In a fish’s world, everything is dependent on water temperature, which ultimately influences wind and weather patterns every year as North America warms up for its summer season.
This year has been a testament to the New England saying: “If you don’t like the weather wait a minute and it will change. Very little has been as would be expected most years, to this point in time.
I knew I shouldn’t have used an abrasive cleanser on the old “crystal ball over the winter” because looking ahead from the time of writing to the printing of the article the sometimes trusty “crystal ball” looks more like a cup of coffee with cream.
Weather patterns have been swinging wildly from bone chilling cold to simply “dam cold”, which is an improvement of sorts. As the day light hours steadily increase by a minute and eighteen seconds per day, the sun does its job of warming our land and waters incrementally through June 21, the longest day.
Those barely perceptible increases in light particles striking the earth and releasing their energy add up quickly. The results become noticeable during April and into May when they start paying dividends in the form of increased catches for most species both salt and freshwater anglers are targeting.
As of this writing, mid-April for the May edition, water temperatures off the coast of the spawning rivers to our south, from New Jersey to Virginia, were still cool, under 50 F. It will take a few more sunny days to elevate coastal temperatures to the point where stripers will begin moving northward.
Schoolies lead this procession, with larger mature members of the spawning population a few weeks behind. They are essentially feeding their way northward. These migratory stripers mix with wintering populations as they “wake up” for the year and join in on the coastal smorgasbord.
When this begins word will get out along the coast as they feed their way northward and anglers begin catching fish in their favorite places. When they do arrive there are a few somewhat predictable events that anglers can use to their advantage. The menhaden run, the squid run and the various worm spawns that occur every year along with some opportunistic feeding.
Most anglers have had some experience with what is called the “noseeums”. This is a frustrating event when striped bass are visible on or near the surface swirling and grabbing something other than our lures and even live baits.
I observed a striper lazily swimming along with its mouth open, literally straining what turned out to be small creatures called “isopods” from the water near the surface. They are not invisible but small enough to be difficult to see under normal surface water and light conditions. I had a fine mesh minnow net in the boat and scooped up a few, placed them in a container and took them home to identify and photograph. They look kind of like tiny, short rolly polly shrimp or those “pill bugs” one sees when a rotting log is turned over.
Combat the noseeum event by doing work around the house when it’s taking place or fishing after dark with live eels or trolling tube and worm rigs. The latter can be dangerous for propellers if like me you troll these rigs in shallow rocky stretches of shore. I fished out of a 20 foot Lund Alaskan Aluminum that required about two feet of water clearance with the motor tilted high as possible, so there was plenty of leeway when I went tubing after dark and my skeg and props had the missing paint to prove minor mistakes frequently occurred.
For a long time, waters here in Connecticut and Long Island Sound have been a tad too warm for mackerel to come into this area like they did decades ago. When I first began venturing on the ocean for stripers in a boat, the first task was to catch some mackerel to live line.
These days during the late spring and early summer when the adult spawners reach our waters, the same thing can be done by snagging and live lining adult menhaden that are moving north to feed and spawn. There has been a run of migrating menhaden with stripers and early run bluefish in the lower Thames River for the past few seasons. The duration of this annual event varies a good deal, so it’s best to make a run as soon as the bunker show and hope something is eating them.
One of the feeding events many anglers do very well on stripers from midsized adults to the oldest, largest members of the population is the “squid bite”. When calamari moves inshore to spawn during the late spring into the summer, everything that can get a mouth around even a tentacle will feed on them.
A number of years ago my son and I were casting Yozuri Hydro Squid lures with barbs flattened into a large school of squid feeding stripers. That evening we left when the sun was still visible above the western horizon. During a couple of hours, we caught and released 37 stripers ranging from the mid twenty inch class to high thirty inch range, in less than fifty casts and we dropped some other fish. We were drifting over a reef with the motor turned off and tilted up, so we wouldn’t spook the fish that were feeding like humans at an all you can eat buffet. That evening was by far my best three hours of quality striper I’ve ever experienced.
We played and released our fish, ran a wide circle back up tide and repeated the process, often having double hook ups on nearly every drift. A couple of our lures had been modified by replacing the treble with single hooks, so none were damaged very badly before they were freed. Being caught, dehooked and let go must be like an alien abduction from the fish’s point of view.
When waters in the shallows along the coast reach something like 65 F an event erroneously called the “worm hatch” by many takes place in salt ponds, large, sun drenched coves and other similar places. This event is actually a mass spawning orgy, polychaete worm style.
Marine anglers are most familiar with the large “sand” or “yellow jawed clam worms” (Neres succinia) that that average six to eight inches and sold in bait shops everywhere. They can be used whole or broken into pieces to catch pretty much anything that swims in our waters.
I’ve personally had great success catching stripers of all sizes by trolling a short red “striper tube” lure with a sand worm or half of one on the single hook at the end. I’ve even had some success using scented, soft plastic sand worms after the live bait ran out. These bait worms have segmented bodies with paddles that allow them to swim up off the bottom into the water column. When they do this they are easy marks for any fish.
It is their smaller cousins, Neres virens, “common clam worm” that average about three inches that are the species responsible for the “worm hatch” events that come out by the tens of thousands in salt ponds and coastal shallows to spawn, usually during May or early June. When their annual spawning event is peaking it creates one of my favorite short term light tackle school striper fisheries. It is more of a numbers and action game that requires accurate casting with worm flies or in my case light spinning tackle. We always did well, initially with 4.5 inch Slug-Go’s a popular freshwater bass lure. My favorite and most productive lure, for light spin fishing the worm spawn is a 3.5 inch, Texas Chili Colored Slug-Go, with the original color in that size being a close second choice. They are rigged with a small large gap, light wire single hook in the nose and out the belly so as much of the hook is exposed as possible. The hook acts as a keel but also bites well once a mouth is closed around it, cast with a long light spinning rod, a short mono leader tied to my favorite line, 8 or 10 pound test Fireline.
The trick is to spot a feeding striper that leaves a trail of swirls as they grab these small worms by the mouth full. Anticipate where the next swirl might be, drop the lure on that spot, twitch it to the surface and retrieve near or occasionally breaking the surface slowly as possible and wait for the strike. A worm spawn is an evening event, which fit well for me when I was “working” a day job. I could get home, grab my small boat, drive to Charleston Salt Pond, pap a launch fee at one of the marinas and be on the water looking for swirls in less than two hours.
The real action starts around dusk and slows after dark, so there is a couple of hours window of prime “swirl hunting” time. Not a grueling outing by any means, though high winds that make larger waves makes it more difficult to spot feeding bass, so we preferred calm or low wind conditions. The point is getting there shortly before the feeding frenzy begins.
This is an event that requires fly rods or light spinning rigs to cast the small light lures far and accurately enough to drop them on the noses of surfacing stripers.
I suspect the stripers follow the trail of spawning worms and possibly their scent that is pulled out of the flats and shallows by dropping tides. The stripers probably hang around to take advantage of the free smorgasbord for a few evenings. Once I caught a keeper sized striper with a rig I’d busted off the previous evening. There was a few feet of line with the leader and what I know was my rig due to the knots used to connect the leader to the main line.
Once during the many years of enjoying this event since first giving it a try during the 1980’s, I hooked and landed a striper that was about thirty pounds. The vast majority of the larger worm slurping stripers we caught were under the legal length of 28 inches, with an occasional thirty plus in the mix during a particularly productive outing.
That ungrateful thirty pounder gave me that splash of water in the face when I let it go. I will take those splashes any time for anything because it takes a pretty good sized fish to do that “good bye splash”.