A gentle breeze pushes its way through the knee-high marsh grass on a June night. It provides a welcome reprieve from the mosquitos and no-see-ums that had been assaulting us as we geared up at our trucks. The sun set about 30 minutes earlier, and the last hints of pink and purple have finally given way to stars. In the tree line across the marsh, a pair of whippoorwills whistle back and forth over a chorus of crickets and peepers. All of this is occasionally punctuated by a bass slamming a school of small baitfish near the marsh’s edge. It feels like the entire estuary is buzzing with life.
We hop over small creeks and ditches as we make our way across a patchwork of salt marsh to our special spot. I have practically memorized the trek through plenty of trial and error and countless trips in the blackness of night. These days, I rarely even need to turn on a headlamp, except on the darkest nights.
The tide is on its way out when we arrive at our destination, about two hours after its high. The current is finally starting to pick up, and we can actually hear the marsh draining into the main river. I run my hook through the jaw of a lively 16-inch eel. With a lob cast, I send it toward the seam now forming in the river about 40 feet ahead of me. The eel hits the water with a splat and immediately attempts to swim for the relative safety of the bottom. I feel a few faint taps as the eel struggles in the current, followed by a sharp whack and then a steady pull as a large bass inhales the bait and swims off with my offering. I wait a couple seconds and set the hook hard, confident that the bass has a good hold on my eel. It makes a few large headshakes and a good first run. A couple minutes later, I slide a beautiful 42-inch fish onto the marsh grass.
Many surfcasters mistakenly consider estuaries strictly to be early-season and schoolie spots—viewing them as a nursery for juvenile fish—a place to be fished with light tackle and small presentations. While the estuaries do supply a safer location for smaller, growing fish, they also provide feeding opportunities for some very large fish. In fact, some of the most consistent big-fish bites I’ve had over the past few years have taken place in marshes.
While this window varies from year to year, it’s usually only a matter of weeks until the first stripers start to show. Water temperatures are still pretty cool this time of the year in the Northeast, especially along the oceanfront. The water inside the estuaries may be a lot warmer by comparison. This is due, in part, to the fact that many estuaries feature flats or shallows with muddy or darker-colored bottoms that warm quickly after a few bright, sunny days. Some years in late May and early June, the water on the ocean side can be in the mid-50s. In the estuaries, temperatures may already be in the low 60s.
In my experience, the mid- to low 60s seems to be the ideal temperature range for good fishing in the marshes. Once the water approaches 70, the fishing seems to slow down and the big fish move out in search of cooler places. Even when the majority of fish have left the estuary as waters warm past their comfort zone, there are still weather events throughout the season that send me back there to check.
One instance is an early or midsummer hurricane or nor’easter. Big storms sometimes drive the fish and bait into estuaries. A prolonged westerly blow can have the same effect. In this case, the prolonged west wind pushes the warmer surface layer of water close to coastal areas further offshore, and colder ocean water from deeper down is pulled into its place. This process is known as “upwelling.” I have seen water temperatures along the oceanfront areas I fish drop 10 to 12 degrees in the course of 24 hours under these conditions. On more than one occasion, the bite along a beachfront went from quite good one night to completely dead the next.
One year in particular, I headed back to one of my estuary spots following a hunch that the rapidly changing water temperatures had driven the fish out and they might have headed back up into the marshes to warm up. My hunch was correct, and I found good-sized fish back in an area I had given up on weeks earlier. It was getting toward the end of July, a time of year when the bite has usually moved to the beachfronts and rocks. The next day, the wind shifted, temperatures began to even back out, and the bass moved back to more seasonal haunts.
Learning an estuary inside and out allows you to make the most of these relatively short windows of opportunity. I believe that the key to effectively fishing estuaries is to find the choke points – the areas fish must pass by to enter or leave a particular area. Channels next to tidal flats, creek-mouth points, and deep areas that hold water through low tide are excellent areas to target.
I also look for areas of rocky or gravel bottom in otherwise sandy or muddy estuaries. These attract crabs, lobsters, and other invertebrates, as well a variety of baitfish. In addition to attracting prey, these locations usually have a current break or ambush point that bass use to their advantage when feeding.
Getting out and scouting is an effective way to learn about an estuary, particularly at low tide, and Google Earth is also helpful. For one, you can use the overhead images to plot a course across a marsh area or see if there are any creeks you might not be able to jump. You can also change the year that the satellite images were taken. The images shot over time usually show a variety of tides, allowing you to get an idea of what sort of bottom structure shows at low. Some estuaries are shallow enough that you can even see bottom features at higher tides. Keep in mind that some of these sandy areas shift year to year or after a photo was taken.
Fishing these areas at a different tide stages is the best way to figure out what time the fish move in and out. This will also give you an idea of when baitfish seem to be more active, which is crucial if you hope to “match the hatch” with your presentation. I am trying to do the opposite, though. When I look for large fish in an estuary, I use one thing, and one thing only: eels.
Lures work in some situations, but there is something about the quiet waters of a relatively shallow estuary that can make bass extremely picky and easily spooked. With no white water, waves, or otherwise turbulent water, it can sometimes be tough to fool a big old bass. It certainly didn’t get big and old by eating artificial lures swimming by, but a fresh, lively 16-inch eel swimming naturally in front of its face is a treat not many big bass will pass up—especially in an estuary, where an eel is not at all out of place.
• Additional Reading: Surfcasting For Stripers: Eels-Dead Or Alive?
The American eel that many striper fishermen use for bait is a catadromous species. This means that it spends most of its life in fresh water and estuaries, leaving only to make its spawning migration to the Sargasso Sea. This eel is for the most part nocturnal, so it’s most likely to be out and feeding in the middle of the night, just like our target, the trophy striped bass. Do these bass instinctively know to be on the lookout for eels when in estuaries? We know that eels catch bass just about anywhere, but perhaps some of them frequent these areas specifically searching for these slimy treats. I have also caught nice bass on eels at sunset and sunrise in these same areas, usually toward the end or beginning of an outing. My attempts with lures during these same timeframes usually manage only a follow or two from larger fish.
It’s widely known that eels catch big fish and can be effective in a variety of environments and situations, but in my experience, they have a special advantage when used in estuaries, marshes, and rivers.