Herring Choices for Spring Striper Fishing
by Frank Daignault
he long recognized early season drill among regulars is to get herring for bait. Spring herring, also known as alewives, are about the only early season free swimming forage available to stripers. The reason for this is that menhaden have usually not yet arrived in suitable numbers for acquisition, as bait and mackerel are way off. The consequence of this situation is that the scent of herring drifting down from their sweet water spawning grounds draws bass way up into the estuaries.
LIVE LINING. Live-lining herring, which, by definition, is to put a hook in a herring's back and swim it where bass can pick it up is no doubt the leader among reliable early season methods for the first big fish. Timing wise, big striper action will not start until the cows have both left the spawning beds down south and the herring are dropping down spent. Fishing too early often leads to frustration when people try to swim frisky baits that are fresh arrivals among mostly school bass because the big ones - say over 25 pounds - have not yet arrived. The last week in May is safe from roughly Montauk to Boston. And, the longer one waits after that, the more the odds improve. The run is usually over by June 15, so the timing for herring use is roughly three weeks. My experience is that once the herring run is over, the bass are seeking other alternatives.
Stripers want the cover of darkness to run the estuaries where they are likely to find herring. Fishingwise, a perfect situation would be to catch bait and fish them live right there. What people do is have a bait-car made of wire or a mesh net suspended in an inner tube with a hard cover equipped with an opening on hinges for access. This permits the free exchange of water to keep the little buggers alive. Usually, shore fishermen are limited to fishing where they acquired the baits. Some boatmen have the means bait wells, aerators, and new water to move from a bait location to an angling location while keeping the herring alive. Two challenges present themselves here: getting bait, and keeping it alive.
WHAT IF THERE ARE PROBLEMS? The better the fishing gets, the harder it is to get spirited herring. Bass are taking the spent ones that are dropping down, as these are easy to catch. However, for live lining, the active, bright herring, the newly arriving baits, are better. What we all do is settle for what we can get, because the time is too short. A reality of herring fishing is that there are really few nights when bait acquisition, access to a suitable place to fish them, and the presence of stripers actually come together. Still, nobody would do it, if it were not worth the trouble. Nights when baits are hard for you to get, they are just as difficult for old linesides to find. This makes what you have all the more precious and with the limited resources of herring runs, I would never waste any. Many runs require permits, have limits, and otherwise regulate their harvest, so I always take home anything that I did not use to save for another night. Some nights you look into your bait car and a couple of dead ones is all you have. Now what?
BETTER THAN NOTHING. You will occasionally be confronted with a situation where bass are running upstream in a tidal river in search of herring. It is sometimes the case that the run that lures the bass has limited access or is protected by regulation, or both. Fishing away from the run, you might have to move the baits many miles with no way to keep them alive. Just fish them dead. I have lowered them into tidal currents from a bridge and then free-spooled them into the dark swirling tide. Once they are deep enough and out far enough, you can haul back on the dead baits and permit them, stiff as they might be, to flutter back down with the current. It is a technique that one of the gang learned from fishing in boats, and it works well from bridges. We have caught many stripers with this method - many bigger than by those who were live bait fishing elsewhere - than any single situation to which we had ever been confronted with free swimmers. For that reason, I would never toss a dead herring away because they will work when you are down to not having a choice. Moreover, they can be taken home and frozen for use when herring are no longer available.
ANOTHER DESPERATE SITUATION. We had a narrow spot in Narragansett Bay one time where we knew the boats were getting a lot of fish with herring from their live bait wells. For us, it was too far a walk for dragging nets, bait cars, rods, spikes and bass. Our only option was backpacking in with a few fresh, but very dead, baits. The river is only 1/10 of a mile wide and you can cast nearly half that distance, providing that your bait is not too large when added to the sinker needed to hold bottom. A whole herring is half a pound, is wind resistant, and combines with your sinker to an impossible weight for which even the World Wrestling Federation cannot find a caster. We chunked the little critters, getting four bait-ups per herring, with marvelous results. Many nights, while resting on the beach - astonished at how well we were doing with a mere piece of the alewives - we used to hash over how we had always thought that a live herring was the ticket.
BE IMAGINATIVE. Most of our circumstances vary -- near the run, away from it, the presence of current, deep runs, day fishing as well as night fishing, fresh or frozen baits. It is a case of applying good tactics to the particulars with which you are presented. On the Cape Cod Canal, I have seen regulars cast and drift live baits with great success when the tide was slacking. Also, once the water was moving strong, some fishers would add an egg sinker to keep the bait down. Occasionally, I have seen bait that was too frisky, swimming too hard for the lineside to chase. If that happens, you can slow the bait down with slashes that will emit a tantalizing scent.
STRIPER BEHAVIOR AND RIGGING FOR IT. Whenever bass are in the vacinity of a herring run, you can usually hear them sloshing and rolling on the herring. The patient angler is certain to take any of these fish, if using live herring. However, if you are getting runs from the takes of bass and find the fish hard to hook, it is a clear sign that small fish are picking up the baits. Big bass will gulp a ten-inch herring with no effort. These days, with all the release fishing that is going on, I would not allow a bass moving off with the bait to swallow it. This poses a clear danger toward gut hooking a bass and reduces your chances at a successful release. If it is a decent sized fish, it will have the entire bait in its mouth when it runs off. You didn't want the others anyway. Rigging, I tie my line to a barrel or swivel, then run a three or four foot leader of mono tied direct to a 6/0 to 8/0 offset hook which is put through the herring's back behind the dorsal. At times I have put the hook down the herring's throat and caught just as many. Nonetheless, the bait lives longer when hooked through the back.
This is very complicated fishing where getting the bait can be more work than fishing it. It is regulated and equipment intense, especially for the shore fisher. Still, if you plan it with the seasons, have the time and inclination, it culls out the big ones.
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