North Side / Radar Pier Jamaica Bay, New York
By John McMurray
Every year, Capt. Vinnie Calabro logs more stripers over 50 pounds than perhaps anyone else in the mid-Atlantic. Believe it or not, he does so within the confines of New York City.
Calabro, now 52 and a native New Yorker, started fishing when he was 7, caught his first striper at 9 and has since embarked on a journey that led him all over the East Coast in search of big stripers. He always returns to Jamaica Bay, a 10,000-acre estuary and wildlife sanctuary sandwiched between Queens and Brooklyn. Call 516-728-6952, or visit www.karenanncharters.com.
When asked: If you could pick one place to fish stripers for the rest of your life, where would that be? Calabro didn't hesitate: the North Side Radar Pier in Grassy Bay.
"If you take the tip of the pier and head southwest, you'll see the marshes open up," Calabro says. "These cuts are virtual runways that fish use to go to and from each side of the bay."
According to Calabro, Jamaica Bay is unique in the mid-Atlantic because its salt-marsh system lies smack in the middle of one of the most industrialized areas in the region. Despite the proximity to such human activity, the marsh remains protected as part of the Gateway National Park system.
Yet, the bay is technically an "artificial" estuary: No natural, freshwater flows enter Jamaica Bay anymore. Two sewage-treatment plants pump a combined 258 million gallons of fresh water per day. The treated effluent must comply with high standards but remains very nutrient rich. Such nutrients fuel a bottom-of-the-food-chain cycle that results in some of the region's highest bait concentrations.
Atlantic menhaden - or bunker - is the most abundant baitfish in Jamaica Bay and the one that draws the big stripers. Because bunker are filter feeders - consuming algae, detritus and other microscopic blooms that result from nutrient-rich water - the concentrations in Jamaica Bay, and particularly the Grassy Bay portion, seem to be much higher than other areas in the region.
Calabro has become somewhat of a local icon when it comes to fishing live bunker for striped bass. Every morning in spring and early summer, he runs out to the Radar Pier hours before dawn and perches on the front of a skiff with cast net in hand. A master at netting bunker, he often corrals 50 baits in one throw. He can sometimes find bunker just by sense of smell.
Not only do the enormous concentrations of bunker draw big stripers to Radar Pier, but the unique bottom contour and marsh ecosystem do too. "It's as diverse a place to fish as the population that surrounds it," he says. "In its resume are depths of 40 to 60-plus feet, which are adjacent to marsh flats in the two- to five-foot range."
When asked about technique, Calabro says he lets conditions decide. "Each day is a different story," he says. "I let the day come to me, modifying rigs and presentation."
His favorite rig for live-lining bunker is a three-way swivel with a 2/0 treble and a dipsy sinker. But keep in mind that Calabro's charters generally fish for their limit and go home. For the average angler, I'd recommend substituting an 8/0 circle hook for the treble.
The length and ratio of leader to sinker line varies, but a good rule is three to four feet of up to 40-pound-test monofilament or fluorocarbon to the hook and maybe half that to the sinker. The dipsy might weigh ¼ to 6 ounces, depending on the current, depth and fishing method.
Calabro changes rods and line weights depending on conditions; sometimes he's fishing the flats in water less than five feet deep, other times he'll be dropping bunker in Jamaica Bay's deep pits, which were dredged for fill during the construction of JFK Airport in Queens. However, he catches most of his big fish over structure and depth changes. In those situations, he uses medium to heavy conventional rods.
When the tide slackens, he might move off the structure and fish bunker under the bait schools. He generally uses lighter tackle for that approach, sometimes snagging a bait with a weighted treble and letting it swim within the school's perimeter.
Sometimes, at first light or when he can see bass at the surface, he fishes a flat line with no leader, swivel or weight. He uses a 7-foot light-action Shimano Trevala rod or a spinner to toss baits into the shallows.
The key is flexibility. "Humans are creatures of habit; fish aren't," he says.
About the Author: John McMurray of Long Beach, New York, owns One More Cast Charters and works as director of grant programs at the Norcross Wildlife Foundation in New York City. McMurray also represents New York on the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council.