When it comes to choosing the number one natural bait for trophy striped bass, to steal a phrase from the Highlander movie, “There can be only one.” And day to day, month to month, region to region, the number one live bait, cut bait, and most-imitated bait in the striped bass universe is the Atlantic menhaden, also known as pogies or bunker. And in case you live in a cave or have had your head in the sand, let me tell you that here in New England, bunker are back!
It is nothing new to hear someone mention Atlantic menhaden these days, but in the past it usually was in the context of fishery management. What is new is that from Gloucester to Boston, Duxbury to Plymouth, Chatham to Hyannis and throughout Buzzards and Narragansett bays, menhaden are showing up just about everywhere. And as the case has always been, trophy striped bass seem to be jumping onto hooks.
My relationship with this outstanding baitfish began over 12 years ago at a monthly meeting of the Massachusetts Striped Bass Association. Mike Bousaleh, who currently operates Ave Maria Charters, invited me to go fishing on his boat. I eagerly accepted the offer, and we made plans to meet in the wee hours of a Saturday morning. We left the dock and went to a not-so-remote location, and right there Mike showed me the key to catching big fish in Boston Harbor. We used a gillnet to harvest live pogies (we call them menhaden in Boston) and though it took a few hours, we were fishing by sunrise with maybe two dozen of these prized baits.
On that first trip, I caught a 42-inch, 22-pound fish, which at the time was a better-than-average fish for the harbor. On that day began my love affair with fishing live bait, especially menhaden. I learned a lot from Mike, and over time I was initiated into a society of bunker fanatics spread out around the region. Truth is, very few anglers in those days were harvesting their own because word on the street was that there were not enough to make it worthwhile. My obsession with fishing menhaden continues today, and I have watched over the past few years as our waters yield more and more of these fish. I know that there are many people interested in trying out what I believe is the best bait available in our waters.
Menhaden Population Concerns
I was at a fishing show recently and ended up in a conversation about fishing menhaden. This angler told me that he heard these fish were being overfished and depleted. Despite all of the press given to the many menhaden issues over the past few years, the fact is that there are many confusing issues surrounding them. Truth is, a lot of clear science tells us that the spawning stock biomass, a measure of menhaden abundance, is at a healthy level. This is not a fact that is debated.
What is at issue is where these fish are located. There is a lot of concern regarding “localized depletion.” This is the lack of fish in specific areas, just what we have seen New England waters over the past 15 years. The controversy really heats up when we ask why the local population changes are occurring. Over the past 10 years, we have seen a slowly rising number of menhaden in the waters off southern New England, while at the same time the Chesapeake is seeing a rapid decline.
To find an answer to the question of why we are seeing so many menhaden after so many lean years, I went straight to Dr. Mike Armstrong of the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries. Dr. Armstrong sat for many years on the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Menhaden Technical Committee, and he answered my question with an honest, “We’re just not sure.” He explained that there are several factors that could affect the movement of menhaden: ocean current patterns that fisheries managers have no confident method of tracking and predicting; weather patterns; and changing ocean temperatures. Dr. Armstrong went on to tell me that currently, “recruitment,” or the number of juveniles surviving to enter the fishery, is primarily being supported by fish found in the waters off southern New England. One theory is that ocean currents that used to drive larvae into Chesapeake Bay could now be driving them into southern New England, but that is still just a theory. As I said earlier, studies are ongoing.
The good news is that for right now, we have a lot of bunker in our waters. And a quick check of local fishing reports tells anglers all they really need to know: menhaden catch big fish. It is obvious that many of the techniques employed by fishermen in the ‘80s, when menhaden were last abundant in the area, were not passed down to today’s growing group of new anglers. I struggled with whether to write this article or not, but finally decided that sharing information on proper collection techniques with anglers just starting to learn how to collect menhaden for bait will hopefully cut down on the waste of fish.
By far the most popular method of catching bunker is by snagging. This is a relatively simple method where an angler casts a weighted treble hook and quickly retrieves it through the water using erratic jerks of the rod to snag a bunker. Obviously, this is the least expensive method, as it only requires the addition of some two-dollar snagging hooks to any rod or reel you already own and takes up almost no extra space on the boat. Though the scarcity of bunker in recent years had made snagging hooks harder to find, the past two years have brought the hooks back as a staple item on or within reach of the counter of just about every tackle shop in the area.
If you are going to snag on a regular basis, invest in a box of 4/0 unweighted trebles. On occasion you have to keep the treble right on the surface, and the weight of a large treble is perfect to cast with a spinning rod and keep on top. This can save the day when the fish are swimming right on the surface. It can also help to put some large split shot or a rubber core sinker a foot or so in front of the unweighted treble. One essential accessory to snagging is a hook sharpener. The difference between many bumps while running a treble through a school of bunker and snagging one after another is all in the point of your snagging hooks, so keep them as sharp as possible. Thus far, there are no regulations on snagging in Massachusetts beyond the fact that it is specifically allowed. In other states, check the regulations before trying to snag bunker.
One of the major drawbacks to snagging is that snagged bunker are difficult to keep alive in a livewell. The recently snagged and usually bleeding bunker require a good deal of water exchange, and even then they may not survive very long. Watching my hard-earned barrel of live bait die off is one of the most frustrating fishing experiences this angler has ever had to endure.
It is always a good idea when catching bunker by any method to live-line one in the area while you harvest more. I always make sure to have at least one extra rod dedicated to this purpose. I prefer to let the hooked bait out about a hundred feet and place the rod in a rod holder. I use a conventional reel in free-spool with the clicker on and the drag just tight enough to restrain the bunker. If it pulls line only when it is excited, then you have the reel set correctly. There’s a good chance you’ll pick up one of those big fish that are usually busting the surface around a good concentration of bunker.
The next step up when it comes to harvesting bunker is the method most difficult to master. Cast-netting involves throwing a circular net that spreads out as it flies through the air, sinks over the top of a school of baitfish, and then is cinched closed and retrieved by the thrower. Cast-netting bunker may be the best overall method, but it is not easy unless the schools are very thick. This year they have been plenty thick, and cast nets are flying off the shelves of the shops that carry them. There are many videos and tutorials available for anglers to learn to use a cast net, and I highly recommend any of them. Put your time in and you will reap the benefits.
The preferred recreational cast net used for bunker should have 1-inch mesh and a 4- or 5-foot radius (or an 8- to 10-foot spread, when open). Yes, there are those who can throw a 7-foot radius, 2-inch mesh net, but this article is really not aimed at experts. Smaller, 3-foot radius, ½-inch mesh cast nets are easier to throw, but do not sink at a rate fast enough to consistently capture a bunch of bunker. Cast-netting does get you and your boat wet and dirty. Wearing commercial-grade foul weather gear will help you, but the boat is still going to get messy, so be prepared.
If cast-netting is hard to learn, very wet and gets the boat dirty, then why consider it as a method? The answer is simple; it is much more efficient then snagging. Cast nets have the ability to take 30 bunker or more in one throw, though in most cases a half-dozen adults is average. They also cover much more water in a shorter time when used correctly, and that is key when the schools are thinned out later in the summer. Cast-netting is also much gentler on the quarry. Any excess bunker or fish captured by mistake can be released unharmed. And cast-netting produces uninjured baits that are more likely to survive in your livewell.
There is a bit of uncertainty regarding regulations when it comes to cast-netting menhaden, but as long as you are releasing anything you catch besides menhaden, then you should be within the law. Of course, regulations are subject to change, so double-check with the authorities before you toss your first net.
A third option for the recreational angler who wants to catch bunker is a recreational gillnet. A gillnet catches fish that swim into the nearly invisible mesh and get snared around their gill covers. From the first time I was taken out to gillnet menhaden I was hooked. There is something, well, romantic in a traditional New England fisherman sort of way to this method. When I was taught how to gillnet over 10 years ago, it took three to four hours to gather two dozen menhaden. Today, that same area in Boston Harbor is giving up two dozen menhaden in just one or two nets, but how long this will last is unknown.
Regulations vary by state, but Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts all allow recreational gillnetting for menhaden for personal use (not for sale). In Connecticut, an annual license is required (current cost $100), and the net can be up to 60 feet in length and must have a minimum stretched mesh size of 3 inches. In Rhode Island, no permit is required for a gillnet up to 100 feet in length with a maximum stretched mesh size of 3¾ inches. In Massachusetts, a person may, without a special permit, use a net of no more than 200 square feet for the sole purpose of obtaining baitfish for personal use. Again, it’s a good idea to check with the authorities and get all the latest details on gillnetting regulations before you purchase or set a gillnet.
Gillnets used for bunker are pretty much the same no matter what the size. They are formally called “floating gillnets” because they suspend like a floating wall from the water surface, with a floating line along the top of the net and a “leadline” along the bottom of the net. The mesh is typically made of monofilament and sized according to the maximum stretch of the holes in the net. An appropriate size stretch for netting menhaden is three inches. In order to make the most of the allowed 200 square feet, most Massachusetts gillnetters use a net measuring 25 feet long by 8 feet deep.
The gillnet I use has a length of hollow-core floating line with a series of small 3-inch hard-plastic floats installed about every 18 inches, which keeps the top of the net at the surface. At each of the top corners of the net, I placed a 6- to 10-inch ball (think anchor ball) in my favorite bright color and added some reflective tape to make the net visible at night. Off one corner of the net, I tied in another 15 feet of floating line with a third ball on the end. This is the pick-up end of the gillnet, and I always start with this end when I approach the net, to avoid drifting over the net and wrapping it in the propeller. A braided leadcore sinking line runs down one side of the net, across the bottom and up the other side, creating a frame for the netting material. At each of the bottom corners, there is a dropper loop in the sinking line, to which I attach some sort of weight. The most common weights used are old window weights or 3- to 5-pound barbells. I prefer window weights coated in plastic, as they do not rust or scratch the boat. The net should be stored in some sort of covered tote in order to protect it from the sun. Bungee the cover so it does not blow off, and make sure there are drain holes in the tote.
There are a few other items that all recreational gillnetters should have before they leave the dock. First of all, you will need an old sheet, comforter, rug or rubber mat of some sort to drape over the gunnels of your boat where you will be hauling the net over the side. This little trick prevents the net material from catching on loose screws, cleats, cracks and anything else it can get a hold of – and trust me, it will. The next item required is a gillnet pick. You should have at least one per person on the boat plus extras. These simple but handy little tools will make it much easier for you to pick vegetation, trash, bycatch and menhaden from the net. A final tool that I use a lot is a long-handled dip net of some sort. I prefer the soft-mesh minnow-type of net on a handle at least eight feet long. This net is used to scoop the menhaden from the folded “bag” created when retrieving the net. It also is great on those days when the bunker are laying up against the outside of the net when it’s retrieved. It is a common thing to be pulling in a net and have a menhaden free-swimming up against the gillnet; you can just scoop it out of the water. Grundens or other commercial-grade foul-weather gear is always a plus, as gillnetting is extremely dirty. If you are going to gillnet at night, lights are a must. I like to have at least one of those mega-candlepower spotlights for locating the net after drifting away from it (always within sight) while it is fishing. I also recommend a headlamp to keep your hands free.
This article would not be complete if I did not include some information about the main drawback of recreational gillnetting. You must be willing and prepared to deal with bycatch. Gillnets catch everything that swims into the net and can squeeze its head into or get tangled in the mesh. In my many years of recreational gillnetting I have had all kinds of bycatch, including sea herring, butterfish, dogfish, all sorts of crabs, lobster, trash, weakfish, bluefish and yes, striped bass. Now, it is disturbing to me when I have to release a schoolie striper from a gillnet. Most of the time they are not injured beyond a couple scratches, however, there have been times for me and there will be times for you when a striper is caught in such a way that it is injured. You can take steps to minimize bycatch by limiting the amount of time you leave the gillnet soaking, learning the waters where you gillnet, and understanding where the fish will be under different conditions.
Keeping Bunker Alive
Captured bunker can either be put on ice for use as cut bait or placed in a livewell if you want to fish them live. Most boats, unfortunately, do not have livewells that can keep even a dozen bunker alive for more than a couple hours. First, a square livewell is useless and will not keep bunker alive for long. They need to be able to swim constantly, and in a square tank they will put their noses into a corner and eventually stop swimming. Second, a livewell must have a high rate of water exchange. Four-hundred-gallon-per-hour livewell pumps are not good enough for the standard ratio of one fish per gallon of water. At this rate, bunker will quickly deplete the tank of oxygen and start to die. Most people upgrade their pumps to either an eight-hundred or twelve-hundred-gallon-per-hour bilge pump. Doing this can require some increased drain capacity, easily diagnosed by having water spilling over the top of your livewell. Hard-core bunker guys use three-thousand-gph wash-down pumps and rig barrels that have two or three 1½-inch drain tubes. Water should always enter via the bottom of the livewell and drain from the top. Installing a pick-up scupper or pipe elbow that turns forward around the bottom of your transom is also a great method to get your water-exchange rate where it really needs to be when you are running. Just make sure to install a check valve above the elbow, or your tank will drain empty when you stop to fish.
When there is a heavy rate of water exchange, you will see what appears to be dead bunker free-floating around the tank. This is OK; they will wake up when taken out of the tank and put on a hook. Do not get me wrong, even professional types with oxygen-infused livewells cannot keep every bunker alive. Make sure you harvest enough so that you do not run out, but not so many that you overcrowd the livewell. Check the livewell for stiff, dead baits every once in a while, which can further deplete oxygen levels, and ice them for future use. Water temperature in the livewell can be an issue with no great solution. In the end, it all comes down to water exchange.
There is a lot involved in procuring and maintaining live bunker, but trust me, the results are worth it. In the end, all the hard work will pay off and the average size of your catch will surely increase. I believe fishing is about hope, and fishing a big live bait is the pinnacle of anticipation. So get out and join the rest of us while it lasts. Most of all, introduce a young person to this fine method of fishing. You’ll pass on the techniques to a new generation, and besides, they think live bait is cool.