Striper Bite Sizzles in Spring
On a scale of 1 to 10, I give the 2016 season a 6 for larger striped bass and bluefish because, after early June, we had very few large fish holding on our reefs and shoals. The action picked up again in October and November, but consisted primarily of smaller bass in the Western Long Island Sound, and you were fortunate to get into bass over 20 pounds from July through the end of the season. I broke the 30-pound-mark on stripers west of New Haven only three times in the entire 2016 season, which was an all-time low for me! That also cost me a lot in fuel expenditures, as I was running to eastern Connecticut waters during the summer, where I produced several bass over 40 pounds and two over 50 pounds. I am confident we will see these fish move back into the west on a more regular basis as they get acclimated to the enormous supply of bait throughout the entire Sound.
The hottest bite for larger striped bass was during the entire month of May and on into the middle of June in areas between Milford and Greenwich. These fish did not decide to hang around very long this year and headed east in pursuit of huge schools of bunker. The local reefs had a 6- to 8-week period of good to excellent larger-sized bass and bluefish action, and then things really slowed down. We never experienced a run of cow bass in the region; as I noted above, a 30-pound bass was not easy to come by west of the Connecticut River.
We once again had epic false albacore and bluefish action from September into November. Our albie fishery continues to improve and these little speedsters called the Western Sound their home for over two months this season. Big bluefish were scarce until October, when we saw them in sizes up to and over 20 pounds in areas from Stratford to Fairfield.
By far, the best light-tackle fishing for striped bass are almost always the months of November and early December, and then again in March and April as resident river fish become active. These bass will be lethargic and stacked in deep channels in January and February, but by early March they will again start feeding near the warmer mud flats and outflows. This offers some of the best light-tackle action of the year for our local waters – if you are not looking to catch large fish. However, don’t be surprised to hook into an occasional keeper or even a solitary 40-incher.
Sand Eel Drought…Continued
There were a few surprises that played out during the season. The first was that we had abundant juvenile menhaden in many harbors in May. In almost 40 years of fishing, I had never witnessed this! We typically have plenty of adult bunker, but these were more like the size we experience in September and October. There must be bunker in our region spawning on different intervals and likely wintering here in a few locations as well.
The other surprise was not a good one. We once again had almost no sand eels in the Western Sound. This bait source is critical for our inshore light-tackle and fly-rod fishery, not to mention a huge plus for fluke fishing. When the sand eels are thick (which hasn’t happened in over five years), the fluke, bluefish, and striped bass fishery benefit greatly. I am not aware of any scientific evidence that Superstorm Sandy had anything to do with this phenomenon, but the coincidence is hard to overlook. Since the late 1980s, the Western Sound had been renowned for its shallow-water fishery, which was fed by the abundance of sand eels in areas like Stratford, Bridgeport, Fairfield, Westport, and the Norwalk Islands. I expect this ultra-important bait source to return in strong numbers this year, helping to improve the summer fishery in the Western Long Island Sound.
Soft-Plastic Baits On Jigheads Produced
Other than the obvious live bait, I had good success with the Yo-Zuri Mag Darter when fish were finicky during the daytime. Because the take can be subtle, the key to fishing this lure is a slow and steady retrieve with the rod tip pointing straight at the lure. The other favorite lure I have is the Al Gag’s Whip-It Fish in pearl white. This plastic paddle-tail has performed for me as well as any other traditional soft-plastic lure and jighead combination.
My most productive fly for bass and blues was once again a 6- to 10-inch white flatwing Deceiver. Epoxy anchovy patterns were deadly for the albie bite when the wind calmed down enough for the long rod. For the spring resident bass fishery, I like a ½- to 1-ounce jighead with a pearl Whip-It Eel worked very slowly across the current.
Bait Will Be Key In 2017
Our bunker situation continues to trend in a positive direction throughout the entire region. I see no reason this will change, since the bunker harvesting regulations to our south remain strong. As I mentioned earlier, I will go out on a limb and say we are due to get a solid return of sand eels this year, but this prediction is certainly a gamble based on the past 5 years. I expect us to again have excellent fishing for large migratory striped bass and bluefish by early May, and I hope this will last longer into the summer before the fish head to eastern Connecticut waters as they have done the past several seasons. We have no shortage of bait, but areas to our east have even more.
In all, I think it’s safe to say we should experience an excellent run of large migratory stripers and bluefish during May and June. After that, the action will depend largely on whether we see sand eels, which would spark a summer-long fishery for inshore bass and blues, as well as fluke and sea bass. I once again expect to see false albacore infiltrate the area by early September. Since the summer bass fishery has been poor, light-tackle enthusiasts always look forward to their arrival. Fluke fishing was again slow for most of the season, primarily due to the lack of sand eels. Sea bass fishing was good again, and I expect it to remain strong.