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INSIDE THE BELLY OF THE BEAST

A lot can be learned by examining the stomach contents of that fish in your cooler.
By Austin Perilli
Tags: inshore
INSIDE THE BELLY OF THE BEAST
This striper was loaded with crabs and mussels, a sure sign that it had been grubbing around the bottom prior to being caught. How would you use this knowledge to your advantage?

I love “fishing” around in the stomach contents of bass while on the cleaning table. The fact that striped bass have no teeth and inhale their prey whole only adds to the bounty inside. Their prey is usually whole and intact; and while fragments might be partially digested, there’s usually no mistaking what species that particular bass had been feeding upon. Please don’t misunderstand the premise of this article. I’m not advocating keeping every legal striped bass you catch just to see what has been on its recent menu. The vast majority of keeper-sized bass I catch each season are released with as much attention given to ensure the fish is unharmed as possible. However, taking the time to examine the stomach contents of the fish you do wind up keeping will provided you with priceless knowledge of what the bass in that area are feeding on, thus helping to rethink bait or lure selections for the following trip.

Two seasons ago while jigging in early December, we thought the bass were feeding exclusively on sand eels so we geared up with sand eel imitation metals and soft plastics and had a great day on fish to 20 pounds. That evening, we noticed that a few of the bigger bass we kept had 12-inch herring in their stomachs. The following day we rigged up with 9- to 12-inch bucktail/jerkbait combos and the average size fish we caught skyrocketed with a top fish in the 30s. Doing a little homework and making the necessary adjustments often times pays high dividends in the end.

Have you ever opened up a surf-caught bass during or immediately following a nor’easter in the spring or fall? More than likely that fish had either clams or crabs in its stomach. It makes perfect sense; northeast winds churn-up the bottom and break-up the clam beds. Consequently, bass gorge themselves on the buffet of exposed clams and crabs. Also, those two baits mentioned are the primary baits available during the spring. Sure there are spearing and sand eels off the beach, but bass are still pretty lethargic in the spring when the water temperature is cold and much more apt to lazily engulf a hapless glop of clam than chase around spearing. This all translates to the fact that sticking it out with clam will generally catch you far more bass in the spring than working a plug. For a surf-caught bass in the fall, however, the rules could change substantially. Its belly could still be filled with clams or crabs, but could just as easily be packed with peanut bunker, mullet, sand eels, herring, spearing and a variety of other types of bait fish currently on the move. The first day or two following a storm typically see clams produce their share of stripers.

This article is not meant to advocate slicing up every catch. However, taking the time to examine the stomach contents of the fish you do wind up keeping will provided you with priceless knowledge which can be used to rethink bait or lure selections for the following trip.

Artificials are highly effective during the fall run, but be sure to have a wide selection of lures available in your surf bag to match the profile of bait the bass are feeding on that day. Arm yourself with Krocodile spoons, Kastmasters, Hopkins Shorty, Crippled Herring, Rat L Traps, Storm or Tsunami Shads and popping plugs if the fish are working peanut bunker or mullet; and Ava jigs with tubes, Fin-S Fish, bucktails and Tsunami Sand Eels if the bass are on sand eels or rainfish.

During the last week in April last season we had been marking massive clouds of bait in my inlet for several days, but with clammin’ on the brain, we never stopped on the readings to check out what type of bait it was for sure or what might be feeding on it. Finally, a few days later, while passing the inlet, the birds were going nuts! We had to stop to check it out. Ava 27’s made quick work of some racer bluefish, but the deck was now littered with jumbo sand eels. Two umbrella rigs were deployed, each with a foot-long surgical tube center trailer five feet in back of the teasers, and with wire line we trolled the edge of the channel. We never made it to clam bass that day, but ended up with six bass to 26 pounds and a mess of bluefish to 9 pounds. Had the bluefish not spit up the sand eels, I might have just trolled bunker spoons or parachute jigs, and that might have worked too. But showing the fish a lure with the same size and silhouette as what they were already feeding on that day definitely gave us an advantage. This productive second option came in especially useful on the weekends when many of the better clamming spots resembled airport parking lots. So long as trolling is producing fish, beating the boat traffic is a bonus I’ll take any day!

Knowing that sand eels were in the area also encouraged me to rethink my fluke arsenal for opening day in May, where a 4-ounce chrome ball tipped with a slivery strip of freshly-caught sea robin belly worked wonders. By design, a chrome ball tipped with a long, thin strip undulating up and down and side to side when baby-bounced along the bottom perfectly imitates the seductive swagger of the sand eels these early season fluke key-in on.

The same rules of examining stomach contents to modify bait or lure selection hold true in all aspects of fishing—freshwater, inshore saltwater, offshore and to surf fishing. Believe in the baits you find in the bellies of gamefish and don’t be afraid to make adjustments. Sand fleas and soft shell calico crabs make excellent striped bass bait; you find them in bass all the time, so why not use them as bait? Grass and sand shrimp are found in every inshore fish from weakfish to winter flounder to blackfish. Shrimp and shrimp imitations are deadly effective on inshore fish. During the cinder worm hatch, use a cinder worm imitation. If you find a whole baitfish in the belly of a bass, be it a ling or a herring, try putting a hook in it and dropping it down to the bottom. If a fish spits up a baitfish after you land it, and it’s intact enough to stay your hook, use it right away. More often then not the results will please you. Food for thought.

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