Breaking the Ice
Invite early striped bass to the raw bar to start your angling season off right.
The water might be cold in March and April, but that doesn’t mean striped bass won’t be on the feed in estuaries throughout much of the Mid-Atlantic region. These won’t be cows—the big females that everyone targets later in the spring run. Big bass tend to spend their winters in the ocean and don’t move back inshore until the water warms and their spawning juices start flowing. However, estuary complexes like the Chesapeake, Delaware, and Hudson are home to millions of smaller stripers—less than 20 pounds—through much of the winter. And they start getting hungry pretty early. Best of all they are great fun to catch on light tackle.
Since bass are cold-blooded, water temperature affects their feeding preferences and frequency. When the water is cold their metabolism is slow, which means they require less food intake. It also means they’ll be more likely to forage than hunt, targeting soft foods that are easily digested. Fresh-shucked clams are one of the best baits to use.
Rig up your light spinning tackle with 6- to 12-pound line and tie on a basic fishfinder rig. To make one put a 1- or 2-ounce bank sinker on a slider, a short length of tube that goes on your fishing line and allows its connected sinker to move up and down the line freely. Then tie a swivel on the end of the line and attach a 20-pound fluorocarbon leader about 36 inches long to the swivel’s other eye. Bass slurp down fresh clams quickly and you will most likely catch many more fish than you will be allowed to keep, so be sure to use only circle hooks. I prefer size 6/0 or 7/0 for these smaller bass. The only specialized bit of equipment required is a weighted chum pot, the bigger the better. Fill the pot with whole, smashed-up clams and drop it under the boat to attract stripers to your baits.
For the best fishing you’ll want to find areas of a bay where the water warms up earliest in the spring. These can include shallow tidal creeks, coves, and especially flats adjacent to channels or dropoffs well away from the ocean. Such areas are even better if they are along a south-facing shoreline because that’s where the sun’s rays will have the greatest influence. The warmer water will spur more feeding activity from the bass.
Pick a few likely places and make note of when high tide occurs in each spot. This is tide fishing 101: Stripers will tend to move into an area with the incoming tide, but the heaviest feeding period will commence after it turns to outgoing. Location is important. Try to anchor your boat on a flat upcurrent from a channel edge or dropoff. Then drop the chum pot over the side to draw bass traveling along the channel edges up onto the flat towards your baited hooks.
Bait up with whole, shucked clams and cast them downcurrent of the chum pot. You can hold the rod or stick it in the rod holder, but watch the line closely. Most hits will be obvious, but some bass will pick up your clam moving toward the boat and you’ll have to reel like crazy to come tight to the fish. Remember, you’re using circle hooks so don’t set the hook with a jerk. If a fish picks up going away from the boat, let the line come tight and you’re in business.
Once you get bass in your slick, the fishing can be fast and furious for several hours until the tide drops out and the fish stop feeding. But all that reeling will help keep you warm while the water is still cold.
This article originally appeared in the March 2013 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.