Reading the Current for Spring Stripers

Current lines in the water tell the story for striper anglers who take the time to read the signs. Our expert explains how to find eddies, rips and tide lines for hot action in the salt this month.

by John Gribb

Accidents, fights and the forces of nature etch lines and scars on mariners' faces that, without words, tell stories of their seafaring adventures. Although we may imagine barroom brawls or attacks by pirates as the causes, their origin may be as innocent as an encounter with a windblown jib line. Nevertheless, a story is there. Other familiar lines, such as those on the faces of relatives and friends, are often unnoticed or ignored.

Similarly, while fishing, lines in the water are often overlooked. Often dismissed as insignificant or just unnoticed, current lines are telling stories. Not listening can mean missed opportunities for saltwater fishermen.

Water lines have many causes including tidal flow, river currents, changes in bottom composition, fish or bait activity or wind all have a hidden or an apparent meaning. Tide lines, rips, eddies and other areas of transition often influence fish activity, especially in tidal areas swelled by run-offs during spring striper runs.

In another application of the familiar 90 percent-10 percent rule in fishing, fishermen who learn to read and work these transitions are the most successful.

Eddies, which are among the simplest tide lines to understand, are caused by a mid-current obstruction such as a rockpile. As water flows into an obstruction, it compresses, then diverts to the side, increasing in speed as it rounds the rocks. An area of negative pressure is created on the downstream side of the rock, drawing the flow back into the space in a curling motion. This eddy, often called a back eddy, which is located behind an obstruction, is the quietest water in the stream and is a natural hangout for stripers, but it is not the only fish-holding area.

Eddies caused by obvious and hidden obstructions should be worked thoroughly. Points of land jutting into the flow, rockpiles, docks, piers and bridges are all obvious diversions, but when similar water flows are noticed, the angler can assume that some hidden obstruction is causing them and should fish the area accordingly.

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

Fish large, productive-looking eddies from the inside to the outside if possible. Most boat anglers fish moving water by drifting and casting their lures into promising spots they pass. When passing eddies, this often means they cast into the slower moving water near the line of transition.

A better way to work a large eddy is to move into the backwater with a trolling motor or oars and then cast upstream, drawing the lure in the faster water along the seam. Any forage that is caught by the current will be washed downstream in the swift water around the obstacle. Predators will be loafing in the slower water facing upstream, waiting for an easy meal of one of these hapless creatures.

On the initial drift past any obstacle, before settling into the back eddy, draw a retrieve or two across the head of the rock. Don't forget to cast into the depression directly behind the rock.

Eddies adjacent to the shoreline, such as those caused by points or nearshore rocks, are naturals for the walk-in angler. For example, there is a shoreline spot near me where schoolie stripers stack up just after the turn of the high tide. Shore casters hook them on nearly every cast. They stand along the bank in the perfect position to make upstream casts and draw their lures, with the flow, along the transition between the fast downstream water and the back flow. It is a very productive technique.

Rips even sound menacing, and some are. Where water moving in different directions meet, the opposing forces create rough water. Sometimes, over a rough bottom, a sandbar and/or seaward jetties when an outflowing river meets the incoming tide, these rips become treacherous. In such places, the winds and the wakes from larger boats powering though the rough water often exacerbate conditions.

Seeing how these areas buffet a small boat around, we can imagine what the turbulence does to small fish, eels, crabs, worms and the like. After being churned in this spin cycle, bait is stunned and confused when it is eventually released into the neighboring quiet water. Waiting stripers take advantage of it.

Rips are hard to fish because their power makes them dangerous, but milder rips are good targets. Fish them as transition lines, working lures from the rough water to the smooth water.

Creeks flowing into main river channels create a mini ripline where the two flows meet. These are gangbuster spots in spring, especially on an outgoing tide. Fish both sides of the seam as well as the nearshore pocket on the downstream side.

As menacing as rips are, tide lines by contrast are often serene. As the tide slowly rises, it pushes against the flow of the river water, slowing it to a crawl or even reversing its flow. As it moves in, an edge is created where the opposing forces cancel each other. This isn't a violent place, but rather a meandering line that shifts, based on the water depth and bottom composition. The seam shows the progress of the tide and often indicates where bait that is riding the moving water may be located.

After the tide reaches its high and floods onto the shoreline, it picks up trash or scum and then drags it seaward as it falls. This scum line often holds food and small baitfish.

Other lines also deserve attention. When scanning a surface that is slightly rippled, look for small areas of smooth water. They could indicate a hole or underwater hump, especially when there is a color difference, or a fish oil slick may have relaxed the surface tension. If fish oil is the cause, there may be bait below being chased or eaten by predators.

Rough water meeting calm water and extending in a straight line for some distance often shows dropoffs that bass use as highways to the shallows. Fish these as the tide floods and when it is falling back.

Other lines exist relative to the bottom makeup and concentrate fish, but they are not always visible from the surface. Find these spots while cruising at low tide with a sonar fishfinder, a chart or any other method and make note of their location. Look for places where a gravel bottom changes to fine sand, or where a mussel bed drops into a channel. Look for grass lines, humps or sandbars. Locate odd underwater structures such as breakwaters, fallen trees or bo

ulders that dot an otherwise barren flat and could provide good ambush points for bass or sanctuaries for baitfish. Fish these spots when high water covers them and in most cases, expect fish to be near the edges or transition points.

Most spring striper fishermen target the massive schools of small- to medium-sized fish that migrate into our areas chasing baitfish. Because 90 percent of the challenge in spring is finding holding fish, lure selection is not as important as it will be later in the season. Spring stripers are chasing forage and feeding aggressively, so matching the exact size and color of the bait is occasionally necessary. Often, throwing anything that wiggles or pulsates will attract strikes.

Fly-fishing is effective in the spring. A deceiver or weighted Clouser fly, thrown on a sinking line, will take fish after fish. An 8-weight fly rod with a 250-grain sinking line, throwing a mostly white, 3- to 4-inch long fly, is about right. Depending on the area and the forage fish, the mostly white flies should have accents of chartreuse, olive or blue on their topsides.

For the spincaster or troller, a 3/8-ounce bucktail jig or a jig with a plastic trailer is hard to beat. Hard-bodied swimming lures like the Rebel or Rapala closely resemble baitfish and will consistently catch stripers. Their only shortcoming is their multiple treble hooks that makes releasing small fish difficult. Mashing down the barbs on all hooks is a good idea to reduce damage to released fish.

Though most striper spawning activity occurs in famed waters such as in the Chesapeake Bay and Hudson River, does not mean large fish cannot be found in coastal bays and rivers. Don't overlook these larger fish, which tend to follow on the heels of herring, shad and other spawning species moving upstream on their annual spring runs. Anglers wielding stout rods and casting large spoons and plugs have fewer hookups but often intercept these monster bass.

Thousands of current lines are encountered in a day's fishing, from the subtle to the pronounced, and not all of them have fish under them. Given a choice of casting toward a line, or fishing blind in a big area of featureless water, picking the line increases the odds of a hookup.

Start noticing and fish the lines. You'll catch more and bigger stripers this season.

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