When summer stripers get picky, change things up.
August can typically be regarded as the dog days of summer. This is an amazing time of year for swimming, walking the beach, grilling with friends, and enjoying the heat of the summer. However, as I mentioned in my last column, it can be a very difficult time of year for surf angling. Up and down the coast, water temperatures are peaking, fishing pressure has been high, boat traffic is intense, and the rush of the migration is definitively over. Now, perhaps more than any other time of year, paying attention to the details of your plug delivery is of the utmost importance.
In my mind, there are different hierarchies of striper feeding behavior. It is a spectrum, ranging from aggressive, reckless “blitzing”, to prowling or active hunting, to intensely specific-pattern seeking, to opportunistic holding patterns and everything in between. One of the very worst behaviors is fish that are fussy and not inclined to feed unless you can offer them something intensely tempting. In all honesty, if you want the highest rate of success with these fussy fish, you should consider fishing eels. However, since I am not interested in doing that anymore, I have had to come up with a variety of measures to get fish to strike a piece of wood or plastic when they’re in this infuriating pattern of behavior. One is drawing reactionary strikes from fussy summer fish to keep off the skunk.
One way to do this is to put long, dramatic stops in your retrieve. It may seem counterintuitive at first to do even less with your lure, as it may feel that you want to attract attention through loud and fast retrieves. However, we must remember that stripers (bluefish, flounder, scup, etc.) have a mastery of their environment, and can find a black needlefish in the middle of the night, in a raging storm and 10-foot seas. Trust me, they know your lure is there! While I will start with a standard retrieve each night, I will quickly shift to frantic, fast retrieves, and then finally a combination of “normal” and “fast” retrieves with very long stops. My thought process goes as follows: 1) I am assuming there are fish in the area and it is not my specific plug that is the problem, but the presentation, 2) the fish are aware of my plug and at times following it, or coming to investigate, 3) they are unconvinced that my plug is real and hence not striking, 4) prey that stops to rest or to blend into the surroundings is a very natural presentation, and finally 5) stopping a plug can cause the following striper to bump into the plug, drawing a reactionary strike.
I don’t mean interspersing a few short pauses but letting the plug stop for long periods of time which equates to several seconds at the minimum. I particularly like to pause my plug in areas that strikes most often come from, or if there is a very specific piece of obvious structure such as a very large boulder, drops off a sand bar, the edge of a current seam, etc. It can take a lot of discipline to let your plug stop, immobile, for 3, 5, or even 10 seconds. You just have to have faith that it will work, and once you gain a little confidence (through the reward of getting hit) it becomes a lot easier. It helps me to count down in my head, otherwise, I almost always end up stopping for too short a period of time.
Note, when you’re letting your plug rest, this doesn’t necessarily mean you aren’t reeling. I seldom use this technique when it’s windy or rough because it’s important to stay in contact with your plug and not let a lot of slack develop. It’s just too hard to stay in touch. However, even when it’s calm, you will often need to put a small amount of line on the reel to keep the line tight. I find that I rarely completely, totally stop my retrieve. The ocean has a lot of water movement, and just because I’m very slowly reeling, doesn’t mean I’m adding any motion to the plug. The key is to walk the tight-rope between adding action not letting slack develop—it can be difficult, and takes practice. However, if I have to choose, I’m going to ensure slack doesn’t build up, even if it means I’m just barely moving my plug, rather than making it come to a complete stop.