“Be ready for a screamer.” My buddy Matt and I were anchored in the middle of the Hudson River with our rods baited, weighted, and fluttering in the current. “What the hell is a screamer?” I asked. Almost on cue, the rod next to me buckled and line started peeling off the drag in a loud banshee-like wail. I yanked the rod from its holder, set the hook, and immediately felt a heavy, struggling weight. “It’s a good one,” Matt said as I tried to wrestle the leviathan to the boat.
My arms were starting to ache but eventually I pulled the fish close enough that Matt could lean out over the gunwale and scoop it from the water. He flopped the 25-pound striped bass onto the deck and grinned. “Your first spring striper,” he said, slapping me on the back. “Welcome to the club!”
The coming of the spring striped bass migration is almost a religious holiday for the anglers of the Northeast. They begin dusting off their equipment, prepping their boats, and saying prayers to Poseidon months before the fish show up in late April and early May from their wintering grounds along the North Carolina and Virginia coasts.
The mature, migratory stripers come by the thousands in sizes ranging from 10 to over 40 pounds, following currents of cooler water along the Northeastern coast. Arriving in force, the fish push up into large rivers like the Hudson and the Delaware, shallow bays like the Chesapeake, and hundreds of small, shallow estuaries and tributaries from Connecticut to Maine to feed and spawn.
When the fish are available, there will literally be hundreds of boats anchored or drifting along in the current of the rivers or staged in anticipation at the head of the bays. Shore anglers line the banks and beaches in droves, casting into the current or soaking baits in hopes of capitalizing on the mass migration. Yet success only comes for those properly prepared with both the rights baits and the right equipment designed to handle the heavy and hardy stripers they’re after.
Spring stripers can be caught on a variety of tackle. But they’re strong fish and particularly adept at using river currents and rolling surf to leverage their strength when hooked. You need to pull out the big guns when trying to bring them to hand.
“It’s like lassoing a bull that’s running downhill,” said veteran striper angler Matt Perry of Albany, New York. “You’re not going to be able to handle them on the same gear you use for bass or trout or even the gear you use for muskie. You’ve got to use rods with a lot of backbone and reels with drags you can completely lock down if necessary.”
Perry likes to employ heavy, fast-action rods paired with higher-end spinning or baitcasting reels strung with 30- to 60-lb braided line that has the strength to stop the fish from running and hold them in heavy current.
“You have to be able to stop that initial run,” said Perry. “Otherwise, they’ll completely spool you out or dive for the bottom and where they’ll tangle you up in the rocks and snags. Even schoolie stripers (smaller fish) can run you to hell and gone if your gear isn’t up for the job.”
Fly anglers wishing to try their luck with the long rod should also use heavy equipment. Tip-flex, 8- to 10-weight fly rods are ideal for the task, but you’ll not be over gunned using an 11- or even a 12-weight. Depending on the depth of the rivers or beaches you’re fishing from, it’s best to use either a sink-tip or fully sinking line that can get your fly to the strike zone quickly. Stripers aren’t very leader shy, so you can tip the rig with any heavy, abrasion-resistant tippet in the 30- to 80-pound range.
Bait fishing with either live or dead bait is probably your best bet when you’re looking to catch a striper. During spring, the striper’s migration coincides with the herring run, as the smaller fish come to the rivers and shallows to feed in preparation for their own spawn. The big bass gorge themselves on the small silver bait throughout their migration, making herring or anything that imitates them the perfect bait for the voracious predators.
You can purchase live herring in many bait shops along the coast or catch them yourself from the rivers and estuaries where they migrate by using a Sabiki rig or dipnetting in places where it’s legal. You can also find and buy frozen herring in many bait shops and even some grocery stores. These dead baits can be just as effective as live bait and even occasionally work better.
There are a couple of different ways to rig baits for stripers depending on how you choose to fish. When anchoring or fishing from shore, your best bet is deadsticking. This method consists of attaching a bait and sinker to your line and casting it into a bay or river where it can sit on the bottom waiting for a striper to come along and inhale it.
To set it up, string a heavy 2- to 4-ounce casting sinker onto your main line and then tie it to one end of a barrel swivel. Attach 3 to 4 feet of 30- to 60-pound monofilament line to the other end of the swivel and tie a large 2/0 to 3/0 circle hook to the line. Attach a live or dead herring to the rig by sticking the point of the hook into the bait’s mouth and through the top of its nose just beyond its nostrils and then cast it out into the water. Let the bait sink to the bottom where the weight will hold it in place and the bait can flutter or struggle beneath the surface. Set the rod in place with a tight line and a loose drag so that any striper who grabs it will feel little resistance until you tighten the drag and set the hook.
If you’re fishing in a river from a boat, dead drifting live or dead bait can also be very efficient, especially when you’re searching for fish. Use the same bait rig but with a lighter 1- to 2-ounce sinker, which will bounce along the bottom rather than holding in one place. Move upstream of any likely striper spots, drop your baits, and then drift down with the current letting your weights tick along the bottom. Make sure to keep a tight hold of your rod because any striper that eats your bait on the drift will absolutely slam it.
There are a lot of great spring striper techniques for anglers using lures as well. Casting and retrieving large spoons and spinners like the Dixie Big Daddy and the Mepps Muskie Killer are a popular and incredibly effective method for anglers fishing from shore, especially when the water you’re fishing is less than 20 feet deep. It’s a simple fishing style that consists of casting your line out into a river or off a beach, letting it sink for a few seconds, and then retrieving it back in at a frantic pace that a striper might mistake for a panicked herring.
If you’re fishing from a boat, trolling is your best option because it allows you to cover a lot of water and stay on top of migrating schools of stripers once you find them. Use downriggers so that you can keep your lures a few feet off the bottom—the optimum depth for migrating stripers. Troll lures like Rapalas, crankbaits like the Berkely Flicker Shad, and swimbaits like the Realimage, either slowly upstream when fishing in rivers or across the mouth of inlets and bays. If possible, try to troll with multiple lures at once in a variety of both natural and fluorescent colors and lure styles until you find what the bass are really keyed in on.
Fly anglers chasing stripers have a lot of options when it comes to fly patterns. When fishing from piers or beaches, casting and stripping large streamers like the Clouser Minnow, Lefty’s Deceiver, and Chockett’s Game Changer in both natural and bright colors like pink and chartreuse can be incredibly effective. These patterns and strategies will also work well for hunting stripers in smaller, shallower rivers. However, for larger rivers your best bet is swinging flies, preferably with a Spey rod. Swinging flies consists of perpendicular across the current, mending some slack into your line, allowing your fly to sink, and then coming tight to the line so that it swings across the current and dangles below you. It’s a method that covers a lot of water and offers you the best chance at finding active stripers on the fly. Swinging flies can also be effective with some of the same flashy streamer patterns I use for salmon and winter steelhead. My favorite striper pattern is a large Intruder, which has a lot of flash and movement in the water, making them the perfect thing to snag an aggressive spring bass.
There’s something about stripers. In an ocean full of a seemingly endless number of fish species, they stand out as a true prize. It’s not because they grow to a giant size, present a particular challenge, or exist in exotic destinations like other sought-after gamefish, rather the opposite. Stripers are a fish of the people. During their spring run, they arrive in large numbers and can be caught by a multitude of methods. They offer everyone—from the grizzled veteran to the wide-eyed greenhorn—a chance to hold a piece of the majesty and wonder of the sea in their own hands. All it takes is a little knowhow, some heavy equipment, and always being ready for a screamer.
Feature image via Tosh Brown.