With a generally mild winter behind us, all indications point to an early season kickoff for striped bass fishing in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast, and there are a few techniques that can help even a novice get in on the action. Before we get into the nuts and bolts, it’s important to note that the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) recently instituted new regulations to reduce striped bass mortality.
ASMFC is the state compact responsible for managing striped bass throughout their range. The scientists involved in monitoring the bass determined the stock suffered from overfishing in recent years. The ASMFC developed appropriate changes to the regulations, which Atlantic states implemented for the 2020 fishing season. These regulations vary from state-to-state under a system called “conservation equivalency,” which provides a small amount of latitude in the size, season and bag limits of striped bass as long as they comply with the goal of reducing the overall recreational harvest by 18 percent from the prior year.
Keep in mind, the total population of striped bass is not in dire shape. The cause for concern is a drop in spawning stock biomass, which is comprised of the larger, mature fish. When that segment of the population dropped below a pre-established threshold in the management plan, it triggered specific actions. Hence the mandate for additional conservation measures.
Most states are implementing a one-fish-per-day bag limit, and the fish retained must fall between a minimum and a maximum size. This is called a slot limit, and the preferred alternative is to keep only fish between 28 and 38 inches. All bass larger or smaller must be released, in addition to all additional fish caught once you have your one fish bag limit. Having an upper-size limit further reduces the harvest of spawning class fish.
Other regulations are in place, such as mandating the use of circle hooks for all techniques that incorporate live or dead bait. Circle hooks prevent hooking fish in the gills or gullet, usually hooking the fish in the corner of the jaw. This simple device dramatically reduces the mortality of striped bass that are caught and released, but the techniques below discuss using artificial lures only.
Before you head out this spring, be sure you check the regulations for the state in which you will fish, because they can vary from state-to-state, and even between areas within a state.
In the early season, you can most likely find striped bass in estuary waters adjacent to major spawning rivers. These include the many rivers that flow into the Chesapeake Bay and the bay proper, the Delaware Bay and river system, the Hudson River including Raritan, Sandy Hook and Jamaica Bays, even the westernmost region of the Long Island Sound, and the lower Connecticut and Thames Rivers. These estuary complexes include bays, coves, backwaters and the rivers themselves. All act as nursery areas for large numbers of smaller bass where they feed and grow. The more open bay areas not only serve as nurseries for the smaller fish, but also as staging areas where larger bass will congregate and feed heavily prior to running up the rivers to spawn.
With all manner of baitfish flooding into these areas from the ocean as they warm, stripers will go on the feed. Small bait species provide food for the school-size fish and the influx of larger baitfish, such as river herring and menhaden, are forage for larger stripers.
When the water is still cold (below 50 degrees), fishing with bait is responsible for many of the earliest bass. Baits like sea worms and clams will catch them before they become more active, but again, the mild weather already has estuary waters warm enough that bass are feeding more aggressively on baitfish.
So, what are the most productive ways to get in on the action for boat fishermen, especially those going after the larger returning fish? Trolling when the fish are feeding below and casting plugs and plastic shads when the fish are feeding nearer the surface are effective methods. Yamaha pro-captains Brian Rice of Jersey Devil Charters, Jim Freda of Shore Catch Charters and Frank Crescitelli of Fin Chaser Charters are experts when it comes to finding and catching early season stripers.
The two trolling techniques are among the easiest ways to consistently catch striped bass because they are effective when bass aren’t aggressively feeding close to the surface, which is most of the time. The techniques Captains Rice and Freda recommend are trolling with deep diving plugs or with Mojos.
Deep diving plugs come in a variety of brands, sizes and shapes, each rated by the depth they run when trolled. The most popular sizes are rated for 15, 20, 25 and 30-foot depths. These plugs create their own action when trolled between 3 and 5 knots, but for each version to attain the advertised depth, you must use thin braided lines on your reels. A good outfit for trolling diving plugs includes a light/medium action rod with a conventional reel with a smooth drag system loaded with 30-pound test braided line. Add a 12-foot long fluorocarbon leader between the plug and the braid with a snap for making quick lure changes at the terminal end and you’re ready to go. You’ll want to pull at least two plugs with the rods placed on opposite sides of the transom. Placing the rods in an outrodder, a device that holds the rods horizontal to the water and out away from the side of the boat, will help spread them apart even further and aid in making sure the plugs reach maximum depth. If you don’t have a pair of these, fish without them. You’ll still reel in catches.
While trolling, watch your depthfinder for bottom contours and the presence of bait and stripers, and use a plug that will run at a depth that will put it where the fish will see it best. When bass aren’t chasing bait near the surface, they tend to hold close to the bottom where they can still be coaxed into biting an easy target, so pick the plug that corresponds closely to the depth you’re fishing. Lure color matters, and what works can vary between bright and sunny or darker, cloudy days. Water clarity is also a factor in picking lure colors. White, silver, chartreuse and menhaden pattern plugs are among the most popular plug colors. Be sure to have a dark color like purple to throw into the mix when the others aren’t producing.
Mojos have been popular with Chesapeake anglers for many years. More recently, they’ve become the go-to trolling system for striper anglers almost coastwide. The reason is simple enough; at times, striped bass find them irresistible. These large lures are comprised of a lead jig-type head that can weigh between four and 24 ounces, fitted with a nylon skirt tied in reverse fashion, and swinging hook. The hook is armed with a large plastic paddle tail shad that provides the swimming action when it’s trolled. Mojos can be used one at a time or in a tandem rig that incorporates a heavy one on the bottom and a lighter one that tracks above the bottom lure. Due to their weight, Mojos require heavier action rods and 50-pound braid for line with a 50-pound test monofilament or fluorocarbon leader between the swivel and the end of the braid. Tandem rigs incorporate a large three-way swivel tied to the braid with a ten-foot monofilament leader running to the bottom lure and a 15-foot leader to the top lure.
When deploying Mojos, place the bottom lure in the water first, followed by the top lure as the bottom one is slowly lowered. Let the lures drop in the water column until they hit bottom, put the reel in gear momentarily to let the line tighten up and the lures begin to track, then drop them back until they hit bottom again to make sure they are running close to the bottom. Put the reel in gear, put the outfit in the holder and keep an eye on the depthfinder and chart plotter so you know you’re fishing the depth where you marked fish and not straying into a deep channel or much shallower water. Trolling speeds for Mojos can range between three and five knots, but slower is usually better. Watch for fish marks, because bites will usually come moments after you see them on the depthfinder monitor. The most popular colors are white and chartreuse.
While you’re trolling, keep watch for bird activity or fish swirling on the surface. Wheeling and diving birds usually mean bass feeding close to the surface. This is what Captain Crescitelli lives for. He will run great distances when fishing with his customers to find bass that can be caught using spinning tackle and a selection of surface and subsurface swimming plugs and soft plastic shad lures. When you find the activity, it’s a matter of casting to the fish and working the lure until you get a strike.
Tackle for casting can range from light/medium to medium action rods in the seven to eight-and-a-half-foot range, 15- or 20-pound test line and lures that can weigh from one-half to three ounces. Plugs that work include surface poppers, sliders and swimmers that stay close to the surface. You should have soft plastic shads from four to seven-inches and a variety of colors at the ready.
Fishing for stripers this time of year means paying close attention to water temperature and tides. Both affect the location of the bass and frequently when they will go on the feed. Check out areas where the water temperature is warmer than the surrounding areas and watch your temperature gauge as the tide changes. You might be surprised that a small uptick in temperature after the tide turns is all it takes to kick off a killer bite. Whole schools of bass can turn on and turn off in a matter of minutes this time of year. Places to look for warmer water can include shallower flats near channel edges and back bay areas near feeder rivers. Work the tides carefully and you’ll start to see patterns to fish behavior as different spots develop. Bass will feed in conjunction with specific tide phases that can vary from place to place, but the beginning of the outgoing tide will almost always trigger feeding that can last well into the falling tide. Fishing bay areas close to feeder rivers can be profoundly affected by heavy rain, shutting down the bite for days at a time or pushing bass out into areas of the bay further away from the river outflow. By taking the effort to keep a daily log and noting these factors, patterns will begin to emerge not only from trip-to-trip, but from year-to-year.
The time to get out is now; the stripers are waiting in their usual spring haunts. Using one or more of these techniques is sure to put you on the fish.