September 29, 2010
From the surf, rocks or boat, Bay State striped bass provide plenty of action this month. Our expert explains how to find and catch these popular coastal game fish. (July 2007)
Photo by Ken Freel
Massachusetts fishermen covet big stripers -- those elusive 50-pounders that lure anglers from their warm beds to ply the surf in the dark of night. Some guys want a big trophy for the bragging rights or just the pure excitement of landing a giant striper.
Other anglers target keepers (over 28 inches) for the table because they taste so good, while still others just want to catch lots of fish. We all want stripers and, though catching them in July has challenges, there are plenty of places to find these fish.
Gary Nelson and Paul Caruso, marine fisheries biologists for the Massachusetts Department of Marine Fisheries, said that last year was a good year for striper angles, with steady action all season. There were lots of smaller fish (from 14 to 20 inches) from the 2002 and 2003 spawning season, and good numbers of sub-legal fish from the 2001 class that should be keepers this year.
As for the bigger fish, there were good and bad news. There were more very big fish -- 40- and 50-pounders -- but apparently fewer big bass.
If last year was any indication, Bay State anglers should see plenty of sub-legal and just-legal stripers in 2007, along with some true monsters.
The Marine Fisheries Department practices an "adaptive management strategy. As the condition of the stock changes, harvest limits will be adjusted. With luck and appropriate planning, there will be great seasons and not-so-great seasons. But never again will populations crash.
The Massachusetts coastline offers countless opportunities to catch stripers from the beach or rocks, from large sea-worthy boats and from small craft. Striped bass are literally all over the place, from the deep near-shore waters to the shallow shorelines and even far up our tidal rivers. But they are not everywhere. Fishing without a plan or without knowledge of their habitual hangouts curses anglers to slim pickings.
To catch stripers consistently, it's important to know where and how. Here, organized from north to south, are some good spots to get you started. We've also thrown in some proven techniques that should help:
Where the Merrimack River meets the ocean at Newburyport is a consistent shoreline hotspot for stripers. It's popular and easily accessed, with all possible venues for shoreline fishing -- wading the flats, casting along the beach and working the rocks.
Anglers targeting stripers from the beach or rocks generally cast into the surf with plugs, plastics or tins (metal lures that mimic baitfish) or dunk bait. Fly-fishermen represent a growing portion of this group.
Father's Day falls around the changing point from spring to summer conditions, when beach fishermen switch to bait and target keepers, rather than the hordes of smaller schoolies of spring. Sea worms and sliced clams are productive, though most anglers do well tossing chunks of herring or mackerel.
Summer surf fishing from the Salisbury or Plum Island ocean beaches is hit or miss, so most anglers concentrate on the channel at Plum Island Point out to the end of the south jetty.
When the Parker River Wildlife Refuge opens to fishermen (it is closed early in the season to protect piping plover nesting areas), the meeting of sand and sea stretching from the Plum Island Point south to Sandy Point offers miles of uncluttered habitat to the walking angler.
At dawn and dusk, look for swooping and diving birds. The smaller terns' swooping action means that bait is in the area. But diving gulls and cormorants signal party time.
Plum Island and the Parker River Refuge are adjacent to Newburyport. Refuge information is available on the Web or at (978) 465-5753.
CAPE ANN BEACHES
Cape Ann's beaches and boulders offer plenty of options for late-season fall stripers. On the Ipswich Bay side, the productive Cranes Beach Reservation at the end of Argilla Road in Ipswich is good at night after the swimming crowd leaves. Beach fishermen can purchase an inexpensive fisherman's sticker from the Ipswich town office that permits overnight parking from 6 p.m. to 8 a.m. outside the park gates, but day fishermen are required to pay the normal daily entrance fee for the park.
Walking down the utility road to the back side of the beach puts anglers into the productive water between Cranes and Hog islands. Concentrate on the dropoffs, the various rockpiles and any rips that occur. Normally, the low and rising tides are the most productive.
Another Ipswich destination down Jeffries Neck Road is Pavilion Beach between Great Neck and Little Neck. Pavilion Beach has a small parking area. The left side can be productive on a falling tide. From the beach, anglers may walk down a paved road to Great Neck Beach, where lower tides show mussel beds and grass plots that are good targets.
Also on Cape Ann, Halibut Point has a trail around the rocks from the Halibut State Park parking area that allows access to normally dependable bluefish spots that also hold striped bass. This is a daytime fishery because the park closes at sunset. Pick a day when the surf is boiling and walk around the rocks, tossing lures into any good-looking pockets. Bass will be found near the rocks.
In south Boston along Quincy Shore Drive, the long Wollaston Beach Reservation is a good year-round hotspot. Use bait or cast soft-plastics, jigs or small plugs on spinning gear. Fly-casters love Black's Creek Cove at the south end of the beach, where they can wade out hundreds of yards on an outgoing tide and still be in fishable water. Fish the cove all the way out to the dropoff beyond the big offshore sandbar.
CAPE COD CANAL
Everyone has heard of Cape Cod Canal, but fishing the canal and its rocky riprap banks and its swift tidal flow is challenging.
There's a large difference between the height and timing of the tides in Cape Cod Bay (about nine feet) and Buzzards Bay (about four feet). This creates five-knot currents at times within the canal.
Fishing in such fast current is difficult for even the most expert anglers. A key to success is concentrating fishing activity during the slack water periods (at high and low tide) that occur four daily times on most
days. Times for slack water are available from local tackle shops or the Web (search "Cape Cod Canal Tides").
Fishing is best for 1 1/2 hours during each tide turn: the last half hour of the current's slowing in one direction, the dead slack period and the first half hour of the current speeding up in the other direction.
July action can be good over the entire canal. The point off Bell Road at the West End of the canal is one of the hardest-fished areas, due to easy access, plenty of parking, toilet facilities and plenty of room for fishermen.
When squid appear in the canal, usually late July or August, the flat behind this point can be the scene of unbelievable action on very big bass. The canal is not the place for light tackle.
BIG BOAT FISHING
The draft of their crafts excludes big boat anglers from fishing in shallow water. Their approach to striped bass is normally trolling, drifting or casting to offshore rockpiles.
Seaward of Cape Ann along east- facing Rockport and Gloucester, the rocky shoreline overlooking the open Atlantic Ocean is highlighted by a few sandy beaches. Access from land is limited, but there are plenty of near-shore and offshore spots that boating anglers can try. Launch at Salisbury Beach State Park or any of the landings on Cape Ann.
Salisbury Landing is inside the park on Route 1A east toward Salisbury Beach. The Gloucester state ramp, next to the high school and with room for about 40 trailers, is the best landing on Cape Ann.
Called Dunfugin Landing, it is on the east side of Blyman Canal and takes boaters out through Gloucester Harbor.
Boaters can troll these waters with tube and worm rigs or umbrella rigs, but great action may be had casting to near-shore rockpiles.
White water is the key to finding bass in these rocky lairs. Bouncing lures or bait against the exposed rocks and dropping them into the surging foam below, as if they were confused baitfish, will attract bass.
Boat control is important in any whitewater fishing. For this kind of fishing, two people are required, with one constantly at the helm, controlling the boat -- with the motor running.
Good striper spots off Rockport and Gloucester include Halibut Point, Andrews Point, both Little and Dry Salvage, Straitsmouth Island, Emerson Point, Thatchers and Milk islands, and off Long Beach. Farther down the east-facing shore, Bass Rocks and Bemo Ledge on the north side of Brace Cove are two other good targets.
On the west side of Gloucester Harbor, the short stretch from Magnolia to Manchester Harbor is mostly rocky shoreline with limited access, except for a series of four beaches, West, Singing, White and the most eastward Black Beach. Boaters should focus on Kettle Island, Eagle Head, and Egg Rock. Also the rocks along Misery Islands and House Island deserve attention.
Trolling is the method of choice for most of Cape Cod Bay's deep-water striper anglers. Professional charter captains, who steam out of every major harbor from Plymouth to Provincetown, target the humps, shoals, mussel beds, sand fingers, dropoffs, weed patches, rockpiles and other structure in the bay that could attract bass.
Private-boat anglers can do the same. Some drag big umbrella rigs, others opt for leadhead jigs. But many prefer the tube-and-worm setup that includes 18 to 24 inches of colored surgical tubing, with a sinker embedded in the front and a couple of hooks near the end. Some fishermen attach a sea worm to the last hook.
Depending on the tide and the direction of the troll, paying out two to five colors of lead-core line will keep the rig along the bottom. Your objective is to touch the bottom structure occasionally, but not to drag the lure so deeply that it constantly hangs up.
Cape Cod Bay is big water, and the harbor where a boater launches often influences where he will fish. Some of the prime destinations include Billingsgate Shoal, Woods End and the Race. But as noted earlier, fish are not everywhere, so it's important to find structure, humps and shoals in deep water. Use a nautical chart of the bay and then a depth sounder or a GPS with a charting program and sounder to find them.
SMALL BOAT FISHING
Most striper fishing, with the most diverse options, is conducted from small boats. The boats range from kayaks or canoes and johnboats or small skiffs, up to the ideal striper machine: the fully equipped flats skiff. From a small boat, you can pick your fishing style: dunk bait, cast flies, fling plugs, troll, drift and even pole the shallows with the added excitement of sight-fishing.
While the Merrimack River is a popular walk-in destination, it is best fished from a small boat. On Joppa Flats, the big bass that moved upriver chasing spawning herring earlier in the year return in July. Bait-fishermen drifting live herring and mackerel, or chunks of the same, in the channel near the Badgers Rocks harvest plenty of keepers.
If last year was any indication, Bay State anglers should see plenty of sub-legal and just-legal stripers in 2007, along with some true monsters.
Though fish can be anywhere near the river mouth, places like Badgers Rocks near the "Toothpick," Woodbridge Island, in front of the captains' docks at Plum Island Point, the shallow side of the green buoy "C11" across from the Toothpick and the long flat down-river from the American Yacht Club mooring area are all productive. Work the flats at high tides and near the channels at low tides. Launch at Salisbury beach landing, as described earlier.
For quick access to the Salem Harbor area, the landing on Winter Island is a great choice. On the Salem side of the Route 1A bridge, take Webb Street to Fort Avenue on Salem Neck. Located at the end of Winter Island Road, this popular landing charges a launch fee in season.
Huge numbers of very large bass roam the rocks within Salem Harbor. Check the rockpile called Aquavitaes, which lies exposed at low tide and is almost covered at high tide. Bait-fishing is most productive within these rocks during higher water, but plugs are effective on falling water near low tide, when most of the island is fully exposed.
Coney Island also has lots of rocky hiding spots. Off Marblehead, Gerry and Brown islands are treacherous to navigate, but give up good numbers of bass.
The seven miles of coastline associated with Duxbury, Kingston and Plymouth bays are filled with sand flats, rockpiles and channels that support excellent striped bass fishing throughout the season. Outside of the long breakwater is an edge of rocky structure. A little farther out is a slight dropoff to deeper water that is subtle, but enough to attract fish.
Goose Point Channel, which runs along the inside of Plymouth Beach, is good on a dropping tide. Opposite the beach toward High
Cliff, is a large flat area that fully drains at low water. This flat has boiling fish and bird activity at times and at other times, shows only subtle signs of bass moving around. But fish are generally there.
The large Plymouth town landing on Water Street is where most boating activity begins. Even with its size and parking capacity, the ramp is crowded on nice summer days
In Buzzards Bay, the Westport River landing, across the Route 88 bridge, is a large and popular access point for the Westport River system and Rhode Island Sound. The river system is shallow and dotted with islands, sand bars and rocks that are great habitat for stripers, blues and fluke. The area is shallow and warms fast, somewhat limiting summer striper action, but bass are there along with blues and wild bonito.
The most popular spots are at the Westport Harbor entrance and around Gooseberry Island.
Massachusetts has a free Saltwater Sport Fishing Guide that lists public landings, guides, charters and other information. It is available from many sporting goods shops, from the Division of Marine Fisheries at (617) 626-1520 or on the Web.
If there's a textbook-perfect striped bass fishing spot, it is probably in Massachusetts. Whether you like fishing the shallows, the rocks or offshore, you can find bass all season that will attack a lure and then fight hard.
For more on fishing for stripers in Massachusetts, pick up Capt. John Gribb's book, Fishing the Coast of Massachusetts, available at local bookstores or on Internet book outlets.
Find more about New England fishing and hunting at www.NewEnglandGameandFish.com