A couple of days before writing this, I found out that I might have to give a software talk in Japan in the fall for my day job. The first thing I did was consult a tide calendar. The next thing I did was contact a coworker to see if he’d like to give the talk instead.
Assuming there’s no unusual weather, I’ll be catching 15- to 25-pound bass on pencil poppers on the dates in question. There’s no “maybe” about it. There’s no concern about the presence of mullet, snappers, or bunker. I’ll be on fish that settle into a particular area at a particular time, and when I have the correct tide at sunrise and sunset, I’ll catch every time and without fail. I won’t catch many but I will catch some, and I’ll have a chance at a big one.
If I go to a particular jetty and fish bucktails on a certain tide between mid-May and mid-June, I’ll be completely dumbfounded if I don’t catch at least a couple of bass. I’ll be equally surprised if I’m the only one there because there are probably dozens of anglers who know exactly what I’m writing about.
In most seasons, at least half of my fishing is done without any concern for baitfish whatsoever, and nearly all of my big-fish targeting is done this way.
In the pencil popping and bucktail fishing plans mentioned above, bait movements are the furthest thing from my mind. I’m interested only in the intersection of a series of conditions or windows –a given place at a time of year at a time of day on a certain tide with typical water conditions. With that, I’ll give the fish a bucktail, pencil popper or eel—whatever it is that they’ve hit over and over again when everything is lined up.
If you have your mind set on catching quality stripers, the first thing to come to grips with is that larger stripers have very different behavior than the smaller ones. If you think you’ll catch big stripers just by catching a lot of small ones and that some big ones will mix in, you’ll never achieve trophy catches with any consistency. The best you can hope for is a rare lucky big fish.
Big and small fish are different creatures. They feed differently. The smaller ones are frequently chasing down a variety of small baits—sand eels, spearing, anchovies, etc. When not migrating, I think the bigger stripers spend the vast majority of their time staging, not feeding. They suck down a large bait and then they’re done for a while. Gut a big bass and what do you find? Porgies, fluke, crabs, blackfish, bergalls … and the list goes on and on. What these baits all have in common is that they’re readily available in many environments. Poke your head beneath the water in a rocky environment or along the base of an inlet jetty and you might see all of these species in a single breath. The big bass are being satisfied by a small quantity of large baits that they don’t have to work too hard to find. Get the picture? They don’t need to go chasing down your piece of plastic, and the odds are good that you’re dragging it by them at a time when they’re not even interested in feeding.
Here’s how I think about it: The big bass that aren’t actively migrating are feeding perhaps an hour a day. What are they doing the other 23 hours? Are they going to random places? No, they’re settling in and staging in areas they find comfortable, and those areas are probably related to the stage of the tide and to some extent, wind strength and direction. That “comfort” may come from things like water temperature, current profile, easy access to deeper water, or readily available food. The nice thing about staging fish is that they’re predictable. If you can figure out where some bass will be located given a certain set of conditions, you’ll have a pattern that will consistently produce.
All of this plays into how I target big stripers. I’m not preoccupied with bait. I’m preoccupied with good water and conditions. Sure, if a school of adult bunker shows up in an ocean jetty pocket, that’s a pretty good place to fish, and I’m there. The problem, at least for me, is that the baitfish movements can be so unpredictable. The big bunker are there one night and gone the next. I have a much easier time predicting where at least a few quality stripers are likely to be holding.
But, there’s a problem with staging stripers—they’re not actively feeding. If they don’t hit, we can’t catch them and can’t even find those special places where they hold. I solve this problem with eels. Whether fished live or rigged dead, eels produce big bass at times when the fish will completely ignore other offerings. I could relate story after story where a few minutes with an eel produced what hours with plugs and bucktails couldn’t. From my observations, eels have the ability to catch bass that aren’t actively feeding.
There are certainly other baits that are also hard for stripers to resist. Live bunker and spot croakers come to mind, but these and most other live baits are a problem for surfcasters, for practical reasons. It’s pretty hard for a surfcaster to cover significant ground with these live baits in tow. Even fishing with cut bait can be limiting in the amount of ground you can cover because you’re not constantly casting and retrieving, but rather you’re stationary for periods of time while you wait for a pickup. Eels, on the other hand, can be carried easily in a mesh bag for several hours without suffering much harm as long as they’re at least kept damp. They’re cast and retrieved like artificial lures, so it’s easy to keep walking and casting. Eels give us the mobility we need to cover ground and find fish. This combination of mobility and effectiveness makes an eel an excellent bass-hunting tool.
One of my main strategies to catching a big striper boils down to putting an eel in front of it. Whether live or rigged, I know if I get that eel within easy striking distance, I’m in a great position for something good to happen. From there, it’s up to me and my gear to convert the strike to a landed fish.
This isn’t meant to detract from the big-fish potential of other offerings. Bucktails in the inlets and near the bridges, darters in the rocky surf at night, big plugs in the presence of adult bunker—these all have a history of giving up large stripers. My fixation on eels is in the absolute confidence that if a bass is catchable, it can probably be caught on an eel.
The eel won’t solve all of our problems, though, because it is difficult to get and keep in the strike zone in conditions such as deep- and fast-moving water or rough surf. That’s why the well-rounded big-fish hunter must be proficient with bucktails and plugs to keep options open in all conditions. Good bucktailing skills are particularly important because properly worked jigs are deadly and can be used in a very wide variety of conditions.
An outstanding fishing spot is rarely defined strictly by an “x” on a map. The handful of situations I depend upon to produce big fish exist only in short windows whose boundaries are an intersection of other windows related to tide, weather, water conditions, and other variables. For example, I know that if I fish a particular rock between dusk and dawn during the first two hours of outgoing tide on a stiff north wind and small to moderate seas during the month of October, I will catch at least a couple of bass over 20 pounds. If those conditions line up enough times to give me a half-dozen chances at it in any given fall, I stand a better than 50% chance of pulling a 40-pound-plus fish out. My chances increase if I get a couple of shots within a window of two days on either side of a new moon or a full moon with cloud cover.
The particular rock is by no means secret, and most of the time it doesn’t produce very well. Plenty of anglers stand on it at some point in any given week during the fall. Many more pass it by. One thing you can certainly count on is that you probably stand a better chance of catching a CIA operative in an unfriendly country than you would seeing me catch a fish on that rock. I simply won’t go near it if I’m not in that special intersection of season, tide, and wind. Sure, there’s an occasional fish to be caught there under other conditions, but not enough for me to risk its exposure. And, when it is time to fish it, I’ll be sure to fish “stupid” if someone comes near and appear to leave if anyone fishes close by. It’s not the rock I’m trying to hide; it’s the pattern of great fishing that occurs on that rock under a certain set of conditions. There may not be any secret spots, but there are definitely secret patterns.
The fact that patterns arise from the interaction of various conditions and a particular piece of water is one of the most interesting aspects of fishing. For the truly analytical, it represents an infinite number of possibilities that is the product of all of the different variables. I’m intrigued by the potential of phenomenal and uncovered fishing opportunities existing within the intersecting condition and location windows, and I spend a fair amount of time each season looking for those special combinations.
How can you find these patterns? Anyone who spends a significant amount of time chasing fish along our shores is usually aware of (or can recognize) locations that have some potential. This type of search is location-based, because it focuses on particular spots. There’s no better way to uncover that potential than to take such a place of interest and simply beat it to death – fish every tide under nearly every weather condition. It can be boring at times and requires a lot of discipline, but sometimes this R&D investment will pay dividends for decades, especially if you’ve figured it out before anyone else has.
The other type of search that I focus on is condition-based. When I consider my strengths and weaknesses as a surfcaster, I tend to focus predominantly on conditions. I already know how to catch fish in many different places using more techniques than I care to. What I’d like most is to be able to catch fish every night. I’m not saying I want to go fishing seven nights a week, as other demands preclude that, but on nights when I can get out I’d like to have a high-percentage play to run. I can choose where and how I fish, but I have no control over the conditions that present themselves at any given time. Realizing this, I understand that what I need to work on most in order to improve my surf productivity is to have options for all combinations of tide stages and wind directions.
There are some conditions that don’t require a lot of thought, just maximum effort. One of the most basic rules of targeting large stripers is to fish at night. Most big bass are landed dusk through dawn. Stormy conditions are an exception when the big fish may be on the feed during the day. The onset of a coastal storm is well known in the surfcasting community to spark strong bites and put big fish on the feed. Strong winds, building seas, strengthening currents, and temperature drops are among the catalysts, but it’s important to fish the onset of one of these storms before the waters get too high, rough, weedy, and/or dirty.
I feel obligated to say something about moon phases, but I pay much more attention to tide stages, current strengths, and weather conditions. A bright full moon is usually nothing more than an annoyance for me. Other than that, I don’t pay much attention to moon phase. One problem with focusing on them is that some years the tidal extremes are on the new moon and other years they occur on the full moon. I’d rather focus directly on current speeds and tidal departures.
I measure the success of my seasons as much by what I’ve learned as by what I’ve caught. If I can crack the problem of what to do under conditions that have always proven unproductive to me, that’s more valuable than another couple of cows. It’s with that in mind that I’ll sometimes focus on a forecast of prolonged sets of conditions that have frustrated me in the past. With time and hard work, I’ve watched the number of these gaps in my knowledge base diminish, but some still remain to work on. A motivating aspect to trying to fill in these pieces of the puzzle is that some of my favorite conditions now were ones I slept through a decade ago. As is true in many aspects of life, I wish I knew then what I know now.
Your mindset is as important as anything else I’ve written here when targeting trophy bass. This requires ignoring the smaller fish that are often readily available when you’re just fishing to bend a rod. It can be difficult in the beginning, but with patience and discipline, you’ll eventually catch quality bass. By putting time in under varied conditions, patterns will begin to emerge. By planning your trips around these patterns, you’ll be fishing with your most important weapon: confidence. Once you have confidence, and you’re convinced that it’s only a matter of time before you tie into another big fish, you’ll be in an excellent position to catch trophy stripers on a consistent basis.