The case for skipping the river bite and heading out front right now for large striped bass.
Do you ever get a feeling and you instantly know that you just have to follow it? About five years ago I was doing what the rest of us do in early May: I was fishing the rivers and—I thought—I was doing pretty well. My numbers were good, I had a handful of fish into the low 20-pound class and I was catching fish day and night. Lots of fun. Then one night, I believe it was May 11, I stopped at a herring run that spills off into an estuary less than a half-mile from the inlet. There was a single angler there, a guy I know, and he told me he was there because the night before had been epic. A big push of 20- to 30-pound fish had come in, and they were taking fast-moving plugs like Stick Shadds and Magic Swimmers. I felt a sudden pain in my head; I was late!
This is not to say I was late to get to that herring run, I was, but that’s not the point. The fact that a load of large bass had entered the estuary meant that bigger fish were already passing by, and I was certain that they were not the first ones to swim through my area. Now, you might think that the best course of action would be to stick by that run and hope for a repeat, but I felt this nagging compulsion to put on my wetsuit and fish the oceanfront, even though it was nearly two weeks earlier than I would normally do so.
On the night of the 13th, I went out and fished the front. I went to a spot that was always good to me early and late, a spot that was good for migrating fish and that seemed to be popular with the bass when the water was cold. Thinking about those herring, I tied on a surface swimmer—one made by Couch’s Cedar Works—and threw it into the low surf breaking on the bar. Within two casts I was hooked up, and the fish was NOT the kind of fish I was hoping for. It had stripes, but it might have been 22 inches. I immediately questioned my decision to leave the guaranteed fish in the river.
Maybe two, maybe four casts later, I felt another take and I set up on a fish that felt BIG. I remember saying several times, “This cannot be what it feels like it is!” After three good runs and a lot of tenuous back and forth, I flipped on my light to see a fish that was comfortably over 40 pounds—probably pushing 45! I could not believe it. It seemed to me—and evidently the rest of my local surf fishing brethren—that a fish that size shouldn’t be in my area for a solid two weeks. The rest of the tide was wall-to-wall 18- to 25-pounders. The fish were taking Dannys, needles and Red Fins; I think they would have taken anything we threw.
Since that night I have found myself fishing the front in early-May every year. I have not had another night like that one, but I have taken enough good fish to make me feel like it’s worth it. Additionally, I feel that it’s just a matter of time before I connect with another early-season slob. The best part is that I’m doing this while most of the rest of the surfcasters in the region haven’t even taken their wetsuits out of storage!
But there is some give and take here; most of the nights I have gone have produced either nothing or just a few fish—sometimes they’re little doinkers, but sometimes they’re really nice ones, the type that you might only get one lucky shot at if you were back in the rivers. So it’s really just a decision that you have to make—is your will strong enough to resist the fun fishing? Can you stand to fish 10 nights for six fish total with two of them being bigger than anything you’d catch in the back?
Weigh your options, either way, I’ll be out front. Good luck.