Pictured above: Anglers can find success with clams in the ocean, inlets and backwaters as bass will rarely pass up this easy meal.
This down-and-dirty bait produces stripers when all other methods fail.
November is an action-packed month for the New York and New Jersey striper fisherman. Migratory striped bass inundate coastal waters as they swim southward on their way to Virginia and North Carolina, providing anglers with drag-ripping, adrenaline-pumping fun. Of all the possible ways to hook these fish, one of the most reliable is by fishing clams from an anchored boat. The method may be basic, but there are tips, tricks and details that will help you land more and bigger fish.
The Surf Clam
Since the large surf clams used for bait are commercially harvested offshore, there is no real way for anglers to capture their own supply, and therefore, the baits must be bought. These clams are a different species than the ones watermen dig up in the backwaters at low tide. Striped bass have a distinct taste for the surf clams, and while they will occasionally hit the ones dug up in the bay, they clearly prefer the larger oceanic bivalves.
Tackle shops sell clams by the individual clam, half-bushel and full-bushel in order to cater to the various anglers that enter their store. Surf anglers are more likely to purchase individual clams whereas captains planning a day on the water at anchor will need a half-bushel or whole-bushel, depending on how many hours they intend to spend fishing. A half-bushel consists of a five-gallon bucket loaded with clams and a full bushel is a clam-filled, heavy burlap sack that can test the discs in your lower back when you load it onto the boat.
Providing seas aren’t rough for an extended period of time, the tackle shops should have a good supply of clams in stock during the height of the season, but it doesn’t hurt to call ahead and make sure. When offshore storms whip up the ocean waves, the clam boats stay safely at the dock and the tackle shops are stuck with a dwindling supply of baits.
The freshness of the clams is an important element of fishing for stripers. Clams that are alive up to the moment they meet the shucking tool provide a significant advantage, especially when fishing in a large fleet of boats. You don’t want to be second-guessing the freshness of your bait when the bite is on and boats around you are hooking up.
If live clams are unavailable, fresh-dead clams will work in attracting bass to the business end of the line. Most anglers would define fresh-dead clams as those that have died recently before purchase and were not sitting around for an extended period of time. For example, if a bushel has a mix of live and dead clams, the dead clams are likely still of decent quality, since they probably departed shortly before the angler bought them.
Some tackle shops carry fresh, pre-shucked clams in plastic containers, providing anglers a cleaner, more convenient option. It is important for fishermen to remember that shucking clams on the boat is a dirty job that leaves the boat a sandy, slimy mess.
Frozen clams should be your last resort, used only when fresh clams are unavailable for the outing. If the bass are feeding heavily, the thawed-out baits can persuade some takers to oblige. If the bass are finicky, however, the stripers will turn their nose up at the thawed-out clam and swim away to find a better meal.
Where to Drop a Clam
Fishermen have a plethora of options as to where they will drop the hook in hopes to attract striped bass to the baits. In the backwaters, anglers can anchor adjacent to sod banks, creek mouths, rips and flats. Generally, depths of 6 to 20 feet are most productive, but deeper waters can give up good fish as well. Channels, creek mouths and inlets tend to hold more stripers because these areas have greater tidal movement and more forage.
Fishing clams on the ocean side is another popular and productive method that sparks striped bass action when other approaches fail. Fishermen can set up outside the breakers and sandbars at their favorite beach and present their clams to the fish that are migrating down along the coast.
Some boat fishermen even carry surf-fishing rods in order to maximize their casting distance as they sit safely away from the busting surf. Other anglers prefer to hang around the inlet areas to do their ocean clamming and find success on the bars and sloughs that run parallel to the sandy uprisings that form around the inlet. Still another faction of fishermen will seek out shoals and underwater plateaus that exist slightly offshore of the beach.
Each of these areas can catch fire and produce great catches of stripers, and they can just as quickly shut down and leave anglers scratching their heads. In fact, fishermen need to be prepared to move north or south to altogether different habitats, because as is the nature of the fall migration, the stripers are on the move and will not stick around any one area for too long.
The anchoring process itself seems elementary, but some simple basics will make each danforth episode much easier. Captains should have an anchor that has heavy links of chain above the shank. The chain helps the flukes of the anchor find purchase in the sea floor. Boaters without enough chain can be seen dragging the hook and struggling to get their fishing day started.
Captains should also carry plenty of anchor line so they can let out enough rode, which will also assist in getting the anchor to stick. Seven feet of rode to one foot of depth is the standard, but most days it won’t require that kind of payout. It is good to be prepared, however.
When the wind and tide are pushing in the same direction, it is more conducive to fishing success. Tide and wind flowing in opposite directions can present problems with keeping the boat reasonably still, causing the baits to drag around on the bottom. When this occurs, the bass have a difficult time honing in on their food and the baits get worn out and lose their fish-attracting scent.
When the wind and current are causing major boat swing in the backwaters, anglers can nose the boat up into the sod bank where it will remain steady. This will eliminate the problem of dragging clams side to side for hours.
Many captains employ four rods, each rigged with an 8/0 octopus or circle hook on a 50-pound-test monofilament leader that is weighted down with a bank sinker on a fish-finder just above the swivel. The tongue of the clam along with the innards that seem to drip off the tongue are threaded onto the hook several times. It is imperative to get as much of the nasty, drippy stuff on the hook as possible because as the bait rests on the bottom, it is the innards that slowly strip away and provide a scent trail to your hooked bait.
Anglers should do a version of a “roundhouse” or “grenade-toss” cast in order to keep the bait on the hook. Too fast a rod motion, and the bait will rip off the hook and you’ll waste many clam baits.
A standard spread involves several lines that are lobbed far off the stern and several that are closer to the boat. Anglers should change “washed out” baits approximately every ten minutes. If the current is running particularly fast and washing out the clam quicker than normal, it may be necessary to change the baits at shorter intervals. If the flow is slow or lazy, fishermen can get a few more minutes out of the bait before it needs to be replaced.
Assuming an angler was fishing four rods off his boat, then it is suggested that he change two baits at each interval. This rotation of changing baits is a method used by many bass experts that strive to keep fresh bait out there at all times and get the most out a bushel of clams.
Chumming can play a major role, positive or negative, in fishing for striped bass. The shells, including pungent parts and torn-off organs, sink to the bottom closest to the boat thus providing a great attractant. Dicing up clams and ladling them out the back of the boat is another method of chumming. When the fishing is slow, chumming is an outstanding way to get those linesiders creeping up to the lines from afar.
The downside of chumming is that some areas that produce striped bass also harbor unwanted creatures, and chumming will draw them in, often in greater numbers than the bass. Skates are a major nuisance to clam fishermen and they tend to nibble at the clam and then sit there without much movement, often not indicating to the angler that they have taken the bait. As long as it is just the occasional winged friend taking the bait, fishermen should not abandon their fishing hole. If all the rods are covered up with skates, however, it would be wise for anglers to leave the area.
When the dogfish come barking, striped bass anglers get annoyed in a hurry. Fishermen can try to stick it out and wait for the stripers to overtake the area, but it’s often better to try a different fishing spot in order to avoid the aquatic canines.
Fishing near sod banks and bumpy bottom provides tremendous bass habitat, but the green crabs tenaciously claw the bait in certain locations. Sometimes anglers can retrieve their lines only to find two or three crabs hanging on each clam.
Hooking the Bass
A striped bass may hit the clam like a runaway freight train leaving the angler with the chore of getting the pinned rod out of the rod holder. Since the fish sets the hook on itself, all an angler need do is reel in the fish.
Other times, a bass will taste and toy with the bait as if it can’t make up its mind whether to eat or not. This scenario requires careful judgment as to the timing of the hookset. Too early and you’ll miss the fish; too late, and if you are not using circle hooks, the bass will be gut-hooked.
Anglers that choose to remove the pole from the rod holder while the bass is examining the clam need to do so without giving the fish any reason to drop the bait. It is imperative that the bait remain still and no additional vibrations are sent through the line due to careless maneuvering of the rod. Once ready, fishermen can hold the rod and reel while they wait for the fish to eat the hooked clam.
Some anglers will fish with the rod in their hands all day, but they know they must not wave the rod like Luke Skywalker’s light saber because the bait won’t stay stationary, and the fish won’t hit it.
Once hooked, stripers will make some exciting runs that will remind anglers why they need plenty of line on their reels. It is wise to have at least a couple hundred yards on the spool so they don’t panic when a big striper takes off with the bait. Any quality spinning, baitcasting or conventional reel is effective for this type of fishing, as long as it has a durable drag system and that ever-important backing.
After the early long runs of a fight, the bass battle will feature short bursts of speed. The fish will also swim port to starboard over and over. Occasionally, the fish will boil on the surface or cruise with its dorsal fin out of the water, employing the current in its effort to stay away from capture.
In the instance the bass swims toward the vessel, the fisherman needs to crank as quickly as possible to avoid slack occurring in the line. Losing pressure on the striper will give it the opportunity throw the hook.
You can get away with using fairly light rods for clam fishing, but there are times when you’ll need rods with a bit more backbone. For instance, on windy days, a lighter rod tip will flicker in the breeze making soft hits more difficult to detect.
Fishing clams for stripers might not be as glamorous as throwing a surface plug or fly, but what it lacks in glamour, it more than makes up for in down-and-dirty effectiveness. Even when other methods fail, dropping back a fresh clam will produce bass after bass.