Live-line bunker for big stripers off Long Island’s North Shore
It was many years ago in early June when four hopeful anglers drifted lazily in the shallows of a North Shore harbor. Although it was a lovely morning, we caught nothing. Mercifully, midday rolled around and quitting time was near. I admit our focus was, shall we say, diffused by hours of watching live bunker happily swim around and around the boat. I also know that no matter how revved up an angler is about a given technique, there are bad days. This was a bad day.
As a result of the boredom, not one of us was paying attention to the bunker. Then suddenly, the stillness was punctuated by a loud splash next to the boat and several rods bent against the gunwale. As if awakened from a long sleep by the kiss of a magic princess, we jumped to our feet and reached for our rods. One by one the anglers reeled in line and felt the weight of a fish. We saw a large striper in the 40-pound class thrashing on the surface, and a look around the boat revealed that each angler believed it was his fish. Four hearts pounded in response to surges of adrenaline, and animated high-pitched words danced about the boat as four excited anglers fought the same fish. It seems that while we were disinterested, the bunker swam round and round until the lines were hopelessly tangled, and we had no idea who was actually hooked to the fish.
Well, you can guess what happened next, since pressure applied by four anglers to four lines is a formula for an unhappy ending. Yes, the line attached to the fish snapped, and four live-liners reeled in a maze of lines and hooks. After hours of excruciating boredom there was a moment or two of extreme excitement followed by disappointment, so I said, “Can we go home now?” Yet, in spite of our failure , it remains a fond memory and a reminder that angling requires focus on details whether the fish are cooperating or not.
A busy schedule and an intense love of surf fishing explains why I don’t get to go live-lining as often as I’d like. However, when I get the chance, I do cherish the trips. Happily and luckily, unlike the story I recounted above, I’ve experienced very few frustrating days like that one. Although I’ve live-lined in Long Island Sound, Huntington Harbor, the South Shore inlets, and deep in the Great South Bay, my favorite spots are Little Neck and Manhasset Bays. Here, of most importance are the friends I fish with, and the willingness of large stripers to prowl the shallows.
Live-lining shallow waters of less than 10 feet is special because bunker and stripers swim in the same Coca-Cola-colored water, and without the ability to dive deep, most striper attacks provide a surface show that has few equals in angling. I enjoy the show as much or more as fighting the bass, since there aren’t many opportunities to watch predators stalk and attack prey up close and personal. Watching predators at work on the Discovery Channel or National Geographic isn’t the same, and fails to excite me. It’s simply too sterilized on television. Too remote. However, watching it close, live, and in its entirety never fails to make my knees just a bit weak.
You can’t get this kind of thrill in deeper water, either. In deep water, bunker can sound, and the attack is often hidden from view. Sometimes the angler has no idea that a bunker is being stalked until suddenly the rod bends and the striper runs off. In such a case, although we fail to see the drama, we do sense the kill.
Would you believe that sometimes my friends and I set up to fish in 3 feet of water? Gosh, you’d think a large striper in water that shallow would be easy to spot, or stripers that large would fan away from a boat anchored in their midst. Yet, believe it or not, we have watched a bunker swim toward shore into perhaps a foot of water where it was ultimately stalked and attacked.
In my youth there was a charter boat captain who worked out of a white wooden skiff and fished along the same beaches in the western Sound that I plied with a surf rod. Sometimes, we vied for the same spot, and that was awkward. Anyway, he would anchor close to shore and cast chunks of fresh bunker onto the beach and drag them out into inches of water. Of course, this annoyed me. The first reason for my ire is obvious since he anchored and fished quite close to shore, prohibiting me from working the same section of beach. The second reason for my irritation isn’t so obvious. You see, he would catch a number of large stripers and blues with this technique right under my nose. That captain taught me something that has proven useful in surf fishing. Namely, don’t plunge into the water and walk out until your armpits get wet because the fish may actually be at your feet.
To further illustrate my point, consider this tale. A fellow surf angler and I were approaching the Mud Bar: a bar on the east side of the Meadowbrook Bridge, at 2 a.m. My friend was a regular in Montauk, a place where armpit-dipping is considered normal, and so he ignored my pleas to wait at the water’s edge. He waved me off with his hand, eager to get on the bar and work the swift inlet water beyond it. With his first hard step into the water, six huge stripers exploded and bolted off the bar. I never bull my way into the surf: I work slowly, cast by cast into the water. I’ve caught some impressive fish in the shallow part of the surf and my friends and I never overlook the shallow shorelines when live-lining from a boat, either.
Please let the above parable serve as a word to the wise. When you fish from a boat in skinny water along the shorelines of the harbors, proceed slowly, quietly, and don’t “plunk” your anchor into the water. My friends, the Lazars, do not leave a heavy footprint. Typically, Marc guides the boat at idle speed toward the spot we will fish, while Rich has the anchor and chain already in hand so it won’t rattle out of the anchor box or against the gunwale. If it’s calm, Marc cuts the engine about 30 or so yards from the spot and we glide in. Once over the spot, Rich leans over the gunwale and lowers the anchor slowly and almost silently. The anchor is tied securely to a cleat on a short tether so the boat doesn’t wander around. In strong wind, we double anchor.
Once we are satisfied that the boat is sitting properly, we reach into the livewell and select a bunker. We hook the bunker with an 8/0 octopus-style hook behind the dorsal fin, and into the breach goes the poor baitfish. Each time I send a bunker off to its demise I’m struck by the reality that being a bunker is a tough gig.
Attention To Details
Live-lining isn’t a slam-dunk. It requires an angler to work at his craft, focus on the process, and pay attention to every detail. What do I mean? Start with the fact that we check our gear at the dock. That means we examine knots, hooks, leaders, reels, lines and all parts of the rods. But, details go beyond a checklist. The Lazars are experienced, knowledgeable, and skilled live-liners, and they work as a team. Teamwork distributes tasks better, increases efficiency, and permits us to work with three or four swimming bunker at the same time. Keeping the bunker away from the boat, untangled, and swimming the way anglers prefer is no easy task, yet fastidious attention to the process is frequently the difference between success and failure. That’s why, on these live-lining missions, I have enough sense to just be the guy holding onto a rod and following directions.
Any experienced live-liner knows that a snagged bunker doesn’t enjoy the same life span in a livewell as a netted bunker. Most days, an experienced net thrower can secure a net full of baits, and it’s easy to be tempted to put more baits in the well than the system can handle. The Lazars are smart about that, too, saying “We have plenty, so let’s go fishing and if we use all of them, we can always get some more.” Over-filled wells lead to quick bunker death.
In hot weather, it isn’t enough to put the bait in the well, turn on the pump, and forget about them. Even with continuous water circulation, oxygen levels decline faster in warm water than in cool water. So, to keep the bunker fresh, we work together to give the well pump some help. We take turns filling a bucket with fresh seawater and then we dump it into the well from a height of about a foot. When the water from the bucket hits the water in the well it creates turbulence and bubbles that add extra oxygen to the system.
Selection of the bunker is an important detail, too. It isn’t always possible to find a school of perfect-size bunker. In fact, smart live-liners take what they can get. Still, bunker in a school, although similar in size, won’t be carbon copies of each other. There will be some variation. We try to retain those bunker that the Lazars describe as “striped bass candy.” These are the 6- to 8-inch bunker, but it’s rare for the net load to contain enough of these to satisfy our needs, so we usually end up with a few horse bunker too. You can imagine that since the Lazars get to practice snatching bunker from the livewell almost every day in season, they seem to have no problem gobbling up the “candy” while when I reach into the livewell I seem to grab the biggest and oldest beast of a bunker. But I jest, because the guys usually snatch a piece of “candy” for me too.
Don’t Waste Time
It’s foolish to spend too much time at a given location. Yesterday’s productive spot may be today’s desert. We also never set up in or next to a school of bait. Typically, we anchor in the vicinity of the bait schools: we may be able to see them, but we are not close. We work a spot for about 15 to 20 minutes and if we don’t get a strike or the bunker remain happy and unstressed, we move. Watch your bunker carefully, because bunker behavior will give away the presence of nearby cruising stripers. When stripers are near but not under the bait, bunker usually flip with a little more intensity, but when a striper is under the bait, bunker will zip around and change direction frequently. That’s when one of my friends will say, “There’s a fish on that bunker. Get ready.” Now the show begins. Scenes in the drama may include a striper swatting the bunker into the air with a tail, banging into it with a head shot, sucking it in and out, or chasing it along the surface in one direction, then another. When a bass does takes a bunker, there’s usually a swooshing noise and a hole in the water where the bunker once swam.
The moments before the final take demands practiced techniques. The angler should hold the rod and let the bunker run a little when it’s being stalked—but not too far. Reel the baitfish back toward the boat when a striper loses interest. Keep slack out of the line but avoid tension, and from time to time, tease an indifferent striper by pulling the bunker along the surface for a few feet before allowing it to settle back into its tail-throbbing rhythm. Sounds simple enough, doesn’t it? However, knowing how far to let a bait run, or when to retrieve it, and how to keep a bass interested isn’t simple at all. As with all angling techniques, it takes practice. Don’t be over-eager to set the hook when a striper finally inhales the bunker. Wait a bit. The bait will disappear, surface commotion will cease, and the bass will be running, but don’t strike yet. First, reel in the slack, lower the rod tip, and then make a long firm hook set. Now, enjoy the fight.
With experience, patience, practice and a little striper guile, anyone can be successful while also being entertained by one of the greatest angling surface shows in shallow water. And, consider a catch-and-release ethic to help ensure a good live-lining future for our children and grandchildren to enjoy.