By Don Malkowski
Here some great tips to help you catch more Striper or Rockfish on the Chesapeake Bay.
WHAT: It doesn’t matter what you call it, Striped Bass, Rockfish, Linesider, True Bass, or Striper, it’s probably the most sought after near shore species on the East coast from the Carolinas north to New England. Morone saxatilis, as its known in the scientific world, excites anglers with a deep seeded passion. They are singled out by so many anglers because you can catch them from nearly any platform. Whether you fish from a canoe, a 74’ Viking, walk the numerous local piers, or keep your feet in the sand along the surf, you have the opportunity to land stripers. That’s the great allure of this fish.
Stripers inhabit bays, rivers, and the coastal regions along the Western Atlantic. They migrate along the coastline and breed in the rivers during the spring. Stripers are distinguished by the 7-8 dark stripes that extend horizontally along its body. It has an olive to steely blue or gray back with a white belly. A large mouth is suited for eating anything from clams, eels, and small bait fish to trout and flounders. Menhaden, or Bunker as it is called on occasion, is the primary forage for migrating Stripers, but Sand eels and other bait will also feed their appetites. The oldest recorded age for a Striper is approximately 30 years old. Males can reach lengths of 45 inches, while females can top out well over 70 inches. Striper can range vastly in weight, depending on the time of year. A 45 inch fish caught in the beginning of a migration can weigh as little as 28-30 pounds, where as the same fish caught just a few months later can top the scales near 50 pounds. This is due to their voracious eating habits pre-spawn. The IGFA World Record holds at 78 pounds 8 oz, but the largest Striper ever caught weighed in at 125 pounds.
After a near catastrophic decline in the Striper population in the early 80’s from over fishing, strong regulatory action was set in place to protect the species. The Federal Government closed its waters out past 3 miles to Striper fishing and States put restrictions on size and bag limits to help replenish the stock. Current Virginia regulations can be found at VMRC’s (Virginia Marine Resources Commission) website, http://www.mrc.state.va.us.
WHEN & WHERE: Due to their migratory patterns, the “When” and “Where” depend on the time of year and water temperatures. Striper can be had nearly year round; however, the big seasons locally along the Mid-Atlantic are spring and fall/winter. Stripers like to hang around in rocky areas (giving them one of their names, Rockfish) and structure with strong currents where they lie in wait for a passing meal. They also can favor rips, the mouths of rivers and inlets, or the holes along the surf zone.
Stripers are comfortable in waters ranging from the low 40’s up to 70 plus degrees. The different water temps will dictate where and how you fish for them. As I said earlier, Stripers are migratory fish, leaving their spawning grounds in the Spring and most heading north, only to return south in the Fall and Winter months as the temperatures drop, forcing bait to move south to warmer waters. Many studies are being conducted to determine if all fish migrate, and also if the fish return to the same spawning grounds as the previous year. Many juvenile fish will stay in the bays and rivers until large enough to make the ocean migration, usually once they reach 24-28 inches.
Spring will see more fish entering the bays and rivers as they find comfortable and safe spawning grounds. So for the Chesapeake Bay area, any of the Bay Bridge complexes, the middle bay, inlets, or mouths of rivers are prime areas to target trophy fish. During the Fall, the fish will leave the rivers and bays and head out into the open ocean feeding on large schools of bait preparing for their migrations south. The same areas will produce fish in early fall. Several local hot spots include the Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel, the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel, James River, 9 foot Shoals, High Rise Bridge, Plantation Light, the buoys along the northern shipping channel of the Chesapeake Bay, the Cell, and any of the numerous tributary river mouths.
As water temperatures drop even more, into the low 50’s and cooler, most the fish will begin to move out of the bay and into the open ocean. Some fish migrating from northern areas will duck into the bay for a “Pit spot” before heading further south. Once in the ocean, the fish can be right along the shore or further out in deeper waters. This is primarily determined by the location of bait.
Another big determinant to Striper fishing is weather. You may be close to shore, but the colder water temps make it extremely dangerous to mess around with unnerving sea conditions. VBSF.net sponsor Capt Scott Sinclair of “On Course Custom Charters “ believes in this strongly and does his homework to ensure a safe return from a great day of fishing. “Weather is everything; it sets the standards for fishing. Weather determines if we stay in or go out. There are many sites to choose from to get your weather forecast. Choose these sites and then compare them. However, a barometer is a must. Rapidly falling pressure is a danger sign for mariners. Building pressure is a plus for fisherman. I watch the barometer carefully.”
HOW: Techniques to catching stripers are nearly as numerous as the fish themselves. Surf casting, live baiting, flies, jigging, trolling, and chunking are just a few. Each technique is determined by the time of year and location of the fish. So I’m going to break the “How” section down into seasons and touch on different tactics for each.
Early fall/spring: Early fall and spring can combine together since the fish will be found in nearly the same locations. The only difference is whether they’re coming or going. This is the time when water temps can be in the upper 50’s to mid 60’s. Working any of the bridges that span the bay, bottom contours/structure, inlets and rivers are good areas to start. Here’s how to get ‘em…
Live Baiting. Menhaden, Spot and Eels top the list of entrees on a Striper’s menu. Menhaden and Spot are primarily used while casting to the rock islands around the tunnel entrances. Casting the live bait right into the rocks and letting the bait work is the ticket. The Stripers bed in the rocks just waiting for baitfish to be washed into their strike zone by the waves breaking on the islands. Simply add a length of mono or fluorocarbon leader to your main fishing line. I like 30-40 pound test since you’re fishing around the rocks. Then add a live-bait hook or circle hook, usually around 6/0-8/0 depending on the size of your bait. Here I like the Gamakatsu Circle Octopus hooks or a Mustad Live-Bait O’Shaughnessy #94151. Hook the bait either under the chin threw the top of the nose, in the shoulder just in front of the dorsal fin, or threw the tail.
You can also use live baitfish when dropping the pilings, but here I prefer to use eels. Eels are nasty little critters that can take some getting use to. First tip when fishing with these slimy baits is to put them on ice. Take a bucket and drill a few small holes in the bottom to allow the melting ice water to drain out. Put a layer of ice in the bucket. Place the eels over the ice. The ice will put them in a state of hibernation. This makes it much easier to pick them up and put them on the hook. Once the eel hit’s the water it will come back to life and start squirming around. I like to use the Octopus hooks in this application as well, again in 6/0-8/0. You can either use a standard 3-way bottom rig with a dropper loop for your sinker, and 3-4 feet of 30-40 pound mono or fluorocarbon attached to your hook, or a fish-finder rig. If drifting I like the 3-way rig and if anchored or casting from shore, I like the fish-finder. Hook the eel behind its gills, or threw its tail. Eels have a tendency to ball themselves up in a knot. When they do this, they can easily put knots in your leader. They are the only marine animal I know that can tie a Bimini Twist. Hooking them in the tail helps prevent this and also forces the eel to swim away from your fishing line.
Once you’ve got the eel on the hook drop it over and hold on. Eels are known as “Striper Candy”. Stripers have a hard time passing them up. Drop the eels along the pilings, next to the rocks, or drift them over the tubes or bottom structure.
You can also use floats to suspend eels at different depths. Here you’ll tie a length of leader onto your main line like you would if using baitfish. Attach hook and some splitshot to add just enough weight to keep the eel below the float. Attach the float up your main line at a desired depth and float it back. This is very effective for suspended fish, and as an additional bait if anchored on the chunk.
Top Water/ Subsurface. Top Water action is probably the most exciting since you see the strike. This technique is utilized when the water temps are on the warmer end of the scale. This is because the fish are readily found closer to the surface and more active. Whether fishing at night or during the day, throwing a top water bait will drive Stripers nuts. Again, I’ll be fishing along the rock islands of the tunnel entrances. If fishing at night, I’ll be working the light lines and shadows under the spans. Night fishing in the fall can find the Stripers stacked up right on the surface like cordwood. Here lures like MirrOlure “Top Dog”, “Catch 2000”, chuggers, poppers, lipped crank baits, bucktails and Storm lures are the arsenal of choice. If on the rocks at the islands, cast the lure right into the rocks. Work the side of the island with the most wave action and let the crashing waves wash the lure into the rocks. Start to work the bait away for the islands and work it all the way to the boat. Sometimes you can have a fish following a bait for a while before striking. Once you see a 34 inch bucket mouth crash a top water plug, you’ll know why its one of the favorite techniques among anglers.
Jigging. Bucktails have been used to land big Stripers for years and are still very effective today. Either tipped with cut squid or with artificial rubber curly tails, bucktails are a must in a Striper tackle box. Work these baits right along side the pilings of the spans, jig them over the tubes, or drop them in the rocks. To get the most out of the bait, drop it down then “Jig” it up and let it fall again. Repeat for a while and then try different depths if no takers. Stripers are opportunistic feeders. Since they have flat tails, they don’t have the speed advantaged like their forked tailed cousins. Therefore, many times the fish will hit the baits on the slow freefall. This is a time when braided line can come into play. Since braid line has little to zero stretch, you can feel the fish hit the bait and you’ll also be able to set the hook with more authority.
Other jigging baits include Diamond jigs, Hopkins spoons, heavier Storm Lures or Gotcha Plugs.
Trolling. Most of the trolling during the Spring and early Fall is concentrated around the bridge spans and tunnels, but can also be taken to the open areas around the bay’s shipping channels and river mouths. Due to the close proximity to other boats and the bridges themselves, certain techniques have been adapted to make the best of the situation. Wire-lining is the go to method next to the pilings and over the tubes. Here anglers will have conventional reels spooled with braided wire. This allows the baits to be pulled straight down directly behind the boat without the bow-back you would get from the standard stretchy mono. With the creation of the new high-performance braided lines, many are switching over from wire. Braided lines give you similar results and are easier to work with.
The basic trolling rig is a standard 3-way bottom rig on steroids. Take a heavy duty 3-way swivel. On the bottom swivel, tie a 3-5 foot length of mono. This is for your sinker. Here I’ll use 20 pound test. There are many obstructions along the bridge span, so having a light leader will allow you to beak off the sinker without loosing the “money” part of the rig. You can attach a snap swivel for ease of sinker changes if you wish. Off the top part of the swivel, I’ll attach at least 15 feet, sometimes up to 25 feet of 40-50 pound mono or fluorocarbon. It’s not uncommon for me to use even heavier mono, 60-80 pounds. This is not so much for the fish, but for me. If the bite is hot, you may have several fish on at once, with only one net. This allows you to be able to hoist the Striper into the boat if the net is being used on another fish on the other side of the boat. To the end of the mono or fluoro, I attach a snap swivel. Again this aids in quick changes of lures. For trolling the spans, I like Storm Lures, small bucktails (by themselves or with a curly tail), Tomics, or Crippled Alewives Spoons. You can also slow troll live eels off this rig. Just replace the snap swivel with a hook.