Catching Tackle-Busting Saltwater Stripers

While many saltwater game fish go dormant in cold weather, stripers provide plenty of action for anglers who are as cold-resistant as those fish.

The comeback of striped bass to the saltwater estuaries and ocean waters of the Mid-Atlantic states has been nothing short of spectacular. Anglers who once shied away from coastal bays, rivers, beaches and the ocean now head in droves to the places where striped bass are known to congregate. These locations vary widely from state to state. And it is important to know something about the habits of striped bass to understand the whereabouts of the fish.

Anglers are advised to contact their state departments that administer regulations for marine fisheries for up-to-the-minute regulations regarding striped bass prior to heading out after the fish. They should also remember that although a season may be closed, that does not prevent them from practicing catch-and-release fishing. Indeed, for saltwater striped bass, keeping any fish that is brought along the gunwale seems almost futile at times. When the action is hot, anglers can catch so many fish in such a short period of time that keeping a fish is almost too much trouble and spoils the sport.

In the ocean waters out to three miles, bag limits are low and size limits long when compared to inland waters. Beyond three miles in the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), striped bass are subject to federal jurisdiction and the season is closed. Fortunately, the best fishing is found within that three-mile zone.

When exploring for striped bass from boats in inshore waters, anglers who do well remember the "Five Bs" - Baitfish, Birds, Bridges, Boats and Bucktails. Baitfish congregate around structure, and in coastal rivers, bays and sounds, "structure" is synonymous with "bridge."

While most of the inshore waters are homogeneous, with wide expanses of shallow flats and grass beds, baitfish are attracted to bridges because they offer shelter in the form of shade, a place to stay out of the current and a place to hide from predatory fish like striped bass. Bait schools can sometimes be seen at the surface near bridges. However, they can also be spotted with a depthfinder when they are below the surface.

Nice stripers like this one feed heavily during the winter months, and can be much more cooperative than many species. Stripers love structure, and can be caught close to the beach in some areas. Photo by Mike Marsh

The big balls of bait attract birds when they are forced to the surface by feeding striped bass. Birds can be seen working these bait schools from many miles away. A pair of binoculars is a big asset when an angler is scanning for flocks of birds.

The species of predatory birds vary with the size of the baitfish. Terns and gannets prey upon tiny fry and small herring, while pelicans dive into the water after larger fish like menhaden and shad and sometimes game fish that striped bass also eat, such as speckled trout. Since the size of the birds indicates the size of the baitfish, it often provides a clue as to what size baitfish the stripers are feeding upon and therefore what size of lure to use to catch the fish.

Bucktails are used by many anglers who prefer to cast lures to the fish. Bucktails have single hooks and are less prone to snag-ups around structure than treble-hook lures. Bucktails also dive fast. Both characteristics make them perfect for bridge bumping.

White is the color most often selected and some anglers like a streak of green or red bucktail hair or feather in the dressing. Others like a white, green or red plastic worm or twistertail trailer added to the hook to provide additional action and body to the lure. The plastic trailer also seems to add a lifelike feel to the lure that keeps the fish hanging on longer for the split-second timing it takes to set the hook.

Even with very large fish, which can exceed 40 pounds when anyone is speaking of saltwater stripers, the strike is usually a just a bump or twitch before the fish "smells a rat" and spits out the lure. The uninitiated angler will think that the bump is merely the bucktail being tagged by the tail of a baitfish.

Therefore, when bumping bridges, anglers often use superbraid lines for their added sensitivity, as well as to help in preventing cutoffs when a fish takes the line around a piling. The fact that superbraids have no stretch also increases the odds of a solid hookup when the hook is set, as well as helping the angler lead the fish away from the structure during the critical first few seconds of the battle.

In most situations, a 1/2-ounce jig is adequate. However, when the fish are holding in deeper water, where there is strong current, or when casting into the wind, a heavier bucktail is used. Since stripers can be size-specific in their feeding habits, it pays to have jigs onboard that vary in size from 1/4 ounce to 1 ounce.

Schooling fish also occur in river channels and open water away from bridges. Birds give away their presence when they are at the surface and fish feeding on the baitfish also cause eruptions on the water's surface that leaves no doubt that stripers are in the area.

However, the estuaries are often vast and have a minimum number of water users other than anglers in January. Therefore, anglers looking for the fish should try to spot other anglers' boats.

Open-water fishing often takes the form of trolling, especially when it is cold. While using a bucktail, swimming lure or topwater plug to catch stripers is fun, having wet fingers when the air temperature may be less than 50 degrees and the wind is whipping is not.

Multiple boats often set up trolling patterns around schools of stripers. Deep-diving lures are most often used for trolling. However, when the fish are feeding on small baitfish that are deep beneath the surface, using a downrigger or planer to take a small spoon down to the fish can result in more strikes. Many anglers who troll for striped bass use several rods with the lures set at different depths.

When a school of stripers is found, it is a good idea to troll the edges of the school to avoid scattering the fish or driving them deep. Although striped bass are very aggressive feeders and not particularly shy, several boats cutting through the school can reduce fishing success. Since trolling patterns develop when several boats are working a school of stripers, anglers arriving after other boats have begun trolling should observe them for a few minutes, then fall into the same trolling pattern that the other boats are using. Not only is this a common courtesy, it helps to prevent tangled lines when a big fish is on the hook.

Sight-casting to visible schools is probably the most exciting wa

y to catch striped bass. It can also be the most work. Schools surface for a short duration, then submerge. Anglers must chase the schools and ration their casts for the most success. By waiting until fish strike baitfish on top before casting, they increase their odds for drawing a strike.

Targeting visible fish is a fly-angler's specialty. Heavy rods in the 8- to 10-weight range are preferred for striped bass. While floating lines can be used with success, a weight-forward, intermediate line or a shooting head can better defeat the winter wind. The fish can be approached to fairly close casting range and the ease of picking up a floating line for subsequent casts is a secondary consideration. Floating lines are easier to pick up, but will make it more difficult to present a heavy popper or fly in the wind.

Spinning and baitcasting tackle can be used for catching surfacing stripers as well. Floating poppers can take much of the work out of the fishing and help out in the cold weather. By motoring upwind of surfacing fish, then shutting down the motor and allowing the boat to drift through the school, anglers with spinning or baitcasting gear can get close-range shots at striped bass.

Casting behind the boat's direction of drift takes the slack from the line while the lure is "popped," reducing the necessity of cranking in the line and rewetting fingers with multiple casts. Neoprene gloves can help ward off the cold, but make casting a clumsy affair. Therefore, many anglers use gloves with fingertip openings.

For landing fish, a large landing net is the best bet. Gaffs are good for fish that are intended for keeping. But blood from a gaff wound can make a deck slippery, which is dangerous in winter conditions. Nets keep the anglers' hands out of the water and make handling large fish easy. Fish that an angler decides to release can be handled and unhooked without the need to bring the fish into the boat, while fish that are going to be kept can at least be "drip-dried" in the net before being brought aboard, which will help to keep the deck free of water.

Ocean-roaming fish are also trolling - they're on the move, looking for forage. However, since these are larger fish, many anglers use conventional spool reels in 3/0 sizes that are also used for catching king mackerel. Using large, heavy spoons and plastic diving lures assists in making casts that do not backlash. Many anglers use 30-pound mono or 50-pound superbraids to subdue these large fish.

Bank beaters can also get in on the fun in some areas. Shore-bound anglers use visual clues to find fish along the beach in the same way anglers fishing offshore look for aggressively feeding fish, because near-shore stripers will be engaged in the same sort of feeding activity. As in open water, birds and other anglers give away the presence of striped bass. Vehicles line stretches of beach when the fish approach within surf-casting range. Piers that have been dormant since the fall spot run are lined with lots of anglers casting spoons, lures and chunks of cut bait into schooling striped bass. There are also many riverbanks in striper country where these fish are accessible to anglers willing to take a short walk along a trail to the water's edge.

Surf-casting tackle or heavy spinning tackle is used to catch fish from the land. Generally, the heavier the tackle, the more likely the angler is to be able to reach the fish with a cast and subdue the fish. Large baits and lures are used for big ocean and river fish.

"Eight and bait" is a surf-caster's expression for the biggest rigs, which are capable of casting an 8-ounce sinker, leader and a slab of mullet or menhaden far enough to reach beyond an ocean bar. It takes a heavy-action rod to be in this classification. The reel should also have a line capacity of 250 to 400 yards. On a long cast, the angler is already giving the fish a 100-yards-of-line head start and it does not take long for a big striper to eat a spool of line when heading out to sea.

Next to trolling, fishing natural and live baits is probably easiest on the angler's hands in cold, windy weather. Natural baits can be pre-cut at home, then salted or frozen and placed into zipper bags or containers. This eliminates the need to handle the bait for cutting while out on the water in a raw wind. Anglers should also come prepared to have some way to dry and warm their hands when using natural baits. Pocket hand warmers that work off fuel or chemical reactions and dry towels can save the day when the weather is cold.

Whatever bait you use, it should be fresh. In a pinch, shrimp make great striper bait and are available during the winter. Live baits can also be caught in cast nets and dip nets. By keeping baits like shad, herring and alewives alive in re-circulating livewell tanks, anglers have access to absolutely the best striper baits.

In lieu of catching live baits, especially in brackish water rivers, a trip to the tackle shop to obtain some live golden shiners is a good trick. While the shiners may not last long in salt water, they still last long enough to elicit strikes from striped bass. Even dead, shiners make good baits because they are fresh and their scales shiny. One advantage of shiners is that they will stay alive in a cooler or bait bucket without the need for a pump or an aerator. The best shiners are the large size, generally used for largemouth bass.

Live and natural baits can be jigged around bridge pilings, suspended beneath floats, cast to surfacing schools and slow-trolled or drifted through deep schools of stripers that show up on the depthfinder. Scents can be added to help the stripers find the baitfish and are especially useful in the muddy water conditions found in coastal rivers or inlets after winter rains. They also help if the fish are lethargic, which is most likely to occur when the water temperature drops below 45 degrees. The cold water won't drive stripers from an area, but they do sometimes need added incentive to feed.

In addition to gear and bait, January striper fishing on coastal waters requires good seamanship skills. Cold water and wind combine to create hazardous conditions. Anglers who have any doubt about the safety of their craft relative to the weather conditions should stay in port. While a 16-foot johnboat is plenty of boat in a small coastal river under almost any reasonable conditions, a 25-foot center console boat is only suitable during relatively good weather on the open ocean.

Spray can wet an angler, causing an abbreviated and miserable trip. Waterproof raingear is advised when it is choppy, with polypropylene underwear and adequate winter clothing underneath. Waders are worn by many winter striper fishermen, even aboard boats, because they offer protection from even the most bitter weather conditions. Flotation jackets are good apparel because they are waterproof, warm and will keep an angler afloat if he loses his footing.

Striper fishing during the winter can be cold work, but the size and power of these fish will heat you up. Give it a try this year.

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