Striped bass, also known locally as rockfish, are one of the most sought after saltwater game fish on the east coast. Not only can thy reach weights of more than 50lbs and exhibit fighting ability that will challenge even the most seasoned angler they are also excellent table fare. Many striper fanatics spend vast amounts of time and money chasing their dream of a wall hanging trophy, but how can the average angler get started with a reasonable expectation of success?
The striped bass is an anadromous species meaning they spend the majority of their life in salt water but migrate to coastal fresh water tributaries to spawn. They can be identified by their round profile, silver sides, white belly and distinctive dark lateral lines or stripes. Although they females, or cows, can tip the scales in excess of 50 lbs. the average weight caught is closer to the 20-25 lbs. range, with non-breeding schooling being 10-15lbs during the migration.
Stripers can be caught year round as they move along the coastal areas between New England and the Carolinas, but the easiest and most productive time to target them is during the spring pre-spawn period. If you are a new angler looking to try your hand I recommend doing so during this portion of the season. The fish will be traveling in larger schools, readily feeding and moving into more accessible tributaries – all of which will increase you chances of success.
As I stated earlier there are anglers who spend a great deal of money in their pursuit of striped bass going as far as utilizing custom rods, reels that cost $1000s and hand tuned lures. If you have the ability and willingness to do so great, although it is probably a little more devotion than the average beginner possesses. Luckily, it is not necessary to go to such extremes to enjoy the sport and still land some beautiful, even trophy quality fish.
Striped bass can be caught in a variety of manners using almost every fishing method. Whether you prefer fishing in the surf, off your boat or from a favorite pier you can target stripers. They can also be caught using fly, surf, bait casting or spinning gear – its more about personal preference than anything else. As long as the fish are there and your gear is capable of landing them it will work.
So what is needed to land a fish that can weigh as much as 50lbs., spool a reel in a single run and jump like a circus acrobat? Well, that depends on where and how you will be fishing.
If fishing from shore, which I would recommend for new anglers, you should be expecting the majority of your fish to be in the 20lb. range but be prepared for the occasional monster cow. This means using a sturdy medium-heavy rod in the 6-7 ft. range coupled with a matching saltwater reel spooled with 20-30lb. test line. A spinning reel is recommended for beginners as it offers additional flexibility and ease of use. Braided line will also allow you to increase your ability to defeat long runs or larger fish.
When fishing from a boat a similar rod/reel combination is suitable, except you may want to stick with a total length closer to 6 ft. for better maneuverability in tight quarters. If you will be drifting rather than tossing lures a bait casting reel will work well and even a novice can master the simple techniques needed in a short time.
Next comes the question of bait. Because their natural habitat covers such a large area striped bass will naturally feed on a wide variety of baits, often changing preferences as they move from area to area. Eel, herring, alewives and shad all find themselves on the menu at one time or another. Other favorites include blood worms, clams and of course a wide range of smaller fish.
The best practice is to use what is available locally, not only because it is easier to acquire but because that is what they fish in that area are naturally eating, similar to when a fly angler tries to match the hatch. If live bait is not available fresh cut bait is the next best option, frozen cut bait is generally considered a last resort. A size 1/0 circle hook will work well with almost any bait presentation and makes catch & release of unwanted or undersized fish easier.
If lures are your preferred “bait” do not fret. Many a trophy striper has been caught on artificial and there is few moments as exciting as when a large cow engulfs your top water. When the surface is smooth, especially during a high full moon tide, try top water plugs or chuggers. If the fish are deeper or the surface is choppy tie on a suspended jerk bait or buck tail tipped with a rubber shad.