Now's the time to start fishing for New York's Hudson River stripers. Fish abound from Rhinecliff to Bayonne, and good fishing may be had from shore or boat. Our expert has the story. (May 2007)
Photo by Keith Sutton
The lilacs were blooming, and four generations had gathered to enjoy a Mother's Day brunch at Capt. Jay Martin's house, not far from the picturesque Hudson River. It was a gorgeous day and the tide was right, so the good captain suggested they spend the afternoon pursuing stripers downriver from the Rhinecliff Bridge.
Before the afternoon was over, a near-exhausted Rosalu Martin was smiling broadly as she held aloft a 40-inch striper that had mistaken a deep-swimming plug for an alewife!
Perhaps it was the magic of spring, when countless striped bass of all sizes run in the river all the way from the Battery on north to Troy Lock. The fish were making their annual spawning run, a period of six weeks from early May through mid-June, when the weather and water temperature stimulate them into action.
Shortly thereafter, they vacate the river, populating Atlantic waters and the myriad bays and rivers that flow into it from New Jersey to Maine, during summer and fall.
Rosalu's hefty female was only one of many stripers, some as small as 3 pounds, with many in the 20- to 30-pound class, that were brought to the family boat during spring 2006.
Capt. Martin was pleased with his fishing success. Although he has experienced better and poorer seasons in the past, he thought that last year's population of stripers of varied sizes augured well for the future.
"We caught fish of all sizes, and there were many days when the electronic fish finder showed fish in all depths of the water column," he said.
"Just about the only negative of the season was weather. When the water temperature is too slow in warming, or impacted by a cold snap or heavy rain runoff, it inhibits spawning and subsequent survival rates of striped bass fry."
Cathy Hattala, a biologist with the New York Department of Environmental Conservation's Region 3 Hudson River Fisheries Unit -- call them at (845) 256-3071 -- said that 2006 was a normal season, but she pointed out that weather-related events hurt the fishing somewhat. She added there were plenty of big striped bass in the river. But as with fishing everywhere, the veteran anglers scored best, simply because they knew the water and how to respond to the various conditions they encountered.
She noted an important consideration that anglers often overlook was the herring migration into the river -- which, along with alewives, provides an important forage base for stripers as they're about to spawn.
Hattala noted that the male and female stripers are usually found separated at spawning time, with the smaller males being easier to catch. Once conditions reach optimum levels, the fish proceed with spawning.
Many knowledgeable scientists agree that the Hudson River's striped bass population has stabilized. The recreational kill has been increasing annually. Stock assessments are conducted annually, and recent surveys show that 2001 and 2003 were extraordinary years for recruitment.
Much of the success and improvement of the Hudson River striped bass fishery can be attributed to strict adherence to Amendment 6 of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Striped Bass. (For details, interested anglers can log onto ASMFC.org).
Not to be overlooked is how the quality of water in the Hudson has improved over the years. Just two decades ago, many municipalities released their sewage directly into the river. Fortunately, there are few sewage issues remaining.
The first time I fished the Hudson River, some 60 years ago, I sailed from Bayonne, N.J. aboard a rented rowboat with an outboard motor. By day's end, crude oil had accumulated on my line and reel to the point that my clothes were covered, and we had to finally quit fishing.
I still fish the Hudson off Bayonne and catch striped bass each spring in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty. The water quality has improved that much.
From New York City's skyscrapers north to where the gorgeous Catskills provide a tranquil backdrop, you're certain to encounter striped bass. It's never easy to single out the best area to fish for them. But the angler with a small boat should select an area from the Tappan Zee Bridge north to the Rhinecliff Bridge where he can launch and concentrate his fishing efforts within a confined area.
The Hudson is a relatively narrow river with shallow flats extending out from shore. The depth drops off abruptly into 20 to 75 feet of water. Exceptions include Haverstraw Bay and Croton Bay, and the western flats from the New York-New Jersey border northward beyond the Tappan Zee Bridge.
FIND THEM FIRST
Striped bass are abundant in all these waters. And by far the best tool you can employ to find them is an electronic fish finder. Anglers should be able to sight individual fish, often thousands, over the course of a day. Stripers will appear at depths ranging from on the bottom to occasionally near the surface. What's important is that anglers will also be able to see forage species such as herring, alewives, menhaden and shad, all of which constitute a major portion of the stripers' spring diet.
HUDSON RIVER TACTICS
Once you locate stripers in a stretch of river, it's a matter of choice as to how you should fish for them. If you prefer fishing with lures, you'll find trolling is often the best choice.
Use lead-core line or downriggers to send your lures to the depth where bass are holding. Subsurface swimming plugs measuring 6 to 8 inches in a yellow flash or silver flash finish approximate the size of natural forage and should bring some strikes.
Shad imitations of the same size, in bunker or herring finishes, also attract strikes from the heavyweights.
If you trim down lure sizes to the 3- or 4-inch models, you'll hook more schoolie-sized bass.
This is not to say you can't catch stripers by casting. I've done so by drifting through areas where I've marked fish. But you'll find most stripers at depths that make cast-and-retrieve fishing difficult.
Don't overlook fishing with natural baits. Live baits such as herring, alewife, bunker and eels regularly account for many big bass. The favored technique is to use a 3- to 4-foot fluorocarbon leader, with a 7/0 or 8/0 Beak, Claw or Octopus-style hook. Tie on a three-way swivel, with the leader to one eye of the swivel, and use a 12- to 18-inch leader off the remaining eye of the swivel, onto which you can slip a bank-style sinker of sufficient weight (usually a couple of ounces) to bounce the bottom as you drift along.
Hook the bait through the head, just forward of the dorsal fin, or through the lips, so it can swim freely as you're drifting. Sandworms produce good catches, too.
During the past several years, there has been increased interest in chumming during the spring run. Once fish are in an area -- preferably on the flats where the waters range from 10 to 20 feet deep -- simply anchor the boat and begin chunking. Cut chunks from any forage species into 1- to 2-inch pieces, and distribute them overboard at regular intervals. Remember that the objective is to attract the fish to your hook, not feed them.
For hook baits, I prefer the head section of a herring or bunker hooked through the lips, and drifted back with the current.
Chumming with surf clams has also grown in popularity. Clam bellies are most often used, with frozen chunks placed in a chum pot and lowered to the bottom. The chum oozes from the pot as it thaws. Half a surf clam is then placed on a hook and drifted out with the chum. Keep the bait moving until a strike is received.
If you trailer your boat and have never fished the Hudson -- which stretches 134 nautical miles from the Battery to Troy Lock -- purchase a copy of Maptech's Waterproof Chartbook for the Hudson River and New York Harbor, which covers the area from Sandy Hook to Troy Lock. This excellent reference lists all marine facilities on the river, including launching ramps, transient slips, bait and tackle suppliers.
Hudson River striper anglers can help manage the species by participating in the DEC's Striped Bass Cooperative Angler Diary Program, which enables anglers to provide catch results and other pertinent data. To obtain full particulars, call Kris McShane at (845) 256-3009.
There's a sizeable charter boat fishery on the Hudson, and the New York State Division of Tourism's Web site, ILoveNY.State.NY.US, offers a wealth of information.