It is not – and perhaps never will be – too early to break out the fly gear.
Fishing for striped bass in Raritan Bay in the early spring has always been steeped in tradition. Setting up on anchor and chunking with clams on Flynn’s Knoll, Romer Shoal, Round Shoal, Old Orchard Shoal, or trolling around with bunker spoons or parachute jigs dates back for many decades. Fast forward to today and trolling deep diving plugs, jigging flutter spoons, and casting heavy soft plastics, big metal-lipped swimmers or topwater plugs have now found their place on just about every boat. So, an angler has many options to cure winter cabin fever.
But early spring isn’t without its challenges as the bass aren’t always spread out evenly in the bay, so knowing where to find them becomes half the battle. Usually, the more west you head the more bass you will find. Striped bass will seek out the warmest water in the bay which means moving away from the cold water tidal influx of the ocean that will occur on the incoming tides. During the typical April run, ocean temperatures can be in the mid to upper 40-degree ranges during the first two weeks of April, which is not the temperature I am looking for to fish in the bay.
So, running west in the bay as much as 10 miles or more, puts me in water that is in the low to mid 50-degree ranges, a temperature I much prefer.
In the back bay, southwesterly facing shorelines near any creek mouth or muddy flat will be areas that warm quickly due to their shallow nature. Mud flats are favored initially at the beginning of the season because their darker bottoms absorb more of the sun’s rays throughout the day, warming more quickly than the white bottomed sand flats which reflect more light. Two western areas that heat up first in the bay can be found by the Triangle located between South Amboy and Staten Island next to the Great Beds lighthouse, and along the southern shorelines of the Keyport Flats.
In the last several years I have started to experiment casting big flies that imitate herring and bunker as soon as my boat gets back into the bay the first week of April. With water temperatures around 50 to 51 degrees I never expected good results; however the exact opposite was true. We started to catch bass right away and nice size ones too.
When I first started saltwater fly fishing back in the early 80s I was taught – and did teach others – that spring bass needed a temperature of at least 56 degrees or higher before they would really become active and chase and strike out at flies. My early spring fly fishing was always dredging a mud flat bottom in 8 to 15 feet of water using sinking lines and weighted flies with slow methodical retrieves. If my fly wasn’t coming up with mud on it occasionally then my thinking was that I was not fishing deep enough. This is because bass would be rooting around in the mud looking to feed on small invertebrates and worms. But these were small schoolie bass not the much larger bass that we are catching now when casting big flies.
So, what was going on here with my new found success of catching bass in cold water? Why were the bass striking out at my flies up in the water column? My answer to these questions must direct back to the bait migrations that are taking place in the early spring that coincides with the spawning nature of the bass. By the end of March two big baits start to enter Raritan Bay. The first is the alewife herring, an anadromous species just like the striped bass. This means that they spend most of their yearly life in the ocean but then return to freshwater to spawn.
The alewife has an average length of 10 inches but can get as big as 16 inches. They will enter the bay by the hundreds of thousands as they seek out the freshwater of the Raritan, Hudson, Shrewsbury, and Navesink rivers to spawn. Anadromous blueback herring will also enter Raritan Bay but this usually isn’t until later in the month into May.
The other big bait that enters the bay is the adult menhaden, aka bunker. These baits can be as large as 15 inches long and resemble the alewife in coloration but have a much wider girth. They are filter feeders, primarily consuming phytoplankton (plants) and zooplankton (animal) in the water column so they come into the bay to feed when phytoplankton blooms first occur in the early spring. Phytoplankton blooms first occur here because of the nutrients that are entering the bay when you apply fertilizer to your lawn in the springtime. I like to call them the grass of the sea and just like your grass needs fertilizer to grow properly so do phytoplankton.
Many think the bunker are coming into the bay to spawn; however adult menhaden spawn in coastal waters off our east coast. The peak of their spawning season is thought to be from December to February. However, I am sure due to the sheer millions of bunker that enter the bay there is the probability that you will still find some female bunker with some eggs in them.
On The Fly
So, with these big baits in the bay the table is set for anadromous striped bass that are seeking out freshwater to spawn while enjoying their pre-spawn feast. These pre-spawn striped bass are ravenous in the early spring fueling up for their river run and innate spawning rituals that lie ahead despite the cold water temperature. Anyone fishing the bay during the first two weeks of April knows how well big artificials like metal-lipped swimmers plugs, topwater planks and spooks, and big shads work. Bass will aggressively strike out at them as they imitate the larger profile of herring and bunker. So, my thinking was let’s try throwing big synthetic herring and bunker flies and see what happens. To my delight they worked and worked well.
Eric Wasnesky, who is co-president with me of our Manasquan High School Fishing Club, is one person who I regular invite out with me in the very beginning of the season before I get booked with charters. Eric has taken a love to saltwater fly fishing and said “Early spring on Raritan Bay with my fly rod has become my most looked forward to fishing of the year. Sizeable fish are in shallow water and readily eating a variety of big flies.
As Wasnesky told me, part of the fun is that catching these fish doesn’t require a lot of finesse with a fly rod. “I’d spend the day up on the bow of Jim’s boat with a 10-weight St. Croix Legend Salt set up with a clear striper intermediate fly line tipped with 10 feet of Rio’s T-14 sinking head and a straight 30-pound mono leader,” he said, advising “As the wind moves the boat, I stack mend nearly the entire fly line into the water. When the line comes tight big strips with only brief pauses trigger strikes usually never taking more than three or four pulls of the line.” With this stack mending method, Wasnesky said casting ability and achieving casting distance is a moot point enabling even a novice fly angler to cover a lot of water with huge flies. “What continues to amaze me is the aggressiveness of these fish so early in the season,” he said, adding “They’re not being finicky they’re hitting big flies hard and consistently in the middle of the water column.”
Bob Marsiglia, an avid fly fisher and longtime friend and client who always books during the first two weeks of April said this spring fishery is especially attractive because the bass are generally abundant and many are large. “One is provided the legitimate opportunity to catch a trophy 40-pound plus striped bass on the fly and that is what I am seeking,” Marsiglia said, adding “The run in Raritan Bay begins in early spring, a solid month or more before bass begin to show in the ocean and getting on the water earlier is always a good prescription for me for cabin fever.”
“The other great thing is the relatively short run by boat to the fishing grounds. All in all, this a unique and special spring fishery for the flyrodder,” he added.
The method we use to present out flies is what Wasnesky described above as stack mending. To do this use a 200- to 300-grain sinking line or head with a 6- to 8-foot length of 30-pound leader. Cast out and then stack mend about 50 feet of fly line on top of itself into the water. As the boat drifts away from the line it will fall freely in the water and then eventually start to pull tight.
Once the line comes completely tight the fly will not sink anymore but rather start to come up in the water column so this is when you begin to strip. Strips are long pulls with a pause. When a bass strikes employ three hard strip strikes to drive the hook into the boney palate of the bass.
For flies large Popovics’ bucktail deceivers and hollow fleyes are my first choice as these flies are easier to cast and present a wide and long profile in the water. Popovics’ beast fly is also a great choice. Big synthetic bunker flies or other herring patterns will also work such as Skok’s mega mushy or half and half’s. Tying in a lot of white and flash is a key element of your fly design as early spring runoff usually makes the bay waters stained and murky. “I typically tie large bunker patterns,” Marsiglia said, adding “For durability purposes I prefer to use synthetic fibers such as Steve Farrar’s flash blend.”
Some of the early April striper spots in Raritan Bay you will want to check out are the mud flats from South Amboy down through Cliffwood Beach, Pebble Beach, Union Beach, and the Spy House in Middletown. Just remember that the further west you go in the bay the better the fishing, mostly due to warmer water and larger concentrations of bass staging in the area.