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September 21, 2007

Those Deadly Bunker Spoons!

Fall is prime time to break out these slabs of steel and target some of the biggest stripers and bluefish of the season.


Bunker spoons come in an assortment of colors, and work best when trolled at slow speeds. Most experts fish them on wire line to get them down deep to where the bass and blues are holding.

Of all the crazy lures invented over the years for big striped bass and bluefish, the bunker spoon has to be one of the strangest and most effective, ranking right up there with the parachute jig. This shoe-sized slab of stainless steel appears to have arrived on the scene in the 1950s, when New York and New Jersey anglers began trolling crude, homemade versions of the spoons. The design was later refined by well-known New York City charter captain Ronnie Lepper and sold commercially as the Lupo Bunker Spoon.

Although the Lupo Co. has since gone out of business, bunker spoons continue to be manufactured by Reliable Gaff and the Julian Bait Co. Both companies' spoons are made of stainless steel and feature an adjustable keel weight (move the keel forward for faster trolling speeds). The Julian spoon is rigged with a swinging single hook, while the Reliable version has a fixed hook and large treble to snag short-strikers.

While bunker spoons will take stripers and blues all season, they really shine in the fall, when menhaden and herring tend to be thick along many parts of the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast coasts. Furthermore, you can be sure that any fish willing to hit one is sure to be big!

To learn more about how to fish this undisputed "king of spoons," we've asked three top charter captains who fish them to give us their advice. Here's what they had to say:

Captain Al Ristori

Captain Al Ristori"Obviously, bunker spoons are most effective anytime there's a lot of bunkers around," says Captain Al Ristori, SWS's New York/New Jersey Regional editor and a charter captain who fishes out of Manasquan Inlet. Ristori says that he and many of the other local skippers use bunker spoons primarily in the fall, although the lures work anytime a concentration of large menhaden has drawn stripers to the area. Al points out that bunker spoons may not account for big numbers of fish, but they tend to take the larger stripers and blues. "The guys who have faith in them and troll them exclusively end up taking some big fish," he says. "However, the technique requires patience."

"The surprising thing is that the spoons take fish around thick schools of bunker," Al continues. "For whatever reason, the bass seem to have a problem catching the real thing. I've caught lots of stripers around the bunker schools that had nothing in their bellies, so maybe bunker are faster, or sneakier, than we think!"

When the menhaden are gathered in large pods in open water, such as in bays and sounds, but don't seem to be harried by predators, Ristori advises trolling the spoons throughout the area to locate the fish. "If you see bunker flipping on the surface, it's always a good place to troll spoons," he says. "Bass might be anywhere in the area." If there's a channel edge, deep hole, hump or other prominent change in bottom contour nearby, it's a good idea to troll around it.

When the menhaden are balled up tight and being herded to the surface, it's a good bet that there will be blues or bass beneath them. In this case, Al trolls his spoons below the school, where the biggest stripers often hang out, looking to pick off an injured baitfish.

Bunker spoons also produce in areas where menhaden aren't present, especially in the fall. He points to Shrewsbury Rocks as a location that gives up lots of large stripers to bunker spoons in the fall. Raritan Reach and Romer Shoal are other good spots.

While some anglers fish their spoons on ten- and 11-foot custom surf blanks, Al has found the nine-foot Seeker bunker spoon rod to be a lot lighter and easier for his clients to use. His reel is the standard Penn 113H Senator, and he commonly fishes his spoons on 150 to 200 feet of wire. His leaders are made of 60- to 80-pound test and measure 25 to 30 feet long. The long leader gives him something to pull on should he have to deal with a snag, thereby saving the wire.

"Bunker spoons are not depth-critical," Al says, "so you normally don't have to worry about hanging up on rocks or traps." He adds that you don't usually have to fish them right along the bottom like a tube lure or eel, because bass will see the spoon flashing from afar. If he wants to fish his spoons deeper than his wire will allow, he'll either let out more backing or troll in wide circles; however, he shuns the use of drails or other in-line sinkers, which tend to snag on weeds and debris, especially during turns.

Like most bunker-spoon pros, Ristori likes to troll as slow as he can to achieve the best action, although he adds that other skippers troll faster with good results. The main thing is to make sure the lure is performing correctly by monitoring the rod tip. If it's exhibiting a steady, throbbing motion, the lure is running true. If the tip stops throbbing, the culprit is more than likely weed.

While rods can be left in the gunwale holders while trolling, Al says that the pros in his area all use Out-Rodders. These devices fit the gunwale holders and allow the rods to be fished parallel to the water's surface.

Bunker spoons come in different sizes, and choosing the right one boils down to matching the size of the bunker that happen to be in the area. However, most of the New Jersey captains opt to troll the largest size during the fall because they want that 40- or 50-pounder. As for finish, white or chrome usually gets the nod.

Capt. Dave Preble

Captain Dave PrebleRhode Island charter captain and SWS New England Regional Editor Dave Preble admits that he is not an expert when it comes to bunker spoon trolling, although he does rely on them in certain situations. "It's not my primary method of catching fish, but I do fish them during slack tide or when the bite slows. Bunker spoons seem to work best on days when the bass are acting persnickety. I'll also switch over to bunker spoons when we start catching bluefish instead of bass."

Because Dave doesn't fish bunker spoons all that often, he trolls them on his standard 6 1/2- to seven-foot wire-line outfits. He usually fishes them on 200 feet of wire, since he does most of his striper fishing in 20 to 25 feet of water and likes to present his lures close to the bottom.

One of Preble's favorite places to troll bunker spoons is from the Watch Hill reefs east to Charlestown Breachway, in some 20 feet of water. "Basically, they work well anyplace there's no weed to foul them up," he says.

Capt. Mitch Chagnon

Captain Mitch ChagnonAnother Rhode Island charter captain who uses bunker spoons is Mitch Chagnon, who also sails from Pt. Judith. In fact, you'd be hard-pressed to find a bigger fan of the spoons than Mitch, who swears by their effectiveness during the fall herring run, which usually takes place in November.

"Bunker spoons are simply awesome when the 'saw-bellies' show up off the beaches," Chagnon declares, adding that this is one of the best times of year to bag a large bass close to shore. Before he starts trolling, Mitch finds the herring schools by looking for flocks of diving gannets and gulls. The higher the gannets are flying, the deeper the herring are holding. When the herring are schooling deep or right next to the sandy bottom, which often happens during slack tide or on bright days, Chagnon wants his spoons bumping along the bottom, occasionally kicking up puffs of sand. When he marks herring in the mid-depths, he'll adjust his lines accordingly. Sometimes it's a matter of fishing the spoons at different depths until you find the sweet spot.

Like Ristori, Mitch likes to troll his spoons as slowly as possible, from 11/2 to three knots. He normally rigs his spoons with 12 feet of mono leader and uses limber, 7 1/2- to nine-foot rods with a "parabolic" action. He leaves the rods in the gunwale holders, letting the action of the rod and the spoon do the work.

While bunker spoons work just fine on their own, Mitch sometimes makes a few modifications. For one thing, he makes sure to use heavy-duty split rings on the front of the spoon, since he's had lighter ones open up on him before. Another trick that often pays off when the fish are proving tight-lipped is to attach a strip of red pork rind to the front of the spoon with a safety pin. "For some reason, the sight of a menhaden or herring swimming around with something in its mouth is irresistible to big bass," he says.