"You seen any bunkah?"
The Fine Art of Locating and Snagging Fresh Bunker
by Captain Steve Byrne
First Cast Charters
ll right, I have a confession to make. No, I didn't break any laws or run away with anyone's pension money. It's just that - well, I fish with bunker. There, I said it. I fish with stinky, smelly, bloody, slimy bunker.
In this age of light-tackle popularity, some folks look at bunker chunking with a jaundiced eye. Prevailing opinion is that "any idiot can catch fish on a hunk of meat." True enough, but using computer-designed lures embedded with holographic images to "trick" a fish with a pea-size brain doesn't exactly make anyone a genius.
Not only do I fish with bunker, but I do it with heavy gear. Thirty to forty-pound-test is the norm, on heavy conventional gear. The fact is that I am looking for big fish. This isn't tea and crackers fishing. It's more like meat and potatoes. Tossing a fresh, bloody chunk of bunker in front of feeding bass is like dropping a donut in a pigpen.
With all that has been written about bunker chunking, some of the finer points – and yes, there are finer points of bunker chunking - have not been addressed. Let's take a look at what most other articles have missed.
With apologies to bait shops everywhere, I'll say this first. Buying bunker is an absolute last resort. Now I do understand that for many of us, store-bought bunker is the only choice. Whether it's because our time is limited, or we don't have access to schools of bunker, our options are sometimes limited by circumstances "beyond our control." One other point here, if there are no schools of bunker around, you may want to reconsider bunker as your bait of choice.
Successful bunker chunking requires the freshest bait. The ideal piece of bait is still quivering when you put it in the water. That means snagging your own bunker. Before you can snag bunker, you have to be able to find them. The ability to locate schools of bait is absolutely critical to any angler's success. If I had a dollar for every time someone asked, "You seen any bunkah?" well, I'd be able to afford a few more of those Van Staals. It is particularly embarrassing when the angler asking the question is standing directly in front of a huge school of bunker.
Before we get too far into this, I want to be clear on when to use bunker. It’s simple; when the bunker are in, I use them for bait. It’s what the bass are feeding on, so it’s what I’m feeding them. If our striped friends are feeding on a worm hatch, I’m not tossing bunker chunks.
So what exactly is it we are looking for? Single "pops" are the most common indications that bunker are present. It is important to listen carefully for the sound of bunker. Unless they are under attack, bunker do not advertise their location with a neon sign. These individual pops or splashes can indicate a single fish, a small pod of fish, or can be the tip of the iceberg, giving away the location of a giant school. The only way to tell is to start casting. More obvious indications of bunker are dark areas of water, or patches of water that seem to be nervous, or moving the wrong way.
My favorite snagging set up is a 9-foot spinning rod, loaded with 15-pound-test, topped off with several feet of 50-pound mono and finally, the snag. There are a couple of variations in the design of snagging trebles, but they are basically the same. Some are made with the lead right up at the top, almost in a ball snuggled up against the eye of the hook. The other design is with the lead molded around the entire length of the shank. I prefer this design, because I think it's less likely to bounce off the bunker when it hits them. In my mind's eye, I can see the ball of lead type trebles; kick off the bunker at a sharp angle when it hits them. Of course, I have absolutely nothing to back up this theory, so it's just a guess that the longer lead design produces more hook-ups.
Once you have your snagging rod set to go, and you have spotted some bunker, you are ready for action. Cast the snag well beyond your target, close the bail and stay in contact with the line as it sinks. While you are letting the snag fall through the water column, count the seconds. Keeping the line taut will allow your setup to work like a telegraph. By allowing your snag to sink, you are effectively testing the entire distance between yourself and your snag for bunker. Granted, you can only check within the limits of your line’s diameter, but you really get the most information for your effort this way. If you feel the telltale bump-bump of your line running across a bunker's back, it's time to begin cranking. The running line will often become fouled in the bunker's gill plates or mouth and will guide your snagging treble safely into the meat of the bunker. Once you have it hooked, keep the bunker coming toward you with steady pressure. If you hook it in the head, it will come in nice and easy. You may even have to crank fast to keep up with it.
There are certain situations that call for some extra finesse. I carry an extra reel spool, loaded with 10-pound test. While this line is too light to be used without risk breaking off a few bunker, it gives you a lot more distance. The trade-off of strength for distance requires a change in physical technique. When using the light stuff, your motions need to be extra smooth. When the bunker are staying too far off, it may be the difference between watching and fishing.
One afternoon I stopped down the harbor to snag some bunker for that night’s fishing. Pulling up to the inlet, I could see from my car about ten anglers standing there, snags dangling from the poles at their sides. Some bunker were showing on the far side of the channel, and the boys were waiting for them to come into casting range. Walking up, I eyed the fish, gauging the distance. "Don't even bother," one of the regulars told me. I wanted to be quiet about it, so I said, "I just want to get a measurement on them." My cast cleared the channel, and the bunker, and after two sweeps my rod doubled over with the weight of the bunker. Saying nothing, I kept the pole low to the water and slid a bunker on to the sand. One of the crew decided to try it out, but fell way short. I repeated my first cast five more times and walked away with enough bunker to get the night's fishing started.
Was I a better caster than any of the other guys? No, just better prepared, and willing to risk losing a snag or two for fresh bunker.
Often, schools of bunker will lay right on the bottom, or if there are sharp channel edges, they will press up against them for cover. Sometimes they are pinned there by predators. When the bunker have established themselves in an area, and are not showing on top, it's time to drag the bottom. In this scenario, the angler needs to let the snag hit bottom after each sweep of the rod. You are literally "covering bottom."
Another unusual situation is snagging bunker at night. This is a true test of the senses you were born with, and there are specific variations in what to look for. If your vantage point is higher than the water surface, the splash made by a bunker at night will appear as a dark spot. That's because the water reflects the ambient light of the night. Whether it is from the moon, dock lights, or street lights in the distance, it is amazing how much light is picked up by the water's surface and reflected at night. When the splash of a bunker disturbs the water’s surface it scatters the reflected light, creating a black spot. If the water is too rough, and you cannot pick up the bunker pops, try kneeling down to get your eye closer to sea level. Looking across the water at its surface, you will be able to see the spray from a bunker splash "light up" just above the surface.
The intended time and date of use determine how I treat the bunker. If I am using it immediately, the bucket is fine. If I’m traveling light, I might not carry a separate bunker bucket, and I’ll just leave them on the sand where I’m fishing. If the bunker are to be used within the next twenty-four hours, I put them in a brine solution of water, ice, and kosher salt. It’s not an exact science, so you don’t have to stand there with a measuring cup. The salt lowers the freezing point of the water, and the bunker is kept colder than ice without freezing – if that makes any sense. If I will be holding the bunker for more than a day before use, they go in the freezer. Put them in untreated, and they stay good for about two weeks.
When you go chunking bunker, bring one or two frozen – just in case. Your first plan of attack is to snag fresh bunker to be used on that trip. One or two frozen bunker can put you in business while you try to snag fresh meat.
We’ve come a long way, and still we have not yet addressed how to actually snag bunker. I am talking about the physical act of snagging bunker; not where to cast or how to find them. Those of you who are already yanking bunker from the water on a regular basis can skip this next paragraph. If however, you often find your bucket empty while those around you are filling theirs, you may want to stay with me a little while longer.
Contrary to popular belief, the best way to stick a hook into a free-swimming fish is not by raising your hands over your head. No, this is not a stick-up. Your goal is to move the hook horizontally through the water. Lifting the rod tip may be good for your triceps, but does little to help you stick a hook into a fish – unless the fish is on the sand, directly under your rod tip. With the rod tip lowered to the water, long smooth sweeps to the side will move your line the greatest distance. That’s my goal when snagging. I want my snag moving through the water with enough force to stick a fish, for as much time as possible. That means long, low, powerful sweeps of the rod.
One final point; it is easy to get carried away when snagging bunker. A school of bunker is pushed to the shore by feeding bass. Often, anglers are so busy stocking up on bait that they miss the opportunity to catch their striper. One bunker will supply one rod with bait for about one hour. When feeding bass move in, snag a bunker, and get a fresh chunk into the fray. You never know how long an opportunity will last. I’d rather be the angler walking off the beach with the 20-pound bass, than the one walking off with the 20 pounds of bunker.
Copyright © 2005 - 2013 Steve Byrne, All Rights Reserved
Additional Articles by Steve Byrne
“You Seen Any Bunkah?”
Livelining Menhaden for Striped Bass