The number-one striper bait for surfcasters is more versatile than you think.
In the world of surfcasting, patience is not only a virtue, it is a necessity. The sport is inherently challenging, and finding repeatable success can seem close to impossible. When you finally get that taste of success, whether it comes in the form of a cow striped bass or multiple quality bass, it is very easy to inherit tunnel vision and try to repeat everything that you did on that fateful outing instead of analyzing all the factors leading to that success and expanding on them.
I was in that position a few seasons back after I made my first trek into a very fishy rocky point and was greeted with three 30-pound-class stripers inside my first 30 minutes of fishing. Fish of that caliber had been rare for me in my short time wetsuit-surfcasting in Connecticut, so after that night I thought I had it all figured out. I would just return to that spot during the same tide, swim out to the same rock, fish large, dead eels like I did that first night, and I would continue to catch sizeable fish—right? Well, I returned to that rock whenever the conditions were the same, and while I continued to find some success, I always felt that I was not taking advantage of the spot’s full potential.
After spending the better part of my offseason reading up on surfcasting and speaking with some local seasoned veterans, I realized that I was not only missing out on the potential that spot had to offer, but I was also not taking full advantage of my go-to bait and the number-one producer of big bass: the eel.
It is no big secret that the eel has withstood the test of time and will often produce hefty striped bass when nothing else will. While most striper fishermen prefer to fish live eels, I come from the school of thought that freshly killed is the only way an eel should be fished, and using live eels will only increase your aggravation and your interactions with bluefish.
There are many advantages to fishing a large eel that’s dead rather than alive. With a dead eel, the dreaded “eel ball” knotting up on your leader is a thing of the past. Transportation of dead eels to and from your spot also becomes much easier. I place large, live eels in individual Ziploc bags, which I then shove into a belt pouch or plug bag. It provides an easy means of euthanizing your bait, and the nightmare of trying to hook a slimy, squirming eel while standing in the surf is eliminated–you can run a hook through the bag into the eel and then rip it free of the bag without ever even touching it! Also gone are the days of desperately trying to keep your eels cool so they don’t croak on your ride down the interstate, while at the same time making sure your melting ice doesn’t drown them in your container. Losing a small fortune in prime baits when your whole stash finds a way out of your eel jug or bag is also eliminated.
The largest advantage I have found for fishing dead eels and the major reason I’m reluctant to change my methods is the ability to cover a better part of the strike zone. In many of my early surfcasting successes, I found the majority of my biggest bass hit within an hour of a slack tide, whether it was high or low. This repeated success, coupled with my appreciation for fishing big, dead eels, had me thinking that I had the whole equation figured out. I believed that big bass were lazy and made their way into the shallows to feed only around the slack tides, when currents (and therefore energy expenditures) were minimal. In this equation, a big, dead eel makes perfect sense; it is a high-calorie meal that isn’t trying hard to escape. In slack water, a dead eel can be fished effectively from the moment it hits the water until the end of your retrieve, and by effectively, I mean a simple, slow retrieve with an occasional rod tip twitch and pause.
A high-energy lively eel will provide you a nice battle in slack water, but not the type you might be hoping for. Instinctively, a live eel will head right for the rocks and weeds, and without a solid current to help keep them up in the water column, you will spend the majority of your retrieve battling your eel instead of a trophy bass. The window of opportunity to score a good fish around the slack tide is a short one, and one frisky eel could shut that window and have you looking for a new hobby during the six hours waiting for the next slack window to open.
I tried fishing the strong mid-tides a few times, and when my landings paled in comparison to what I had done around slack tide, I would give up and walk away with my head high, cocky and confident that the only time to catch good fish at that spot was at slack water.
An interesting question arose when I spoke to a couple of local boat fishermen who had great success fishing the strong rips near that spot, and also a few surfcasters who swore by fishing similar spots on the middle of the flood tide. Everyone I spoke with had slightly different opinions and preferences, but the connection between all of them was that they fished live eels. I decided it was time for me to fish that spot every chance I had, and I reluctantly decided to tweak my eel-fishing strategies to cater to the conditions.
As much as it pained me to do it, I started packing live eels in a jug attached to my belt, along with my usual stash of dead eels inside little Ziploc bags. I decided to fish the spot any opportunity I had, finding new casting rocks at every side of the point that would give me great fishing angles on both the ebb and the flood tides. The current at this spot during the heart of the tide rivals anywhere I have fished on the East Coast. For a while, I tried to keep fishing my big, dead eels, but the strong currents proved too much and my offerings would flutter back up to the surface.
Halfway through the season, I made the switch to fishing live eels during times of strong current, and before long I became a believer. The first night that I fished exclusively with live eels during the upper stages of the flood tide, I was rewarded with a multiple 20-pound-class fish, along with a cow that tipped the scales at 42 pounds—while my fishing partner bested me with a 46-pound beast! A few weeks later, on my final trip of the season, I caught my personal-best fish of the year at 44 pounds. This happened during a tide stage and with a bait type that I would have never attempted fishing in my previous seasons. My favorite slack-tide spot became my new favorite anytime spot.
The eel, dead or alive, is a consistent producer of trophy striped bass, and while there is no right or wrong way to fish them, how you fish them should be dictated by the type of water you are casting them into. This particular location consists of a large number of giant boulders that big bass use as ambush points to hide behind, grabbing anything drifting by in the strong current. While a dead eel would flutter up to the surface, a live eel would swim down and fight the current—just enough to swing by the sunken boulders like a natural bait item.
The eel is more versatile than most fishermen realize. Using them both dead and alive has allowed me to adjust my presentation for the various situations I encounter. Whatever your technique, previous successes should not be ignored, but expanded upon. A little time spent deciphering the reasons you scored a good fish when you did can help you fish your local waters to their full potential. The results, along with new personal bests, will start to pour in.
For eeling, I prefer to use a 40-pound braided running line that will provide a better cast than heavier braid. I use a 60- to 80-pound monofilament leader for the abrasion resistance required to yank a trophy bass through the boulders.
When fishing big, dead eels, I use large heavy-gauge hooks. I prefer 7/0 gorilla live-bait hooks from Owner or 8/0 heavy-duty live-bait hooks from Gamakatsu. These large-gauge hooks won’t get straightened by even the heftiest bass, and will provide a little weight to the nose of the eel, helping you cover the whole water column. A large, dead eel with a heavy hook through its nose will exhibit many of the traits of a rigged eel, but with a whole lot less work. This method might not completely replace the rigged eel, but fishing large, dead eels can reduce your time spent making “riggies.”
I fish heavy-duty hooks with live eels as well, but I downsize a bit to an Owner SSW hook. This slightly lighter hook is still plenty strong but will allow the eel to swim more naturally.