Find and catch the first stripers of the season with these three proven tactics.
It was a blustery March afternoon when we set out to find our first stripers of the season. As I cut across the bay, the damp, cool air, full of the familiar scents of salt marsh, baitfish and ocean, was already curing my cabin fever.
As the tide began to turn, we got into position and set out a chum slick of clam baits. As the current wafted the scent over a nearby flat, a striper that had been hunting there began following the trail of clam bits to the boat, looking for an easy meal.
When the current increased, the bite slowed, and we noticed some birds working in an area where the current had yet to peak. We cruised over, and threw plugs and soft plastics to small schoolie bass that were feeding on grass shrimp and spearing on the edge of a creek channel. It was early-spring striper fishing at its finest, and a great way to start the season.
Early-season bass are generally made up of both resident fish that spent the winter in local bays and rivers and migratory fish from the Chesapeake Bay. Since the ocean temperatures are cold at the start of the season, the sun-warmed bays, flats, and channels hold most of the spring’s first stripers.
Successful early-season fishing hinges on finding the warmest water temperatures in the area. Mud flats tend to be more productive than sandy bottom areas as the dark-colored bottoms absorb more heat from the sun, thereby warming the surrounding water. On a late-afternoon outgoing tide, the water that has been warmed over the darker bottoms during the day is drawn back by the ebbing current. The outgoing current also drains young-of-the-year baitfish into feeding zones, and this, combined with the spike in water temperature, puts gamefish on the hunt.
Power plants also provide unique feeding habitat with their warm-water outflows. Any consistent warm-water discharge will hold bluefish, striped bass, and weakfish, making them a good place to look for early-season action.
Bass are lethargic during the early spring and look for food that is easily obtained and digested which makes clams a deadly early-season bait. Clams make an easy meal for spring stripers and are a great bait for anglers to open their fishing season.
Stripers will station themselves on the down-tide side of lumps or other structure, allowing for easy pickings of baitfish caught in the current. Anchoring up-current of these locations and chumming with “clam soup” will pique the interest of any stripers waiting in ambush, and a hunk of clam drifting with the current will prove irresistible.
Water temperature, current speed, and water clarity all affect how well the stripers will bite, but when the conditions are right, the action on clams can be nonstop for a good portion of the tide.
Bass generally feed more heavily on an outgoing tide, but as the current increases, it tends to stir up sediment, decreasing the water clarity and causing the baits to foul with weeds. The bite will change throughout the tide, and as it changes, so should your location.
If, while clam chumming, you haven’t had a bite in more than 30 minutes, pull anchor and find a new location.
Once the vessel is tight on the anchor, begin ladling out the fresh or frozen clam that you had marinating in bay water while searching for a spot and anchoring. It is important to maintain a continuous, unbroken stream of chum, which will bring in stripers from a long distance away. Food can be scarce in the back bays in early spring, so stripers will travel a long way once they smell the clam chum.
Ladle the juices and the finely chopped bits of clam heavily when you start out, and back off slightly when you start getting bites. Minimize the chunks of clam you send over the side—you want to attract the fish, not feed them. This way, when they follow the scent trail to your boat, your baits are the only meal in sight.
Shuck fresh clams and throw some of the shells up-current of the vessel; toss the rest into the marinade.
I typically fish a three- to five-rod spread, and clam rigs are cast down-current from the boat at varying distances.
Clam rigs are simple, consisting of a sliding sinker clip on the main line, a bead to stop the sinker clip, a barrel swivel, and 30 to 36 inches of 20-pound-test fluorocarbon leader to a 6/0 Gamakatsu circle hook. The tide determines the size of the sinker, usually between 1 and 5 ounces. Since clam baits are soft and easily digestible, bass inhale and swallow them quickly, which makes circle hooks the best choice, as they will limit the number of deep-hooked fish.
Fresh baits will draw more bites, so change your baits at a minimum of every 15 minutes.
Drifting with Worms
If you prefer to move and cover ground but would like to use bait, drifting seaworms provides another productive method for bagging early-season striped bass. Drifting baits allows an angler to cover more water to locate fish and stay with the bite.
Bloodworms and sandworms provide easily digestible food sources that stripers can’t resist, especially when drifted through key locations. Channels, deeper areas adjacent to mud flats, tidal creeks, and sod banks are a likely place to encounter feeding stripers on an outgoing tide. Drifting with the current will make the baits appear as if they have been naturally swept by the tide.
My rig for drifting worms consists of a 4/0 or 5/0 baitholder hook snelled to 30 inches of 15- to 20-pound-test fluorocarbon leader attached to a three-way swivel or barrel swivel below a fishfinder. Using the two different rigs for worm drifting, three-way and fish-finder allows me to fish the worms at different depths. The fish-finder rig places the worm just off the bottom on the dirft while the three-way rig can fish the worms farther off the bottom, depending on the length of monofilament used to attach the sinker.
Hook the worm a few times through one end, but leave enough hanging off the hook so it flutters in the current. Along with drifted worms, don’t be afraid drift a hunk of clam in the mix for some variety.
In late April and early May, casting artificial lures will become the best technique as the water temperature and presence of baitfish increases. Casting and working lures will shine over anchoring or drifting with baits when bass aggressively patrol the backwaters, hunting for baitfish.
During this time of year, mud flats at the beginning of the outgoing tide offer the best shot at finding feeding bass. A variety of lures will work, from swimming plugs and poppers to soft plastics and bucktails. Plugs and poppers work best when bass are high in the water column and can be seen or heard on the surface, whereas soft plastics and bucktails are best for working the lower half of the water column. Regardless of which lure you choose, it should match the size of the baitfish, which in the spring, are usually in the 3- to 4-inch range. Some favorites are the Yo-Zuri Crystal Minnow, Daiwa Salt Pro Minnow, Hogy Skinny Series, Berkley Gulp, S and S Bigeye bucktails, and Tsunami Swim Shads.
I attach the lure to 20 inches of 12- to 20-pound-test fluorocarbon leader, and fan-cast the offering to different locations while the boat is drifting. Fan-casting helps me cover a wide area during each drift, and the more areas I cover, the more fish I hook.
An ultra-slow retrieve will trigger the most strikes. I see many anglers who will impart too much action to the lure, which can turn bass off. Once the lure hits the water, let it settle for a few seconds, and then slowly retrieve with a occasional jerk of the rod to make the lure pop, dash, or dart, followed by a long pause. The strike will usually occur during the long pause, but sometimes will occur on the retrieve. Vary the retrieve, and remember how the lure was worked when you get a strike, so you can duplicate that presentation.
Early-season stripers offer a surefire cure to cabin fever. Consider the tide, current, and water clarity to find the warmest water and the hottest bite, and use these three techniques to catch your first striper of the season, and many more after that.