July 15, 2021
It’s no secret that the Atlantic population of large striped bass is in trouble. For years, biologists, conservationists and lawmakers have worked to implement new restrictions to help protect breeding-age fish.
A recent study in Virginia revealed a severe decline in the harvest of large stripers by recreational anglers from an estimated 368,000 fish in 2010 to fewer than 52,000 in 2018, with overfishing being the primary cause for the drop.
According to Nicole Costa, the principal biologist for Rhode Island’s Marine Fisheries Division, the 2018 benchmark stock assessment estimated spawning stock biomass (SSB) in 2017 was 68,476 metric tons below the SSB threshold, which demonstrates the stock is overfished.
"These findings indicate there’s not enough biomass of striped bass in the stock to support the current level of removals," says Costa. "But there is good news: We had strong year-class spawns in 2011, 2015, and 2016, which are projected to slow or reverse the decline in spawning stock biomass."
Justin Davis, Connecticut’s marine fisheries biologist, agrees with Costa’s assessment, but says there is reason for hope. "We’ve had a decline in larger fish since the mid-2000s," he says. "But we’re optimistic for the future—2011 had a large spawn, and those fish are now reaching the legal length of 28 inches. In 2015 and 2016, we experienced other bumper-crop years, and those are the explosion of schoolies we’re seeing now in the 14- to 22-inch range."
Davis says he’s witnessed the explosion firsthand. "On Veteran’s Day a year ago, I took a trip out of Niantic [on Long Island Sound]. The birds and fish started about halfway out of the bay and continued east almost to the mouth of the Thames River in New London, which is about 3 1/2 miles. It was incredible. There were schools of hundreds of thousands of fish all over the place. Occasionally, I just stopped casting and watched."
Indeed, there is hope for the future with the current boom in small or "schoolie" striper numbers, and these fish make great sport as catch-and-release targets.
"When the schoolie bite is on, the number you can catch is almost unlimited," says Capt. Dixon Merkt (ret.), who has guided out of eastern Long Island Sound for over 40 years. "But you’re not casting to individual fish. You’re seeking schools where you get hits cast after cast. These bass are cookie-cutter fish where volume is your objective, not size. Reports of two anglers releasing over 75 fish on one tide aren’t uncommon."
As you’ve likely deduced, schoolies earned their nickname because small stripers feed and travel in large schools. Once they reach about three feet in length, they gradually become more independent, but the true trophies, or "cows," are solitary, opportunistic predators.
Marauding schools of juvenile bass aren’t fussy. While in a feeding frenzy, striped bass will attack any swimming or surface lure, often chasing down a topwater pattern. They’ll hit a lure multiple times before they commit, providing tremendous excitement.
For topwater action, any 4- to 5-inch surface plug works well, but it’s preferable to remove the forward treble hook to make catch-and-release easier and safer for you and the fish. Cast these plugs to the leading edge of a school and work them diagonally across and away from the bass like a fleeing baitfish.
"When they’re frothing the surface, the mistake anglers make is casting right into the middle of the mess," says Merkt, "What you should do is cast to the edge of the school. In the middle of the blitz, you can accidentally snag fish, which is common when they’re tightly packed, or your line can be severed when small bluefish mix in. Sometimes the fish are feeding so aggressively, and there’s so much bait and turmoil, that your lure is just missed."
Another productive option is using metal lures or epoxy-coated casting jigs, which are useful when needing to make long casts into the wind. Try wide-bodied tins in the 1- to 2-ounce range that imitate baby butterfish, small squid and peanut bunker. Kastmasters, Crippled Herring and Hopkins Shorty lures are excellent choices. When the primary forage is narrow-shaped, such as small herring, large silversides, bay anchovies or sandeels, Shimano’s Coltsniper casting jigs imitate most baitfish and carry well in the wind. A Deadly Dick #1 Long is another excellent schoolie choice, as are the 2 1/2- and 3-inch Game On! Exo Casting Jigs.
How to Fish Them
With your rod tip held low to the surface, retrieve metal lures and casting jigs at a normal rate. Punctuate the retrieve with a stop-and-go action to imitate a wounded baitfish, but be ready to set the hook because schoolies will often grab it on the sink. If you have no surface plugs aboard but want to get in on the topwater excitement, start your retrieve before the lure sinks, keep your rod tip high and increase your retrieve speed. When fished correctly, flat metals skitter across the surface, especially against the current, and draw heart-stopping strikes.
Small, light-colored soft plastics are a favorite of the pros, but rig these with a lead head rather than fish them weightless. The weighted head doesn’t deter schoolies and helps greatly with casting distance. Often, just letting the soft plastic flutter down through a school like a wounded baitfish draws hard strikes.
Last on the list are diamond jigs in the 3- to 4-ounce range. Free-spool the lure to the bottom, either among working bass schools or on the up-tide side of a rip line fronting a reef. Quickly engage your reel and take 8 to 10 rapid turns up, then immediately drop down to the bottom again and repeat the process. As with metal lures, schoolies often strike a jig as it flutters down like dying prey. You can add to the challenge and try for double hook-ups by rigging a fly or soft plastic dropper about 18 inches ahead of the diamond jig.
Most years, fishing heats up in late May and extends into November. Check with local tackle shops to determine when the bite is on in your area.
Tackle Talk: Rod and reel recommendations
A good match for schoolies is a spinning outfit like the 7-foot, medium-heavy, fast-action Shimano Talavera Inshore rod, which is light enough to cast small metals and weighted soft plastics yet stiff enough to chug a topwater plug. A well-matched reel is a Shimano Spheros 3000 SW, which holds about 140 yards of 20-pound PowerPro braided line. Attach 12 to 18 inches of 30-pound mono leader.
Casting to schoolies with a fly rod is an easy way for beginner or mid-level casters to have a rewarding experience. Orvis sells a Clearwater outfit, which includes a 9-foot, 9-weight, 4-piece Clearwater rod, Clearwater IV reel, Clearwater 9-weight fly line, 175 yards of 20-pound Dacron backing and rod tube. Tie on a 6-foot leader of 30-pound nylon or mono. Use general baitfish patterns including peanut bunker, Deceivers and Clousers.