As stripers return to the oceanfront of Southern New England, soft plastics will catch them throughout the water column.
It’s not too far-fetched to assume that more striped bass will be caught this spring in southern New England on soft plastics than on any other lure type. Most of these artificials look, swim and move like the real thing, and even the fussiest of early-season stripers are sure to pounce on them without hesitation. But, knowing which plastic to use is only part of the equation. How you rig them, how you fish them and how you work the water column often determines your success with these lures.
The first migrating stripers of early spring tend to grub along the bottom. Rarely do we see pods of bait being pushed by diving birds and breaking fish. Yet, there can be tons of fish (yes, mostly schoolies) working the near-shore waters from April through May. So, many fishermen from shore and boat want to work the bottom for the best shot at catching. Some sort of plastic threaded onto a jighead often does the trick.
There are two types of plastics that I use for these first-arrival stripers. It will either be a plastic fish-like body that has a forked tail or one with a fan tail. Lots of companies make the fork tailed models, and both Finesse Fish and Zoom Flukes are just a couple of popular ones. This body has little action, but the fisherman who jerks the rod tip on the retrieve can impart a darting, swimming motion to this lure. The fan-tailed body, such as a Cocahoe Minnow, swims with a back-and-forth tail motion on the retrieve. Little to no rod action is needed to make these baits “come to life.”
Color and size are simple choices here: light colors rule. Such colors as all-white, albino and glow are my top choices. I also try to carry different sizes of these lures. In the fork-tailed variety, I carry both 4- and 5-inch models. As for Cocahoes, I like both the 3- and 4-inch models. The bigger plastics generally take a bigger jighead while the smaller ones take smaller jigheads.
Your jighead is another key to probing the bottom with these lures. I try to go with the smallest jighead that will get the job done (reach the bottom without dredging it). I have used and carry all types of jigheads including round head, fish head, triangular, etc., and I keep it simple by only using white. They all seem to work and I can’t settle on and one being “the best.” However, size is the most important issue here. In calm conditions along the oceanfront, in Narragansett Bay and Boston Harbor, I usually go small, about half an ounce give or take a quarter ounce. Rougher conditions along the oceanfront might dictate bigger jig heads from 5/8 to 1 ounce. I rarely use a jighead over 1 ounce in the places I fish. Wind and surf conditions will determine the best size of jig that will cast and swim along the bottom. Note that the smaller jighead will move much better and appear more life-like in the water. It’s always a compromise when picking the best size jig to get the job done.
While so far I have stressed working the bottom with plastics, there is another effective method to fishing these lures in the right situation. When fishing from the surf in shallow water with lots of rocks, I generally opt for a float-and-jig rig. I use the same plastics and jigs described above, but now I trail those artificials off a wooden egg float 2-1/2 to 3 feet of monofilament is tied onto the float with the other end tied onto the jighead. This set-up also works well in places where there is shallow water (less than 5 feet) and a long cast is needed. The float and jig is particularly effective in rough, white water.
In recent years I have used this float and jig set-up a lot in Narragansett Bay in the early going to catch schoolies as well as small keepers. I also experiment a lot with different plastics. A jighead with a fluke body fished off a float is a killer, especially with smaller fish. I have also used small 6-inch Slug-Gos and large Super Zoom Fluke bodies off the float with great success on larger fish. I generally rig these plastics on a curved worm hook (weightless). The hook used is a Gamakatsu #283416, size 6/0. Twitch them with the rod tip with a slow retrieve. These have worked well for me when fishing into the wind in shallow water. If the wind is at your back, get rid of the float and fish the offerings alone.
As the season progresses from late April into early May, I continue to expand my use of plastics. As the water warms, the fish become more active and will often take a bait on or near the top of the water column. My brother and I like to fish “skinny water” spots in Narragansett Bay, places where the shallow water heats up quickly as the fish are more active in these places. Some of these places are so shallow that as the boat drifts, I constantly look for rocks just below the surface. I almost hate to say this, but we have bumped into a few!
Those skinny water places are great spots to twitch skinny plastics on the surface. One of my go-to lures in these types of locations is a 7-1/2-inch Slug-Go in a white color rigged on a wide gap worm hook (weightless). Simply cast this out and twitch the rod constantly while slowly reeling. This has gotten me countless small keepers and big schoolies while fishing from the boat in Narragansett Bay, Buzzards Bay and Boston Harbor.
My brother Steve, the boater/fisherman in our family, goes with a more finesse approach. He likes to use a big 6- or 7-inch white fluke body threaded onto a worm hook. He rigs this onto a 3-foot fluorocarbon leader and ties direct. He also uses very light tackle and employs a slow retrieve, pulling the rod tip and stopping, slowly reeling and doing it again. With this approach, the hits are often very mellow, but often result in many early-season, small keepers.
Finally, we have hit those days in the boat where we find good numbers of fish out in deep water (over 20 feet) occasionally swirling on top while after small bait. Working the mid-level of the water column often is the key in this situation. We use the jighead/plastic body offering and let the jig sink a certain distance before beginning the retrieve.
There are a variety of ways to fish plastics in the first month of the striper fishing season here in southern New England. My suggestion is to work the water column from top to bottom by using plastics in various ways. The constant here is that some sort of plastic offering is your best bet in the early going.