Pictured above: A school of stripers whip the water to a froth as they feed on bay anchovies. Photo by Shawn Hayes-Costello
Some of the most visually impressive fall striped bass blitzes are fueled by the smallest baitfish that swim through New England waters. The slow-swimming bay anchovy is a favorite food of migrating striped bass, and one of the most difficult baitfish to imitate.
Follow the Wind, Find the Fish
Wind was the make-or-break factor for surfcasters last fall. Anchovies are weak swimmers, and are easily pushed by the wind and current. Onshore winds push the anchovies into the surf, where the bass trap them against the shoreline, leading to great fishing from the beach.
The Bay Anchovy
Bay anchovies are small herring-like fish with an underslung jaw and a prominent snout. Anchovies feed on plankton, and spend most of their lives near the surface. When threatened, they form dense schools that look like patches of muddy water. Bay anchovies reach a maximum age of about three years and a maximum size of about four inches, but most are between 1 and 3 inches long. In the Northeast, bay anchovies migrate east to west, moving to the continental shelf in the fall and winter, returning to estuaries in the spring. They are an important food source for a variety of predators, including false albacore and juvenile striped bass.
The small size and nearly translucent coloration of bay anchovies make them difficult baitfish to imitate. The following list of small, slender lures are close matches and will take not only stripers, but albies as well.
Lighten Up Leaders
On bright, sunny days, fish can see everything. If you’ve ever sight-fished the flats, you know long and light leaders are mandatory to avoid spooking fish. The same applies when matching small baitfish like the bay anchovy.
I use a small 35-pound-test barrel swivel between my braid and leader. This rigging reduces the amount of lost fish and twisted line, but remember to tie directly to the lure to cut down on snubs from weary fish that follow. In clear and calm conditions, I use a 3-foot,15- to 20-pound-test fluorocarbon leader. In turbid water, I shorten my leader to 2 feet and use 30-pound-test monofilament. On the fly rod, my 9-foot leader consists of 3 feet of 40-pound monofilament, 3 feet of 30-pound monofilament, and 3 feet of 15-pound-test fluorocarbon.
One day, while casting into a school of bass, I kept hooking into false albacore. With the fish going crazy in front of me, I found it difficult to slow down my retrieve enough to entice the bass to bite. Anchovies are not fast, but false albacore respond to a fast presentation on most occasions. The same with the fly rod—a slow strip is hard with fish going gonzo in front of you.
From the shore or boat, a high rod tip with a cadence of one turn of the handle per “Mississippi” keeps me at the right speed for finicky striped bass on bay anchovies.
Tackle for Matching Bite-Size Baits
When throwing small lures that imitate tiny anchovies, I always use a 7- to 8-foot rod with a matching reel spooled with 15- to 20-pound-test braided line. This lighter setup allows me to cast much farther.
When fly-fishing, a 9-foot, 9-weight rod with floating or intermediate line that you can punch into the wind is perfect. Rio’s Outbound Short or Airflo’s 40+ lines will get the job done.