The Bunker Handbook

Fishing with bunker, whether live or dead, is one of the most effective ways to catch big striped bass.

The Bunker Handbook

In recent years, adult Atlantic menhaden—also referred to as “bunker” or “pogies”— 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.

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How to Find 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. Bunker— also known as pogies or menhaden— can be found in the open ocean and in skinny backwaters, so keep your eyes peeled even as you leave the dock.


In the spring and early summer, when bunker school near the surface off the beaches, locating 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.

Back Bays/Harbors

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.

How to Catch 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.

weighted treble

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 to 10/0 Sportfish Weighted Bunker Snag Hook 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.

When swept through schools of bunker, a large weighted treble is an effective tool for snagging fresh bait. (Shown: Sportfish Weighted Bunker Snag)

Bunker can also be snagged when they are holding deep by using your electronics to locate a school and then dropping a Sportfish Weighted Bunker Snag 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.

castnet for bunker
Properly sending a cast net isn’t easy. Practice on land before you take it to the water.

For cast-netting adult bunker, the best option is an 8- to 12-foot diameter Betts Old Salt Bait Casting net, which can be tossed with ease and sinks quickly. A net with a 1- to 2-inch mesh size is recommended to keep smaller bait out of the haul, but any large, fast-sinking casting net will do.

A fast-sinking net is especially necessary 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

Bunker Tactics

Snag and Re-Bait

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, reel them in, and re-bait them on a rod rigged with an inline circle hook.

The most challenging part of this technique is finding the “right” school of bunker. Not every school will have stripers lurking beneath it, and electronics become important for marking bass. 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, re-rig it, drop it down and give it maybe five minutes. That’s enough time to know if there are stripers on the school.”

If the strike doesn’t come, 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.

Some captains prefer to re-rig snagged baits.
Per the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC), re-rigging snagged bait onto an in-line circle hook is required when fishing for striped bass. 

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 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, re-baiting and dropping live 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, Gutwein believes the bigger the better; a larger hook will catch larger baits, and big baits catch big bass. Once the bunker is re-rigged on an inline circle, Gutwein explains “If you miss a fish or it drops the bait, 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 he is forced to cut off some line and re-tie to avoid losing snag hooks. 

Circle Hook Selection

Some features to consider when selecting a hook for live or chunked menhaden are:

  • Gauge- references the thickness of wire used in a circle hook
  • Gap- the amount of space between the hook shank and the hook point
  • Shank- references the length of a hook from the hook eye to the bend

For fishing with live bunker, a short shank, wide gap and thick gauge are favored among striped bass anglers. 

VMC makes 10 different types of circle hooks, but an 8/0 to 10/0 VMC 8386 Tournament Circle Hook 3X is a popular choice for live bunker. They will securely hook a striper in the corner of the jaw due to a wide gap, hangnail point, and thick gauge that is more resistant to bending out. For chunked or cut bunker, the VMC 7385 Tournament Circle Hook is a good choice.

The hangnail point on the VMC 8386 Tournament Circle Hook 3x is designed to scrape and more easily penetrate the tough jaw of stripers when light pressure is applied.

Rigging Live Bunker

Bunker Hook Placement – One Bait, hooks multiple places

1. Bunker hooked behind the anal fin tend to swim downward, making it an effective way to get your bait deeper without using added weight.
2. A bunker hooked behind the dorsal fin will swim away from the boat. This technique works best when anchored or free-lining the bait.
3. For drifting, live-lining or slow-trolling a live bunker, hook it through the top of the mouth or the nostrils.

How to Fish with Bunker


Snagged baits must legally be re-rigged on inline circle 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, they retrieve it, 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.

Live Lining

By hooking a live bunker through the nose with an inline circle hook, it can be lightly pitched or cast into a school of bunker and still swim freely. The cast will slightly stun the fish while allowing it to swim with the school in a panicked manner. The bunker’s unrest will alert any nearby stripers and make it a target among the school.

When a bass takes the bunker, there will be a distinct thud, but don’t rush to set the hook. Once the bass inhales the bunker, the inline circle hook is designed to scrape forward along the fish’s jaw, catching and piercing its lip. A simple lift of the rod will suffice as a hook set.


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 inline circle hook. He then lets the boat’s movement set the hook, keeping it 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.



The livelier the bunker, the better it will swim on the hook, so it’s worth the extra effort to keep your baits swimming strong in the livewell.
Bunker need to be able to swim constantly. In a square tank, they will get trapped in the corners and swim into the walls, wounding themselves. In a circular well, bunker will swim comfortably for hours.
To keep bunker frisky, a livewell must have a high rate of water exchange with an 800- or 1200-gallon-per-hour bilge pump. This can require increased drain capacity if water is spilling over the top of the livewell.
Overfilling the livewell with bunker will quickly deplete the oxygen and kill off all your baits. A good rule of thumb—provided your livewell has adequate water exchange—is to have no more than one bunker for every gallon of water in your well. Periodically check for dead or bleeding baits—which can also deplete oxygen levels—and set them aside for chunk baits.


3-Way Rig
3-Way Rig

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.

Dead Drifting

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.

A. Head – Fishermen have different reasons why they think the head of the bunker is the best bait. Some think it’s because the head is all that’s left after a bluefish takes a bite of the bunker. Some take this theory as far as to cut the bait in a half-moon as if it had been bitten. Others say they like bunker heads because they resist the attacks of bait-stealers like skates and dogfish.
Most fishermen hook the head just behind the gill plate, as the hook will tear through the bait for a more secure hookset.
B. Shoulder – The cut below the head is the second most coveted piece of the bunker. The baitfish’s internal organs add extra scent to the presentation.
C. Body – This morsel holds a hook well and attracts bites, but most fishermen cut it into smaller pieces to dole over the side as chum.
D. Tail – The tail piece is immediately discarded. It has little value as chum and will spin and tangle the line if used as a hook bait.

“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 inline circle hooks, and encourages his clients to lightly set the hook as soon as they get a bite, to reduce chances of deep-hooking a fish or pulling the hook away from the fish.

Related Content

Article: The Peanut Bunker Boom

Article: How to Catch Striped Bass

6 on “The Bunker Handbook

  1. Joseph GaNun

    Referrring to Capt. Gutwein’s technique of snag, drop, wait 5 mins, the run and gun. It makes a lot of sense. Stripers have a nose for injured bait. However it also points to the overall issue affecting all of us. Just 6 to 7 years go, with enormous bunker schools off NY and NJ, it would have been nearly impossible to find a bunker school of any size that did not have bass behind or underneath it.


    If Cpt Elser is really concerned about deep hookups, he should talk to Cpt Taylor about circle hooks. The fishermen who hook bass with the same treble hooks that they use for snagging risk wounding or killing any fish they release. Haul your bunker in and use a circle hook for the bass. By the time a bass gets big enough to take a bunker, it is among the most valuable fish in the entire population. Care for them and collect the dividends for years to come.

  3. William

    What set would be recommended for live lining bunker? Bought and avet last year idk wat rod to pair it with

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