Over the course of its life, a striped bass consumes a massive variety of forage. This ranges from the tiny zooplankton that sustains the fish through its first weeks of life in its natal estuary to the lobsters and skate reportedly found in the stomach contents of the largest striped bass ever caught on rod and reel. Stripers are perfectly equipped to hunt down and digest all of these species.
Missing from this list, however, is the Atlantic surf clam. While alive, the largest bivalve in the western North Atlantic need fear the black drum and the cownose ray, but not from a striper. Striped bass lack the pharyngeal crushers—bony plates deep in its throat—that pulverize the shells and expose the tender meat inside. Fortunately for striped bass, Mother Nature takes care of that part for them.
The surf clam ranges from Nova Scotia to North Carolina, with the densest populations located from the South Shore of Long Island to the Delmarva Peninsula, which runs through Delaware and parts of Maryland and Virginia. Throughout their range, adult surf clams, which measure 5 to 8 inches across the shell, bury themselves just under the sand’s surface, favoring turbulent waters from the intertidal zone to depths of more than 100 feet. While they are well equipped to survive in the surf, any beachcomber knows that clams are occasionally dislodged from their sandy homes, tossed about, and cracked open before being washed to shore. Ever the opportunists, stripers are quick to capitalize on these easy meals, and surfcasters are quick to take advantage of the striper’s weakness for globs of fresh clam meat.
The popularity of the clam as a striped bass bait mirrors where the clams are most abundant, but there are small pockets of clam fishermen at locations like Plum Island, Massachusetts, thanks to bait and tackle shops like Surfland that offer fresh, food-grade surf clams to striper hopefuls.
Being a soft bait, susceptible to any number of bait-stealing scavengers—including but not limited to skates, dogfish, kingfish, porgies, and sea bass—clams work best as an early- and late-season bait when cooler water temperatures limit the numbers of nuisance species; even so, they still work all season long.
One of my most memorable outings with clams took place in early July in southern New Jersey. A blustery and unseasonable northeast blow cleared the tourists off the beach and left the surf line free for fishermen to wander uninterrupted. I walked jetty to jetty, casting clams into pockets and catching striped bass at a rate that felt more like the fall run than the Fourth of July.
It had been close to a decade since I’d fished clams for stripers when I walked into Grumpy’s Tackle in Seaside Park, New Jersey, this past May. Luckily, Scott Thomas was kind enough to get me back up to speed. Not much had changed in terms of rigging or approach except for the now-mandatory use of circle hooks on all bait-fishing rigs.
Scott said that he favors the high-low rig over a fish-finder rig. While a fish-finder rig, with its sliding sinker, can be helpful for dropping back to a bass taking a bunker head or large chunk of fish, the smaller, softer surf clams usually go right down the hatch. His preferred circle hook is a thin-wire 7/0 or 8/0 that holds the clam with the aid of a “clam thread,” an elastic string that anglers wrap around their bait to secure it to the hook. After threading the clam onto the hook, taking three to six wraps of the clam thread over the bait at the hook shank helps keep it in place throughout the cast into the surf.
Rigging set, fresh clams acquired, I hit the beach, looking for the type of structure that a clam-seeking striper might swim past. While jetty pockets are likely areas, on open beaches without any hard structure, anglers must read the water to decipher where cuts in the outer sandbar give stripers a deep-water passage to bait-rich troughs and holes right next to the beach. While difficult to spot for a first-timer, once you know what you’re looking for, these cuts are easy to spot. They’ll be flanked by breaking waves on either side, with a section of relatively flat water in between.
There had been an excellent bite on clams the week before my trip, but south winds had dropped the surf temperatures by several degrees, and I seemed to hit one of those breathers the bass take during their spring run north. I soaked clams for more than an hour before my first bite, and that’s when rustiness at fishing bait for bass revealed itself. Upon feeling the first thump, I swung with the rod, pulling the circle hook away from the fish. When I did this a fourth time, I was thoroughly disgusted with myself. Four bites in tough conditions was more than I could have hoped for.
The use of sand spikes is a topic surfcasters love to debate. Some view placing a rod in a holder and abandoning it as passive, lackadaisical fishing, while keeping the rod in hand is a purer form of the sport. This might have been the case with J-hooks, when bite detection and faster reactions resulted in more successful hookups and fewer deep-hooked fish. With circle hooks, less is more, and you can rest assured that a sand spike won’t prematurely swing the rod and miss the fish.
Yet, I’d committed to holding the rod myself, even leaving the sand spike at home, and when I finally got a fifth bite, I held fast, waiting for the interested party at the other end to pull the rod tip down toward the breakers before I acted. A spirited fight ensued as the fish darted about the breakers, eventually clearing the water entirely and revealing itself as a healthy racer blue. Not the target species, but a welcome sight nonetheless. After several years of notable absence from the surf, it was great to see bluefish doing what they do best—saving striped bass anglers from a skunk.