Harbor Chase: Learning Manhasset - The Fisherman

Harbor Chase: Learning Manhasset

rich
Rich shows off a big blue that he caught trolling with a Z-man soft plastic.

Honing in on the feeding patterns inside Manhasset Bay.

Unhappily for me, my neck of the woods lacked peanut bunker until late summer 2023, and when they arrived, they were small; 1 to 2 inches. However, I still got my licks in, since the local waters of friends were loaded with 2 to 4-inch beasties. I don’t understand differential spawning successful, but I’d guess success and failure has more to do with water temperatures and enough food for the fry, than anything else.

Lighting Up The Sonar

Westward Ho! Rich Lazar quietly pushed his boat into the middle of Manhasset Bay as I watched the sonar screen intently. From the moment we entered open water the screen changed from its normal solid color and revealed huge dense yellow, orange, and red mountains of bait that extended from the bottom almost to the top. Some of the peanut schools were hundreds of feet wide and long, and the dark red color in the middle of the mountains told me it was dense bait balls. I don’t know about you, but just seeing the incredible amount of bait excited me. I gawked at the screen, given that my local waters were basically barren. I asked Rich about sizes and he told me the fish were spitting up 2 to 4-inch peanuts; sizes more likely to attract big fish.

’22 Vs ‘23

Most years stripers and especially big blues are very nervous in the harbors and disappear immediately when approached. In 2022 we were spared from this problem because the fish decided to queue up in one area and feed on adult bunker. Therefore, we anchored and live-lined quietly and never had to chase. However, in a more typical year, we chase tail tips in calm water and approach them with the stealth of a sniper. Once located we enjoy anywhere from 15 minutes to a half-hour of fishing before we need to relocate the fish. However, 2023 was very different, and it was the first year we were forced into a more intense “harbor chase” scenario.

author
The author’s crew releases the big blues they catch because for them, catching is more fun than eating.

The Chase

Although the same pattern may persist for years, now and then a big change occurs. As the French say, “vive la difference!” Anyway, 2023 wasn’t anchor and live-line, it wasn’t a spy stealth scenario, and it wasn’t a plodding test-as-you-go approach, either. How exactly should an angler approach fishing when the middle of the harbor is chock-a-block full of peanuts but the predators elusive? By the way, the fact that the peanuts and predators wouldn’t come close to shore was frustrating for an old surf rat like me. Rats!

On the other hand, it was near-Eden for the blues and stripers. If big blues were capable of an intelligent evaluation of their situation they might have thought: how lucky are we, feeding in deeper water amid a sea of food. We don’t need to chase, or spend a lot of energy. We just swim around and grab a few peanuts whenever we want. Imagine finding yourself in the middle of a well-stocked restaurant and everyone is competing to cook and serve you food. Blues may get to live the dream, but humans rarely do.

The scene was set. Bluefish were everywhere, but thick nowhere. Bluefish were feeding, but leisurely. How can we catch them? We started by casting blindly with poppers, pencil poppers, and 5-inch Z-Man DieZel minnows without success. Then Rich suggested we troll, since he had discovered he could find them faster by trolling. We had to cover a lot of water to get fish on the troll, but eventually we caught a fish or two before they meandered on. Once into a fish, Rich stopped the boat while the rest of us began casting. We discovered that if we focused our casts near the hooked fish there was usually one or two others following the battler. We caught a few before the blues moved away without leaving a trace of which direction they headed, and that meant we returned to the chase by trolling.

drew
Drew led the way catching stripers along the shoreline, like this spunky one.

Patterns

My son, Rich, and I enjoyed this pattern for several weeks. Typically, the three of us caught 10-15 big blues on a tide along with a nice striper or two. Once in a while, the blues would get crazy and drive a school of peanuts skyward complete with screaming gulls. A blitz began. We rarely chased the blitzes because they only lasted a few tens of seconds, and we learned early on that by the time we got to the blitz it was over and the fish were elsewhere.

This was big variation off the standard “tail-tip” pattern, but regardless of the variation we always stick to what is reliably working. In 2023, frequent weather changes moved the peanuts around the harbor and we had to relocate the bait each trip before fishing. Luckily, several days of wind did not send the bait into Long Island Sound. Even when pushed to a nearby area, they ended right back in the middle of the harbor once the wind subsided.

Drew’s Got it!

We continued to cast the standard variety of lures (pencils, soft plastics, and Super Strike poppers) with mixed success. However, Drew stuck with a Z-Man soft plastic lure on a 3/4-ounce leadhead. It took Rich and me a little while to pick up on Drew’s consistent success, but soon we began rethinking our use of poppers.

In 2023 poppers produced inconsistent results. Drew was catching the lion’s share of the fish and he continued to urge us to switch to plastics. As the old saying goes, I may be stupid, but I’m not crazy, and it applied here. The message gradually sunk in, and we switched to the Z-Man lures. My son Drew had another trick up his sleeve. He tried different retrieves and figured out how to get more hits. He held onto this bit of information before finally “spilling the beans.” He said, “They’re hitting me when I reel fast and then stop.”

Old Man Fatigue

Imagine this picture as if you were watching us from another boat. Three anglers bent over and frantically reeling, then a sudden stop, and repeating the process, over and over. It was tiring, but it worked. I wrangled with a few big blues and, given my age, retired to watch my son and Rich wear themselves out on blues, while I ran the boat and netted their fish. I enjoy watching people work hard. Ten years ago, in a more youthful state I lived in a universe where catching was more important than a sore body.

Drew also led us in catching stripers. Once the blues stopped hitting and skulked away, we headed toward the nearby shorelines and began casting for stripers. Since the water was quite shallow, Rich and I switched from the 5-inch Z-Man lures we cast to blues, to 4-inch Z-Man paddletails. Once again Drew led the way. He began to catch striper after striper on the 5-inch plastic including a 15-pound fish, while Rich and I picked slowly on school fish. You guessed right; we switched to 5-inch Z-Man plastics.

wire
The author attributes some of his success to using a trace of wire leader as plug insurance and a very small Spro swivel that creates minimal disturbance in the water.

Light But Right

Since distance casting with heavy lures is not necessary, and because we really enjoy light tackle harbor boat angling, our gear is light but with backbone. We fish with 7-foot medium power rods with fast tips that facilitates easy casting yet can subdue big blues before they exhaust themselves. We use Van Staal 150 reels spooled with 20-pound braided line. Typically, we use either Sufix Performance Braid or Daiwa J-Braid because we’ve found that the knots are strong, the line lasts a long time, casts smoothly, and frankly, it has never let us down.

We always use a leader. In this case about an 18 to 20-inch length of 30-pound test Perlon. We prefer Perlon because it does not have any coil memory, stands up to bluefish teeth pretty well, and knots are strong and long lasting. We always worry about bluefish teeth, but we’ve developed a leader that avoids most, but not all, of our misgivings. We use a very small 50-pound test Spro Power Swivel to connect the main line to the leader, and a Spro Prime paper clip snap on the opposite end for attaching the lure.

The small but powerful Spro Power Swivel has been a god-send. Other larger models of swivels cavitate (produce bubbles) that actually attract the attention of blues, resulting in bite-offs at the swivel. The small Spro swivels don’t cavitate and that allows the blues to focus on the lure instead. However, bluefish are bluefish, so a few bite-offs comes with the territory. All any angler can do is try to minimize those bite-offs.

To the best of my recollection, we only lost one lure to a blue after that, but those short shots of wire really took a beating. We began checking the wire after every fish and were surprised to find how often those leaders, although still useable, had experienced quite a bit of abuse. We changed lures with fresh wire shots regularly. Although I haven’t been a fan of wire leaders for a long time, because I believe the wire attracts more assaults than they protect against, this short shot of wire seemed to work well, didn’t deter the fish, and certainly provided the protection we needed.

Finding Bait Schools

A LITTLE INSURANCE
I won’t attempt to mislead you. On our first trip we lost some blues to bite-offs in spite of our best efforts to avoid it. So, for the next trip I made an adjustment. I cut some 45-pound test nylon coated wire into 6-inch lengths. I crimped one end to the leadhead’s tie-eye and crimped a loop on the other end in order to slide the loop onto the Spro snap. I always test my crimps on a vise and, as usual, several failed and needed to be redone.

Every angler knows that without bait there can’t be good fishing. Therefore, finding the bait schools is essential to any harbor chase. Boat anglers have it easier because of depth recorders, while shore anglers rely on their eyes to spot surface bait activity. Of course, there’s always a tendency to be impatient and begin casting without any solid information about the positions of the bait and predators. Take time, as we did, to cruise around and find the bait, since even successful trolling depends on being in and around the bait schools. Do some pushups before you go because big blues will eventually wear out even the youngest arms.

Some anglers hate the chase, either towards blitzing fish and birds or a quiet but constant pursuit. I, on the other hand, love it. I guess because I love the excitement of watching the predator-prey mechanism in action and not knowing when the rod will bend over. Catching fish isn’t bad either, so give it a try.

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