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Penetrating the Water Column
by Frank Daignault
The sooner you get to where the bass are laying, the more time you have to work their kitchen.

etting to the bottom is one of the first things learned in effective striper fishing. The reason for this is that most fish - striped bass being no exception - hang on the bottom and you have to go after them where they live. It is apparently chance for them to have one side covered from predation by other species. It is easier to hold in the currents on the edges, and the bottom is an edge, and their eyes are on top.

It then remains for anglers to perfect ways to get down to the bass as efficiently as possible with something that will get them to take. It is about appealing to them for as long as possible so that one's efforts produce long and deep drifts.


For the surfcaster, any fish he can reach are usually feeding or they would otherwise be laying off in water that is more still. I like fast water runs where current carries bait or the scent of bait. Inlets, outflows, any estuarine openings that make feeding easy for the foragers, are going to draw and hold them so regularly that fishing is reliable enough that your only issue is getting to them is penetrating the water column.

Sounds easy in the comfort of our everyday places, but your tackle choices equipment-wise and the stuff you throw are the determinants for the quality of your efforts. Fish right and you'll clean up. The idea is to get deep fast enough where no plug is going to sink deep enough and no bait is likely to hold bottom. Outflows or inlets often have the kind of fast water we talk about. There are at least four such places in Rhode Island Harbor of Refuge, Charlestown and Quonnie Breachways, as well as the slightly softer Weekapaug Breachway are flanked by jetties. Many major ponds on our coast also feed similar situations from New Jersey to Maine. The Cape Cod Canal, with its two seven mile banks, is probably the most important location for deep water dredging. Here Canal regulars have made a science of water column penetration. Outside of slack tide, it takes a lot of knowledge of buoyancy and gravity to get where the bass are which is a thing that few people ever conquer with any regularity. The Canal's waters are too fast and deep for easy dredging.

Because the issues in this kind of water are a question of extremes, it is only fair to address the softer places where going deep is still important but easier. Race Point - where all of Cape Cod Bay swings past at mid-tide - foams with a drop-off scant yards from shore. Adjacent tide rips all the way east to Highland Light are often plug fished a little deeper than most shore fishers are used to. This area gave rise to the "loaded" plug a half-century ago when surfcasting was in its infancy. We refer to these as "softer" because they are only currents as opposed to the wild tiderips of say the Canal. Consequently, sink rates of a surfman's artificials, are different when the two extremes are compared.


For fast water outflows at full tide, the bucktail jig rules. These sink famously well, exhibit good hooking qualities, and can stand up to the combined forces of tide and fish pull places where you will see no greater combination of the two. Fish as heavy and strong as your skills will allow because you will need it. Smilin' Bills up to 8/0 will take any striper that swims. Never worry about the striper's ability to hold in this kind of water because they feel the spots where they can hold comfortably with little effort while still seeing all that passes. They are there to feed and have done it before.

In openings where sink and distance combine to challenge your efforts, Crippled Herring, a variety of tins or the larger Kastmasters up to four ounces, will dump a lot of line for a longer, deeper swing. Like the bucktail jig, these tins were discovered for use in the Canal where even a distance caster on steroids strains for both depth and distance. Regulars all know that the better job you do of these two qualities depth and distance the more bass you are going to contact. As they often say, if you ain't hooking the bottom, you ain't deep enough. It is just not enough to have a heavy lure, you also have to help it get down.

During full tide, cast slightly upstream, delay the anti-reverse retrieve procedure and let the offer swing and sink. When water is flying, we even let line fall from the spool to get even lower. The more lure contact you give up early, the more sink you will enjoy downtide. If you don't stick the bottom, you didn't do it enough and you either need more lead, more upstream, more time, or more delay of the anti-reverse. You may even have to do them all and still not be able to find bottom. It is a feel thing that surface plug fishermen never even think about. I think that if you can deep dredge the Canal, you are ready to fish the bottom of anything. After that, you troll from a submarine.


One reason why fly fishing utilizes so many types of fly lines is that they recognize the need to acknowledge the use of sink rates to penetrate their water columns. They know they have to get the fly down in diverse types of water, different current intensities, as well as getting there in a variety of depths without waiting all night for the line and fly to get there. Like the rest of us, there is more to what they do than fish the top and it is just as important to them to acknowledge the water column. Line choice in fly-fishing says a lot about how you will do.


Penetration of the water column is less technically demanding in soft currents and, or, shallow waters, even if they are moving. Smaller jigs slow the sink process to accommodate gentle tides. Many of the new molded rubber offers have different amounts of lead in them and choosing the right ones for the right amount of current is a skill that can make a so-so inlet a hot-spot when your methods are applied there. I laugh when anglers predict when an inlet is going to get hot. It is the methods selected and the accommodation of sink rate that heat the inlet. A great spin-off of sink efforts is that heavy stuff casts better.

How well the metal you've chosen sinks is also controlled by the thickness and buoyancy of your line. Smaller monofilaments go down much better than thick braids and can make a difference in avoiding a high swing. This is less important in soft currents.

You could wade across many places where we fish fast water. When it is that shallow, an ambushing striper can see even an offer that is skimming the surface. Thus, weighting of an artificial might not be necessary in skinny water. It is never a good idea to overdo weighting a lure because doing so has the effect of killing action. Just about any given lure will catch more bass in its weightless form than when loaded down with lead. Many of the things that we use have better action with neutral buoyancy and misapplication will actually hinder your fishing rather than help it. Like the loaded swimming plug, you might cast better with the additional weight, and you might sink more, but a plug traveling like a stick through the water is going to appeal to the gamesters less.


Be conscious of the reduction in current as well as its increase and adjust accordingly through changes in your lure weight, the time allowed to sink, and the other timing techniques working for you. Drifts that were in the strike zone suddenly are running too high or hanging the bottom in response to the changing tide. It is a feel thing that salt-water fishermen must become accustomed to in order to remove the wild card nature of blind fishing in a continually changing environment - God bless split-shot for that reason. It always surprises me how a fast moving lure is taken more quickly if stripers don't have too much time to examine it. Pay attention because penetrating the water column is one of those things the high liners do that nobody ever talks about. If our grand daughter brought home a kid that didn't know how to fish deep, it would be awkward for my wife and me to be polite. End

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 »

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