First Stripers — Let the Game Begin!
by Frank Daignault
f visions of two hands to carry stripers haunt your dreams, then you can sit with the gang that is always saying, "The herring are running, the stripers can't be far behind." Early April, and some years even late March, swarms of alewives mount the coastal streams for their annual spawning run. However, the presence of such baitfish is no clear indication of stripers. Many of April's first linesides are small enough to be chased by the baitfish. About all that first herring do is to get everybody worked up for something that is over a month away.
The first bass are really that small. If 50 years of watching their arrival has taught me anything it is that there is no chance of taking one over six pounds, and even a four pounder is a brute. Over the years, when we greeted first fish, it was to the south and west where water is much warmer. On the colder Outer Cape, the schoolie arrival is delayed even further so that even a perch sized lineside would be an oddity in April. Outer Cape arrivals, be they the first schoolies or keepers a month later, are probably the last in New England.
Time was when even the southern bellwethers -- mouth of the Connecticut, Matunuck, R.I., and South Cape -- didn't have schoolies until the 21st to the 29th of April, but mild winters and early springs have been shifting that arrival date by up to three weeks. One might surmise then that if everybody else is throwing fish back sooner, it is more likely for us to see record arrivals timewise; even the northern hot spots -- where Chesapeake bass had to pass us to get there -- have been witnessing school fish earlier than ever, especially in the estuarine locations which are heated sooner and more easily. What triggers the feeding?
Water temperatures, no small part of the equation, can vary by as much as 10 degrees from one side of Monomoy to the other. As long as I can remember, fishers have speculated about what starts the striper season: sunlight or photo-period or water temperature. It is probably water temperature, because the early season mild weather has small linesides jiggling lines sooner -- always when the water temperature reached the 50 degree mark. We say starts the fishing because that is the only thing we can measure as they might have been passing for many days and nights without taking due to the cold water. Who knows?
One reason why water temperatures on the Outer Cape are so stubborn about kicking the winter is that the Gulf of Maine Current is back eddying against the beach. On the outside we are so close to the deep water offshore that the warmth comes here last. Even late summer can have us bathing in 50's water -- turning blue -- if far enough away from the inlets that have been cooking. So for all the great things that can be said about Outer Cape striper fishing, none of it can be said of April's opportunities. People dunking a sea worm for the first fish -- a method that is potent in the early season after dark -- are more likely to catch a cod.
Any time that a species' population is bulging, and that is certainly happening with stripers these days, we are more likely to witness behavioral anomalies. There are so many bass of the size that would travel way early in the season that things striper pundits forecast are bound to end up conservative. Little would surprise me about arrivals as the longer I try to figure things out the surer I am of how little is known. Let's talk about the arrivals of the real stripers now, because there will be too much going on in here come May.
The second bass arrival is the one that should excite everybody. These are the fish that will yield a few keepers mid-May with an ever-increasing level of whoppertunity each night that passes. I have always marveled at this arrival of large stripers because instead of happening in sequence where they beach one at Montauk last night, Point Judith tonight, and Chatham tomorrow they show from Cape May to the Kennebec all at once. How did they get by? My plug was right there. Years ago, when we wagered heavily on the first moby lineside to pull on the Back Beach, the winning striper characteristically was around 20 pounds and was beached either at Chatham Inlet or Race Point around May 25th. (Of course we caught them there because that is where everyone fished.) Winters and springs that we are having these days, I would subtract two weeks from that. The pool winner at the Red Top Bait Shop should be taken around the same time or even a few days earlier from the Canal say May 20. The first ones are everywhere at once. Even then we are not talking about trophies yet.
By early June the first monsters, the ones that will dominate contests in clubs and bait shops, will be in evidence. You have to wonder if the real moby stripers arrive this late because they are detained by spawning in the southern tributary rivers. They might also be traveling during a better time to sample bait along the way. Many of these brutes will take up residence in the rips and bars for which Outer Cape Cod has always been so storied, so famous. They will take drag and fatten here all summer in the cool waters that offer a pleasing balance of environment, opportunity, and isolation. For now, I would fish anywhere but the Outer Cape. I would fix gear, keep promises, and do my best to fool people into thinking that I was responsible. After this month fishing is going to be awfully good, and many of us will be hard to find.
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.
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Articles by Frank Daignault