Plugging Backwater Stripers
While the Mid-Atlantic states are still dealing with a long, cold winter, there are signs of spring showing up every day – like the robins seen pecking away on the front lawn this morning or the tiny buds of new leaves sprouting on bushes and trees. Even though it’s still cold, we are only a few weeks away from some early season striper fishing. Time to get your gear ready for action.
From North Carolina’s Roanoke to New Jersey’s Nevasink and north to the Connecticut, numerous tidal rivers will see the early influx of schooling striped bass. This time of year they are very hungry after surviving a winter of cold water and scarce forage. Their targets will be the small baitfish that will begin moving around the shallows as the days get longer and sun warms the flats enough to increase their activity.
Don’t expect these early fish to be monsters. Most will be measured in inches rather than pounds but if you put in your time, you could catch bass in the teens. The fishing is best accomplished with light spinning tackle, seven-foot medium/light action rods with matching reels loaded with light line, six-to-ten pound test low-visibility monofilament. Since you will encounter many of these fish in water that is just a few feet deep, long casts will often be rewarded with hits, and lighter line will cast the small plugs further. Also keep in mind that the water in tidal rivers in the spring can vary dramatically in color depending on tide stage and fresh water flow from up river. It can range from turbid with silt from runoff to clear, especially on the incoming and high tides, so two to three feet of 12-to-15 pound fluorocarbon used as a leader is recommended because it disappears under the water and makes for a much more natural presentation of the lures.
Swimming plugs are the go-to lure for many light tackle guides, like Capt. Terry Sullivan of Flats Rat Charters in New Jersey. He spends much of the early season fishing from his bay skiff in the Nevasink and Shrewsbury Rivers, which feed into Sandy Hook Bay only ten miles from the entrance to New York Harbor. He favors small swimming plugs, most four or five inches in length and minnow-shaped to resemble the prevalent baitfish. He uses a variety of models that run at different depths, from just under the surface to four feet, so he can cover water from very shallow to flats near channel drop-offs. Color selection varies, too. The determining factor is frequently water clarity. If the water is clean, he tends to use natural colors like metallic silver, gold and pale olive green with darker backs. When the water is more turbid, switching to fluorescent colors like chartreuse can get more hits. And if you’re fishing low light conditions that can occur early and late in the day or under heavy overcast skies, colors like yellows and whites can be more easily seen.
A selection of small swimming plugs in a variety of colors and configurations will definitely put bass in the boat.
Lure speed is an important consideration and can vary with water temperature or activity level of the baitfish present. Bait and bass will tend to congregate in the areas of the river where the water is warmer. Frequently these are found in coves and along shallow banks on the north side of the river. With the sun still low in the southern sky, the north side will get more sunshine and tends to warm more quickly. Early in the spring, the incoming tide will push baitfish upstream with the tide line. As the tide slows the water warms with the sun, and usually all it takes is a degree or two in temperature to get the bait moving and the bass feeding. So be sure to pay close attention to tides and pick your fishing time to coincide with the top of the incoming, slack high and the beginning of the outgoing tide.
In some rivers the feeding will continue throughout the outgoing tide. Keep your eyes open and be aware of what is happening around you. If you don’t see baitfish along the shorelines or in the shallows, work the deep edge of flats or along channel edges. Try working the lures slowly at first. If the bass are not actively feeding they will be more attracted to a slower moving lure, which represents an easier meal. If you start to see bait showering on the surface or moving fast along the shorelines, pick up your retrieve a little. School bass can be very aggressive predators when they are actively feeding and will nail a lure fished at a more brisk pace. Bright, sunny days that warm the water more quickly tend to ignite more active feeding, while on overcast days you will often find the bass holding deeper and a little more difficult to get to respond to the plugs. If that should occur, switching to small plastic shad-type lures with paddle tails, and working them a little slower and deeper, can save the day.
Bass will move onto shallows along shorelines on sunny spring days to chase baitfish when the water temperature rises a degree or two. When fishing tight spots and narrow, shallow river areas a stealth approach can mean the difference between catching fish or spooking them and putting them off the feed. Quiet four-stroke outboards like Yamaha’s F115, F150, F200 and even the larger V6 models make entering quiet backwaters less intrusive. Using an electric trolling motor to move around them while you stalk stripers can put you within easy casting range without scaring the fish or taking their attention away from the baitfish on which they are feeding. Paying close attention to all these factors can make catching early season stripers in tidal rivers more productive.
As always, when you’re catching fish you’re having a lot more fun. There are hundreds of coastal rivers that will play host to early season striped bass in North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey and Connecticut.
So get the boat prepped and the light tackle ready for some fishing fun – spring is right around the corner.