Washed by waters from Long Island Sound, Block Island Sound and thea Atlantic Ocean, Montauk, New York, has been a fishermen’s mecca since before recorded history. Striped bass congregate in deep water just off this eastern tip of Long Island throughout the summer, long after they’ve left hot spots farther west. But fishing Montauk’s 60-foot-deep waters and strong currents requires heavy lead and stout tackle — or so we’ve been told.
Not so, says Scott Leonard, an avid Montauk fisherman who manages the tackle store at Star Island Yacht Club (starislandyc.com). In fact, Leonard catches more fish because he lightens up his rig. “If you’re using 40- or 50-pound-test, some days you need 8 or 10 ounces of lead just to get that line down,” he says. With 20-pound Ande monofilament on a Daiwa Saltiga 30: “I need only 1½ ounces of lead, seldom more than 2 ounces, to hold the bottom. Last year I had 40 fish over 40 pounds, and four over 50 pounds.”
From Leonard’s deepwater drifts to sight-casting in knee‑deep water on inshore flats, big striped bass are routinely taken on tackle as light as 10 pounds. To find out how, I fished with three striped bass light-tackle experts and found techniques as varied as I’ve encountered for any game fish species.
Going Bananas Off Montauk
“Don’t feel like you need to pin that bait to the bottom,” Leonard says. “The live baits we use naturally swim down. Some guys fish live eels here with no lead at all.” Leonard prefers a banana-shaped lead drail with a swivel at each end. “That banana drail hits the bottom and bounces back up,” he says. “To the fish, it looks like that bait is trying to get away. They get aggressive. They hit harder.”
Leonard ties his main line to one side of the drail and an 8-foot leader with a Gamakatsu 6/0 circle Octopus hook on the other. He prefers 60-pound smoked Jinkai monofilament leaders as opposed to fluorocarbon because “it gives the bait more freedom to move.”
Leonard’s technique is simple. We drifted through an area where bottom structure runs across the current, alternately free-spooling until the lead touched bottom, and then thumbing the spool for a bit so the lead bounced along near the bottom. “Watch the recorder,” he says. “When it comes up six or eight feet, right where it drops back down you’re going to get hit.” Like many fish, striped bass shelter themselves from the current, awaiting dinner as it sweeps by.
“The ideal drift is 2½ knots, 3 knots at the most,” Leonard says. “If I’m drifting too fast, I’ll kick a motor in and out of reverse to slow down.” When the drift is too slow, he bumps a motor ahead. We also awaited a late-afternoon flood tide when water flows to the north up toward Long Island Sound. “The incoming tide seems to flow better across the structure here,” Leonard says.
Leonard prefers 10- to 12-inch croakers imported from Virginia. “You want a larger bait to go after these trophy fish,” he says. “Don’t close off the mouth. Hook them in one nostril and out the other.” When he expects only keepers, he’ll switch from circle to treble hook.
Local bunker (menhaden) can be hard to come by in Montauk and are typically too large. They’re also hard to keep alive in wells. Porgies (scup) carry a minimum-size restriction of 10½ inches in New York. Spots, also brought in from Virginia, are too small for Leonard’s liking at four to six inches. But he’s always open to experimentation. “Sometimes they won’t eat, and then you put an eel on and catch one on every drift,” he says.
Flat Out in Shinnecock
“Striped bass might be the ultimate game fish,” says Bryce Poyer, even after a pro-fishing career that began aboard world-traveling sport-fishing battlewagons. “You can use just about any technique you can conceive. Dead bait, live bait, plugs, jigs, lures, chunking, chumming, fly-fishing, deep water or shallow; you can find places just here on Long Island to do any of these.”
Poyer’s tackle store, White Water Outfitters (www.whitewateroutfitters.net) in Hampton Bays, Long Island, overlooks the man-made canal that channels water from between Long Island’s north and south fork down into Shinnecock Bay. “We’ve usually got the cleanest water of all the south-shore bays,” Poyer says, which increases chances to sight fish atop shallow flats.
“When the fish are up on the flats, that’s when they’re on guard the most,” Poyer says. “You don’t want to use pencil poppers or anything that makes a big splash. The more subtle, the better.” We were throwing surface lures like Heddon Spooks and Bomber Badonk-A-Donks — small lures that cast most effectively with very light tackle.
“Don’t blind-cast,” he says. “You want a sunny, windless day when you can see the fish.” Good sunglasses are essential to see beneath the greenish water here — three-foot visibility is “clear” water in these latitudes. “When it’s calm, you might see them push a V-wake,” Poyer says. “Occasionally they’re actually tailing in very shallow water.”
“If you see their tail but not their dorsal, they’re not just foraging, they’re actually after something, maybe trying to corral a calico crab,” Poyer says, noting that fish like this aren’t likely to be drawn away from the prey but suggests casting to others likely nearby.
“They’re usually in small schools, maybe 10 fish at the most,” Poyer says. We were casting beyond seen fish and reeling back toward them to avoid spooking them. “You don’t want to get closer than about three feet,” he warns. “They tend to be aggressive enough up on the flats that they’ll charge a lure 10 or 12 feet in front of them.”
Striped bass are cautious fish, so Poyer says a slow, steady retrieve is best. “Sometimes you want to leave it in place but impart as much action as you can with the rod tip.”
Poyer says tides are important, but only because of the role they play in temperature and water clarity. “The fish get up on top of the flats only when it’s exactly right,” he says. In the springtime, they tend to bite there on the very beginning of the outgoing tide, when the water is warmest but still clear. “In July, it’s the opposite,” he says. “By then, the water temperature has risen 25 degrees. They look for the cooler, clearer water of the incoming tide.”
While he’s caught 30-plus pounders in knee-deep water, Poyer says most fish atop the flats are small. The bigger fish tend to stay just off the edge of the shallow flats.
When conditions aren’t perfect on the flats, Poyer finds fish where the bottom slopes down from three feet to 20 feet immediately adjacent to those flats. “Now you’re blind-casting,” he says. “Fish are looking for food coming off that shallow water. Start shallow and work progressively into deeper water with each cast.” He says incoming and outgoing tides are equally productive in these deeper areas, although fish usually congregate on whichever side of the flat is down‑current.
Here Poyer often works soft plastic baits like a small Hogy or Lunker City Fin-S Fish. A tiny jig head, as small as 1/64 ounce, lets these baits settle just a bit beneath the surface. Or he might bounce a heavier jig head, up to an ounce or more, along the bottom from the shallow flat all the way down the slope into deeper water. “Leave it in place for a few seconds and shake the rod tip,” he says. “That can be deadly.” He might also work the surface with a small pencil popper. “The deeper the water, the more aggressive you can get,” he says. “Now you’re drawing those fish to the surface from 10 or 15 feet down.”
In water deeper than 20 feet, Poyer uses tactics much like Leonard does off Montauk — live bait on a 5/0 to 9/0 circle hook, with long leaders and as little lead as possible. “Scale your bait size to your tackle,” he says. Unless he’s specifically after only big stripers, Poyer says palm-size baits work best. He too likes imported croakers.
When the water is turbid, Poyer entices light-tackle sight‑fishing bites by setting a kite bait. “The typical 12- or 14-inch bunker is a lot for a 28-inch striped bass, but that live bait on the surface gets a lot of attention,” he says. “You might have three or four fish fired up, trying to eat that one bait. They’ll usually fall victim to a pencil popper thrown right next to that bunker.” Poyer warns, however, to be prepared for large fish to eat the kite bait. “The kite seems to work best on the deeper mussel beds or transitional areas just off the flats,” he says. “Anywhere from about five to 20 feet deep.”
Charters in Cape Cod
Leonard and Poyer generally fish with just one or two people aboard. But Brett Wilson runs six-passenger charters out of Orleans on Cape Cod, Massachusetts (www.hindsightsportfishing.com). Charters often aren’t happy without a dozen keepers, but Wilson has carved a niche, providing respectable numbers on light tackle. “If the clients want numbers, sometimes we’ll pull a couple of jigs down deep on wire line, but at the same time, I’ve got anglers on the bow and in the cockpit casting spinning rods.”
Wilson works the down-current edges of shallow bars, and up on top where he can with his 42-foot single-inboard boat. “On a bright day, you can see the schools,” he says, but not on the gray, rainy day I fished with him. “When you can’t, it’s important to mark the fish on the bottom machine. If I know I’m on fish, we can try a bunch of different stuff to find the right technique,” he says, rather than just blind experimentation.
His lure choices vary greatly. Small surface plugs and diving plugs from Bomber and Rapala, soft stick baits like a Slug-Go or similar-weighted RONZ in deeper water, and a red or black 20-inch A&S Worm Tube tipped with a live sea worm are among his favorites. Six-inch butterfly jigs also work well. “You have to match the hatch,” he says, which in his waters is often small sand eels. In the summer, when striped bass are eating 2-inch peanut bunker, he likes a 1-ounce Kastmaster. “Often, the really small stuff seems to be the key,” he says, “but you have to use light tackle for that.” Like Poyer, Wilson also favors subtle presentation in shallow water, and a bit more action from lures when fish are in deeper water.
Wilson often drifts live 10- to 12-inch Boston mackerel on Penn 16VS reels, light rods and 20-pound monofilament. “If you’re fishing light line, you really don’t need a sinker,” he says. “The mackerel swim up and down, all over the place. If the water is deeper than 20 feet, I might put a ¼-ounce rubber-core lead just above the leader. Maybe up to half an ounce if the wind is blowing hard.” He sometimes also places a small balloon on the line about 30 feet above the bait. “Even in water 80 or 100 feet deep, I’ll see the big fish from the tower. They’re near the surface, alone, sunning themselves.”
Wilson’s mackerel are bridled with a small rubber band to a 7/0 circle hook, sailfish style, either through the nose or just behind the head. He prefers a 10-foot, 40-pound monofilament leader.
In the summer, Wilson sometimes loads up the livewell with squid at night using pink or green Yo-Zuri squid jigs, and drifts those live squid just as he does mackerel. He also says glow-in-the-dark artificial squid are effective when pulled slowly atop bars around 10 feet deep just before daylight.
All three experts say striped bass are much better suited to light tackle than the 40-plus-pound rigs often employed. “You can jig the bottom with wire line and catch lots of fish,” Wilson says, “but if you’re not just after sheer numbers, you’ll have more fun with light tackle.”
“When you’re fishing with 40- or 50-pound-test, you’re just winching them in,” Leonard says. “I want to feel the fight. It’s a lot of fun to have a fish peel off 100 yards of line.”
“The vast majority of the fish are small- to medium-size fish,” Poyer says. “Fishing with light tackle on the flats, we’re catching the same fish the guys in the inlet are catching, but we’re using tackle a quarter the size. We get to feel the fight without a heavy weight, without wire line, without an umbrella rig. It’s us versus the fish.”
Rod and Reel Choices
Scott Leonard’s Daiwa Saltiga SA-30 sits on a long rod, more than eight feet, to reach around outboards. He likes a 12- to 25-pound blank with a slow action, allowing the rod to bend evenly all the way from tip to reel seat.
For working small baits on the shallow flats, Bryce Poyer prefers a Van Staal 100 or even smaller Shimano Stradic 3000 on a 7-foot fast-action graphite rod. When working somewhat deeper water adjacent to the flats, he might go up slightly to a Van Staal 150 on just a touch heavier rod.
For his Penn 16VS reels, Brett Wilson prefers a fairly short rod, around 6½ feet, fairly stiff and with a 12- to 15-pound tip.
About the Author Capt. Vincent Daniello grew up fishing and diving in South Florida and the Bahamas. He turned those passions into professions, running boats from 20 to 200 feet from Montreal through Mexico, and working on sport-fishing boats along the East Coast and Bahamas. Daniello is a contributing editor for Sport Fishing.__