A body of dark shadows the size of a swimming pool cruised just behind the third wave. Then, suddenly, the surface boiled as huge striped bass gorged on two-pound bunker picked from the school. As the scene unfolded in front of me, I raced to tie on a weighted treble hook that I cast into the fray. After a few whips of the rod, I snagged a bunker, and my friend Geoff Turner followed my lead.
We let our bunker sink below the pod, where it didn't take long for the bass to find our wounded offerings. I cranked in a 25-pounder within minutes, but Turner didn't give me much time in the spotlight. Shortly thereafter, he beached a bass that almost hit the magic 50-pound mark.
While you might think a fish the size of Turner's is a once-in-a-lifetime catch, trophy stripers in the surf aren't so uncommon, especially when the spring run of bunker arrives.
Just One Snag
When large bunker schools cruise the surf to feed or head for the shallows in an attempt to avoid predators, surfcasters need to be aware of what options are available so they can cash in on the run. But first they need to find the schools.
Bunker pods are fairly easy to spot as they swim near the surface and filter-feed on phytoplankton. Look for ripples, nervous water and small splashes from bunker tails. Even if you don't see a school getting crushed, it doesn't mean they aren't being followed by stripers. Every pod is worth fishing.
If you're lucky enough to find large bunker on an uncrowded section of beach, snagging and dropping is one method I've used, provided it is legal in the area I'm fishing. I use two snag-and-drop methods. The first rig consists of a 20-inch length of 80- or 100-pound-test monofilament tied to a barrel swivel. A dropper loop holds a 5/0 VMC treble, and a sinker loop is tied to the bottom of the rig. Matched with a three- to six-ounce bank sinker, I can cast this rig more than a hundred yards to a bunker school holding off the beach.
The second option is a 10/0 or 12/0 preweighted treble hook that is either tied onto your leader or connected to a snap. Larger snag hooks are more difficult for bass to swallow, and the hook matched with a big bunker is very difficult for small stripers to eat. While some may question the tactic, the number of gut-hooked fish is surpisingly low when you snag-and-drop properly.
Once the rig splashes down, always let it sink for a few moments, otherwise you risk skipping it across the surface and over the bunker. After the rig falls, sweep back hard on the rod. You will know immediately when you connect with a menhaden.
When the stripers are right in the wash, you could switch your snagged bunker to a single-hook rig and toss it back into the white water. I use an 8/0 or 9/0 Gamakatsu octopus hook, pinning the bunker ahead of the dorsal fin or behind the anal fin. If you're fishing from a jetty, snagged bunker should also be switched over to a single hook. Since bunker will run into the rocks looking for safety, a short cast into open water should get the attention of any bass waiting to pick off prey hiding in the boulders.
Hooked bunker vibrate steadily or emit what's known as a "tailbeat." The weight of the rig will pull the snagged fish down through the pod and beneath the school where large bass wait for an easy meal. However, when you have 20 guys throwing big pencil poppers or swimmers, this live-lining technique can get tricky. Your best bet for scoring when this happens is to join the crowd (see "Pencil Me In" below).
Many anglers feel that you need to let the bunker run once it's snagged, but that's not always necessary. I prefer to keep the bail closed, as it gives me more control and makes it easier to discern definitive strikes from the wild runs of the bunker. Keeping the bail closed and not allowing the bass to run too far also greatly reduces the risk of the fish swallowing the hook.
A striper will home in on the vibrations of the wounded bunker and inhale it headfirst. Before swallowing, it will crush the bunker in its throat. Any stop in the bunker's steady vibration is a sign that it has been picked up by a bass. Take up the slack until you feel the weight of the fish and slam the hook home. This is where a rod with some leverage works to your advantage. The optimal size rod for this approach is an 11-footer matched with a high-capacity reel, such as a Van Staal 250. This gear will also let you battle a cow more efficiently.
Fish over 40 pounds are skittish and most often caught after dark. But when the bunker come through, even the heaviest cows can't stay away. This rare chance to catch one from the surf in broad daylight doesn't happen often, but live bunker fished right can produce huge fish. This spring, keep an eye on the surface and be prepared to hook the bass of your dreams.
Editor's Note: Live-lining with treble hooks can sometimes result in release mortality. When possible, switch to single hooks.
Pencil Me In
Big lures catch big bass during the spring bunker run.
If you'd rather not use a livie, large pencil poppers are one of the most effective lures when bass are feeding on big bunker. The lure's erratic motion and water-throwing ability attract curious cows in short order. I prefer poppers that weigh at least 31/2 ounces and are at least eight inches long.
A whippy, ten- or 11-foot rod is best for pencil-popping. After a long cast, place the rod butt between your thighs and grab the rod 12 to 16 inches above the reel. Crank the reel handle and whip the rod backward and forward violently with your top hand (the right for most casters) while reeling fast enough to keep the lure splashing steadily. The technique may be awkward for beginners, but once the pencil starts doing its dance, the cow stripers will all race to cut in. - D.J.M.