Earn Your Stripes
We’ll give you a few pointers, but to get really good at catching bass, you’ll need to figure out the details of your home waters.
To quote ancient China’s most highly regarded general, Sun Tzu, “To know your enemy, you must become your enemy.” It’s timeless wisdom from his classic fifth-century B.C. tome The Art of War, in which he waxed poetic about the advantages gained by learning as much about your adversary as possible before you mount a campaign.
It might be a bit of a stretch to mix fishing with advice on war and conquest, but the underlying premise rings true. Quite simply, the more you know about the fish you are trying to catch, the greater your chances of catching them. The striped bass is arguably the most sought-after inshore game fish from North Carolina to Maine and it has a complex life history. It stands to reason: If you take the time to learn as much as you can about how striped bass live and why they do what they do, you can improve your chances of success by using the right technique in the right place at the right time.
The complexity of the striper’s life history stems from the fact that it is anadromous, which is basically defined as “ascending rivers from the sea for breeding.” Yup, just like salmon, but stripers mimic Atlantic salmon, which do not die after spawning like their Pacific cousins. And bass can live to the ripe old age of 30. It takes up to seven years for a striper to become sexually mature so small fish remain in estuaries adjacent to the rivers where they were spawned until they approach adulthood. It’s then that things get interesting, because they will undertake two mass migrations each year. If you know enough about it you can literally head ’em off at the pass.
So where do stripers come from? If you live along the Eastern Seaboard the answer can be a bit cloudy. It is believed that stripers had spawning populations in many coastal river systems between North Carolina and Maine 150 years ago, but stock collapses caused by years of intense overfishing, pollution, and alterations of the ecosystem by coastal development have destroyed many of those smaller breeding populations. Today spawning and nursery areas have been reduced to two main epicenters; Chesapeake Bay and its many feeder rivers, and the Hudson River and its surrounding estuaries. Just how much of the stock is derived from each is hotly debated, but it is still believed the Chesapeake remains the largest coastal producer of rockfish, regional slang for striped bass.
Large breeder bass begin entering the Chesapeake in March where they feed while staging for their runs up the rivers of their birth. Spawning takes place sometime in April, depending on many factors including water temperature and rainfall, which affects river height.
In the waters of the New York Bight, breeders begin arriving in April in advance of the Hudson spawning run, which usually takes place in May. When spawning is complete breeders from both stocks make a break for the ocean and start their second migration, this time to summer feeding grounds. Chessy fish will make their way northward with many doing the end run around Montauk on the Eastern end of Long Island and settling throughout New England waters. Some venture as far north as southern Nova Scotia. The Hudson fish will join them, but many tend to migrate to waters off southern New England.
When fall approaches and the waters cool, the bass start their long trek south with many of the biggest fish swimming all the way to the waters off the Outer Banks of North Carolina. There they feed through the winter on menhaden, herring, and other plentiful forage species until spring comes and the cycle begins again.
With experience you’ve already begun to sort out when and where to be to increase your odds at catching striped bass. If you really want to optimize your time and success, keep a careful log including tide, technique, location, air and water temperature, and technique, and as the years pass patterns will emerge. Put yourself in the migratory path and prepare to do battle. Sun Tzu would be proud of your efforts.
This article originally appeared in the April 2014 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.