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September 21, 2007

Stripers On The Half Shell

When the appeal of catching a cow loses out to the rather primitive desire to just catch any damn striper, rig up with clams.
 
CLAM UP: Cheap and simple to use, fresh clams are a choice bait when lures just aren't getting the job done on striped bass.
Photo: Joe Cermele

Along with most fellow striper nuts, I dream about that noble fish rising on a carefully worked plug prior to a smashing strike. Yet, for day-in and day-out consistency, the regal bass is most vulnerable to a clam-the very same bait preferred by the least fastidious bottomfish.

My introduction to the "art" of clamming for striped bass was a painful one. The late Bill McGuiness and I had only recently completed our tours of duty as officers in the Navy and were back on Long Island, anxious to fish for whatever might be available. We rented a skiff on July 13, 1963, at Point Lookout and motored over to Jones Inlet in the hope of catching fluke. While drifting through the inlet, we spotted a small boat at anchor near the west bar with two anglers hauling in one fish after another-striped bass, to boot. That was the last thing I expected to see on a hot summer day. We got as close as possible and cast metal lures in the vicinity, but we never had a hit and just kept watching as they caught bass after bass. Further observation revealed what they were using-whole clam baits.

Later, I met the skipper of that boat and ended up fishing with him a few times. That experience, in addition to some tips provided by a few friends from Freeport, Long Island-who preferred chumming with clam bellies-made me a believer. And why not? Bellies, a waste product of the local surf-clam processing plant, were perhaps the most readily available of all bait, and they worked-very well.


SHELL SHOCK: Clamming is a sure way to get schoolie bass on the feed, but don't be surprised if a few cows chow down too.
Photo: Al Ristori

Clamming 101

GUT PILE: Clam bellies may not be a pretty sight, but they're a truly powerful striper attractant.
Photo: Joe Cermele

Clamming is certainly not a complex striper tactic. Fishfinder rigs are standard for this fishery. Although I always use fluorocarbon leaders, they're not critical. There are times when a lighter leader, such as 20-pound, gets more hits, but I generally use 30-pound or more so I can lift most fish over the side rather than having to net or lip-grip them. Bluefish aren't a problem early in the season, and they're not crazy about clams in any case. But when the water warms and there's nothing else available, blues will start picking up those baits and cutting through leaders.

Clamming is primarily a release fishery, so use circle hooks with no offset. Small bass predominate, and those who want to take fish home often fill their limits quickly. A 5/0 Eagle Claw Black Pearl works fine on early season schoolies and even on bigger bass. Just point the rod in the direction of the fish when it starts biting and wait for a steady pull before reeling tight to hook up. You can hardly go wrong if you avoid the temptation to set the hook. Leaving the rod in a rod holder will help hookup rates in strong currents.

Either a conventional or light baitcasting reel, such as any from the Ambassadeur 6000 series, is perfect.

I prefer the small Avet SX lever drag (with 5:1 gear ratio) on a 6 1/2- to seven-foot, light-action conventional rod for use in strong-current situations.

It's light enough for casting but has enough capacity and power to fight the occasional large bass from an anchored boat while rushing in schoolies for quick release. Light spinning tackle is fine for the early season back-bay fishery. While charter customers generally prefer spinning gear, it's not practical when used with monofilament-turning the handle when line is being run off the reel soon results in terrible line twist. Braided lines stand up to that abuse, and that's all I use on spinners these days.

The key, of course, to successful clamming involves filling a chum pot with frozen ground clams or bellies. Party and larger charter boats often chum by cracking surf clams over the side all around the boat. Unlike winter flounder fishing, however, it's best to cast lines astern as opposed to fishing right next to the pot. Stripers tend to gather downtide of the scent rather than move under the boat. That's not a problem on a small boat, as everyone can cast astern and be in the payoff zone. On a party boat, claim a stern position for this reason.

While chum pots or cracked clams on the bottom will usually be sufficient to attract bass, Captain Lou Grazioso of Striper Mania in Highlands, New Jersey, also crushes shucked clam shells plus some whole clams and bank mussels. He spices the invisible chum line with handfuls of the crushed mixture. If the bite isn't heavy, that often produces a flurry.


AW SHUCKS: The author hoists a fat striped bass that just couldn't resist coming into the chum slick of fresh clams.
Photo: Al Ristori

Timetable for Stripers
Clamming works virtually year-round under a wide variety of conditions. In New Jersey we start fishing the faster-warming shallow waters in the back of Raritan Bay by late March and often have hot action on the flats off Union Beach and Keyport in April. Even before that sport slows with warming waters (starting up again in the fall), the focus shifts to the mouth of the bay at Romer Shoal and Flynns Knoll. Small bait-clam draggers keep bass on the prowl for their favorite tidbit from spring through fall in the ocean off Sandy Hook. Boaters can drift the areas where clam boats operate then anchor and chum after the dredges are pulled. The False Hook area produces in the fall as does Cape May where boat fishermen drift in the vicinity of Delaware Bay clammers as they shuck their catch and discard the shells overboard. By carefully dropping in astern of a clammer, you can also work them while they drag, as their nets will break up clams on the bottom. Just remember to use common sense when fishing around large clammers with their nets out.

Western Long Island anglers frequently target large clammers working just offshore as well. But when none are present, Jesse York of Atlantic Beach anchors on his numbers and deploys a large, square chum pot filled with ground clams. Even during the dog days of summer, it's rare when the Four Queens doesn't limit-out.

It's not very high-tech fishing, but there's often no better way to get bass biting than chumming with the universal striper bait-clams.

Circle of Life
Do your bait rigs help to release striped bass safely?

Stripers typically gulp down clams in a flash, and anglers must be careful releasing them. Only non-offset circle hooks should be used, as they've been proven to sharply reduce mortality. Sportsmen can hardly complain about commercial bycatch losses if they aren't willing to do everything possible to prevent catch-and-release mortality. As a member of the Atlantic States Marne Fisheries Commission Striped Bass Advisory Panel, I've urged making non-offset circle hooks mandatory for bait fishing, which would encourage most anglers to use them and require tackle shop operators to carry those hooks and build their rigs with them. The net result will be many stripers saved, while anglers will be more successful as circle hooks work better once they get used to not striking on the hookset.
- A.R.