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September 21, 2007

Catch a Christmas Striper

Celebrate the season fishing for the striped bass of the Jersey Shore.

Growing up on the Jersey Shore, my memories of fishing for striped bass are always tied to visions of early fall: pumpkins and cider, colorful leaves adorning oak trees, crisp winds and pounding surf. By Thanksgiving, I would have stored the fishing gear and dusted off the skis for the long cold winter.

Today things are quite different. Whether it's because of global warming, changes in bait or migration patterns or simply a shift in the fishery, angling for striped bass along the Jersey Shore has become a winter pursuit. For the past four seasons a dedicated group of hard-core anglers have been making it a ritual to keep fishing right through Christmas, and even to catch their first stripers of the year on January 1. In fact, early winter can offer tremendous opportunities for those unforgettable 100-fish days.

Striper Highway
As with any type of fishing, timing is everything, especially when the target is a migratory species, such as striped bass. Although there are many wintering grounds along the Eastern Seaboard, the Chesapeake Bay system still holds the lion's share of migrating stripers. Looking at the landscape of the migration path of stripers, think of New Jersey's outer coast as a five-lane highway.

 

Fishing into the holiday season can yield both quantity and quality.
Photo: Capt. Gene Quigley

In the spring, striped bass travel north past the Shore to summer off of the coastal waters of New England. By midfall, however, water and air temperatures along the Northeast Coast have begun to chill, sending the stripers south along the same path past the New Jersey coast. When the fish arrive in early winter, two situations trigger the bite and hold fish. First, large bodies of sand eels head inshore from deeper waters. These are not the typical two- to four-inch baits that are seen in the spring. This batch of offshore sand eels ranges from seven to ten inches long. Second, tremendous schools of immature menhaden and sea herring make their way south along the coast from the state's northern backwaters. This creates large but isolated pockets of feeding fish.

On any given day these striped bass can be just outside the inlets or ten to 20 miles north or south. Anglers search out the massive feeding frenzies by cruising the coast looking for signs of activity.

First and foremost, look for anything that may indicate the presence of fish. Birds sitting on the water in a close, tight group usually means that bait is down deep or that stripers were feeding just a short time before. Rather than driving through the resting birds to obtain bottom readings, get upcurrent and drift through them with as little disturbance as possible.

Pay attention to birds that hover in groups high in the air as well.

As a general rule, the higher the birds are over the surface, the deeper the fish are below. Again, position your boat well above the target area and drift through. Use a fishfinder to search underwater structure, such as ridges, bars and deep holes. Popular fishing grounds just off of the Jersey Shore, such as Harvey Cedars Lump and Shrewsbury Rocks, hold fish late in the season, because they have strong underwater current and structure that attract baitfish.

When approaching schools of stripers breaking beneath the birds, you'll want to be extra cautious.

It only takes one selfish boat driving right into the feeding school with engines rumbling to ruin it for the others who are cooperating on the water. Even after the birds have gone down, keep fishing the area.

Many times stripers will go deep and hold just after a massive surface-feeding blitz. Always mark the school on the first drift with the GPS to pinpoint its location. This way when the birds go away and the stripers disappear, you can return to the spot and start fishing deep. A GPS chart plotter equipped with a track plotter can show where the boat began and ended the drift. Utilizing these lines while backtracking can be crucial in finding the school. Once you find a large body of fish, chances are you can pinpoint their migration day by day as they slowly move south along the coast. Some days finding them may not be as easy as it sounds. If you search the water surface and find no activity or signs of life, you'll have to rely on electronics to uncover fish. This time of year a good fishfinder is essential. Additionally, I have come to use my radar unit to locate large flocks of hovering birds that lead right to the feeding stripers. To do this, I set the radar unit to the most sensitive harbor setting. On my particular radar machine, clusters of birds will show up as small blue or yellow dots. Most often, however, a combination of visual signs and savvy use of marine electronics will be the best way to locate schools of feeding fish.

There will be times, however, when all signs of life will be undetectable. When this happens, you should begin searching different depths of water, starting at 20 feet, and then moving to 30, 40 and so on. Once you have found an area that is holding fish, mark it immediately on your GPS. This will give you the exact spot to start your drift once you've left the school.

 

Cold-weather stripers may be deep one day and on the top the next, so take along everything you won including, (clockwise from top left) bucktails, jigs, assorted topwater plugs, metal-lipped swimming plugs, soft-plastic swimming baits, and spoons.
Photos: Capt. Gene Quigley

Winter Gear
Standard seven-foot, medium-heavy boat rods rigged with matching spin or conventional reels work best for late-season stripers. For line, I prefer 40-pound PowerPro. This spectra-based line offers no stretch and provides the necessary sensitivity to detect strikes in cold conditions. When using spectra lines, it's important to use a three- to four-foot-long section of 30- to 50-pound monofilament leader to allow for some stretch when setting up on the fish during the strike.

Your success with Christmas stripers along the Jersey Shore usually comes down to choosing the proper lure or jig. When the sea herring and menhaden are present, long swimming plugs like Bombers, Megabaits and Mambo Minnows will work well retrieved just below the surface. For topwater action, nothing beats the visual take of a 25-pound striper inhaling a nine-inch plug or popper. Along these lines, many anglers have found secret weapons in custom-made metal-lipped swimmers from Lefty, Pajama Plug, Bass-wood and TB Swimmers. These handmade plugs are carved by local New Jersey surf fisherman and have a side-to-side swimming action that drives stripers crazy. Rigging them with a teaser (see "Holiday Teaser," page 68) is especially effective. In addition to the swimmers, large poppers like the Gibbs Bottle and the Smack-It surface popper will also draw strikes.

Soft baits have become deadly during the past few seasons, and anglers using six- to nine-inch shad bodies from Storm and Tsunami will find that these natural-looking artificials seem to work when nothing else does. Last season anglers started to use new soft baits called Bass Kandy Delights. These ten-inch artificials proved to be most effective when stripers were feeding on either sea herring or sand eels.

When the stripers start feeding on sand eels, anglers should start deep-water jigging.

For this type of fishing, I will use a seven-foot St. Croix Avid Musky rod matched with an Avet SX reel spooled with 40-pound PowerPro. This type of outfit has enough power to bring a 30-pound striper up from 50 feet of water but is light enough to keep it sporting when catching smaller fish. Long, thin metal jigs like the AVA 27 or 47 seem to work best when imitating larger, late-season sand eels. Always drop the jig to the bottom, and then work your way up from there. Most of the time, bigger stripers will hold just underneath the bulk of the school.


Fishing into the holiday season can yield both quantity and quality.
Photo: Capt. Gene Quigley

Christmas Shopping
When heading out for Christmas stripers on the Jersey Shore, concentrate around the four main inlets and backwater openings. Starting to the north, the area just outside of Sandy Hook has recently proven to be a great staging ground for late-season fish getting ready to head up the Hudson River to winter. Prime locations just south of "the hook" are Shrewsbury and Long Branch Rocks. These areas provide underwater structure that will hold bait and fish all winter. Farther south, anglers should concentrate around the Shark River and Manasquan Inlets, as these areas will still be pushing out plenty bait from the backwater bays and rivers.

Once you get past Manasquan, the beach structure changes considerably from deep-trenched jetty fronts and rock piles to shallow shoals and long-stretched sandbars that lay just beyond the surf line. The area around Island Beach State Park just north of Barnegat Inlet is a great spot to catch fish blitzing right along the beaches, and surf anglers will line up elbow to elbow to cash in on the holiday-season action.

This Christmas, take a break from the crowded malls and head to the Jersey Shore for some striper fishing. Who knows, you may just see Santa hooked up to a lunker linesider.

 

Christmas Charter List
There are many charter boats that fish the Jersey Shore area during the fall, but most boats are out of the water by Thanksgiving. Here is a list of light-tackle and partyboat charter companies that can keep you into stripers through the New Year.
Light-Tackle Charters
Bull Dog Charters
Cape May, NJ
(609) 628-3474
www.bulldogcharters.com

Outback Charters
Atlantic Highlands, NJ
(908) 670-3038
bioutback@aol.com

Sherri Berri
Manasquan, NJ
(732) 223-5729
cristori@aol.com

Shore Catch Guide Service
Manasquan, NJ
(732) 528-1861
www.shorecatch.com

NJ Party Boats
Gambler
Point Pleasant, NJ
(732) 295-7569

Doris Mae 4
Barnegat Light, NJ
(609) 494-1692

Rainbow 3
Cape May, NJ
(609) 780-6362

Sea Hunter
Atlantic Highlands, NJ
(732) 291-4468