For most, the timing couldn’t have been worse. On the eve of Boston’s biggest striped bass tournament, the bread-and-butter conduit to the cows had done a disappearing act. Mackerel, which local anglers consider the ticket to a top fish, had vanished seemingly overnight, leaving a fleet of forlorn fishermen wondering what on earth they would do. But not all were in the grip of doom; Captain Russ Burgess simply shrugged his shoulders and steamed out confident he had in his possession something that was even better than the real thing!
The myth, born from the realm of the fly-fishermen, is that to be successful an angler has to “match the hatch.” The obvious logic is that artificial that mimics what’s for dinner will improve the chances for catching. Even the majority of those who obsess about the beloved striped bass subscribe to this theory. However, my friend, Captain Russ Burgess, emphatically disagrees.
“Mackerel are fast and tough to catch,” points out Burgess. Smaller fish will hurl themselves at them, consuming calories in the process without a guarantee that they will be able to dispatch their evasive quarry. Those biggest of bass – 50 pounds and up – achieve great size by being stealthy predators that weigh the risk/reward factor of every assault. This is one of the reasons those fish go about the business of hunting mainly at night, when their senses give them an overwhelming advantage over their prey.
Rather than worship at the altar of the Sabiki, Russ eschews the time consuming live bait pursuit and employs a far simpler and arguably more effective tool – big wooden plugs! Hardly a bass chaser worth his or her stripes does not possess wooden plugs, but comparing your garden variety metal-lip to what Russ wields is like comparing a pellet gun to a howitzer. At the terminal end of his heavy-duty conventional setups are Gary Soldati’s 10-inch, 7-ounce Big Water Lures Trollers. The first time I ogled one of these plugs, I expected to see the words “Louisville Slugger” branded on its side.
“Those big bass lie in wait for an easy mark, which most mackerel are not,” explained Burgess. To which he added, “Along comes this extra-large baitfish that wobbles, rolls, and appears to be an easy meal.” Imagine in the midst of a school of mackerel, all uniformly swimming with subtle flicks of the tail, this rolling, wobbling monstrosity comes through. It is just the opportunity that a 25-year-old predator is waiting for!
Of course, you can’t catch a cow if they’re not where you are fishing. Essential ingredients are a cooking current and structure. A 50-pound bass will not give chase. Its stalking window is but a few feet at best, so if you’re not practically ticking the bottom, you’re not going to catch those big fish. From experience, Russ has learned that with 50-pound monofilament, trolling as slowly as the average boat will crawl sinks the big GRS plug to about 14 feet. If he’s found some interesting structure in 25 feet of water or beyond, he’ll fish the plug on lead core or even wire line
Believe it or not, brown has been Russ’s best fish-catcher, but not far behind has been black on top fading to gray, and of course mackerel. There are other options out there for metal lips, such as Gibb’s Deep-Diving Danny and if you snoop around I’m sure you can turn up some terrific alternatives to GRS trollers. It cannot be overstated that you have to get to know your plug and how deep it dives under given conditions.
Russ trolls his plugs about 100 feet back, paying attention to the throbbing motion of the rod tip as an indicator that the plug is running true. One strand of eel grass can be a deal breaker and ruin the plug’s moves.
Another option to consider is to anchor. Inner and outer Boston Harbor is alive with rips; in fact if you really pay attention while on the water and ogling charts, you’ll discover dozens. Anchoring upstream of a rip and free-spooling the plug into the maelstrom of moving water can be a deadly technique and is user friendly since that rolling, wobbling plug will do all the work for you. Big bass will usually hunker down and move little during the teeth of the tide, making the initial and final stages of the tide the best. If Russ had to check off any period of the tide as the best, it would be as it is waning just before slack. This technique is certainly not Boston specific but will work most anywhere super-sized stripers swim.
The tradeoff is time for glory. Understandably, not everyone is fond of spending six hours in ink-blank conditions in pursuit of a striper. And odds are you won’t be having fast action like the fleet chasing surface feeds during the day, but then again not everyone will be able to hoist up a 50-pound striped bass in their lifetime.