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Boating Tips for Summer Stripers
Though surf-fishermen will continue to catch their share of linesiders right now, boating anglers have the distinct advantage of quick mobility to both inshore and offshore waters.
By Milt Rosko
As striped bass begin their migratory trek along the coast each spring, many stop off along the way to take up summer residence, foregoing a long swim farther north. These stripers select a spot for their summer sojourn that can be expected to have an abundance of forage. What they're looking for is water where a plentiful supply of fingerling menhaden, bay anchovies, herring, tinker mackerel, mullet, squid, crabs and sea worms are on hand.
Oftentimes the spots frequented by these forage species are beyond the range of beach-based casters, which makes it a bonanza for boat anglers who seek summer stripers. The broad expanses of the many bays and rivers that border our coastline are favored linesider haunts, for these are the nursery grounds of much of the aforementioned forage.
In the open ocean, there are the rips and eddies formed as an ebbing tide carries this forage seaward. Then, too, there are rocky breakwaters, submerged rockpiles, ridges and lumps, where stripers know that the makings of dinner reside. All of these are within easy range of small-boat anglers.
Summertime striper fishing from boats is unlike what is generally experienced during the spring and fall migrations. During the migratory runs, the bass are schooled up, feeding aggressively as they add fat for their winter of inactivity. Summer stripers feed at a more leisurely pace. This often makes it more of a challenge, for you've got to first know where to find them, and then present a bait or lure that will pique their interest.
Summer stripers are not averse to enjoying a meal where they don't have to work hard to obtain it. As such, they'll readily respond to a chum line, which can range from chunks of menhaden (popularly called bunker) to pieces of butterfish, grass shrimp and especially surf clams.
One might question why surf clams make such an effective chum. Indeed, initially one might think that stripers don't often dine on the soft body of a clam that's protected by a calcareous shell! In one instance, the clam meat is made available as a result of commercial clam draggers, who dredge the bottom in search of surf clams. This netting results in broken clamshells, exposing the clam meat to stripers. In another instance, Mother Nature does the same thing. For during strong summer northeast storms, the violent wave action exposes surf clams, often tumbling them about the bottom, breaking their shells and exposing the tasty morsels, and the stripers move in to feast.
You can easily replicate nature's chum spread by anchoring in an area known to be frequented by stripers and establishing a clam chum line. Available at most coastal marinas are frozen clam bellies, which make an ideal chum. The clam bellies are literally the bellies of clams and the muscle meat from along the edge of the shell, a gooey mess to put it mildly.
A very effective way of disbursing clam chum is to use a pull-trap commonly used for catching blue claw crabs. The pull-traps are made of wire mesh and have 1-inch by 1-inch or 1-inch by 2-inch openings. I begin by attaching a 16-ounce bank sinker to the inside of the pull-trap in the compartment usually utilized for bait, which will send the trap to the bottom, and keep it from being carried away by the current. I insert a frozen chunk of clam bellies weighing a couple of pounds into the pull-trap, and then secure all four sides of the trap closed with the aid of duo-lock snaps. The pull-trap and its contents of heavily scented clam bellies are lowered to the bottom via a line secured to a stern cleat.
Resting on the bottom in the pull-trap, the clam bellies begin to thaw, their scent gradually being carried by the current. As they thaw, a hard pull on the line to the trap will cause small pieces of clam belly to drift free of the trap, which are carried along the bottom by the current. As stripers pick up the scent, and begin to inhale the free-drifting pieces of clam belly, they'll move toward the source.
Initially, it's important that you have baited rigs on the bottom, and also drifting back at intermediate levels, to intercept hungry stripers as they move up to the source of the chum. I use a small three-way swivel tied to the terminal end of my line, followed by a 6- to 8-inch-long dropper off one eye of the swivel to which a bank-style sinker of sufficient weight is attached to hold bottom in the current. Usually a sinker in the 3- to 6-ounce range is adequate.
To the remaining eye of the swivel tie in a 36-inch-long piece of 30-pound-test fluorocarbon leader material, with a size 5/0 to 7/0 claw- or beak-style hook with a baitholder shank. If you're using circle-style hooks, which make releasing fish easier as most are hooked in the corner of the mouth, use sizes ranging from 8/0 through 10/0.
Use half of a large surf clam, hooking it through the hard part of the clam meat, and permit several strings of muscle tissue to hang freely. Ease the rig overboard and permit it to settle to the bottom just downcurrent from where the pull-trap is resting on the bottom.
Next, rig a couple of outfits for free-drifting a bait back in the chum line. I tie a small swivel directly to the end of my line, followed by a 36-inch-long leader and hook as described for the bottom rig. This is baited and free-drifted back in the chum line.
While the bottom rig is permitted to rest motionless on the bottom with the free-drifting rig, it's important that you hold the rod and permit the clam bait to drift back slowly with the current. Let the bait drift until you're upward of 100 feet from the boat, then reel it back in and repeat the process. If there's little current, adding a float to your line to suspend the bait at intermediate levels of the water column will help, and adding a rubber-cored sinker also helps in the event the current is swift and you want to take the bait deeper.
It may take a while to establish the chum line, so patience is important. You can even supplement the pull-trap's chumming effectiveness by dribbling small quantities of clam belly overboard, to be carried in the midlevel of the water column.
Once the stripers get the taste of the chum, they'll soon find your hooked baits, either on the bottom or at mid-depths, after which you should concentrate your efforts with the rig and depth that proves most successful. Don't forget to check the pull-trap periodically, so the chum line is unbroken, and give it a pull as well, which helps small pieces to be let loose from the trap.
You can use much the same approach when chumming with chunks of bunker, herring or mackerel. Place a frozen block of ground chum and chunks in the pull-trap, baiting with a piece of chunk, preferably the head section by hooking the bait through the lips, and you'll enjoy equally rewarding success.
Still another exciting approach for summer stripers is to employ live baits. During the late spring, it's often possible to net live herring or alewives as they congregate around flumes and the mouths of small feeder streams to spawn. Many anglers keep the live herring in live carts at their docks for the summertime fishery. Many coastal tackle shops also stock live freshwater herring, which also make excellent hook baits. While on the fishing grounds, it's often possible to catch hickory shad while using shad darts or Sabiki rigs, which are also a superb hook bait. Other baits that are effective are small white perch, spots, croaker and especially live eels.
What makes live baits especially effective is they emit distress signals. When chumming, it's the scent that attracts the stripers, while when live- bait fishing, the linesiders zero in on the signals being emitted by the bait, and they're quick to engulf a tasty morsel that is properly presented.
I use the same rig for live baits as described earlier when drift-fishing in a chum line. The live bait may be hooked in a variety of ways. A favored way is to hook the bait through the back, just forward of the dorsal fin. This is especially effective when drifting over known striper haunts, such as rocky outcroppings, rip lines and eddies off coastal inlets. You'll also have success by placing the hook through the lips of the baitfish. This method is especially effective when it's necessary to cast. This technique is often used when casting live baits toward the fronts of jetties and groins that extend seaward and where natural rock formations exist.
If stripers are in the area, it usually doesn't take long for them to find your live bait. The key is to approach upcurrent from where you feel the stripers may be feeding, and to drift your baits through known haunts.
When casting baits to where stripers may anticipate forage moving through, you'll find that the live bait will swim about, all the while emitting those telltale distress signals. Not surprisingly, when a striper approaches, the baitfish will often excitedly swim toward the surface in an attempt to avoid being eaten. It's important that you either keep your spinning reel in live-liner mode, or multiplying reel in free spool, with light pressure on the line to permit the bait to swim freely.
Sometimes, a striper will toy with the bait, and it's not unusual to see it swim within a couple feet of the struggling baitfish, then circle around it. At other times, a bass will rush in, mouth agape, and engulf the baitfish in one motion. The key is hesitating until the striper takes the bait, then turns to move away, after which you should lock the reel in gear. If using J-style hooks, you should lift back smartly to set the hook; whereas with circle hooks, just lock your reel in gear and hold on tightly, as the hook will set itself as the fish turns and moves off.
Casting with lures is especially popular among boatmen during the summer months. Stripers are very active at daybreak and dusk and through the night. These are the times I've found to be most productive when fishing with lures.
Given the opportunity, if I had to select one two-hour period during the day to fish for stripers - at any time of the year, for that matter - it would be during the half-light just before daybreak, in fact, while it's still dark, to the time when the sun peeks over the horizon. At this time, you'll see stripers actively feeding along the marsh banks in coastal bays and rivers, where they dimple on the surface as they feed on the variety of forage found in those waters.
Along the surf and around jetty fronts and rock outcroppings the same occurs, for it's here that stripers take up station to intercept schools of herring, menhaden, mullet, hickory shad, bay anchovies and other baitfish as they cruise along the surf line.
Both situations present a chance to catch these hungry stripers while either trolling or casting. Trolling is most often with wire line or braided Spectra or Dyneema sent deep with trolling sinkers, placing the lures near the bottom. Bouncing a leadhead jig and pork rind is without question one of the most effective techniques, keeping the jig just off the bottom, and then working the rod tip with a whipping motion, causing the jig to dart ahead and falter, much like a struggling baitfish.
Early-morning fishing makes for thrilling opportunities to catch feeding stripers while casting surface lures. Among the wide array of plugs available for surface work are surface-swimming and popping plugs, along with the variations of these basic plug types. The key in presenting these plugs is to make them look alive, either as a susceptible slow-swimming forage species, or as a struggling baitfish, fluttering and struggling to survive.
Perhaps the item of greatest importance in using any lure is avoiding the bad habit of becoming what I like to term a "mechanical caster." All too often I've observed anglers casting from boats in a mechanical way, without paying attention to lure action. Casting properly is especially important during the half-light before daybreak, again at dusk and during the night.
Some anglers will crank their lures at flank speed as though they're seeking tuna. It's much better to discipline yourself to retrieve slowly, with intermittent rod tip action. Discipline is the key word, as it really takes concentration to just crank the reel handle ever so slowly, so that the lure swims enticingly, yet in an irregular fashion, attracting the interest of any hungry striper.
Of course, there are times when deep-running lures are also effective and this is where diamond jigs, block tin squid and their chromed or stainless steel counterparts, and leadhead jigs come into their own. Diamond jigs and leadhead jigs are particularly effective when vertical jigging, especially where boatmen can drift through rips that form at the seaward side of peninsulas, or where offshore bottom configurations are carpeted with rocks, wrecks and other debris. These are places where bait collects and stripers congregate to feed.
Often you can use a fish-finder in water from 25 to 50 feet deep to locate schools of tinker mackerel, herring, squid and other forage at intermediate levels. Next, working a jig through the midlevel depths of the water column will often produce arm-jolting strikes.
A good approach is to permit your jig or leadhead to settle 5 to 7 feet into the depths, then work your rod tip, lifting it smartly to cause the jig to dart toward the surface, then falter, much like a struggling baitfish. Repeat this procedure until the jig reaches bottom, then retrieve, working the rod tip at the same intervals until the jig reaches the surface. Once you find the depth at which the fish are feeding, you can then concentrate your efforts at that depth. I often use a reel with a depth-counter mechanism, which provides me with the precise depth where the strikes are received.
Within the range of leadhead jigs are those dressed with bucktails and feather skirts. A jig's fish-catching effectiveness may be enhanced through the addition of a piece of pork rind. These may be worked vertically or cast to marsh banks, rips, eddies or rocky outcroppings. The new jigheads with a soft-plastic skirt and a tail configured to swim enticingly have grown in popularity in recent years. Several types even have a chamber into when scent may be added.
When using any of the leadhead family of lures, you'll find it pays to vary your retrieve. Sometimes, a slow retrieve along the bottom brings strikes, while at other times, working your rod tip with a whip retrieve, causing the jig to dart ahead and falter, much like a struggling baitfish, will bring the hits.
When using any of the aforementioned lures, I almost always use a teaser rig in conjunction with the primary lure. I tie a dropper loop off a small barrel swivel, with an 8-inch drop from the swivel for the teaser, and a 30- to 36-inch-long leader to the primary lure. A Clouser saltwater minnow fly and the Chris's Fly by Night Teaser, tied on size 2/0 or larger hooks, are two of my favorite teasers. They often account for more stripers during the course of a season than the primary lure! Promise yourself to fish with a teaser this season, and I guarantee you won't regret it.
While much of what I included here targets stripers specifically, you'll be pleasantly surprised with strikes from both weakfish and bluefish on the same grounds during the summer months. They're both a nice surprise and welcome addition to the dinner table for a fine summertime seafood treat!
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