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HEAD OFF BIG BASS

Fishing behind the melee of a bluefish blitz can be your key to scoring a big striped bass this spring.
By Jim Hutchinson, Jr.
Tags: inshore, surf

When striped bass stocks were at their peak in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, striped bass anglers openly cursed the yellow-eyed demons whenever they’d show at the end of their line; this while ignoring the fact of course that it's the striper that's brought the knife for exchange in the proverbial gunfight with far more aggressive, bazooka-toting bluefish.

Indeed, bluefish are the bane of the striped bass afflicted throughout our range. But with striped bass stocks in a recent downtrend, and us now in the midst of our second, consecutive spring bluefish invasion, I’ve heard far fewer anglers complaining about battling with the blues this season.

Sure, they’re still there; those who turn their head in disgust at the sight of a pod of anglers happily casting into an insane bluefish blitz. The old “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em,” works from time to time with the typical lineside lunatic; a few well-prepared surfcasters will occasionally dig through tackle box number four in search of the least-expensive plugs and poppers on which to bend back barbs in sacrifice to ol’ razor lips.

It’s fascinating to look at bluefish nicknames (most you couldn’t print publicly.) The season typically starts with racers, big-headed, narrow-bodied fish which first explode onto the scene in the spring; while typically leaner than the alligator blues of 10 to 19 pounds that show up later in the season, the recent onslaught of spring gators and a few gorillas over 20 pounds has certainly been reason for excitement. As for table fare, most prefer the smaller cocktail blues of a couple of pounds, or perhaps the tailor blues up to 5 or 6 pounds max. With snappers occupying the lowest end of the bluefish size range, I guess anything else would just be a chopper by default.

For sure, bluefish mania has assuredly captured the attention of the majority of coastal anglers, young and old, rich or poor. But still there are those sharpies who can’t shake the striped bass affliction. Jetty jocks will bucktail as close to the rocks as possible to tempt a striper away from the structure, while open beach casters often choose to fish behind the schools. Years ago while walking the beach at Sandy Hook, a crowd walked along with a fast-moving school of bluefish landing one after another, while I slowly plugged away dozens of yards behind in hopes of a striped straggler. It probably took me 100 casts of a Bomber to finally tempt a lineside as it followed behind the blue marauders that were picking off scraps (as compared to the one blue for every cast of the pack ahead of me), but it was a rewarding 100th cast to say the least.

If you were a striped bass, would you join the melee of toothy blues for a meal, putting yourself into a position of being ravaged in a frenzied blitz?

It’s all about the scraps. Think of your typical bluefish blitz, with gnashing teeth thrashing through a hapless school of bunker. Chunks of menhaden drift downward in the water column, where smaller blues pick off bite-size pieces. If you were a striped bass, would you join the melee of toothy blues for a meal, putting yourself into a position of being ravaged in a frenzied blitz? Or would you follow behind or below the school, looking for a free and easy meal, picking off scraps of bait left behind by the ravenous horde?

Whether boat fishing or surfcasting, one of the best possible striper offerings you’ll find when bluefish are the predominant predator is the head of the bait. Mostly cartilage which bluefish have difficult cutting through, and too big for most smaller fish blasting through the carnage to engulf, a bunker head is often the scrap left behind the scene of the crime, picked up by the follow-up detective work of big stripers. True, I’ve seen some monster bluefish gobbling up bunker heads (real Dream Boat fish I should add), and more than a few teen-sized stripers that also got themselves hooked on heads, but most of the action with the front end of the bait is with bigger, older, more experienced striped bass that prefer to keep some distance between them and the lemon-eyed menaces.

Coastal cleaning stations have always been a good place to pick off big stripers. The late Ralph Knisell told me once about a local woman in Fortescue on Delaware Bay who would show up near the docks in the early afternoon as the half-day fleet returned to clean fish before their afternoon trips. She had a cue stick for a rod and an old Penn Squidder with heavy mono; once the crew began cleaning fish along the creek, she would plunk a bunker head tight amongst the spoils, often taking striped bass bigger than any of the boat patrons had seen that morning. Ralph himself told me he often liked to go down and fish right off his moored boat for linesides himself.

Fishing behind the action can be a lot slower and often much less effective; but when you’ve been dealt a handful of lemon-eyes, making good lemonade often takes some work.

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