Tips for navigating another epic Raritan Bay striper bite this month.
Few boaters can resist getting into a fleet of boats to see what’s going on, but that’s rarely a good move when big linesiders move in during the April striped bass fishery in Raritan Bay. The group you see at first light will almost invariably be where the bass were yesterday morning at dawn, or where boaters left them the evening before. Yet, the bait is constantly moving and so are the predators we seek. There’s little structure to hold fish, so their distribution is constantly changing. Yet, the bay isn’t so large that it can’t be scouted out readily.
Chuck Many is famed as one of the top private boaters on the bay with his Tyman from Highlands, and he’s able to cover that area in about an hour of searching for surface signs while keeping a sharp eye on his fishfinder. Bunker are the main attraction for pre-spawn stripers before they head up to spring spawning grounds in the Hudson River, and that forage fish has been abundant in recent years. But quite often there’s literally too much bait.
As Many emphasizes, it’s vital to be able to distinguish the striper marks from the masses of bunkers so as not to waste time when bait fishing in schools of bunker that are constantly bumping into your line and even getting hung up in it. Put some of those fresh baits in your livewell for delivery to any striper marks you might come across.
Many avoids fleets as the action is usually over by the time he gets there. When massive schools of small bait are coming into the bay in the fall, I’ve seen party boats run right through them before the bass reformed in the wake. It’s not like that in the spring as both the stripers and large bunkers are sensitive to boat traffic. Bass may be all over your first cast — and then it’s all over!
Load The Well
Stripers and bunkers have been showing up in the bay earlier every recent year, but the smaller, early bass are more interested in grubbing for food on the bottom than chasing bunkers. Some can be caught by trolling smaller plugs like Yo-Zuris, Bombers and Stretch plugs. Dave Lilly of Hazlet said he had great sport with them in the back of the bay by blind casting the Tony Maja Casting Mojo, where 28- to 30-inchers were common in 12- to 16-foot depths during March and early April.
The only trip I was able to get in before returning to Florida for my granddaughter’s Baptism was on March 30 with Capt. Joe Massa on his My Three Sons out of Morgan Marina. Capt. Vinny Vetere of the Great Kills charter boat Katfish and Percy Wentworth of Percy’s Cast Nets fame were also aboard for a few hours in the afternoon. It only took one throw by Percy to load up with bunker, but we didn’t find any customers for the live baits before switching to trolling and casting small swimming plugs to schoolies up to 30 inches in the middle of the bay. We later found that Tyman was catching bigger bass by chunking at anchor during three trips from dawn to dusk — and a 58-pound trophy bass was released just a bit further back in the bay by a kayak angler casting a large swimmer.
April has become the most consistent month of the spring striper session throughout the Garden State, and there’s now hardly any time to enjoy the great early light tackle action which starts in before the big girls suddenly appear.
I gained most of my early experience in the bay fishing with Tony Arcabascio while he was still living in Staten Island before “retiring” to the Jersey Shore where he established his Tony Maja fishing product business. Tony would get started a week before the New York opening in May by castnetting bunkers in the dark and then anchoring on mussel beds right off Great Kills to enjoy releasing large stripers in magnificent isolation as other boaters didn’t seem to be interested in fishing when they couldn’t keep a striper.
Release fishing has become more popular since then as regulations have put an end to excessive exploitation of big spawners. Those regs have maintained the Hudson River stock at high levels and led to a succession of above average young-of-the-year classes.
Tails From The Deep
When the great fall fishery ended with the closing of New Jersey’s internal waters to start the year, the Raritan River was still full of bass from 18 to 30 inches. Those fish likely spent the winter in deep holes there or in the Hudson, and will be ready to drop down to Raritan Bay to start feeding as soon as the waters warm enough in March and April
If you’re going to keep a striper, that will be the best time to do so as you are more likely to find a male among those 28- to 30-inch bass. Remember that almost all stripers of 20 pounds or more are females.
Boaters tend to favor the mouth of the bay, and that’s where the fleets tend to develop. However, the back of the bay is as likely to produce bass of all sizes. Dave Lilly is a wire line pro who ignores the mob scenes and trolls the edges of Ambrose Channel, which requires 300 feet of wire plus a drail to get the largest Tony Maja bunker spoons down to big bass even when others aren’t finding much. If the marks are there and the current is running, that’s a good bet without having to fight a fleet.
You can’t count on surface action in the bay, but it can explode at any time during the spring. I keep a spinning rod rigged with a pencil popper and ready to cast as it won’t take long for the fleet to zero in on when the birds start diving.
There’s so much going on in Raritan Bay during April that you’ll rarely go wrong by avoiding the fleets and finding your own bass without having to fight the crowd.