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May 19, 2014

Mid-Atlantic Striped Bass and Weakfish Fishing

How an expert fly-rod skipper capitalizes on stripers and weakfish binging on grass-shrimp hatches in the Garden and Empires states.

(Be sure to click through all the images in the gallery above.)

The first of the year’s 70-degree days had us optimistic. The skiff skipped across the surface, and we took a hard left from the channel toward the flats. A colder-than-average April had been a bust, with the only fish around deep and ­uncooperative. We wanted to shake those cobwebs.

Immediately we saw terns diving near a salt-marsh creek. I killed the engine 100 yards from the mouth as tiny baits pogo-sticked on a mirrored surface. Soon there was the distinctive “pop” of a grass shrimp getting sucked down. Game on!

Strength in Numbers

When you pick a grass shrimp, it doesn’t look like much. The delicate, translucent creatures are discernable only by a series of brown-red lines circling the body and two black eyes. Generally they don’t run more than an inch long, but occasionally you’ll find some larger. Grass shrimp are not something you’d think would instigate a serious striped bass feed, or attract large weakfish, but indeed they do. When the shrimp emerge in spring, they occur in great numbers. And in many areas, they’re the first bait to kick-start a season.

A good hatch involves thousands and thousands of specimens. Whether the grass shrimp explosion is an actual hatch is questionable. Available science suggests that grass shrimp spawn throughout spring and late summer. As far as I can tell, there isn’t a definitive season. Still, given the sheer volume of baits, when it goes off, the use of the term “hatch” is appropriate. (Over the years, hatch has morphed to mean a sudden occurrence of massive amounts of small baits.) At any rate, tons of shrimp show each spring in New York and New Jersey waters after a dormant period.

Where are you likely to see such concentrations of grass shrimp?

They don’t call them grass shrimp for nothing. They aren’t exclusive to salt marshes and estuaries — we do see them on the sand flats — but I can say that the largest concentrations of swarming shrimp happen most often near salt marshes. Really, it’s all about submerged vegetation such as eel and spartina grass.

The diminutive shrimp are a very important ­component in salt-marsh systems, where they eat detritus, algae, phytoplankton, small invertebrates and dead-plant material. They serve a critical ecosystem function in the food chain, converting such small organic matter into food for predators. Just about everything that swims, flies or crawls eats grass shrimp.

These shrimp are also structure oriented, and that structure certainly isn’t limited to submerged vegetation. Without a doubt, they gravitate to man-made objects too. I collect shrimp for my saltwater tank by dragging a small mesh net along pilings.