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Clams, Bunker, or Herring for Springtime Trophy Stripers
by Capt. Jim Freda
Shore Catch Guide Service

ithout a doubt the spring season has become the trophy season for a striped bass in the last several years. Traditionally many of us have otherwise looked to the late fall, the time after Thanksgiving, for the cows to arrive from up north as they migrate by on their way to their southern mid-Atlantic destinations. Each year this event takes place and good numbers of 20-30 pound bass are taken.

The migration route of these late fall fish may or may not however take them by the beach but rather the big fish may remain offshore. This is exactly what has happen in the last several seasons. Many times these fish are even inaccessible by law by boat as they run past our coast beyond the three mile state limit. This past season the Klondike was just loaded with these fish in December. But as sure as this late migration takes place every season the even bigger bass have been now showing up in the spring. We know part of the reason why this has been happening and it is because we have had literally millions of adult bunker along our beach in the spring that are keeping and holding these big bass in our area. With the elimination of the reduction bunker boats from our waters we are now reaping some of the benefits.

But this event of big bass showing up in the spring is nothing new to the old salt. This appearance of bunker and big bass has been going on as long as there has been bunker and bass. The difference now is that the word is out. With the media, cell phones, and the internet, local phenomena are now common news to all. So it may be new to you that there are trophy bass in the spring and not only in the fall in New Jersey but it is not new to the bass or to those locals that have been fishing for quite some time. Yes, it seems more bunkers are less harassed now but before the reduction industry’s technology was present in our area the numbers were as equally impressive and so were the size of the fish.

The size of the bass in the last several seasons that have been hugging our shoreline has been nothing short of phenomenal. Last year local tackle shops reported weighing in anywhere from 50 to over 100 big bass in the 30 and 40 pound range in the course of several weeks. There were also six bass over 50 pounds that were caught and weighed.

One of the largest bass taken was taken on board my partner’s boat Capt Gene Quigley with his client Rich Karpowicz of Princeton who caught a 58 lb bass in eight feet of water just south of the Manasquan Inlet. The fish was released alive.

There are three sure fired methods that can take these big bass each spring so one will have a choice as to the method that they want to use. One can fish clams, live or dead bunker or bunker chunks, or live herring. Let’s look at two of these methods this month, clams and herring, and we l look at the secrets of fishing bunker in my May article.

For your best striper results in April you will want to head to the back bay waters. By boat you will want to anchor up and chum and fish with clams. Last season we saw an incredible spring run of stripers in Raritan Bay in April as catches of twenty or more stripers were common on each trip from recreational anglers and 100 fish daily totals for the party boats.

For best success lower a chum bucket or wire chum basket over the side at the depth you are fishing and combine this with hand fed chunks. The basket will produce a nice scent to detour any stripers in your direction while the chunks will let them know they have struck pay dirt. You can also add a mix of mussels, bunker, crabs, squid, and shells to your basket if you like.

Once your bucket or basket is set you can start to toss clam chunks by hand. Be cognizant of the current flow and water depth so you can try to determine the rate as which the chunks are sinking. This will give you an idea of how far behind your boat they are ending up before they get close to the bottom. If need be toss the chunks up current.

Keep your chunks to a minimum so as not to feed the bass. You want them to take your baited hooks and not simply come into the slick for a free meal. Allow your baits to work back into the slick until you find the location behind the boat that the stripers are feeding.

For your rig use 20 pound test main line attached to three-way swivel. Attach a 12-24 inch 30 pound leader to this with a circle hook attached. Use a slightly heavier leader if the bottom is very rough. Attach a 10-15 inch 10 pound dropper loop to the other end of the three-way swivel for your weight. If you get hung up this lighter leader will break rather than your main running line. Use enough weight to hold bottom. The moving tide will produce the best results, fish areas with bottom structure in 12 -25 feet of water to begin, if nothing results move to the edges of the flats in 8-12 feet of water. Fish whole clams for the largest bass.

If you are placing your rod in a holder do so with the reel clicker on, this will alert you when a bass takes the bait. If the bite is hot however you will want to hold your rod as the take will come quickly. When a striper picks up the clam it will have the whole bait in its mouth so react quickly. With circle hooks just take up the slack if there is any while pointing the rod tip towards the take. Then just pull back slightly or reel gently on the rod while keeping it slightly to the side. There is no need to set the hook and lift the rod as you would if you were fishing a plug in the surf. The hook will set itself in the corner of the bass’s mouth as it swims away.

Another method that is going to take some large bass this month is by live lining herring. This method is much more difficult and losing popularity in the last several years because of the amount of work and care needed to get and keep herring alive compared to the ease of snagging or netting bunker. Nonetheless fishing herring will also be productive and rewarding.

Anadromous alewife and blueback herring will enter all of our backbay waters this month as they seek out freshwater rivers, creeks, and tributaries to spawn. You can obtain your herring by jigging small gold hooks, Zeke’s herring darts, dip nets, or cast netting them around the entrance to freshwater outflows or flumes. Check your Fish and Wildlife Digest for current regulations on the number and days that baits can be taken in specific locations. You are allowed to only take and have in your possession 35 alewifes or bluebacks in aggregate a day. No person shall take or attempt to take these baitfish by any means from the Deal Lake flume, Lake Takanasse spillway or Wreck Pond spillway in Sea Girt on any Monday, Wednesday or Friday during the months of April and May. You can acquire your baits by using dip nets 24" in diameter or less. Bait seines 50 feet long or less. Cast nets 20 feet in diameter or less, or lift or umbrella nets four feet square or less.

A livewell will be needed to transport the herring back and forth to the beach or the boat. Collecting baits first and keeping them in a holding pen somewhere in a river or lagoon will greatly facilitate this process and get you fishing quicker. But even here you are not to have more than 35 in your possession.

There have been two problems with pens in the last few seasons that have frustrated veteran herring anglers to know end. The first are sea otters that have an uncanny ability to get into almost any pen and make a quick meal out of the trapped herring. Make sure you secure your lid, sides, bottoms, etc so as to keep these bait stealers out. And construct your pen out of a material that they can not chew through but one that will not have the herring when they bump into it.

The second problem has also been with bait stealers but the human kind. Many pens have been broken into or removed completely by thieves more so in the last several years than ever before. This is unfortunate and demands prosecution to the fullest extent of the law. You may want to install a motion sensor light around your dock or bulkhead where your pen is kept to deter these criminals.

When fishing herring select alewives or bluebacks in the eight to eleven inch ranges, as these are the size of choice. The alewife is preferred slightly over the blueback because of its ability to remain alive longer, thus providing better action.

Use a 5/0 or 6/0 short shank live bait hook tied directly to 20-pound test line without any breaks or barrel swivel in the line that would normally attach a leader directly above the hook. Use a line that is of high abrasion quality if you will be fishing around a lot of jetty rocks. Unlike fishing a plug, you do not have to worry about a line twist problem with the herring. The less terminal tackle that you use the better the herring will swim. Conventional gear is favored over spinning gear due to better line control and more power that can be generated to subdue a large bass.

Knowing when to set the hook after your bait is taken will be one of the biggest problems that a beginner will encounter. A big bass will usually take the bait in one swipe, but the ensuing runs will be different for every fish. Over time an angler will develop a feel for when the time is right. There is no set rule or numbers to count to that will work with every fish all the time.

Springtime is usually always a guarantee that big trophy bass will show up. Using clams or herring will definitely get you into them. 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. Next month I will discuss the finer points of how to catch and fish these baits for the big trophy bass. There will be 50+ pounders and a few 60+ pound fish showing this spring. Maybe one will just end up become your trophy of a lifetime! End

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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