The only thing thicker than afternoon traffic from downtown New York to Raritan Bay were the bunker schools trophy stripers were crushing off Sandy Hook a spring day years ago.
The twin 150-horsepower outboards of Frank Wagenhoffer’s 23-foot Regulator were already idling when we did the speed-walk down the dock to his slip, a solid hour past when we should have been pushing off. There was no time to stop and throw the cast net. There were a few live baits and fresh dead ones aboard from the morning trip, though that’s didn’t matter since the fish were all over big pencil poppers and had been for a couple of days.
As the first drift got set up, I gave my buddy a quick lesson on how to use the plug since he had never caught a striper before. I had, and I knew the adrenaline, the thrill, and the amazement. I was trying to pay him back for always having my back, but it was a fool’s task, which it always is with those types of friends. He was never going to see this one coming, though I knew there was a memory of a lifetime swimming off the port side of the stern for him.
The late afternoon outgoing tide had us a short casting distance away from the south edge of a big pod of bunker getting picked at. On the first casts, bass blew up on the pencils, but there were no connections. We saw some friends fishing the north side of the pod with fly rods. One of them got a 30-pounder after hooking it on a big bunker fly close to the surface. It was going to happen, and soon.
A couple of casts into the next drift, it looked like a depth charge went off next to my buddy’s plug. The rod doubled over, the fish took drag while the captain barked the usual directions to a newbie, it was all happening. Even with his sunglasses on, I saw that first-fish face.
There’s been an abundance of bunker in our waters in recent years thanks to regulations limiting commercial harvesting of this most important forage fish. That sets the stage for some of the most exhilarating fishing in the Northeast.
Working bunker pods for trophy stripers is not new. How to work them, though, has evolved, and for the better. Throwing a weighted treble and letting a snagged bunker sink down, its frantic movements triggering the attack of a big migrating bass was the way it was done for years. With slot limits and the regulatory implementation of circle hooks when targeting striped bass with bait, the rise of flutter spoons and the continued popularity of large surface plugs has more and more anglers leaving the bunker swimming.
I’m not sure when or what the lightbulb moment was when someone decided to borrow a freshwater lure for the salt. Was it was an aversion to trolling bunker spoons or a longing for a fall diamond jig bite on a sand-eel run when the bunker arrived in the spring? It was probably a bit of both, and the first few that were produced had larger profiles with beefed-up hooks and split rings. At first glance, it was hard not to be skeptical about these lures being able to get to the bottom, but they do and often out-fish the real thing.
First, there’s just the simple fact of timing. A snagged bunker has at best a few drifts when put into service. A flutter spoon is on the job from the moment the engines are killed and the tide takes over. Countless times when working a spoon, that fisherman is tight while another is just getting a circle hook into a bunker that was snagged and about to be deployed. Another plus is not disturbing the school by landing a big treble in the middle of it.
When fished correctly, the presentation creates more movement and invitation to bite than a live bunker. Fast and strong vertical swings mimicking an injured bait followed by the dropping flutter of the spoon are at your discretion. The bites, like a diamond jig, are almost always on the drop—and they are fierce.
When starting your drift, always set up the drift up to hit the edges of the pod and not drift through it. That wounded gazelle, so to speak, on the edge of the crowd is easy pickings for a hungry bass. You’re also going to have more space to maneuver the spoon without accidentally snagging bunker right off the bottom and losing valuable time during your drift.
There’s no absolute in terms of choosing gear. A spin rod is going to give you the flexibility of pitching the spoon if the wind is moving you off your drift line, but it’s going to be more effort without a longer butt under your arm as you’d have with a conventional. I often go with a spinning rod so I have that flexibility to work the spoon as close to the edge of the bunker school as I can. I also like the option of quickly switching over to a topwater plug if I’m using a clip or just cutting the leader and retying if fish start busting on top.
A 6’6” to 7’ rod, conventional or spinning, is the range to be in. Go longer, and it’s going to cause some wear and tear on your arms vertical jigging, plus it’s length will be a detriment to working the spoon correctly. What you may lose in power to control the fish, you’ll gain in ease of use and better presentation.
My go-to spoon is the 8-inch, 4-ounce Fat Cow Fishing Flutter Spoon. Most flutter spoons on the market are just about the same length and weight, so whatever your choice, you’ve already made the right one by getting to know a flutter spoon.
As the flutter spoon enjoys its fame as the most recent freshwater-to-saltwater crossover, there’s a star from a few years back that’s still grabbing hearts and minds of striper fishermen. The Doc, originally a deadly plug for muskies, has been crushing bass around bunker pods up and down the striper coast.
It casts pretty well but can get a bit wonky due to its size. The cadence is generally less than half the speed of fishing a typical pencil popper. Much like the drop of a flutter spoon, it’s those pauses and letting it sit for a few seconds when the strikes will happen.
Factoring in room for casting, just as with spoons, go for the edges. The appearance of a wounded bunker just off the pod is exactly what gets a striper’s attention.
A major plus of this oversized offering is its ability to raise fish when you’re not directly working a bunker school. Last season, while fishing the outer bar not far off the beach, bass had been feeding on small bunker schools they’d pinned by the bar. It was a little tricky, with some rollers heading towards the shore, forcing us to keep the boat in gear while casting at the bar. Two buddies let their live bunkers drift in toward where we thought the bass staged, but I threw the Doc. Within a few casts, I hooked up and watched in wonder as a pack of stripers lost the race to the plug. We were able to throw Docs for almost a half hour, with steady action and no real visual signs of any bait concentration.
The only drawback of the Doc is that it works only on the top of the water. You can make long sweeps holding the rod parallel to the water as you would when popping for tuna. This will force the plug just below the surface but only for a fleeting moment. A flutter spoon, however, covers the bottom and more than halfway up the water column. For bass busting on top (or aspiring to), the Doc is hands-down the right choice. It’s those finicky fish just below the surface that aren’t willing to commit, or fish on top that require a hefty cast the Doc can’t always deliver.
A slow-sinking glidebait or stickbait, like Island X Lures Sidewinder Minnow, is the solution for that space in-between. Letting this plug sit for a few seconds when your cast lands and imparting a slow-to-medium retrieve with frequent twitches and pauses keeps the plug just under the surface in a way that mimics a dying bunker.
These can also be fished on top using a fast walk-the-dog retrieve, but they truly shine just below the surface.
There are few things to get the blood pumping more than the first sight of an acre of bunker with big migrating bass blasting them. Getting bit without using bunker is a close second, if not a tie for first.