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September 21, 2007

Season-Starter Stripers

Spring is here at last, and so are striped bass! If you're a Northeast angler who just can't wait any longer, here are a handful of tried-and-true techniques, plus a few clever rigs, that will help you connect with the first fish of the season.

Season-Starter StripersSeason-Starter Stripers

Trolled bunker spoons are deadly on April stripers in New Jersey. Most early-season fish aren't big, but the occasional keeper is always a possibility. Slow-trolled seaworms prove irresistible to bass in many New England spots. The spinner-and-worm combo did the trick with this Massachusetts striper. Flies work wonders on schoolie bass in the shallow rivers and coves. The first stripers are often lean, mean and hungry.

Spoon-Feed 'Em!

By Al Ristori

When menhaden and herring Start moving into New Jersey's Raritan Bay in April, large striped bass are right behind them, looking for their first nourishing meals of the season. This is the time when anglers can score consistently with large stripers by trolling herring and menhaden imitators. Bunker spoons originated in the New York/New Jersey area, and local anglers have developed considerable expertise in trolling them on wire line for big bass.

Long, whippy rods are favored, since they give the big spoons a slow, pulsing action that drives bass wild. Many old-timers use custom-built, 11-foot surf rods for trolling bunker spoons, but I prefer Seeker's eight- and nine-foot Bunker-Spoon Rods, which provide the necessary action and are easier to use, not to mention a good deal cheaper. Many bunker-spoon pros fish their rods from Outrodders. These specialized rod holders fit in a boat's existing gunwale holders and hold the long rods parallel to the water. This allows the spoons to perform their best and helps keep the lines from tangling during tight turns.

Trolling bunker spoons in shallow areas, such as New Jersey's Raritan Bay, usually requires less than 150 feet of wire line. Mark the wire at 100 feet, tie on 15 to 25 feet of heavy mono leader ending in a large snap swivel and you're ready. Remember, you don't always have to fish the spoon right on the bottom to score. In fact, if you see swirls on the surface, it may be best to shorten the wire to less than 100 feet.

Quite often there's no more to locating bass than spotting some bait (either herring or menhaden) riffling the surface and trolling around them as slowly as possible so the rod tip throbs in a steady beat. Many anglers have taken to also trolling a Mann's Stretch 25 or similar deep-diving plug on mono or braided line between the two bunker-spoon rods. There are periods when the plug will outfish bunker spoons, probably when the bass prefer herring.


Season-Starter Stripers
The spinner-and-worm combo did the trick with this Massachusetts striper.

Spinners for Stripers

By Barry Gibson

The first bass I catch each spring are invariably taken on a trolledspinnerblade/seaworm combo, a rig originally developed in the 1930s, but refined and re-popularized in the late 1980s by Massachusetts striper ace Joe Karolides. Joe spends nearly 150 days a year working the waters of the Danvers River and Beverly and Salem Harbors in his 16-foot outboard, and has caught and released thousands of bass on his spinners, which in this area seem to be more effective than any other bait or lure when the water is cold early in the season.

The rig (see below) is easy to construct, and best fished on no heavier than 20-pound mono. Live, healthy seaworms are a must, each lightly hooked through the top of the head. Let the baited rig out about 75 feet behind the slowly moving boat (one to two knots is about the right speed) and hold the rod parallel to the water. Normally a bass will bite off the rear worm first, and you'll feel a sharp tap. Immediately sweep the rod tip aft and "feed" the fish as it goes for the front worm. A solid lip or jaw hook-up should result.

This rig is most productive in five to ten feet of water along channel and river edges, the shoreline and submerged structure such as grass or shell beds over open bottom. It's deadly on schoolies to about ten pounds, but Joe has caught a number of 25-plus-pounders on the spinner-worm combo.


Dowel and Dirty

By Capt. Dave Preble

Season-Starter Stripers

Flies work wonders on schoolie bass in the shallow rivers and coves.

In my home waters of Rhode Island, the first striped bass of the season swarm into shallow estuaries, salt ponds and along south-facing shorelines in early April. Although I do most of my striper fishing from the deck of my charter boat, Early Bird, I still enjoy chasing away the winter blahs by casting for early-spring schoolies from shore or an aluminum skiff.

The most consistently productive rig I've found for taking stripers at this time is one a commercial rod-and-reel fisherman showed me many years ago. The heart of the rig is a wooden dowel with a through-wire and a swivel at each end. One end is attached to the main line and the other to a piece of 20-pound-test mono and a small lure. The lure can be a tiny jig tipped with a chartreuse or pink plastic grubtail, a small spoon or even a streamer fly. The dowel is used primarily for casting weight, but the commotion it creates may help get the attention of fish. This rig can be adapted to specific conditions and locations by varying the length of the leader or trying different lures and flies, and you can use a floating wooden popper with its hooks removed in place of the dowel.

The secret to avoiding tangles during the cast is to hang the lure or fly from a small nail or piece of wire installed on the dowel. When the rig lands, the lure will slip off the hanger and drop to the fish's feeding zone.

I fish my rigs on a seven-foot rod rated for eight- to 17-pound line and a small spinning reel spooled with ten-pound mono.


Season-Starter Stripers

Fantastic Plastic

By Tim Coleman

Given favorable weather, Connecticut striper anglers can shake off the winter cobwebs in mid- to late April. These early fish may be small, but who cares? The time-tested, 1/4- to 1/2-ounce, white bucktail jig works well, but others favor soft-plastic baits threaded on plain or painted jigheads in the same weight range. Lures such as the two- to four-inch Fin-S-Fish, Slug-Go, Sassy Shad or curl-tailed worms all fool fish when cast on eight- to 12-pound spinning gear and worked with a slow retrieve. A short section of 15- to 20-pound leader is optional.

We are talking "pre-herring" fishing, of course, a time when the predominant forage is small, hence the smaller lures. Popular colors are white, chartreuse, a combination of the two, or perhaps yellow in off-color river water. But if heavy rains really roil the backwaters, fishing might slow until the runoff clears.

Knowledgeable anglers key not only on creeks and estuaries, but also beaches close to the mouths of rivers and shallow coves. Places like Hamburg Cove, on the lower Connecticut River, will produce some fish for shoreline anglers. If you find a current edge or rip, cast upcurrent and jig your lure as it's swept back in the flow. Use heavier jigheads if the fish are holding near the bottom. When fishing the junction of two rivers, vertical jigging on the drift is often preferred over casting.

Season-Starter Stripers
Bright yellow or charteuse flies in the three- to four-inch range are tops for early-season stripers in roiled estuaries and tidal creeks. Try darker patterns when the water is clear and the bottom muddy.

If a warming trend occurs, look for fish around rocky points bordering rivers and creeks, especially in the western part of Long Island Sound. Slow retrieves work best because the stripers will still be lethargic in the cool water. To avoid lure loss in snaggy areas, some people fish their jigs under a float, which allows them to be worked close to the bottom, where many of the bass will be holding. Keep in mind that the shallows heat up in the afternoon sun, prodding fish there to feed just before sunset. A similar situation occurs around mid-May along the bridges where rivers feed into Fishers Island Sound. Here, a warm, sunny day with the dropping tide occurring at dusk might produce the first action of the year. Fish downcurrent of the bridges, where bass wait to ambush prey. - to 1/2 -ounce, white bucktail jig works well, but others favor soft-plastic baits threaded on plain or painted jigheads in the same weight range. Lures such as the two- to four-inch Fin-S-Fish, Slug-Go, Sassy Shad or curl-tailed worms all fool fish when cast on eight- to 12-pound spinning gear and worked with a slow retrieve. A short section of 15- to 20-pound leader is optional.

We are talking "pre-herring" fishing, of course, a time when the predominant forage is small, hence the smaller lures. Popular colors are white, chartreuse, a combination of the two, or perhaps yellow in off-color river water. However, if heavy rains really roil the backwaters, fishing might take a nosedive until the runoff clears.

Season-Starter Stripers

Knowledgeable anglers key not only on creeks and estuaries, but also beaches close to the mouths of rivers and shallow coves. Places like Hamburg Cove, on the lower Connecticut River, will produce some fish for those who work the shoreline. If you find a current edge or rip, cast upcurrent and jig your lure as it's swept back in the flow. This might call for heavier jigheads if the fish are holding near the bottom. When fishing the junction of two rivers, vertical jigging on the drift is often preferred over casting.

If a warming trend occurs, look for fish around rocky points bordering rivers and creeks, especially in the western part of Long Island Sound. Slow retrieves work best because the stripers will still be lethargic in the cool water. To avoid lure loss in snaggy areas, some people fish their jigs under a float, which allows them to be worked close to the bottom, where many of the bass will be holding. Keep in mind that the shallows heat up in the afternoon sun, perhaps prodding fish holding there to feed just before sunset. A similar situation occurs around mid-May, perhaps later, along the bridges where rivers feed into Fishers Island Sound. Here, a warm, sunny day with the dropping tide occurring at dusk might produce the first action of the year. Folks in small boats should fish the downcurrent side of the bridge, where bass will be waiting to ambush prey behind the pilings.


The Flies Have It

By Tom Richardson

The first striped bass of the season usually arrive in the waters of southern Massachusetts in mid- to late April. Since water temperatures in the sounds and large bays are largely below their comfort level at this time, these early fish - mostly schoolies under ten pounds - make a beeline for the shallow, sun-warmed tidal creeks, marshes and estuaries. Here they typically feed on a variety of small prey, including grass shrimp, seaworms, crabs, mummichogs, juvenile winter flounder, and baby eels - basically, anything they can find.

At this time of year, striper aces such as Will Aubut find that flies can actually out-produce other types of lures and baits. Aubut, who plies the Westport River system in Buzzards Bay, points out that flies do the best job of imitating the small baitfish that the stripers are looking for. With their flexible feathers and hair, streamers undulate realistically in the water, but more important is the fact that their near-weightlessness allows them to be fished ultra-slowly. That's important, because early-season fish are often sluggish in the cold water and therefore less willing to chase after a fast-moving morsel. Also, fly gear allows the delivery of a small, lightweight lure, which is difficult to do with spinning or baitcasting gear.

Season-Starter Stripers

For early-season estuary and marsh fishing, Aubut prefers an intermediate or sink-tip line that can get the fly down to fish holding on the bottom in about five to ten feet of water. He likes to fish flat, mud-bottomed areas during a high tide, especially around mid-day or late afternoon after the sun has had a chance to warm the surrounding waters. On outgoing tides he'll work drop-offs, points and bank edges where the fish line up and wait for food to be swept past. Aubut says that his top patterns at this time are dark (black and olive) streamers in the four- to six-inch range, which match the backwater forage, but he adds that chartreuse and yellow flies also work. Clousers, Deceivers and snake flies tied with lots of soft, flexible material are good choices.