When I was a kid, I envisioned the sea packed full of fish. Cast a magical piece of bait into the water, and a fish!
It didn't take long for me to figure out that that just wasn't so, especially when fishing for striped bass. Of course, several first-time striper anglers will come home with 40-pound cows this coming season, but usually without a clue about How or Why. Their fishing success may prove to be short-lived.
Striped bass fishing is practically an art form, complete with its own masters, students, and a whole lot of enjoyment for all. Understanding your target species is one of the most important things any angler can do.
As a professional underwater photographer and an avid angler, I've spent much time around striped bass, both below and above the water. I have found that observing their behavior and habitat from my underwater perspective has greatly increased my success as as angler. If you, too, are a diver, I highly recommend diving your favorite fishing grounds.
It's easy to observe striped bass. They seem to be constant dive companions whenever they're around. The primary reason why stripers are attracted to divers is the opportunity for a free meal. As a diver swims along, small crustaceans, such as crabs, shrimp and other small creatures, get kicked up from the bottom, leaving a scrumptious smorgasbord floating behind the swimmer.
One of the stripers' favorite treats is something we humans crave as well -- Lobster.
Lobster diving is a popular sport that both divers and stripers can enjoy at the same time. The lobster diver catches a legal-size lobster, and puts it in his or her catch bag, but the short lobsters are released. From the frying pan into the fire!
A full-grown striper can eat a 1-pound lobster without a problem. If it has a hard shell, the striper will break it in half first. If it has a medium to soft shell, it will be swallowed whole.
I doubt that anyone will be willing to give up a lobster diner to catch a striper, but the lobsters' less-valued cousins, the crabs, can make a nice striper bait. If you're using them whole, try to find the smallest you can, but stay within the regulations. In New York, that means not harvesting any crabs or lobsters that are in spawn (eggs visible). You are also held to a possession limit of 50 crabs of any species.
While diving, I see stripers in the same areas almost all the time. When I say area, I mean not only something like a 100-yard stretch of beach, but also more specific spots, such as a certain boulder, sandy point, or rocky crevice. It didn't take long for me to figure out that these very specific spots were attractive to bass.
The next time you hook into a fish, remember exactly where it came from. If you're on a boat, get a good reading from your fish finder to determine what structure, if any, is below, and remember to mark the location with your Loran.
If you're on the beach, pick out your landmarks, and make a return trip during low tide to gain an understanding of the bottom contour.
Once you have a reliable spot, there still remains the matter of convincing a striper to take the lure or bait.
"It looks like mackerel, it smells like mackerel, but why the heck ain't it movin' like a mackerel?" says the wary striper.
That can be the problem for both lures and baits, unless they are used properly. Underwater, a chunk of bait is a strange and foreign-looking thing. It either floats neutral in the water or slowly sinks to the bottom. Once on the bottom, bait can be covered by sand and seaweed quickly, not to mention a swarm of hungry crabs. I've noticed that stripers will overlook a piece of bait that is just lying motionless on the bottom. Only after many close inspections, locating the bait by smell alone, will the striper attempt to pick it up.
When and where would a striper encounter anything like a motionless piece of bait in the wild? Chunks of bait might be found in the recent aftermath of a feeding frenzy, so I create my own chum slick, complete with drifting scraps of bait, to simulate the aftermath of a feeding frenzy. This set up is so much more believable that stripers will be fighting for the food.
It is possible to catch a hungry striper with a piece of bait that is cast out there and left alone, but finesse will be many times more productive.
As far as lures go, they can be extremely effective in attracting a strike, if used properly. Underwater, I notice that stripers, as smart as they are, are also reflexive hunters.
For example, a 40-inch striper casually checked me out one day. As it came within a couple of feet, I took its picture. The flash of the strobe was mistaken for the silver flash the size of a menhaden, and my strobe was in this large striper's mouth before I even knew what was happening. A brief battle for control ensued, and I was victorious. The striper, somewhat confused, swam off.
As with many predatory game fish, a flash of silver, like that of a baitfish, can provoke a sudden attack. Many silvery spoons imitate not only the glitter of a menhaden or other baitfish, but their swimming motion as well.
There are other movements that will attract a striper's attention. The wiggle of a rubber bait imitates the wiggle of a small fish's tail. Lures that have a zig-zag, "walk-the-dog" motion can be made to swim just like a fleeing bait fish. In fact, most of the lures out there can be made to move in a certain way that will attract a strike, but subtle differences can make all the difference.
Stripers often tend to stay in a particular area that they seem to like. I have recognized many individuals by their peculiar scars or markings, and have seen them at the same dive sites over the course of an entire summer. By practicing good catch and release fishing, you will be able to enjoy striper fishing at your favorite spots time and time again.
Remember, don't be disappointed when the guy in the boat next to you throws a stale, stinky piece of mackerel out there, falls asleep for two hours, seriously sunburning his bare chest, and wakes up to find a trophy striper on the line. Meanwhile, you have been painstakingly presenting your nice fresh bait in a natural manner without getting so much as a nibble. That's just the way striper angling goes. Thankfully, fishing isn't an exact science, or what fun would it be?