Bait Behavior: How It Affects Your Striper Surf
Knowing the bait is the first step in method selection.
by Frank Daignault
here is a fine line between the junk science of surf stripers and getting a lineside's number in lure choice. Knowing what bass are feeding on can go a long way in helping the surfcaster choose the right plug, fly, or natural bait. Differences in fishing results are more than just luck. The problem is that knowing what is on special on the striper's menu can be a problem in identification, knowledge of forage habits, and even the area we are fishing. The worse thing we can do is to offer them cheese when they are eating pickles.
WHAT IS IT?
Many surfcasters lack a good working knowledge in bait identification and can end up fishing incorrectly as a result. A favorite example is confusing two popular baitfish; sand eels and sperling. Both are long and thin, are of comparable size, and can be found in the same waters at the same time. In spite of the similarities, their behavioral differences are hugely distinct. Sand eels are amphibians that routinely dig into the sand bottom, often above the low water mark, waiting to be rescued by a rising tide. You will occasionally find sand eels free swimming like most baitfish - or, they can be laying on the bottom or even hiding underwater in the sand. Sperling or silversides, on the other hand, can never dig in and only swim about unhindered or lay on the surface tension on a slight angle with their tails lower. If you are fishing too deep in sperling, because of your experience with sand eels, it could cost you. We have often caught more stripers than those around us by permitting a small Rebel to lay still on the surface without any retrieve movement with the idea that this was a suitable imitation. Nevertheless, to keep things from being too easy, both species are often found together.
Surfcasters often misidentify bait species because they are thrown off by what is evident when there is really something else out there. Trout fishermen were the first to identify this failing in their sweet water environments when may flies were observed while caddis drifted everywhere. There is a difference and trout know that difference. So it is with estuaries hosting shrimp and juvenile seaworms. Again, they can be mixed at the same time and anglers who make a hasty identification of what bass are eating risk fishing the wrong fly. Of course they could be eating both worms and shrimp and it might not even matter, but if you are working a faithful old streamer, you could be in for a frustrating night. Plug fishermen stuck in waters laced with shrimp or worms should probably move because it is unlikely they have anything they can cast that is small enough.
BUNKER AND SHAD
Both these species in mature sizes can only appeal to larger stripers. Certainly big baits weighing from one to three pounds are less likely to be taken by anything smaller. In this case, I don't see that it matters whether fishers misidentify these species because behavior, angling method, problems and takes are just the same. Hickory shad can get much larger where pogies top off at about a pound, a mouthful either way striperwise.
We have all seen big bass lacing these baits in the striper surf and such a memorable sight can look like someone is throwing hand grenades in the wash. Stripers do not always blow up the bunker and shad that violently. Sometimes they just hang out under water or on the outside of the prey, practicing a sort of marine opportunism watching for an impending mistake by the bait. One reason for this is that a lineside can knock itself out trying to catch these frisky buggars unless the bait either has a hook in its back or an injury from packing too tightly in the school. Even when you live line shad or bunker, they can have more moxie than a bass wants to deal with. It is not really as easy as it sometimes sounds on the Internet.
One time I ran into some schooling behavior which, at the time, was about as bewildering as it gets. I had been fishing an outflow on Rhody's Sakonnet River until first light when a bunch of medium schoolies, say ten pounders, came up to paste small baitfish that looked like silversides. By the time I got over to them, the killers were down and the back pond they had been in went glass flat like a millpond. In the few minutes it took for me to go back to my spot, they came up once more smacking and slapping noisily like they had before. This time I sat down as close to an average location for the two earlier events and waited the five minutes for them to come up and ravage the surface anew, and they did. When my popper went across the melee one of the stripers took it down and by the time I beached it the remaining fish were down again. This went on for over an hour - as predictable a five minutes as you might find in any gamefish behavior. The theory, and I don't know how anybody would really know, is that the bass needed that five minutes to ball up the baitfish in preparation for the onslaught. Along with an interesting and productive experience, it showed that gamefish frequently combine forces in their foraging efforts.
POPPERS IMITATE SQUID
Squid enjoy a multitude of sub-species that have been found as long as 90 feet in the Pacific. Our summer squid are a lot like the ones served in restaurants and sold six or eight inches long in bait shops. Yet, I have seen them a foot long washed up on the beach for 15 miles on the Cape. One time on Race Bar, the sou west humping so hard that we could barely breathe, the squid, half the size of baseball bats, were packed in the foaming shallows swimming through the sides of waves with dusky cows in hot pursuit. You could not really tell what the bass were feeding on by what it all looked like, but those telltale clouds of blue ink scattered in all that white foam made it crystal clear. Again, it was like hand grenades thrown in the wash.
I'm not fond of poppers in the striper surf, but when the squid are being held at bay like a coon above a pack of hounds, you are brain dead if you don't throw a popper out there with a well adjusted drag. We did and stripers liked it.
GAMEFISH EAT GAMEFISH
We have all seen small schoolies with bluefish inflicted injuries. However, that door swings both ways. Late summers, when snapper blues are growing an inch per week, stripers as small as ten pounds and as large as they get will swill on snappers and you can live line these juvenile blues with success. In September, from Monomoy west and south as far as New Jersey, the same waters in which the snappers are in evidence, the mullet run comes on and mullet and snappers can be found mixed in together. Many plugs are made that simulate a mullet nicely but a snapper plug has not been invented yet, so you'll have to wing it like your fathers and uncles did.
Another of my wacky experiences with baitfish took place on P-Town's Race Bar one of the last years before the moratorium. There was a bunch of us casting short in a gale with sand eels all over the place. They were washing up at our feet and stripers were not too far behind. We had a strong pick going, but we were getting no where near what we should have for the blitz we had. Then, while dragging back a medium bass, say 25 pounds, I saw a few small weakfish in the high foam struggling to get back in the water while my fish upchucked another squeteague. Clearly, while our surf was loaded with sand eels, the bass had to be after the weakfish that were after the sand eels. Once I bent a big swimmer close to ten inches onto my leader, the fishing got way better because I had the real bait imitated in size if nothing else. Similar situations are always developing with mackerel as well where the macks feed on sand eels and the bass chase the mackerel.
That is another thing about hatch matching: even if you can't get the color or swimming action down, if you are close in size that is often all you need. They get careless and become easier to fool when they are all horsed up on the right bait. And it really helps if you know what that bait is.
Copyright © 1998 - 2014 Frank Daignault, All Rights Reserved
Frank Daignault is the author of Striper Surf, Twenty Years on the Cape, Striper Hot Spots, The Trophy Striper, Eastern Tides and Fly Fishing the Striper Surf.
Autographed books can be purchased directly from Frank; Order Form »
Articles by Frank Daignault