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October 26, 2001

Alive and Kicking

Find out which live baits will score more northeast stripers.

Opening day of striped bass season on Chesapeake Bay looks like a cross between the Miami boat show and a Brazilian soccer match: boats, chaos and more boats. Move up the coast to the waters of New York and Massachusetts, and the picture changes little; anglers fend off competing boats with one hand and hold their rod in the other while waiting for a big striper to slurp up their eels. It may not be the best way to commune with nature - but many don't seem to mind when they're pounding 30-inch bass.
Sure, some purists might pooh-pooh the notion, but if you want to catch plenty of big stripers during these rockfish rumbles, there's just no substitute for live bait.
Get That Eeling Feeling
Fall finds most Northeast striper anglers grabbing for eels. As the water begins to cool, eels begin to migrate out of the bays and rivers, and stripers intercept them on their way out to sea. Since most stripers under 4 or 5 pounds and many competing species won't hit eels, eeling becomes a very selective method of fishing for big stripers.
So easy to keep alive that even stomping on them would have little effect, eels usually last through several catches. This represents a big plus when you consider their cost - between $1.25 to $2.50 apiece (depending on season and location). Getting a hook through their jaws, however, is easier said than done.
It's virtually impossible to get a grip on a wriggling eel, so experienced eelers put their bait bucket on ice well before the fishing starts. Like most fish, an eel's metabolism slows as it grows cold; after an hour or two on ice they hang limp while you put the hook through the lower jaw and out the top of the head. An absorbent paper towel or rag also helps get a grip on them. Eels warm up quickly, though, and they're wide awake as soon as they hit the water.
Any medium-weight (12- to 17-pound) spinning or bait-casting rig works perfectly when eeling. Working the line isn't necessary since the eel does all the wiggling for you. Drift eels over the bottom on humps and shoals during a high or incoming tide and through holes and channel edges during low or falling tide. Some charter captains anchor once they locate the fish. Otto Hasselman, captain of the 35-foot J.C. Fishooker, says, "When they're scattered, I keep drifting. But if I locate a good concentration of stripers, I'll anchor over them first and then drop the eels."
Unfortunately, since stripers suck down eels in a matter of seconds, eeling does have a very high catch-and-release mortality rate. As a result, eeling is illegal in some states during the spring, before the fish have spawned.

Crabs - the Crustacean Sensation
For three to five days each month, May through September, soft crabs become an even more effective bait than eels. During the peak of the "molt," the week-long period during which most hard blue crabs shed their shells, hungry stripers opt for a menu change. The molt usually coincides with a waxing moon but varies from month to month and place to place and can be tough to track. A number of "doubles" (one crab holding another as they swim) seen along the surface during the cruise to the fishing grounds can indicate a molt in progress. Bait and tackle shops and commercial crabbers may also be able to tip you off when a molt is in full swing.
During the molt, drifting quarter crabs on a fish-finder rig will prove deadly. Flats in 3 to 15 feet of water with both marshes and deep water nearby are prime areas. Flats fishing requires a bit of stealth; since big stripers spook easily from engine noise in shallow water, a silent drift proves most effective.

Menhaden Madness
In the early spring, when crabs in Northeastern waters haven't begun to molt and eels haven't shown up in plentiful numbers, live menhaden take most of the big pre-spawn sows. Unfortunately, large menhaden can be tough to locate, and they die quickly in captivity. At night they'll be attracted to lights where they can be caught in good numbers with a cast net, then refrigerated in a well-aerated live well or cooler. Keeping the water below 70 degrees keeps them kicking.
Live menhaden hooked through the lips or through the back work most effectively when drifted through pre-spawn stripers' known migration routes. Though scattered and tough to locate, these fish are the ones that make it into the record books. (Twelve-year-old Devin Nolan broke the Maryland state record last spring with a 67 1/2-pounder.) Intercepting them as they move to and from spawning grounds takes work. The stripers move constantly and don't travel in schools.
During springs with heavy rainfall, the fish will stay in the top 20 to 30 feet of water (where it's warmest) even in channels 100 feet deep or more. Cold rain water pushing out of rivers and bays forces the warmer water to the surface, creating a temperature and salinity break. Menhaden also travel through the upper water column just above this break. To keep baits in this comfort zone, most anglers drift or slowly troll the menhaden with no weights. They'll naturally move to the depth they find most comfortable - and that's where the stripers will be too.

The Striper Super-Highway
Pre-spawn stripers usually migrate along routes that follow natural channels. When water temperatures run between 50 and 55 degrees, stripers congregate in larger, deeper passageways. As the water climbs over 55 degrees, you'll find them in smaller feeder channels as they head for the rivers to spawn. Since many East Coast stripers spawn in or near the Chesapeake Bay, the main channel formed by the Susquehanna River becomes a striper super-highway during the early spring. The fish remain scattered and on the move, but this area gives up a hundred or so trophy fish every season.
Big spring sows require significantly heavier tackle than the usual striped bass gear. A heavyweight rod rigged with 30- to 40-pound mono should do the job, although many Northeastern charter captains use line as heavy as 60-pound test to give their inexperienced parties an edge. Stay away from super-braids for this type of fishing. These braids greatly increase line sensitivity, and you can feel every move a fish makes. Unfortunately this works both ways: Just picking up a rod out of the holder can generate enough movement to tip off the fish and result in a dropped bait.