Driving away from the oceanfront, I followed the gravel road running alongside the salt ponds back toward Main Street, thoughts drifting away from spring striper fishing and fixating on a steaming cup of clam chowder. The fishing reports had proclaimed the return of migrating stripers, but two hours of afternoon jetty casting had produced nothing but a runny nose. Though it was a seasonal day for early May, T-shirt weather if you were in the sun and out of the wind, a breeze off the water and the low angle of the late-afternoon sun had me driving with one hand thawing over the dashboard heater vent. Then I saw the gulls.
At the very top of the salt pond, a mile away from the oceanfront and a short length of culvert away from a pond that I’d fished a week prior for pickerel and largemouth bass, a few dozen gulls hovered, dipped, and splashed away at the surface in a mucky cove that barely held water at low tide. I had to stare down from the road for about 20 seconds before I was certain that among all the commotion created by the birds there were some subtle splashes that could only be created by feeding fish.
Once I climbed down the bank and stood at the water’s edge, I could see that there were definitely fish in the water – lots of them – dimpling the surface, creating small boils, and making the occasional big splash. Heart pounding, I hurriedly launched a floating minnow plug and cranked it back through the thick of the commotion, watching it sashay across the surface and expecting a blow-up at any second… but the plug was ignored as fish continued to feed on either side of it. Same thing on the next cast. And the next. It was only then that I noticed the sea worms zipping along in the water, 3-inch segments of dark-red worm, moving in straight lines in their bizarre reproductive frenzy.
I ran back up to my car, fingers crossed that my freshwater gear was still on the back seat.
Five minutes later, back down at the water and breathing hard, I had a freshwater rod in hand with a 3-inch root beer paddletail grub on the line, a rig that had fooled a few smallmouth bass the week prior. Before I made a cast, I bit the paddletail off with my front teeth, leaving a stick of soft-plastic rigged on an offset worm hook that I figured would move in straight lines with little action – just like the worms.
By the time the sun set and the action died completely, my spring striper season had officially started; I’ d caught and released about a dozen schoolie stripers, most in the 16- to 20-inch range, and one 26-inched that had the drag on my freshwater spinning reel singing.
LURE OF THE BACKWATERS
While the conditions at the beachfront that day had been unpleasant, in the protected backwaters of the salt ponds, estuaries, harbors and tidal rivers, the warm air and strengthening spring sunshine had warmed the shallow waters. That warmth had likely sparked the worm spawning event, and it also drew in the striped bass. The worms certainly helped get them feeding, but it doesn’t require a worm spawn to draw the first waves of migrating stripers into the backwaters. When the ocean temperatures are in the low 50s, the backwaters can be 5 to 10 degrees warmer, particularly toward the end of a sunny afternoon and on the tail end of a falling tide. That extra warmth will chase the bass out by summer, but in May, it’s more comfortable for the bass and will have them feeding actively. It also provides more food options. As the spring sun warms the backwaters, grass shrimp proliferate, small baitfish like mummichogs and pupfish swarm, and all manner of worms and invertebrates come crawling out of the mud.
The first wave of migrating striped bass is dominated by smaller juvenile fish. (Most of the larger adults are still procreating down in the Chesapeake Bay and Hudson River). And what more could a schoolie want after a long swim than warm water and a buffet of bite-size food?
From Long Island Sound to Cape Cod, north along the Massachusetts Coast to the New Hampshire Seacoast and southern Maine, look to salt marshes, ponds, harbors, rivers and estuaries of all sizes to draw stripers in the early season, often far into their backwaters. Many of these areas can be reached by shore-based fishermen with a pair of waders (be careful of muddy soft spots) and most are perfect for quiet craft like kayaks and small shallow-draft boats.
SOFT PLASTICS MAKE PERFECT
Fly-fishermen often clean up in the early season as their long wands allow them to quietly present small lightweight baitfish imitations that can match the variety of prey items found in the backwaters.
For spin fishermen, the best way to match their success is with soft-plastic baits.
Unlike oceanfront spring stripers feeding on big schools of menhaden or mackerel in open water, the feeding activities of backwater stripers are much more subtle. In the quiet, shallow waters, presentation matters, and the lifelike action of a soft-plastic bait is tough for a striper to turn down. The fish can also be extra spooky in shallow water. If your lure touches down with a crash akin to an osprey hitting the surface, you can bet that any schoolie stripers in the area are going to streak for cover. The soft landing of a weightless-rigged soft-plastic bait can have the opposite effect, drawing fish in to check out what sounds like a fleeing baitfish.
There’s a wide assortment of soft-plastic baits in a rainbow of colors that can match the small baitfish and other foods that backwater stripers feed on. Mummichogs are 2 to 4 inches long, mottled brown in coloration, and move at relatively slow speeds close to the bottom. Small stickbait-style soft plastics like Hogys and jerkbaits like the Berkley Powerbait minnow or DOA C.A.L. in 4-inch sizes, rigged Texposed-style on offset worm hooks or on jigheads, are a good match in brown and dark-green colors. Let it sink, and fish with short twitches at a speed that keeps the lure from settling on the bottom. Shad-style paddletail baits pre-rigged over lead bodies, like the 3-inch Storm Wildeye Swim Shad, are dead ringers for pupfish and easy to use – just cast and retrieve at a steady pace slow enough to let the lure sink to the desired depth. Other backwater baits, like silversides, smelt and sand eels, are well matched by thin-profile soft-plastics like the Skinny Hogy and the pre-rigged Tsunami Holographic Split-Tail Minnow.
If you luck upon a worm-spawn event, remember that there are a few different types of worms in New England so try to get a good look and mimic their size, color and movement. Most worms are 2 or 3 inches long, orange to dark-red in coloration, and move with surprising and consistent speed, mostly in straight lines. I like the 4-inch skinny Hogy in amber and the 4-inch DOA C.A.L. in red shad or a similar soft-plastic, rigged on a 1/0 weighted swimbait hook or 1⁄4-ounce jighead – the extra weight helps make long casts, while a brisk, straight retrieve with the rod tip held high will keep the lure just under the surface.
SOUTHEAST STYLE GEAR
Casting relatively light 1⁄4- to 1⁄2-ounce baits on gear strong enough to handle shallow-water saltwater fish is a challenge, but it’s one that anglers in the Southeast and Gulf Coast fishing for redfish and snook have faced for years, and so there is a whole range of rod and reel options perfect for this style of fishing. Often called “inshore” rods, most have a fast action with a powerful butt section but a soft tip to allow you to flick lightweight baits the required distance and work them with precision, while at the same time giving you the backbone to turn a hard-running fish. I fish both the 7-foot, 6-inch medium-weight Quantum Boca Inshore rod and the 7-foot, 6-inch medium-weight St. Croix Mojo Inshore, each paired with a Quantum Cabo 40 spinning reel spooled with 30-pound- test braided line. I’ll attach a leader of 15-pound-test fluorocarbon via a quality 50-pound-test swivel and use a Berkley Cross-lok snap to connect to the lure. (The thinner wire is a good match to the smaller jigs and hooks.
A 7-and-a-half-foot rod is perfect for fishing from a boat or kayak or for prowling most backwaters on foot. If I’m going to be fishing a bigger bay or harbor and need extra casting distance, or if I know I’ ll be throwing slightly bigger baits, I’ ll go to an 8- or 9-foot surf-style rod with similar characteristics. I like the 9-foot Lamiglas Ron Arra rated to throw 3/8 to 11⁄2 ounces, and also fish an 8-foot Tsunami Airwave paired with a 5000 Shimano Saragosa.
NOT JUST SCHOOLIES
While most of the spring striper fishing you’ll do in the backwaters produce fish in the 14- to 26-inch range, there is always a good chance of finding keeper-sized bass and bigger in the springtime.
It seems like every year I encounter more large stripers into the upper- 30-inch class in areas that used to hold just schoolies. Part of this is probably just a reflection of the greater striper population – at the moment, the size distribution of bass is a bit skewed toward larger size classes. You’ll also find more large stripers arriving with each passing day in the early spring as migrating bass spread north, making their way along the Massachusetts Coast into New Hampshire and southern Maine. If you want to try and target the biggest of the backwater bass, look to waters that harbor herring runs, or seek out menhaden schools. These bigger bass will be a handful on the aforementioned tackle, but can certainly be landed on 30-pound-test braid.
I always carry one or two larger soft-plastic baits in case I run into some larger fish or spot a school of early menhaden. Try a 10-inch Hogy in bally-smoke color rigged on an 11/0 Owner offset hook to pull a big bass’s attention away from the baitfish.