Catch the Striper Express
All aboard to get your ticket punched in the the New York Bight.
Every saltwater angler on the East Coast wants to catch a trophy striper and there is no place better to do it than the ocean waters adjacent to the mouth of the Hudson River in June. Why are the fish there? Food and sex, what else!
The Hudson River hosts the second-largest spawning population of striped bass on the planet and the big, mature fish start gathering in May in anticipation of the run upriver to their freshwater spawning grounds. The largest spawning population is in the Chesapeake Bay, where stripers drop their eggs about a month earlier than their Hudson cousins. Once procreation is complete those fish exit the Bay and start a northward migration that eventually takes them into New England waters for the summer months, but along the way they are lured into the New York Bight by millions of menhaden, a schooling fish otherwise known as bunker, one of their favorite gastronomic delights. The Chesapeake stripers arrive in time to run headlong into all those post-spawn Hudson fish pouring out of the river, and the result is possibly the largest concentration of big striped bass found anywhere on the coast at any time during the year. Excited yet?
“Striper fishing can be epic in June,” says Captain Terry Sullivan of Flats Rat Charters based in Point Pleasant, New Jersey (www.flatsrat.com). “And live-lining menhaden is your best bet for boating a trophy.” Sullivan has earned a reputation for putting his conservation-minded clients on big bass and releasing the overwhelming majority of them, too. A lot of his success has to do with how he approaches the fishery and the techniques he uses.
A typical day starts well before first light. Sullivan knows where the bait schools were yesterday and that’s where he starts his search. The bass are here to feed and will frequently be found trailing the densely packed menhaden. They charge in to pick off the weak or smaller groups that get cut off from the rest of the school.
“We start with a livewell full of baits that I catch with a castnet and then survey the various schools to see if they are being harassed,” Sullivan said. “Not all the schools are holding bass and learning the signs is important.” The obvious one is when bass are rushing a school and the bait is splashing on the surface, trying to get away. Sullivan uses weighted rigs to put live baits under the school, making them easy targets. “Big bass are suckers for a baitfish that swims like it’s in distress,” he explains. “Using a 4-ounce sinker to pull your bait down below the school creates that illusion.”
“Frequently bass are shadowing a school of menhaden, but not actively attacking,” Sullivan says. “If you watch closely you can pick out those pods from the ones that are not being harassed just by the way the school is swimming. Try dropping a bait close to the bottom or well behind the rest of the passing school to draw strikes from bass that aren’t actively feeding.”
Sometimes conditions dictate a different approach—a technique called snag and drop. This is done with a stout spinning outfit rigged with a bunker snag, a special, weighted treble hook. Cast it into a school of baitfish and swing the rod tip hard until you snag one. Then pull back against the baitfish to make it struggle against the resistance. You want to see the rod tip pulsing as the fish puts out low-frequency vibrations into the surrounding waters, literally calling the bass to an easy meal. When the bait is inhaled, set up fast and hard to keep the big treble hook from being swallowed. This technique is best for more experienced anglers, since hesitation results in gut-hooked fish that probably won’t survive.
Worries over the decline in the numbers of large breeders in recent years means a greater conservation ethic needs to be applied. Releasing these big fish alive, like Sullivan has his charters do, is a hedge towards better fishing in the future.
This article originally appeared in the May 2013 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.