Long Island is certainly a unique location to fish. Aside from being the longest island in the contiguous United States (118 miles), its topography varies greatly between the North and South Shores even though it is only 23 miles wide at its widest point. This disparity was due to the retreating Ice Age that lasted until approximately 11,700 years ago, when the retreating glaciers deposited many rocks and boulders along the entire North Shore, as well as off the shores of Montauk. At the same time it left virtually nothing along the western South Shore.
It’s all these topographical features that make for some top notch striped bass fishing in the Sound, especially in the spring and autumn. The striped bass season typically begins in Long Island Sound right around the opening of the season on April 15, with the bass moving in a west to east direction. By opening day, anglers fishing in Little Neck Bay are already racking up good scores as this shallow body of water with its muddy bottom heats up quickly. For the most part, these fish are of the smaller, school-sized variety. At the very start of the season, the bass can be quite lethargic, especially if we get a colder than normal spring. If that’s the case, stationary baits like sand or bloodworms either fished on the bottom or trolled very slowly with a kayak or electric motor in shallow, warmer waters work best. As the weather warms, the larger fish begin showing in deeper water as the action moves eastward.
The first schools of the larger stripers begin to appear under the peanut and large bunker, spearing and sand eels, all favorites on the striper’s menu. This typically occurs by mid-May, give or take a week or two, depending on daytime temps. The methods used to take these fish can be for the most part a bit different, but the size of the fish can be impressive. You can fish for them either under or around the baitfish schools or over bottom structure. I have personally found the best bait to be – no surprise here – bunker. Sometimes whole, live bunker work well, while other times you will do better with chunks.
Gathering your bunker bait is generally not a problem. Probably the most popular technique is to snag them using a weighted treble hook. On a calm day you can spot the schools by the ripples on the surface, but on a windy day you must locate them with your recorder. If you choose to snag your baits, cast beyond the school and reel the treble back in with a sweeping rod motion. Having some type of livewell aboard is the preferred way to keep your baits lively. If you plan on chunking, place the baits on ice in a cooler but avoid having them come in contact with water resulting from melting ice.
The most efficient method is to use a weighted cast net, which will take a bit more practice (There are lots of videos on YouTube.). Once you locate a school of bunker, run the boat in a very tight circle around the school and throw the net inside the circle and over the school. One good toss over a school will often take care of your bait needs for the day, and they will generally be in better shape than if you snag them.
If you see bass chasing bunker on the surface, hook your live bunker just behind the dorsal fin and let it swim back near the school. This technique is the one time when using monofilament of 30- to 40-pound test is preferred over braid because the mono doesn’t sink like braid, enabling the bunker to swim on the surface. Under these conditions, it is common to see the fish take your bait on the surface, which can be exciting to witness. Some anglers get too excited and react to the sight of the fish taking the bait, rather than giving the fish time to get the bunker into its mouth. Give the fish plenty of time to eat and then set the hook, or simply begin to reel if using a circle hook. I prefer using a 4X strong 7/0 Gamakatsu Octopus or Owner Needlepoint hook, and no weight.
When chunking, anchor your boat up-tide from the structure and use the lightest sinker needed to hold bottom with a fish-finder rig. You want the sinker resting on the bottom while the bait can be slowly played out through the fish-finder. A 4-foot mono or fluorocarbon leader with a swivel connecting the leader to your running line keeps the sinker away from the hook. If you have enough bunker, chumming with small chunks of bunker can help draw fish from downtide. When you feel the fish pick up the chunk, count to five and you should be in business. A large net helps in landing fish and keeping them in good shape for a healthy release. When releasing fish, keep the time they are out of the water to an absolute minimum, especially as water temperatures begin to warm. I have fished many times in the Sound with Captains Harry Carter and Tod Graham, both who practice catch-and-release.
As for tackle, today’s rods allow for the use of much lighter rods than even 10 or 15 years ago. Rods like my Shimano 7-1/2-foot Terez are lightweight yet very powerful. This rod matches up nicely with Accurate Boss Extreme or Shimano Talica spooled with 40-pound braid and a topshot of mono. I join the braid and topshot with an Albright knot.
Another proven springtime technique is slow trolling with an electric motor or kayak. The advantage to this method is the stealthy approach both provide. Although I have never fished from a kayak, I’ve done very well from my 14-foot aluminum boat powered by a Minn Kota electric motor. While you can slow troll a live bunker, I’ve had lots of success trolling sandworms off of places like Oak Point in Bayville. No weight is required, other than a swivel, and it is very exciting to see a large bass engulf the worm, sometimes not more than a few yards from the boat. Some of the bigger fish in the 30-pound class and better, would drag the boat around for 10 minutes before I could net and release them.
Western Long Island Sound and its relatively calm, protected waters can be counted on to provide solid bassing during the early part of the season. If you don’t trailer your own boat, there are a number of party and charter boats that ply these waters, so check the ads in the Report Section of this magazine and take advantage of this spring action. If you trailer your boat, many North Shore marinas have ramps available for a nominal fee.