River Stripers: Plugging on the Connecticut - The Fisherman

River Stripers: Plugging on the Connecticut

Where migrating striped bass cross paths with spawning-run baitfish, anglers reap great rewards.
Where migrating striped bass cross paths with spawning-run baitfish, anglers reap great rewards.

Large topwater plugs produce exciting action on the Connecticut River in the spring.

Twitch…Twitch…Twitch… BOOM!

There are few things in the fishing world as fun and exciting as a topwater explosion! Add a trophy-class striped bass on the other end of the line, and the thrill grows exponentially. Every spring schools of migratory striped bass enter the Connecticut River and other local tributaries. These fish are anadromous meaning they migrate from saltwater into freshwater to spawn, so they’re perfectly suited for life in both fresh and saltwater environments. And with no official documentation of striped bass spawning in our local rivers, they’re found in there in search of food such as herring, shad and even bunker. This sets up the perfect opportunity for anglers to take advantage of the striper’s migration and capitalize by casting topwater plugs to entice an unsuspecting cow.

Knowing the River

Understanding the movement of striped bass and their tendencies can help you have more success on the water. The Connecticut River is a tidal river with a tidal influence that extends many miles into Northern Connecticut. Stripers can be found in the river year-round, but the large schools of migratory bass enter the river in the spring. This migration into the river depends on water temperature but often begins in April and peaks in June. Because the river is tidal, this plays a large roll in where you will find striped bass and when. Stripers are actively feeding on baitfish, and the changes in the water level as well as the forage that is brought in by the tide can affect where you will find these fish. The Connecticut River has a deep channel that runs through it, but much of the river outside this channel is shallow and filled with rock piles and other structure that is perfect cover to find striped bass. Big center consoles are great for fishing but often a simple aluminum boat is all that is needed to get into those shallow flats and find a school of stripers. All along the river you will find various public boat launches and public access to fish allowing ample opportunities for anglers.

Like striped bass, many of the baitfish that striped bass feed on in the river are anadromous. Herring and shad make a run of their own into the Connecticut River to spawn and these fish are often followed by large schools of striped bass. Following the schools of shad and herring will put you in prime position to target striped bass. Stripers often migrate in schools of similar size fish. Earlier in the spring you will often find schools of “schoolie” size fish. These small stripers are usually first to reach the Connecticut River with schools of larger size fish showing up in the weeks following. As the water temperatures rise schools of Atlantic menhaden will start showing up in the lower parts of the Connecticut River. These large schools of bunker are prime targets for striped bass that are moving through. Once you have located the baitfish you can focus on throwing plugs to mimic these fish and entice a striper to bite!

While there are plenty of keeper-size bass to be caught on the river in the spring, many will be shorts. Do your best to handle these fish properly and ensure a successful, healthy release.
While there are plenty of keeper-size bass to be caught on the river in the spring, many will be shorts. Do your best to handle these fish properly and ensure a successful, healthy release.

The Topwater Bite

Once you have a good grasp of where to find the fish, your next dilemma becomes the method you choose to catch them. It is hard to argue with the results of live bait. Live-lining bunker or three-way rigging a live eel are some of the most productive methods of catching stripers. That being said, topwater plugs are not far behind in their productivity in the spring. Another benefit of using topwater plugs is that you don’t have to depend on the tide or current as much to drift past a specific spot or piece of structure. A plug can cover a lot of area quickly and allows you to pinpoint where the stripers are located. A good quality plug will catch countless fish in its life whereas live bait has to be changed frequently, often every drift.

One of the most frustrating and difficult parts of topwater fishing is dealing with fish that follow but don’t hit, or fish that hit the plug but don’t get hooked on the first swipe. If you talk to three different anglers you may get three different responses on what to do when you have a fish follow but not commit or miss the plug. One method is to stop your plug and slowly retrieve it while making frequent stops mimicking an injured baitfish. Another method is to speed up your retrieve, mimicking a baitfish trying to get away faster. In my experience, I find it best to continue your retrieve with the same speed and cadence that you had before the strike. I don’t like to leave the plug motionless in the water at any time. As I get closer to the boat and I begin to run out of real estate; that is the only point in time when I will slow down my retrieve slightly in a last-ditch effort to entice the fish to bite.

Choosing the Plug That’s Right for You

There are many different options to choose from when deciding which type and size of topwater plug to use. Popular plugs include spooks and poppers. Spook-style plugs zig-zag through the water often referred to as the “walk the dog” technique. Poppers have a cupped mouth and “pop” along the surface of the water causing a disruption that stripers can’t help but investigate. Stripers have very large mouths and even relatively small fish will hit a large plug. It is for this reason that I rarely throw a plug shorter than 6 inches, and for the most part stick to 7- to 9-inch plugs. White and yellow are two very popular colors, but choosing a color or pattern that mimics the baitfish that the stripers are chasing can’t be argued with. Many different companies manufacture high-quality topwater plugs, but in recent years custom lure makers have also become very popular. These plugs are custom tuned and have paint/patterns that can be considered works of art. I like to support these small businesses and try various plugs from different lure makers; I urge you to do the same until you find a plug that you feel most confident in and matches your style of fishing.

Topwater lures produce thrilling strikes from hungry striped bass, and large spooks like the Doc are preferred by many.
Topwater lures produce thrilling strikes from
hungry striped bass, and large spooks like the Doc are preferred by many.

Using the right gear when fishing a topwater plug will allow you to get the best action and yield the best results. You want to use as long as a rod that you can accommodate. When fishing from a boat, I prefer a 7-foot rod as it allows me to maximize casting distance while still being short enough to be fished on a boat. Braided line is the best choice for fishing plugs as it has little to no stretch allowing you to snap your plug into action easily. It is best to use a fluorocarbon or monofilament leader connected by a knot such as the “uni knot” to the main braided line. Using a clip or swivel is another option, but I like to use as little hardware as possible, portraying the most natural presentation possible.

One thing I like to do to all my topwater plugs before I put them to use is to check all the hardware on them. The rings and hooks on many of the plugs out of the box are weak and unfit to fight a trophy-sized striper. Far too many times a striper has straightened out a hook or broken a ring off a plug while fighting to get away. I often change these out for higher quality products to make sure I don’t lose the fish of a lifetime because of an equipment malfunction.

Striped bass are one of the most sought-after fish in our waters. Heavy fishing pressure has caused their numbers in recent years to decline greatly. Every year fewer and fewer fish seem to be caught in the river. New regulations are being implemented to help rebound the population of striped bass, but it is important for all of us to do our part in ensuring we safely release the large breeder fish back into the water safely. It is important to revive the fish properly ensuring it is strong enough to swim away safely. We are all guilty of wanting to take a great photo of our catch. Plan your camera shots out before you fish and have your camera equipment ready for a quick photo so the fish can get back into the water quickly and safely. These are all small but important steps that are necessary in ensuring future generations have the same opportunities we had chasing these amazing fish around!

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