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Copyright © 1998 - 2014 Captain Jim Freda Stretching into Spring
by Capt. Jim Freda
Shore Catch Guide Service

he winter, if you want to call it that, is now behind us and April with her warmer weather is here. But that warmer weather never really disappeared this New Year and as a result both boaters and surfcasters are ready to go a bit earlier than usual. If March is any indication of what we can expect than a banner season could be had by all.

Our guide Rich Swisstack has been fishing just about everyday and has already caught and released over 200 bass in March alone. If you haven’t been following our Shore Catch reports for the month of March here is a short excerpt from one of Rich’s reports from the last week of March.

“Things have gone from good, to some of the best action I've ever seen, the bunker have absolutely filled up the bay, gannets are diving on them, and big fish are here with them. I fished last night for four hours, I only landed 5 fish, but they were real nice ones, I had 2- 33"ers, 1-35”er,1-36”er and one 40"er that weighed 23.5 lbs. I missed about 10 fish also in that time as my percentage was way off on the hook set probably because I was so jacked up. Fish rollin in huge schools of bunker as far as the eye could see.”

With the mild winter we just came through ocean temperatures along the Jersey Coast never dipped below 42 degrees. Further to our south along the mid-Atlantic states ocean temperatures were even higher. Since this is where the bulk of our migrating bass are coming from these fish are on the move early as are the bunker and herring that pull them in our direction.

Big adult bunker arrived in Raritan Bay this year right around March 15th. In the following week alewife herring were also present in good numbers. Anglers darting these herring around the freshwater spillways in the last two weeks have been having good success. Traditionally March is a quiet month on the water particularly for boaters since most marinas do not open until April 1st. That leaves boats that are on trailers as usually the only ones out on the water. But when we see conditions like we have seen this year some rethinking may be in order for next year as the fish are here.

As of this first week in April bunker have spread throughout most of Raritan Bay and can be found along the western shorelines of Barnegat Bay. Remember these adult bunker are in the bay to feed on plankton as this is where our spring blooms first take place in large enough concentrations of biomass to sustain them. These bunkers have already spawned offshore to our south along the mid-Atlantic states and then migrate in our direction.

For this reason bunker and herring are two prime early season baits that will take big fish. In my April and May Insider 2005 articles I discussed in detail how to fish herring and bunker for trophy bass. I went into detail on how to locate them, snag them, net them, and fish them either live or chunked from either the beach or the boat. Reviewing those articles at the start of this season would be a good idea.

But there is one other method that will take trophy bass at this time of year if you are not a bait person and that is to troll for them. I grew up trolling as a freshwater boater on the Big “O”, Lake Ontario, and absolutely loved every minute of it. For me it is a very relaxed yet very exciting way to fish once you set the table. Having six rods in a spread and just waiting for one or more of the rods to explode is quite a thrill.

Today my trolling expertise has graduated to the likes of tuna but I will always throw a rod spread early in the season when I know that big migrating striped bass are moving into our area. From mid-April into May are prime times for spring trolling but this method of fishing will remain productive throughout the entire season right up until our boats are pulled out of the water in December.

Here in my area of central New Jersey there is a fraternity of boaters that troll almost exclusively for striped bass throughout the season. Just recently the fishing community in my area lost one of the best-known and well respected striped bass trollers to cancer in March. This was Joe Nunziato, better known as “Nunz” to most. But if you didn’t know him you knew him by his big red boat.

Joe was icon at the Jersey Shore and was best known for his trophy striped bass that he would catch while trolling bunker spoons. In my book “Fishing the New Jersey Coast” in the chapter on the Shrewsbury Rocks I have detailed this method of trolling as taught to me by Joe. So rather than discuss it here please take a look at that chapter.

Besides using bunker spoons most trolling in the spring season is done with deep diving plugs. The introduction and perfection of this technology has made trolling deep a simple task. These big lipped plugs can attain depths of 30 feet or any range in between. There are no downriggers or wire line that is necessary. Just attach them to snap connected to mono or braid, let them out behind the boat, and you are in business.

Mann’s Bait Company has produced their line of deep diving plugs known as the Stretch’s. These plugs have varying lip sizes that can deep dive to various depths. Different plug lips will allow you to troll depths of 8, 18, 25, or 30 feet. These are traditionally the plugs that most striped bass trollers use.

With 150 feet of 50 lb mono these lures will run to their stated depth. These lures are meant to be slowed troll at speeds of 2-4 mph. At faster speeds that can begin to roll and will no longer dig. This slow speed however is ideal for bass as they do not want to chase baits down but rather attack it quickly as a lure comes by. If you are trolling with 50 lb braid instead of mono you will even be able to attain greater depths due to the smaller diameter of the braid.

Polish Shad

The other deep diving plug that I will pull is the Polish plug distributed by Gapen. These deep diving plugs are some of the most realistic imitations I have seen on the market today. Simply put they look like a bait out of water when you are holding a plug in your hand. There is no odd manufactured look to them. Realism is the key.

As mentioned trolling can be fun and relaxing but can become frustrating if your lines begin to tangle. An erratic wide sweeping plug in your spread can wreak havoc on your other lines. It is important to check how each plug is swimming before you mix it up with others. To do this first set your trolling speed and then release the plug about 10 yards or so behind the boat where it is still visible. Simply watch the action to see how the plug is running. These plugs should run with a tight wobble heading down rather than off to one side or the other.

When setting your spread set your deepest swimmers first keeping them closest to the boat when setting out multiple rods. Your mid depth rods will be set next further back followed by shallowest swimmers set the furthest back. When breaking down and pulling a spread in just reverse the order bringing the shallowest swimmers in first.

Also keep in mind when turning that a quick sharp turn will most likely result in tangles. Give your plugs time to come around. When you turn, your inside plugs those on the side of the boat in the direction you are turning, will slow down and as a result start to float up towards the surface. Your outside plugs on the other hand will speed up and dig.

Both of these motions can however trigger strikes as your artificial is now doing something different that may get a bass’s attention. This is especially true of the plugs that move up in the water column, as they will appear to be injured.

For this reason I will usually employ an S shaped trolling pattern when heading in a particular direction. This slight turning will help to move my plugs vertically in the water column and not just have them track straight ahead. Varying my speed slightly, just one mph faster or slower, will also produce the same effect as plugs will dig more when I speed up and rise higher in the water column at the slower speeds.

Watching your rod tip is an important skill to learn when trolling. A detritus free, clean plug will produce a certain rhythmic vibration in your rod tip. You should become familiar with this motion and be able to detect even the slightest change. If a piece of algae or detritus gets hung up on one of the hooks this will alter the vibration of the rod tip.

If you are reading fish on your fishfinder but you are not getting any knock-downs I would start thinking along these lines that one of my hooks is fouled with something on it. A plug that has even a small piece of detritus on it usually will not get hit. At some point you will need to pull your plugs in to check them. I will usually make two passes over an area where I am reading fish and thinking that I should be getting hooked up before I start pulling in plugs to check them.

Plugs colors in the early part of the season are also important as you are usually fishing in tainted discolored water from runoff of early spring rains. For this reason chartreuse, white, yellow, pearl, and the florescent colors are pulled on my spread more so than solid dark colors.

For rods and reels I like to use conventional gear pairing up my 6’6” St. Croix Premier 15-30 lb trolling rods with Avet MX 4.5 or LX 4.5 reels. I spool these with 30 lb mono or 50 lb braid. I don’t recommend trolling with spinning rods as the drag systems are not up to snuff for handling a trophy bass and line capacities are limited.

So good luck if you plan to relax and Stretch into Spring. There are some big bass here now ready and willing to hit one of these plugs. I do encourage you to practice catch and release as many of these big bass are our breeders.  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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