Where-to: Early Spring Stripers - The Fisherman

Where-to: Early Spring Stripers

 A mild winter should produce good action with slot fish
A mild winter should produce good action with slot fish this month in the back bays of New Jersey, where The Fisherman’s Jim Hutchinson, Jr. spends a good amount of his time “spot locking” off the sedges using fresh-shucked clam on a circle hook behind Long Beach Island.

No AI-produced map needed here, this is where hungry spring stripers will cross paths with eager anglers following the migration from south to north this month.

As spring striped bass begin to show in ever-increasing numbers up and down the coast throughout the month of April, anglers too awake from their winter slumber, itching to put a bend in a rod and test that new tackle accumulated over the winter off season. Some of the fish encountered in the early season wintered-over in the many tidal waters along the coast, while others spent the past few months offshore or to our south and are moving back inshore to feed and spawn. This can provide a variety in size-classes encountered depending on where you fish. Here is a rundown beginning in New Jersey and moving on up past Long Island into New England to help determine where and how you can connect with that first striped bass of the newly-christened 2020 open-water fishing season.

A Jersey Shore Thing

By Jim Hutchinson, Jr.

As of April 1, 2020, New Jersey’s striped bass regulations go to one fish at 28 inches to less than 38 inches in length. The Garden State also requires that “No person may take, attempt to take, or have in possession any striped bass” from April 1 through May 31 along the Delaware River and its tributaries spanning approximately 60 miles from the upstream side of the Calhoun Street bridge in Trenton downstream to and including the Salem River and its tributaries. The reason for the restriction is the presence of spawning-class stripers on the Delaware every spring; it also has carried a long time mandate that anglers fishing natural baits for other river species employ non-offset circle hooks during the prohibition period.

 Here and there you might connect with a little better fish
Here and there you might connect with a little better fish, but expect most of the action in April to come from fish under the slot.

Just south of the Salem River, from Oakwood Beach down to Alloway Creek, many anglers will set up along the shores of the Delaware with bloodworms in search of big catch and release stripers, some casters turning to plugs; with herring and shad on the run as well at this time, similarly matched swimmers often get the job done. It’s a popular area too for boating anglers setting the hook with chunks of bunker around the Hope Creek area in particular where the power plant at Salem has been a landmark for spring action for generations of Delaware and South Jersey anglers starting in late March.

Typically by the second week of April, Raritan Bay anglers in North Jersey will have found where the soon-to-be Hudson River spawning class of stripers are staging prior to their spring migration upriver. Large stripers above the high end of the 2020 slot will pile on SP Minnows somewhere along the Raritan Bayshore, with knowledgeable surfcasters often walking great lengths along the sedges and traversing numerous creeks along the way to reach some of the more secluded stretches where the big bass set up to feed before the spawn. The best bet for the traveling angler in search of intel is to plan to spend a few bucks in one of the bayshore tackle shops on the shopkeeper’s best recommendation for a fish; you’ll often get the general vicinity on the most recent bite, though plan to extend your range a bit in search of the best catches (which typically occur when you’d expect it most, dusk to dawn).

Expect too to find the fleet running the channel edges with mojos or Rapala X-Rap Magnums or Bomber CD (Certified Depths) where fishermen can zero-in on the fishfinder marks at the proper depth and trolling speed. It’s important to note that these big fish are on the feed before heading up to spawn, so proper care should be taken to release these fish properly. Use heavier tackle to minimize the length of fight, as researchers have found that mortality rates are typically higher with striped bass caught in estuarine waters. Whether by boat or by bank, try to keep your soon-to-be-released fish in the water wherever possible; anglers should also cradle the fish (one hand on the jaw, one under the belly) for any quick snapshots you plan to take before letting go.

To find the proper slot fish for retention, the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife said striped bass are to be “measured from the tip of the snout (mouth closed) to the longest part of the tail,” with the “fish tail pushed together to obtain greatest length.”

Start with Schoolies

By Fred Golofaro

While the striped bass season in New York’s marine district does not officially open until April 15, stripers are the one species anglers are permitted to legally target for catch and release during the closed season as it was written into the legislation when the season was first established.

Western Long Island Sound will see a considerable amount of early effort, mostly by surfcasters who target shorelines such as Turtle Cove and Orchard Beach near City Island, Little Neck Bay, Manhasset Bay and Hempstead Harbor. Typically the fishing gets going in early April but some years with mild late winter and early spring weather, we have seen good fishing occur as early as March. Often the best fishing is found in relatively shallow areas warmed by sunny days.

Brian Spreckels with a husky April schoolie
Brian Spreckels with a husky April schoolie that fell for an SP Minnow in Hempstead Harbor, NY.

Soft plastics like 4-inch Tsunami Swim Shads and Cocahoe Minnows are popular choices and their single fixed hooks make catch and release clean and easy. Blood or sandworms have long been favored as early season striper baits, but unless you are fishing them on circle hooks, the mortality rate on released fish can be significant, something we should all be trying to avoid. Small swimming plugs and even poppers are an option, but here too, single in-line hooks should replace the trebles these lures typically come with. As April progresses, look for the action to spread east along the Sound shoreline and harbors. There was a time when some quality stripers would be mixed with the more typical schoolies of early spring, especially when bunker were present in good numbers, but diminished numbers of big bass have made this a small fish fishery well suited to light tackle.

On the Island’s South Shore, look for school bass to be moving along the ocean beaches by mid-April. Back when haul seiners worked unrestricted along the South Fork, they would catch many school bass by early April. For many years, surfcasters would fish sand or bloodworms during the fourth month and do very well with schoolies. More recently, they too have turned to soft plastics like Bass Assassins, swim shads and curly tail grubs for early season action, while those who favor bait have shifted their effort to using clams or small chunks of bunker. Where bait is concerned, the use of circle hooks is a must, and beginning in 2021, it will be the law.

Look for West End and South Shore bays to also begin producing mostly schoolies in April. Boatmen will opt for doling out clam chum or casting soft plastics and bucktails around bridges such as the North and South Channel in Jamaica Bay, the Wantagh bridges, Robert Moses and Smith Point.

Dan DiPasquale cradles a good fish on the Raritan Bayshore
New Jersey angler Dan DiPasquale cradles a good fish on the Raritan Bayshore prior to release while plugging the afternoon tide in mid-April of 2018.

On the East End, tidal creeks dumping into Peconic and Shinnecock bays are always good for some early season action, as is the back end of Sag Harbor. Heady Creek in Southampton is a popular early season spot. Surfcasters will find the Ditch Plains area a good place to start their season as that stretch of Montauk annually produces decent schoolie action every April on swim shads.

Keep in mind that the new striped bass regulations in place for 2020 call for a slot limit that allows you to keep one fish between 28 and 35 inches. The season remains the same in the marine district, running from April 15 through December 15. In the Hudson River north of the George Washington Bridge, the season runs from April 1 through November 30 with a slot between 18 and 28 inches.

Holdovers or Freshies?

By Toby Lapinski

This is the debate that rings out every spring when the first fish reports begin to trickle in throughout New England: is that striped bass a fresh fish on the front end of the migration or just a local holdover that slid out of its wintering home in the Northeast? For most of the month of April my money is on that catch being a holdover regardless of size or location caught, but as the month presses on the odds increase (ever so slightly) that you’re fishing on fresh fish. But regardless of where the fish spent the past five months, the universal question reigns supreme, and that is in where to find them.

Early spring stripers are generally sub-legal in New England
Early spring stripers are generally sub-legal in New England and make for great fun on lighter gear. Aiden Lapinski jigged up this schoolie from a small tidal creek that regularly holds a small population of year-round fish.

To begin your April striper hunting the best bet for finding success is to fish in an over-wintering spot. These can be the well-known rivers like the Housatonic, Thames and Providence, or they can be that almost no-name tidal creek that feeds into the salt, which is best fished with trout-sized gear; so long as it doesn’t freeze solid, I can just about guarantee there are at least a few stripers wintering in it. Target the deeper channels and holes early in the month, and make it a point to fish the afternoons when it’s sunny—even an increase of a few degrees in water temperature in this timeframe can have major positive effects. If you can find a hole just downstream of a shallow flat then you have yourself the makings of a spring hotspot!

Start off throwing soft plastics on lead heads—bigger offerings in bigger rivers with herring runs and smaller baits where worms, shrimp and mummichogs are the primary forage. As the waters warm and the fish become more active, you can add spooks and swimming plugs into your arsenal to coax more bites oftentimes from the larger fish. There was a bite I found some 15-plus years ago that occurred every April when two or three days of sunny weather coincided with a rising tide in the afternoon. I’d set out with large pencil poppers and find schools of early alewives getting hammered by bass as big as 30 pounds. It was often short-lived, only lasting a few days before word would get out, but it was my little season kick-off while most everyone else was targeting trout with Power Bait.

As the month drags on even further, set your sights “out front” in the ocean. This can be the salty shoreline adjacent to the mouth of the rivers you fished a week or two earlier, or it can be a beach with ample rocks (jetties or strewn along the bottom) when a southwest wind pushes into shore and schoolies feast on small baitfish and shrimp. There are many spots that fit this bill, and each locale has its own set of favorites. Arm yourself with small, single-hook offerings like bucktail jigs and soft plastics pinned on jigheads, and be sure to bend down those barbs for easy release of these almost exclusively sub-legal fish.

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