My approach to targeting striped bass has changed over the years. Most people consider cow bass to be structure-oriented fish, hanging in or around nearshore structure while waiting for an easy meal, seeing them as big, fat, lazy fish. I see the opposite. I see large, fast, broom-tailed torpedoes – true pelagic predators that actively hunt their prey in open water. Rather than fishing structure, I prefer fishing bait concentrations.
Big fish need big meals—and lots of them—to sustain their size. The largest groups of big fish always congregate around the highest concentrations of high-calorie baits, and two baits really stand out in my mind when I think big bass: sea herring and bunker.
Sea herring drive stripers especially crazy. When they are present, you can almost always count on topwater feeds, and count on the bass to be larger fish. Unfortunately, most sea herring schools are usually just outside the striper angler’s reach, sitting offshore in federal waters where all striper fishing—even catch-and-release fishing—is prohibited. But, all good things come to those who wait, and when the stars align, sea herring come inshore and the big stripers come with them!
I once heard an old-timer say about the wind, “East brings the least,” but I prefer my version: “East brings the feast!” A hard east blow may be difficult to fish during, but that’s what pushes large concentrations of plankton closer to shore, into state waters. With this planktonic gold come see herring and bunker to feed on it.
After a hard-east wind, I target areas just outside the usual inshore zone, in 70 to 120 feet of water. This type of fishing might seem a bit daunting, but the fish will not be on hard structure and are typically spread out over large areas. I take a run-and-gun approach, making it feel like chasing bluefin tuna. The goal is to cover water and find life.
Baitfish concentrations often draw the attention of herring gulls, whales, and porpoise. The gulls are usually a dead giveaway that you’re in the zone so a good pair of binoculars are a must when fishing open water. Watching birds’ behavior in relation to the water and listening to them communicating as they hunt are crucial to your success. Above all else, watch the water for breaking fish or spraying bait.
One of the most effective ways to cover ground is to use the buddy system. I often work with three to five boats when fishing these zones, which quickly helps to eliminate dead water. It’s best to stagger the group of buddy boats three-quarters of a mile apart, then start working the water in a grid pattern. Marine radar capable of seeing birds helps tremendously.
Once in the right zone, I rely heavily on my electronics. The fish aren’t always feeding on the surface, so having eyes under the water is a true game-changer. The Humminbird’s sonar and side-imaging system runs at a very high megahertz frequency, which allows me to run side imaging effectively in open water. So, rather than looking at the small cone of a traditional sonar, I can see a 400-foot swath of water with incredible detail. Being able to see individual fish and determine their orientation in the water allows me to make perfectly accurate casts, with deadly results.
There are two things to consider when fishing this style: the size of the fish you are targeting and the weight of the gear in relation to repetitive casting. Gear weight is essential because you want it to be light and comfortable so that you can cast all day while maintaining the ability to put boots to a monster fish when needed. I prefer a 5000- to 6000-size spinning reel, like the Shimano Saragosa 5000 or Shimano Twinpower 5000. The reel retrieve speed should be over 40 inches per crank to properly work plugs.
Braided line is a must and should have a minimum breaking strength of 30-pound test. I use 30-pound Power Pro Maxcuatro for its thin diameter and therefore better casting distance. Open, clear water requires long fluorocarbon leaders. I use 6 feet of 30-pound-test fluorocarbon.
Longer rods deliver better casting range. The ones I use are typically 7 feet, 6 inches, to 8 feet in length, and are rated medium heavy. I primarily use 1.5- to 3.5-ounce topwater plugs and stickbaits, so a rod with an extra-fast-action blank will add to the casting ability and impart the preferred action when working plugs.
Top Pick: Topwater Plugs
Yes, you can throw topwater plugs in 120 feet of water; in fact, I recommend it over all other techniques. Whether blind-casting or casting at breaking fish, the topwater plug is my confidence bait. Most of the forage these larger pelagic bass chase are 7 to 10 inches in length, so choosing a large profile plug is necessary.
If I’m throwing a topwater plug, I want something that floats level on the surface, presenting the largest profile possible. In open water, I often need to draw fish in from a distance, so I like a plug that throws a lot of water when worked—and if the plug has a knocker or rattle noise, even better. One of my favorite lures is the Musky Mania Doc. Originally a muskie plug, this 9-inch walk-the-dog bait seems irresistible to big bass. It is now available in a variety of saltwater colors, but I see no need to be fancy – the bone-white color seems to outfish all others.
Because I often see large numbers of fish competing for prey in open water, I retrieve topwater plugs quickly and violently, causing the fish to compete for the lure. For these large open-water bass, I beef up my hardware. I replace all hooks and split rings on my plugs, switching them out for 7/0 to 9/0 inline single hooks. They provide strong, solid hookups on big bass and a safe, easy release for large fish that must be released with the current slot limit.
For Big Seas: Stickbaits
A stickbait works well when the water is choppy because a topwater plugs gets lost in the turbulence. Most of the stickbaits I throw are 6 to 8 inches in length and are slow- or fast-sinking ones that can be worked from 2 to 6 feet below the surface. With subsurface stickbaits, I prefer a natural color pattern, something with scales and foil flash that draws a striper’s attention from greater distance. The retrieve speed should be on the faster side when fishing these baits. My favorite for this type of fishing is the Strategic Angler Genesis 165FS.
For Sluggish Fish: Soft Plastics
Often, large schools of fish feed heavily in the early morning and become lethargic in the afternoon. They gather in large schools just under the surface and are sometimes even overlooked by anglers who think they are bunker schools. These fish will refuse almost anything presented to them. For such situations, I throw unweighted 10-inch soft plastics in natural grey colors with glitter flash. I like to cast and deadstick these plastics with a twitch every few seconds, but this presentation has to be slow and the cast must be placed very close to the fish. A stealthy approach is best, so I come into the fish with my MinnKota trolling motor rather than with my engine running. If the fish refuse to bite, try downsizing your leader before moving on.
On the Fly
Topwater herring feeds provide excellent opportunities for fly-rod anglers. Most of the fish are trophy-size fish and extremely aggressive, so a 10-weight rod with a sinking line is my go-to. Large white 6- to 8-inch presentations such as Game Changers and Hollow Fleyes work best, and a stout, strong hook is needed when targeting fish of this size.
Six-foot 30-pound-test fluorocarbon fly leaders are what I use. The shorter leader helps make quick, accurate casts when the fish are on the surface and moving fast.
Pelagic bass sometimes follow sea herring inshore from Cape Cod to Gloucester throughout the season. These fish represent a sizable portion of the spawning stock, so need to be handled with as much care possible, especially since all fish over 35 inches (or over 38 inches in New Jersey) must be released.
To improve the odds of these fish surviving, use inline single hooks rather than trebles on your plugs. Also use a landing net to bring the fish onto the boat; support its weight with two hands when handling it, and don’t hold the fish vertically by the jaw. Limit the amount of time it is out of the water; and, spend an adequate amount of time reviving the fish—a good rule is to revive the fish for at least as long as your fought it.
So, following an east wind this year, venture just outside your harbor to look for big schools of open-water cows. You will never look at big bass the same way again!