As spring's rising water temperatures heat up the action for anglers along the southeastern Atlantic coast, saltwater aficionados will have a decision to make. With a number of worthy species from which to choose and various methods of catching them, some anglers may have trouble deciding how to make best use of their time on the water. Many others, however, will have no such problem.
One species has earned the title of fan favorite this time of year, and for good reason. Striped bass come big, strong and available in large numbers. They can be caught using a number of methods and a variety of baits and lures. Oh, and they also make fine table fare. What's not to like?
From Virginia to Georgia, spring is the perfect time for coastal anglers to enjoy everything these hard-pulling warriors have to offer as they move in and out of rivers, inlets, bays and other estuaries all along the coast.
Anglers can feel free to employ their favorite methods, baits and lures with a good likelihood of success. Trolling, drifting, chumming and casting can all be productive at various times depending on conditions. A wide variety of live, cut, and imitation baits can be employed for a quarry that will happily devour just about anything that comes its way.
That said, anglers would be wise to "match the hatch" when saltwater striper are actively feeding on specific prey. Favorites include crabs, menhaden, spots, eels and herring.
FIND 'EM AND FEED 'EM
Of course, odds of an angler's success are greatly improved by knowing where the fish are likely to be located. In this case, the Latin word for striper, Morone saxatilis (rock-dwelling), tells us a lot. Known as rockfish along much of the coast, that moniker is appropriate for a fish that seeks out rocks providing food and ambush points, as well as current that sweeps baitfish and other goodies into their laps.
Bridges are excellent sources of rocks, along with other hard structure that provides current, ambush points and prey. Anglers working a bridge near the mouth of a river that enters the ocean, a bay or larger river can hit the jackpot for migrating stripers that use such a facility as a rest stop and diner.
When deciding where to fish along any structure, it's helpful to remember that stripers are drawn to edges. By concentrating their efforts on the edges of the current as well as the structure itself, anglers should be in the thick of the action.
Rock piles and other hard structure can be especially productive as they become covered with marine growth and detritus, attracting small baitfish that hold in the crevices of the rocks. During a slack tide, striped bass will lurk nearby, waiting for their prey to stray far enough from their sanctuary to be chased down. A bait or lure tossed near this haven will often be attacked by a hungry striper.
During a moving tide, stripers are more likely to look for their meal to be delivered to them. Again, the edges of the tide are going to be a striper's prime feeding time. Best action will usually take place between the last hour of one tidal cycle and the first hour of the next one. The lighter the tide and current, the farther they move away from structure.
Another advantage of fishing around the mouth of a river is assistance in locating productive structure courtesy of channel markers located just inside and outside the river's mouth. The area around these markers will contain rocks that provide protection from tides and currents. They are conveniently located along channel edges or underwater points to warn boaters of depth changes. Jetties and other breakwaters should be checked out as well.
Some of the best action around bridges can be enjoyed by anglers fishing after dark. With no sun to drive stripers to deeper depths, the night shift provides the best opportunity to hook up with big fish near the surface. Stripers will prowl just below the surface, making use of any light line caused by bridge lights or the moon to guide them to their prey. Once again, edges will offer the best action, in this case the edge of a light line.
HAVE A PLAN B
Wind and weather conditions around the mouth of a river on any given day can be uncomfortable at best and sometimes dangerous. Fortunately for those with too little boat or no boat at all, spring's run of striped bass offers the best opportunity of the year for getting in on the fun.
Shallow-water marshes and flats, usually ignored by stripers during the hotter months, can be popular feeding grounds for them now. Find a cut in the marshes that runs from the river channel toward shore and you're likely to have placed yourself in the middle of a food run. Drifting live or cut baits along these cuts can produce some of the bigger stripers.
When fishing shallower water closer to shore, the edges of structure will still be the best producers. Channels, flats, humps, and banks should all be targeted. Topwaters can be effective in the shallows, but deeper water is best fished with heavier baits. Crankbaits and casting spoons of weights suitable for depth and water conditions are a good choice, along with versatile soft-plastic minnow imitations that can cover all depths of the water column with different actions and at different speeds. Fishing will be best early and late in the day to accommodate the sensitive eyes of stripers that will move to deeper water as the sun gets brighter.
Another viable option when seas are unfavorable or for anglers without a boat is to visit one of the numerous piers strategically placed in the path of migrating stripers along the oceanfront and adjoining bays, rivers and inlets. Even shorter piers can be productive this time of year as baitfish inhabit shallower water than they will later on when waters warm. Striped bass will follow their lead.
The waters around a pier offer plenty of structure, notably sandbars that run parallel to the beach. Sloughs or troughs that lie between the sandbars and the beach provide travel routes for stripers and their prey.
During either moving tide, anglers should get their offering to the down-side of any sandbars and into any cuts between them. The best baits and lures to use will be live, cut or artificial specimens of whatever fish are feeding on at the time.
Whatever method or location anglers choose, they are encouraged, and in many cases required, to concentrate their efforts on post-spawn stripers. Any hooked females that are carrying eggs should be gently and carefully released in order to preserve the future of these magnificent fish.
Always check the regulations for seasons and creel and size limits pertaining to the waters being fished. Then get out there and have a ball around those rocks and edges.
A LURE FOR ALL REASONS
Few if any rigs for saltwater striper are as versatile and effective as 4- to 6-inch soft-plastic minnow imitations impaled on 1/4- to 3/4-ounce leadhead jigs. They can be cast, jigged or drifted through all levels of the water column at different speeds and with different actions. White and chartreuse are popular colors, with chartreuse getting the call for discolored water.