to Read Structure
'Structure' is a loose term that anglers throw around but it can mean a lot of things. A sandbar off the beach, a jetty and a rockpile are all technically 'structure.' Anything that provides a break in the flow of the current or tide, and in so doing aggregates bait and game fish, is structure, and it's a key to finding and catching fish. Never pass up a pocket created by a jetty, especially when the wind is blowing in. Bait, such as Atlantic menhaden or sand eels, will be cornered into such pockets. Bass will behave like boxers that have their opponent in the corner, going to town. Sand structure is also important. There is a channel on the flats of Cape Cod that runs 20 feet deep through two sandbars shallow enough to wade on during low tides. It's a river flowing through the ocean and striped bass stack up on either side of the bars and gorge on the bait. Deep drops, channels and jetties will all attract bait and bass during times of fast-moving water. Study depth charts and be in the right place at the right time. Joe Merola of New Jersey here holds a replica of Al McReynolds' then-record 81.8-pound striped bass. He was fishing a jetty pocket in a heavy wind when he caught the fish. Enough said.
5. Become a Birdwatcher
If you're a fisherman, you've heard the adage: Bigger bait for bigger fish. The same is true of birds. Smaller birds, like terns and gulls will be diving on smaller bait and you should choose your lure accordingly. Throw a lure that imitates bait like silversides or sand eels. Larger birds will be targeting bigger bait, like menhaden. There were plenty of birds working bait from above when this 40-pound bass decided to take my bait offering.
6. Beat the Rooster
If you value your beauty sleep, striper fishing isn't for you. After you've been up all night fishing (see tip #1), make sure to be there at sunrise. When the first rays of sun break the sky, bait is suddenly visible to predators that rely on light to feed. Bluefish that have been dormant all night will blitz at first light, and stripers will gobble up the shreds of dead bait that drop to the bottom. You want to be on the water when the first grey sneaks into the sky. The sun was just breaking the horizon when this Montauk bass hit Mike Coppola's plug.
7. Listen to Cat Stevens
You don't have to memorize his entire catalog, but there is one song you need to know: 'The Wind. ' 'I listen to the wind, ' Stevens sings. Wind direction plays a huge role in the feeding behavior of striped bass. For example, along the shores of Cape Cod, a Southwest wind will usher in an approaching warm-weather, high-pressure front, and shouldn't be ignored. In New Jersey, because Atlantic menhaden instinctively swim into the wind, an west wind will bring bait closer to the beach. Depending on where you're fishing, wind direction can affect striped bass in different ways, but being aware of how it affects them will put you on the water during crucial times.
8. Don't Go for a Tan
If your priority this June is to get a good bronze, do it when you're not fishing. Sure, there are bass caught on bluebird days, but it's not optimal. Cloud cover makes the water less transparent, and stripers will feed with abandon. Just as they are more active at night, when there's less light, they will feed more actively on cloudy days. If you need your rain jacket, that's a good thing. Notice the dense cloud cover in the background when these stripers came into the surf to chew in Southern Long Island.
9. Fresh, Fresh Fresh
Would you eat month-old seafood? Of course not, so why would you try to feed it to the stripers we love so much? Fresh bait can be the difference between a boom and a bust day. When fishing on the Cape Cod flats, I wouldn't even bother buying frozen sand eels. Whether it's bunker, sand eels or clams, go fresh or go home. For an extra treat, get yourself a squid jig and catch your own squid the night before (or of) your trip. If the stripers don't eat them, you can.
10. Be Patient
The most effective means of catching stripers this month will be fishing live Atlantic menhaden or eels. You'll want to rig your eel or bunker with a 6/0 or 8/0 circle hook, for safe releases on fish not destined for the grill. (After all, you'll be catching more than you can keep, right?) When you're drifting an eel, letting a bunker swim freely, or soaking a fresh bunker chunk, the key is to be patient. Hard hooksets are for guys fishing B.A.S.S. tournaments. When your drag starts sizzling with a running striper, force yourself to count to three before executing a slow, steady set. It's difficult, but not as hard as it is to see your clean hook returned. Alex Dorris (right) had the patience to wait for this 40-pound New Jersey bass to get the bunker down, so you can too.
11. Keep an Eye on Water Temperature
Every striper fishermen along the coast has their 'magic number. ' It's the number they look for before hitting the water with intensity. In my experience, water cooler than 55 degrees makes fishing difficult, as does water warmer than 70 degrees. Don't be fooled into sitting home and doing chores if you're not hearing reports of fish. One warm week in June can bring the water temperature up and the bite can erupt. If you're aware of the water temperature, you'll be the one giving the first good fishing report instead of hearing it. The water had just hit the magic number in late May when this 40-pound bass decided to eat in New Jersey.
12. Show your Colors
When your wife starts to contemplate which shade she wants the curtains, it's alright to take a mental vacation. But don't make the same mistake when loading your tackle box. With striped bass, lure color is less about 'black or white, ' than it is about light or dark. Light colors (think green or yellow) are most effective during the day while darker colors (black) are preferable in low-light conditions. Fishing a black lure at night might seem counter-intuitive until you think about it from a bass's point of view. Bass are seeing your offering from beneath, using what little light remains in the sky. Because a darker lure creates a more distinct silhouette against the night sky, it will be more appealing to stripers. Choose darker colors on cloud-covered days (like this fog-infested one) as well. During the day, be mindful of the predominant forage. If bass are feeding mainly on mackerel, choose a mackerel-pattern for your plug. If sand eels and silversides are on the menu, choose something shiny or bright.
13. Get Curious
Many striper fishermen are too eager to peel the fillets from their freshly caught fish, but don't be so quick to discard that carcass. Examine the stomach contents of every striped bass you intend to keep. The contents can be crucial clues to what the bass are targeting, and how you can be more successful fooling them. Finding a striper belly full of squid could have you opting for another offering next time you hit the water.
14. Hire A Guide
Even if you have your own boat, even if you've been plying these waters for years, there's no substituting the experience and wisdom of a professional that has been chasing these fish for a living for decades. You'll fork over a few bucks, but the hours of conversation you'll have about the fishery, whether it's in your backyard or in new territory, will net you a season of experience. Don't bring a GPS to spot-steal and don't be obnoxious and most local guides will be happy to hand over the secrets they've learned over the years. Hans Kaspersetz is one of the best along the northern Jersey shore.
15. Stay Tuned
Striper fishermen and teenage girls have one thing in common: neither can keep a juicy secret to themselves. Hang out in tackle shops and read local reports. If there's a hot bite going on somewhere near you, you'll bet somebody will leak the information. Don't go in like you're conducting an investigation, tackle-shop owners work for a living and aren't obligated to put you on the fish. But buy a few lures, some bait and a pair of pliers and make small talk and you'll be taking mental notes on valuable intel before you know it. Long-time Fire-Island resident Tom Dircks knows the best striper spots off the island, and he's willing to dish if you're kind.