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Rich Karpowicz 58 Lb bass © Gene Quigley
Rich Karpowicz - 58 Lb Striped Bass - Released Alive
Guided by Shore Catch Capt. Gene Quigley

Bunker and Trophy Bass
by Capt. Jim Freda
Shore Catch Guide Service

ast month Note I talked about using clams or herring to get you into some early spring trophy bass but what seems to over shadow these two baits is when millions of adult bunker show up during the same time. The shear abundance of their numbers will have the bass key in on them, as they become an easy meal. No searching out is required.

Well, the action has already started and good catches of big bass have already been made in the last two months in our backbays. In my guiding area from north to central NJ Raritan Bay is the place to be. Bunkers (Menhaden, called "Pogies" in New England) usually start to arrive here by the third week in March and continue to fill in during April and May. In March few boaters are on them since few boats are in the water, but those that get an early start get some big bass that drop back out of the Hudson River. This is not a well-known fact as dismal March weather doesn't even have some of us thinking about fishing yet.

The backbay areas of the Shark River, Manasquan River, and Barnegat Bay get nowhere near the run of bunker that is clearly evident in Raritan Bay. In fact on most days no visible signs of bunker will be present at all. But they are there but not in mass concentrations. If you are looking to net or snag baits I wouldn't spend my time in any of these locations, get to Raritan Bay.

Bunker spawn offshore to our south in the latter part of the winter and then move into our backbays in the early part of the spring to feed on plankton. They are not in there to spawn as this event has already taken place in the open ocean. The bunker will remain in the bay until significant plankton levels develop along the oceanfront as the water warms and amount of sunlight increases. They usually begin to move out along the oceanfront at the end of May and remain there right on through the beginning of July with June being the prime month for trophy spring bass along our outer beaches.

The last two seasons have been nothing short of phenomenal in terms of the number of big bass that have been present in northern and central NJ waters. In one of my Bergen Record columns last year I wrote this excerpt, "It's unexplainable, it's absolutely phenomenal". That's the way veteran striped bass fisherman Bobby Matthews of the Spring Lake Line Liners Fishing Club described the incredible striped bass catches that took place during the first couple of weeks in June last year. June is big bass time along the Jersey beaches and both boaters and shore anglers will have a chance to tie into a bass of a lifetime.

Matthews a well respected striper fisherman throughout the North Jersey surf fishing community cannot remember action like this in the last twenty years. Matthews said, "Twenty-five pounders aren't even looked at right now. Most of the fish are in the thirties and a good number of forty-pound fish have also been caught. There are more big bass now than anyone has seen in a lifetime".

I would have to reiterate Bob's sentiments as I have never seen the likes of what we saw last year along the Monmouth County beachfront. Groups of fifty to a hundred boats could be seen right off the beach from Asbury Park south through Sea Girt with rods just doubled over the gunnels. Just about every bunker that hit the water was inhaled by a bass that was in the twenty to upper thirty pound range. This action continued for six straight days with more and more boats joining the ranks as the word got out. It wasn't over until a big northeast blow kept everyone from getting out.

Some of the best catches last year were Rich Karpowicz of Princeton who while fishing on board with my partner Capt Gene Quigley of Shore Catch had a 58 lb bass. The fish was caught in eight feet of water just south of the Manasquan Inlet. The fish was released alive. Karpowicz said, "In my mind there was no good reason to kill the fish, it was too majestic of a sight to see". Later in the day Karpowicz also landed his second largest bass ever at 38 lbs.

We also saw Tim Murphy weighing in a 52 pounder, Capt Dave Goldman of Shore Catch with a 46 pounder, and Adam Pharo, Point Pleasant with a 50 pounder. My personal best last season during this run was 35 lbs that was caught and released.

If you don't have a boat and pound the shoreline don't worry, as you will get your shots too. The bunker will come tight to the beach within reach for snagging with a surf rod. In fact at times we can't get our boats in tight enough inside the break to get to the fish. Last year the 8th Ave jetty in Asbury Park and the jetties just further north in Deal were the places to be. The Deal jetties in particular are some of the longest and untouched jetties by beach replenishment remaining in the state. One can walk out far and reach the baits that are just off the beach. The only problem in Deal is that parking access is restricted on many side streets leading to the beach or very limited.

The presence of big bunkers along the beach supports the old adage "big baits equal big fish." Obtaining the bunker when they are along the beach is simply a matter of throwing a net over them when they are under the boat, but this can be difficult to raise up as so many baits are captured. Instead a bunker snag is just as effective and baits can quickly be obtained one at a time.

To snag bunker you have to locate them first. During the day this is relatively easy but at night if you are out and fishing it is more difficult. Bunkers can be located visually by boat or from the beach or by means of your fishfinder on your boat if they are not showing. When the bunker move into the ocean from the bays they will have a tendency to come to the surface in the early morning after the sun comes up. At first light some schools can be found but more will come up the first hour after sunrise. The problem here is that more boats will also be out by this time. Boat traffic can quickly disperse the schools and put the baits down again.

I like to break the inlet before first light and be optimistic that a school of baits will be visible right away. I know that if I find baits then that I will also be into some big bass then too. Last year there were many days that we had boated and released three or four bass in the 30 pound range by 6:30 am.

So what should you look for? If the water is oil slick calm as it is many times in June before daybreak you can spot bunker about a ¼ mile away. Look for a pocket of disturbed water surrounded by clam water. This will also appear darker in color than the surrounding water. As the sun comes up a good pair of polarized sunglasses will aid in eliminating the glare from the water and allow you to see the pods of bait.

Snagging bunker is easy and any angler who has never done it before can get the hang of it after several casts. In the boat approach the school up wind so that the boat will drift into it. Drive well around the school to position yourself and avoid getting close to it. Engine noise can quickly put a bass down or move it away. I like to cast just slightly beyond the edge of a school and let my snag sink about a quarter to half way between the surface and the bottom. I then retrieve the snag back having it come up to the top on a diagonal line cutting across the school.

To do this I will reel in all the slack bringing my line tight while pointing my rod at the school while slightly reaching in that direction. I then accelerate my rod in a horizontal sweep hitting a bait. I do not lift and snag in a vertical direction. If the first sweep misses a bait I quickly reel up the slack, reach out and point again at the school, and sweep a second time. A third sweep is also done if there is a second miss. If I still do not connect I reel in all the way and recast and try again at a slightly different depth.

There are different size bunker snags by weight and hook size and gap. The trick here is to use the largest possible like a 10/0. With the small snags you will miss a lot of baits especially if the school is thin. So why waste your time with a small snag, just use a larger snag and you will hit and hook a bait on each cast.

When a bait is snagged the bunker should be left or tossed back into the school immediately as a big bass will hit it usually within the first ten seconds if one is holding with the school. The problem here is that most anglers will snag bunker with a bunker snag and let the bass inhale the bait along with the snag. While this is a sure way to hook up it does raise some legitimate concerns. Many anglers in the past have been gut-hooking bass with their snags and are just cutting them loose. These bass will surely die, as it is impossible for them to pass the snag. One must consider the impact that this may have on our striper fishery in the future with all the big breeders that are being removed from the stock. Right now during June good judgment needs to be exercised by all anglers as to the methods they are employing.

On the flip side if you reel your bunker in and re-hook it, many times you will not be able to cast it back into the mix of the school. This will be true when you cast out a snag and snag a bunker at the end of a long cast. From the end of a jetty this is usually always the case. That's why anglers will cast out a snag, impale a bait, and let it sit in the school.

As I mentioned above leaving a snagged bait in place and not reeling it in after it is hit will draw a strike from a hungry bass almost instantly. The problem is as I mentioned the snag. Bass are literally so amp-ed up when feeding on these baits they will swallow the bait and the snag together. They don't drop the bait when the feel the snag. This is also true when using the larger snags. So in order to not to kill the bass if you are going to release your catch you will need to reel in the bunker, re-hook it, and cast back out. With a boat this usually isn't a problem as one can pull up to the head of the school or drift over it, drop the re-hooked bait, and have the school and bass swim right over it. On a jetty or beach however this will be a problem because you may not be able to reach the school, it will need to be right next to you or the rocks. You may get lucky however and your bunker may swim back towards the school. Make sure you give it plenty of line to free swim out away from you and don't hold it in place.

To quickly re-hook your bunker while on the jetty there are two things you can do. One option is to carry two rigged rods. One rod for snagging the bunker and the other for live lining. If you don't have two rods than you can try this. Tie your live bait hook or circle hook 7/0-13/0 directly to your leader and slip your snag over the hook. Cast it out this way to snag a bunker. The bend of the hook will keep the snag from falling or coming off. When you get your bait back to you simply unhook it from the snag, take the snag off, and re-hook it. Some anglers may use a heavy snap at the end of their leader to do the same, first casting the snag alone, taking it off, and then putting on the live bait hook. However I don't like my live bait hook connected to a snap.

There are some tricks that we have learned when fishing bunker that will take bass when others doing the same are not. The most effective I think is to cast a live bunker back into the school with the tail cut off. This will put a live helpless bait in the water that will slowly sink to the bottom of the pod right where some of the biggest bass are waiting. With the cut tail the bait will slowly flutter around and milk into the pod sending out that injured scent that usually can't be refused.

The other very effective way to fish bunker is dead. This method has worked wonders for us particularly when we cast these baits out towards the end of a jetty tip from the boat. Some of our biggest jetty bass have been caught with this method. This method also works well when fishing a pod. So in all we will try fishing the baits live, live with no tails, or dead.

Another thing we do is fish a chunk, normally a head, on the dead drift below a pod while we have other baits out in it. This is done by simply baiting a chunk on a rod, casting it out, and placing the rod in a rod holder. Drags are set lightly with the clicker on. We then fish as normal and just wait for the sound clicking from the reel after a bass picks up the bait.

When fishing chunks or live baits make sure you use a strong live bait hook or circle hook with a gap wide enough to fit around the bait. Sometimes this will mean going as large as 10/0 -13/0. With baits that have less girth, 7/0-9/0 will work. Have the point of the hook exposed after your impale the bait or chuck going through it from one side to the other. For leaders I usually fish four feet of 30-50 lb that is tied to a heavy barrel swivel. The bass are not shy when the bunker are around. I like to use a stiff x-tra heavy power St Croix rod and an Avet SX or MX 4.5 conventional reel. The drags of many spinning reels are suspect with their plastic parts when it comes to putting the brakes on one large striper after another.

Good luck out there as these big bass begin to arrive but remember they are our breeders. I encourage everyone to practice catch and release. End

FOOTNOTE: Clams, Bunker, or Herring for Springtime Trophy Stripers

Copyright © 1998 - 2014 Jim Freda, All Rights Reserved

Articles by Captain Jim Freda

Capt. Jim FREDAEmail Captain Jim Freda

Jim Freda is a highly respected charter captain, author, outdoor writer, seminar speaker, and photographer. His first book Fishing the New Jersey Coast, has been a best seller and received the “New Jersey Center for the Book Award” as one of the most notable NJ books. He co-authored a second book Saltwater Fishing a Tactical Approach, A Guide for Northeast Beach and Boat Fishermen, with his Shore Catch associates Capt Gene Quigley and Shell E. Caris.

Jim has weekly fishing columns that appear in the Bergen Record, NJ's second largest newspaper and the Coast Star and Ocean Star newspapers of Monmouth and Ocean Counties. Nationally, Jim is a contributing editor for Fly Fishing in Saltwaters magazine and also writes for Fly Fisherman magazine, Saltwater Sportsman, Eastern Fly Fishing, Big Game Journal, and Regionally he writes for On the Water magazine where he has is own monthly column, The Fisherman magazine and the NJ Federation of Sportsman Clubs newspaper.

As a seminar speaker Jim is featured as one of the celebrities on the Saltwater Sportsman National Seminar Series, as one of the “Stars of the Show” at the Fly Fishing Show in Somerset, NJ, the Northeast’s largest fly fishing show and is on the National Pro Seminar slate at the Toyota Saltwater Expo also in Somerset. He is also regularly featured each year at many of the local fishing clubs in the surrounding area including the State’s two largest clubs the Hudson River Fishermen’s Association and the Saltwater Anglers of Bergen County. Capt Jim has also been a guest speaker at all the Trout Unlimited Clubs in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Jim has also been a special guest speaker at the Bloomberg Network in New York City.

He is a member of the National Factory Pro Team for St. Croix Rods and pro staff for Fins Fishing Line, AVET Reels, Spro, Gamakatsu, Hogy, Korkers, Costa Del Mar, Columbia Sportswear and Aquaskinz.

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