Many people believe that the Fall is the best time to fish for Stripers. I too believed it until the past few springs. Yes, in years past the Stripers were typically larger in the fall but I have seen some pretty impressive fish come over the gunnels of Off the Hook in the recent spring. Besides quality, there is quantity in the spring as well. The fish are usually very abundant and eager to bite.
The season up north in the Sandy Hook area and down south in Cape May usually kicks in by mid April and it takes place inside the Bays and Rivers. Their arrival usually coincides with a slow down in Flounder fishing. It usually starts as the water temps get into the high 40s and remains very strong until the temps get into the mid 50s. Presence of bait fish like Bunker and Herring also have a lot to do with it. These past few springs there have been tons of Bunker around and thatís why we are seeing the larger fish.
The ocean run of Stripers along the NJ beaches follows shortly thereafter and typically gets real good in the May/June timeframe...
Given the fact that the water is on the cool side in the early spring, the fish seem to be a bit lethargic and donít want to chase a lure or a trolled rig. I find the best way to fish for Stripers in the early spring is to either drift worms or anchor and as we say here on NJfishing.com, ďdoing the Clamberto"... Once the water warms up a bit the fish become more active at thatís when itís best to chunk or live line Bunker...
As far as location is concerned, if there are Bunker around I fish where they are. If not I will spend most of my time fishing where I believe the water to be the warmest. That means shallow muddy bottoms in the beginning of the season. The sun warms the mud and the mud warms the water. For the same reason I usually try and fish during mid day since the sun will warm the water up in the shallows. Most of the time I am fishing anywhere from 15 Ė 4 feet. In fact the best Spring fishing I can remember was in 4 feet of water off Keansburg. We had one of those days where as fast as you could get your worms down you were hooked up.
Now lets talk about the different methods...
First thing you will want to do is get yourself some frozen clam bellies and a dozen live clams for every hour you'll be fishing. The frozen clam bellies come in 2 or 5-gallon buckets. I like to use the 2 gallon ones since they are easier to handle and if you donít use all you bring you can refreeze them. .
Now you need to find a spot to anchor up. Best spots to do The Clamberto in the early spring are in back bays with warm mud flats and shallower water. Once again you want a moving tide and the wind and tide running in the same direction. I rarely do the Clamberto in the early spring in more then 10 - 15 feet of water. This water warms up first and will put the Stripers on the feed.
Once your set up on anchor next thing you want to do is take the top off the bucket and put the entire bucket into a chum bag or a fishing net tied at the top. Tie a line to the chum bag or fishing net and throw it over the side. Tighten up the line so the motion of the boat makes the bucket bob in and out of the water, which helps deploy the chum.
Now that you have a nice Clam chum slick started shuck yourself a fresh clam and cast it out into your slick. An important note here... The snotty part of the clam is really what the Stripers are after so when you do The Clamberto make sure you get the entire contents of the clam on your hook. Run the hook through the foot of the clam several times and then run it through the snot. The rig I like to use consists of a barrel swivel, sinker slide, 30 pound leader material and a 4 or 5/0 bait keeper hook. Take the line coming from your pole and thread it through the sinker slide and tie it to your barrel swivel. Tie a 4-foot piece of leader material to the other end of the barrel swivel and tie your hook on the other end of the leader. Attach a sinker to the sinker slide, run the hook through the firm part of the clam several times. As far as how much weight to use a lot depends on how fast the tide is moving and where in the water column the fish are biting best. I will fish one pole with a weight just heavy enough to hold bottom and another pole with enough weight to keep the bait up in the middle of the water column. Once I see which is producing best I will switch the other pole over.
Once I have the lines in the water I set my conventional reel in free spool with the clicker on. I then adjust the line out tension just enough to keep line from coming off the reel yet give the fish some line if he picks up the bait and decides to run. I usually put my pole in the holder while doing The Clamberto and watch the tip for a strike.
Before the Striper takes the bait you'll typically see the tip pulse a few times and then hear the clicker scream. First thing to do when you see the tip pulse or the clicker go off pick up the pole, which is still in free spool, point it towards the fish and engage the reel. Once you feel some pressure set the hook with a strong sweeping upward motion. If you choose to use circle hooks then donít set the hook. Just engage the reel let your line come tight and the fish should hook itself.
Notice I said drifting since worm fishing is not typically done at anchor.... Once again, early in the spring try to find a nice dark muddy bottom to set your drift over... You also want to be drifting where the wind and tide are in the same direction... The rig I like to use consists of a barrel swivel, sinker slide, 30 pound leader material and a 4 or 5/0 bait keeper hook. Take the line coming from your pole and thread it through the sinker slide and tie it to your barrel swivel. Tie a 4-foot piece of leader material to the other end of the barrel swivel and tie your hook on the other end of the leader. Attach a sinker to the sinker slide. As far as weight use just enough to keep your sinker bouncing along the bottom as you drift. Thread the head of the worm on to your hook and push it up to the barbs of the bait keeper hook. Set it out and let enough line out so it bounces along the bottom... Take your convention reel, put the clicker on and with the reel in free spool and adjust your line out tension just tight enough to keep line coming off the reel as you drift. Once you hear the clicker go off detect or detect a strike or a pick up while watching your pole tip set the hook quickly...
When adult Bunker are around it is one of the most exciting ways to fish but it does require some planning..... What you need to do first is locate the Bunker so you can snag or cast net them. Many times you'll hear them but won't see them. They make distinctive clicking sounds. Sometimes there are birds on them on sometimes not. What you need to look for is ripples in the water if there are no birds. They are easiest to spot in clam conditions so shoot for first dayís light before the wind picks up. It also helps to have a good set of binoculars on board to do some scouting.
Once you find them they are pretty easy to snag and if you can throw a cast net then you can load up quickly... Not going to go into a cast netting here but will talk about snagging, which if you are not skilled in throwing a net is the easiest method to get live bunker...
You can find bunker snags at almost any tackle store. All they are is a treble hook with a lead weight melted in the center. What you need to do is cast the snag g into the school on Bunker and let it sink for a few seconds. Reel the slack out of the line and whip your rod in a sweeping motion parallel to the water from the 12:00 position back to the 7:00 position. Reel like hell as you return the rod to the 12:00 and get the slack out of the line. Once all the slack is out make another sweep from 12 - 7 and continue until you snag one. You will usually snag them as youíre sweeping the rod back to 7. I would suggest you using a spinning pole since they are easier to cast and try and braided line since you want to minimize line stretch so that the snag moves through the water faster. If you see them and your not snagging try to running the snag shallower or deeper by either letting the snag sink more or less before you start reeling and sweeping.
Once they are snagged your going to need a round recalculating live well to keep them alive. The are very fragile and need lots of oxygen to keep them alive. The round bait well keeps them from running into corners and injuring themselves. If you don't have a live well then snag them and put them right on the hook and send them down.
Live lining is usually best done by drifting boat. You can anchor if the current isnít too swift but I usually prefer to drift since you cover more ground and it allows the Bunker to swim more freely. To make a live lining rig take a 3-way swivel. In one loop of the swivel tie the line coming off your pole, on another put a sinker snap on and the last loop tie a 3 to 4 foot 40# leader and your hook. Take the hook and put it through one of the Bunkers eyes and out itís head. Send the Bunker down and try to keep him close to the boat but on the bottom. If you can do this with out weight great, if not put a weight on the sinker snap to try and keep the Bunker down. In general you want your Bunker on or near the bottom and as close to the boat as possible so you can detect strikes. If this is not working take your sinker off and allow your bunker to splash around on top...
Keep your pole in free spool with the clicker on and feed line to the bunker as he needs it. You will know when Mr. Bass shows up... First thing that usually happens is the Bunker starts to get real nervous...You can tell when he starts getting nervous because he will start swimming erratically and peeling line in spurts. Donít set the hook yet because often times Mr. Bass likes to have a little fun with the Bunker before he inhales it. Itís kind of like a cat and mouse game. Stripers usually stalk bait for a while and often times whack the bait a few times with their tail or body. Easier said then done, but wait until you get a long steady pull before setting the hook. When you do set the hook set it hard and keep steady pressure on the fish by keeping a nice bend in the rod.
One more thing to cover here and that is using cut Bunker.... For whatever reason sometimes Stripers prefer cut bait to livies.. Use the same methods and rig as mentioned above except use a piece of cut Bunker. Heads and backs are usually most effective and I usually just pitch the tail section over board. If the current is slight I like to drift if itís ripping or I want to stay in a certain spot I will anchor...
Once you hook into your first big Striper live lining youíll be in constant search for live Bunker to snag. Yes, it not as easy as going to the tackle store and picking up bait or frozen Bunker. It is however exciting and worth the extra effort especially when your reward could be a 30 plus pounder.
Best of luck to everyone Striper fishing this spring....