In recent years, adult Atlantic menhaden flooded into Northeast waters in massive numbers. From Maine to southern New Jersey, this big baitfish was at the top of the menu for big stripers.
Once again, it’s looking like a boom year for bunker in the Northeast, so make sure you’re primed and ready to find, catch, and fish the favorite baitfish of big striped bass.
Finding Live Bunker
Whether you are looking for blitzing stripers or trying to stock the livewell with frisky baits, the first step to a productive striper trip often involves finding the bunker.
In the spring and early summer, when bunker school near the surface off the beaches, finding them can be as simple as scanning the horizon. From a distance, they appear as large blobs of purple water. As the school moves, individual baitfish break the surface, creating the bunker’s easily recognizable tail-flipping sound.
In the late fall, as bunker prepare to move offshore for the winter, the schools hang closer to the bottom. Once again, electronics are necessary to locate the bait. Bunker school tightly, so they often appear as a solid wall of red on a fishfinder.
Bunker also move into bays and harbors, where they may not always school near the surface. Under these conditions, fishermen must rely on their electronics to find the bait. Side-scanning sonar is extremely helpful for locating subsurface schools of bunker while cruising slowly through the backwater.
Snagging Live Bunker
Bunker are filter feeders and will not strike lures or baits, so to catch them on rod and reel you’ll have to snag them.
Snagging is often used when fishermen plan on fishing the bunker in the same area where they catch them. Baits with a puncture wound from a weighted treble will expire more quickly than those caught in a cast net. Snagging bunker is also more time consuming than cast-netting.
Snagging bunker can be done in the backwaters or out on the ocean, and it doesn’t require as much experience as a cast net to be successful. It doesn’t hurt that a half-dozen weighted trebles are a good deal less expensive than a quality cast net.
To snag a bunker, cast a 7/0 or 10/0 weighted treble beyond the school and give it a few seconds to sink. Retrieve the hook with long, smooth, sideways sweeps of the rod until you feel it connect with a fish. (Some fishermen recommend slowly reeling until you feel the bunker bumping into the line.) As soon as you feel the fish, sweep the rod, making sure to move it to the side to avoid having the weighted treble fly out of the water and back toward the boat.
Bunker can also be snagged when they are holding deep by using your electronics to locate a school and then dropping a snag hook to the bottom.
Though it takes some know-how to properly throw a cast net, you can fill a livewell (and then some) in a single attempt.
For cast-netting adult bunker, the best option is an 8- to 12-foot diameter net with 2-inch mesh and heavier weights that sink quickly. This is especially true for bunker that aren’t showing on the surface. Bunker can be caught in a cast net down to 15 feet or so, while fishermen can snag bunker in depths of more than 30 feet by locating schools with their fishfinder.
Bunker have bounced back in a big way since 2013, when the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries a dense school of baitfish. Commission (ASMFC), the body that manages the species, enacted the first-ever catch limits. And, as fishermen both recreational and commercial know, more bait in the water means a healthier ecosystem, better fishing, and stronger coastal economies.
While catch limits have helped, menhaden remain one of the most heavily fished species in the nation. Over 400 million pounds are harvested each year, and most of it is caught in and around Chesapeake Bay, the prime nursery for striped bass. While 30% of the total catch is used for bait, the other 70% is reduced into fishmeal by Canadian-owned Omega Protein/Cooke Seafood, who uses it to feed farmed salmon in Canada.
In 2017, the ASFMC committed to change the way it manages menhaden by converting to a predator/prey model for the 2020 season. This visionary approach will factor in predators and their needs when setting catch limits.
Much of the pressure on managers that led to better menhaden management came from recreational fishermen. Continued engagement from anglers and angling groups is essential to making sure that management of menhaden—and all baitfish—considers the needs of gamefish like striped bass.
– John Gans, Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership
Snagging and Dropping
One of the simplest ways to fish bunker is also one of the most effective. Upon finding schools of bunker, fishermen snag them with a weighted treble, and then let the bunker swim. The weight of the treble (and trauma from the impact) will cause the wounded bunker to drop below the school, where stripers will be lying in wait.
The most challenging part of this technique is finding the “right” school of bunker. Not every school will have stripers lurking beneath it. Captain Hunter Gutwein of Waterman Charters out of Barnegat, NJ, looks for what he calls “active” schools—bunker that are creating white water as they break the surface to avoid the hungry bass and bluefish below.
“I have good success around the bunker schools in shallower water,” Gutwein says, “from just beyond the breakers to about thirty feet.”
When he finds a school in this zone, he’ll stop to fish, even if the bunker aren’t clearly being harassed by predators. “I’ll snag a bait and give it five minutes. That’s enough time to know if there are stripers on the school.”
If it looks promising, he may snag a second bait; otherwise, Gutwein motors off to find the next school. This run-and-gun approach is essential in Gutwein’s home waters off Ocean County, New Jersey, where there can be millions of bunker spread along miles of beachfront.
Captain Brian Coombs of Get Tight Sportfishing out of Boston, MA, employs a similar approach when the bunker move into Boston Harbor.
Coombs starts out by looking for schools of bunker that have been broken up into smaller pods by other fish. If he can’t find those, he focuses on the bunker schools hanging closest to the piers and pilings of Boston Harbor.
“I don’t like to fish the bunker schools that are in open water,” Coombs says, “because that’s where I tend to see more blues than anything else.”
Most of the time, snagging and dropping happens around schools of bunker that are showing themselves on the surface, but Gutwein always keeps an eye on his electronics for deeper schools, especially early in the day.
“In my area, a lot of guys will be running at first light, looking for bunker on top, and totally miss schools that are five to ten feet below the surface.”
Gutwein watches his electronics and makes a note of where he finds the subsurface schools so he can get back to them later in the day. At times, however, he has had great fishing by snagging and dropping baits in these deeper schools. Just like with the surface schools, if he doesn’t have action within a few minutes, he’s off to find the next school.
For the snag hook, to Gutwein it’s the bigger the better. Stripers are less likely to swallow a 10/0 weighted treble hook than they are a 7/0 or 5/0. He further reduces the likelihood of gut-hooking a bass by setting the hook after a count of 3 to 5 following a pick-up. “If you miss a fish or it drops the bait,” Gutwein explains, “it probably wasn’t a big one anyhow. Any bass over twenty pounds is inhaling that bunker, no problem.”
Coombs advises snagging baits toward the outside of the school. When snagging baits through the middle of a bunker school, Coombs says the snagged bunker’s school mates tend to get their gills and mouths tangled in his braided main line, fraying it to the point that when a striper eats the snagged bunker, the line breaks on the hookset.
Some captains prefer to re-rig their snagged baits on single hooks, which gives the fishermen more control over the hook placement in the bait. Both Coombs and Gutwein said that when they feel the frantic tapping that indicates they’ve snagged the bait in the tail, they retrieve it and either snag a new one or hook it through the nose and send it back out.
One deadly tactic while fishing around an active school is to drop a live bunker over the side and keep the reel in free spool to allow the baitfish to frantically swim back toward its school. The panicked fish will generate explosive strikes from stripers hunting the edges of the bunker school.
In the shallows of Narragansett Bay, where stripers can be spread out, Captain Rob Taylor of Newport Fishing Charters out of Newport, RI, likes to slow-troll his live bunker to cover ground and find the fish. “I aim for one-and-a-half knots for the speed,” says Taylor, “but never over two knots.”
Sometimes, Taylor says, he’ll mark a bass on his electronics and immediately see the bunker he’s trolling get nervous. “I learned the hard way not to take the boat out of gear when a striper takes interest in the bunker,” Taylor said. While the boat is moving, the bunker’s movements are restricted, making it an easier target for the bass to engulf. But, when the boat is put into neutral, the bunker, given a slack line, is able to evade the pursuing striper.
Captain Brian Coombs likes to start his day by slow-trolling a bunker through shallow boulder fields, targeting the stripers that have extended their nighttime shallow-water hunting through dawn.
Taylor hooks the bunker through the nose with a large, thin-wire circle hook like a 12/0 Gamakatsu Big Cat. With circle hooks, he lets the boat set the hook, keeping the boat in gear and waiting for the rod to fold over before taking it out of the holder. Most of the time, he fishes them without any additional weight.
Coombs trolls his bunker on the same weighted treble hooks that he uses to snag his baits. This, he says, keeps the bait a foot or two below the surface.
When drifting deep reefs or humps, sending down a bunker on a three-way rig is a great way to catch big stripers even when they aren’t actively feeding on the surface. Often, stripers will seek out deep structure during the middle of the day after blitzing on bunker in the early morning. Fishermen can make the most of the midday hours by taking a livewell of bunker to these structures and drifting them just above the bottom.
A whole, dead bunker fished without weight and allowed to sink below a school is a trick that charter captains keep up their sleeves to try and pull the largest bass out of a bunker blitz. While more aggressive stripers will smash lively bunker on the surface, some of the heaviest fish lurk below the schools and pick off wounded and dying bunker without expending much energy.
Hook the dead bunker through the nose with a stout live-bait or circle hook and lob it high into the middle of the bunker school. The resulting smack will scatter the baitfish and leave your dead bait drifting to the bottom through a “hole” in the school, where a big bass will have no trouble picking it out.
Striped bass, being opportunistic feeders, happily scarf down chunks of bunker; however, some cuts are more likely to tempt a cow than others. Regardless of which chunk you choose, keep the baits fresh and don’t let them come into direct contact with ice. Melting freshwater will wash the striper-attracting slime and scent off the bait. Many fishermen place their bunker chunks in zip-close bags before putting them on ice.
“Realistically,” says Captain Chris Elser Elser Guide Services out of of Stratford, CT, “chunking bunker is the most effective way to catch big bass. But it’s also the most boring.”
Elser likes to chunk on the up-current side of steep inclines, which in his home waters in western Long Island Sound includes places like Stratford Shoals and the Eaton’s Neck Triangle.
“I’ll anchor the boat in, say, sixty feet of water and drop back my chunks on fish-finder rigs so they’re sitting in 40 feet of water.”
Live-lining bunker in these areas is less effective, Elser says, because the bait spend less time in the strike zone. By anchoring up and dropping back chunks, his bait spends more time in the most productive water.
Elser uses 9/0 Gamakatsu Octopus hooks, and encourages his clients to set the hook as soon as they get a bite, to reduce chances of deep-hooking a fish.