As we eased through the creek channel, I scanned the surface for visual cues of peanut bunker flipping on top. Not seeing a single indicator of the juvenile menhaden breaking water or balling up on the sounder, I opted to shut down the engine, turn off the VHF radio and cut off the livewell motor.
“Shhhh,” I urged my friend Robby even though he hadn’t mumbled a word. Sometimes captains go on autopilot I suppose.
Flick, flip, flitter, I could barely make out the faint yet telltale sounds in the distance after several silent moments, finally dialing in on a small pod just around the bend. Tiny splashes and high speed tail movements provide the unique soundtrack for schooling menhaden. Patience and boat side silence are helpful when hunting scarce peanut schools. Simply stopping the boat in areas where they may have been minutes or hours before can help to locate the little filter feeders that inhabit so many marinas, creeks, canals, basins, bays and otherwise unexciting bodies of water.
Locked & Loaded
I maneuvered the vessel so that it would surreptitiously intercept the school of bait as it made its way up the creek with the tide. With a throw of my 10-foot cast net, we had a livewell full of baby bunker. Actually, the well was so full that I quickly scooped and released what I determined to be unnecessary baits that would overcrowd and shorten the lifespan of the entire batch. Menhaden quickly toxify their living quarters therefore, falling victim to their own excrement in crowded conditions. Anglers with circular or oval livewells with a raw water exchange from pumps in the bilge or above deck are most successful in keeping baits alive for most of the outing; I say most as peanut bunker eventually succumb to getting red-nosed and bruised and then die nonetheless. The warmer the water, weaker the pump and more overcrowded the conditions, the shorter the menhaden lifespan.
Loaded with beautiful bait, Robby and I went to the fluke grounds as the rising tide was steadily encroaching on the inlet funnel, which is where we set up for our first drift and began to deploy the rods. I reached into the well for a couple peanuts and quickly prepared them for the hook. Because small menhaden are fragile and don’t stand the test of time, I prefer to either pick up or dip net only what is needed at that moment. Unlike killifish, where it’s perfectly fine to repetitively handle dozens in the net at a time, peanuts lack the toughness to survive numerous net encounters. What’s more, I advise minimizing delay in hooking and getting the bait in the water. Every moment out of the water, they lose their luster and get closer to being ineffective or just plain dead. Between drifts, it’s prudent to let hooked baits swim in a bucket of cold water or to let them revisit the livewell before bottom deployment.
Robby used a plain 4/0 Gamakatsu octopus hook about 30 inches off a three-way swivel. I too employed a plain #1 Eagle Claw L042 series wire hook roughly 3 feet down from a barrel swivel with the fishfinder holding the bank sinker above it. Both our sinkers were 2 ounces based on the inlet current, and we each ran 20-pound Spiderwire blue camouflage so that the lines laid out properly, hence making tangles from different line scope less likely. With 30-pound test clear monofilament leader, we were ready to rock and roll with the day’s fluke population. It didn’t take long before I looked up and saw Robby cranking one in, and after a few fruitless dives to the bottom, the first keeper of the day was on the deck, a 20-incher.
Keep It Simple
As most fishing folk know, menhaden of all sizes feed vast amounts of fish and creatures in the estuaries and oceans. There is no requirement for jigs, bucktails, or special rigs when using baby bunker; the shiny, smelly, natural forage does all the work themselves. Anglers just need to decide what kind of hook they prefer and the kind of “naked” rig they wish to use. Peanuts are always hooked up through the bottom lip and out the nose so they can swim properly while the boat is drifting. Impaling them through the dorsal like many do while livelining with adult bunker for striped bass is improper and far less effective for this application.
After missing a strike that mutilated a bait, I connected on the next drop with a fat 21-incher that met the ice. And with throwbacks joining the mix and lettuce hanging the hook time to time, we managed to box several more 3-pound class flatfish before the tide began to slow to less than .6 mph. I looked over and saw Robby’s rod shutter hard and then come still. “Oh boy, it’s in his belly,” I said.
“Uh huh,” he stammered back with a sneaky smile. He paused for a brief moment, and then with an upward jolt, he set the hook and the fluke thundered defiantly toward the bottom. The headshakes were much more palpable and could be seen at the rod tip where there was greater distance from the front of the rod tip pulse to the back. This was a better fish. Soon thereafter, a healthy 6-pounder graced the inside of our landing net.
Robby is a talented young angler in his mid-20s that I’ve enjoyed having as a frequent fishing partner since he turned 18, having known him since he was a middle school student standing on the Egg Harbor River bulkhead waiting for a striper; as a school teacher and captain, watching him score nice fish on the boat is that much more enjoyable.
Eventually the drift began to slack off, which made it easy for even small fluke to completely inhale the bait, but it also brought out one of the negative sides of using peanuts. With menhaden oil and odor comes the dreaded dogfish. For a short while we had a full blown bow wow alert as they honed in on the scent of our would-be fluke baits. But on the turn of the tide, they did an about face and made like Houdini. Lucky for us as we were back in business with the keepers.
Late Inning Tips
Peanut bunker work well in all the fluke nursery grounds, inlets and out on ocean structure. When using them in the ocean, the same simple terminal rigging applies, but the nuisance often changes from dogfish to sea bass. If they are around in great numbers, the peanuts will get strikes from large, keeper sea bass to tiny throwbacks. Regardless, they hit so quickly it’s tough for fluke to get a good look.
Sometimes using baby menhaden in the ocean might not outdo other baits in terms of numbers, but it will catch fluke of substantial size. I recall a trip where I collected a pair of 7-pounders amongst some keepers and a small batch of throwbacks while my buddy on another vessel tallied nearly a hundred total fluke on strip baits, but his largest keepers were more modest in size. I have heard this story more than a few times. Adding a small strip of squid or thin belly strip to make a peanut bunker sandwich is deadly at times on ocean fluke.
When I go fishing with minnows already present in my livewell, I try to be conscientious to whether the mummichogs are well fed as hungry minnows will attack and remove the eyeballs of your peanut bunker in short order.
Good sunglasses are definitely key to spotting circling schools of peanuts. I truly love my Largo polarized sunglasses made by Salt Life Optics. The high-quality polarization reduces surface glare and makes it much easier to identify subsurface bait balls even when they’re not splashing around near the surface.
Learn to throw a cast net! While it takes more experience to throw a larger mesh cast net with 1-1/2-pound per radius weight at adult bunker diving deeper in open waters, the smaller 1-pound, 3/8-inch mesh nets designed for small bunker or mullet will give you that practice with the peanuts in shallower water while giving you the ability to score some outstanding live baits in the months ahead. After you do score a net full of prime baits, just remember to inspect the net one last time before stowing it until the following outing. There’s nothing quite like going to load the throw net and finding that one mushy peanut and a bucket of maggots.
Menhaden are under the tightest restrictions in commercial fishing history, and it seems the population has responded well, with baby bunker showing up earlier in the season and sticking around in the nursery grounds longer. They are readily available and only require time searching with the cast net, and honestly, many days they are right there at the docks and ramps making it even simpler.
|BAIT PROFILE – FLUKE CANDY|
Even peanuts as large as 7 inches are very pliable and narrow thus easy for fluke to grasp. In addition, their skin is extremely soft and easy to puncture. A fluke’s teeth are perfectly designed to dig into the bait and then climb up the bait if they have to chase it down on a fast drift. The body type and design of the juvenile menhaden’s head allows for plenty of hook exposure so that upon hook-set, the chances of an angler accomplishing the objective is greatly enhanced over some other baits. For example spot, mullet and perch have better body armor with protective scales that are tougher than that of smooth epidermis of a peanut.