Photo above by Michael Azevedo
If there is one word used ad infinitum to tip off surfcasters about where to find stripers, it’s “structure.” Structure comes in many forms, from subtle sandy beach depressions to craggy coastlines that would make a mountaineer feel at home. Those coastlines are where a surf fisherman stands the best chance at ending the season with a bang!
It only stands to reason that anglers who fish Chesapeake Bay, the birthplace of most of the Atlantic striper stock, got it right when choosing a pseudonym for the striped bass. If you’re casting in the Choptank River or frequenting Fells Point, you’ll hear regulars refer to stripers as “rockfish” when describing Morone saxatilis. In fact, for generations, our beloved seven-striped bass had the scientific name Roccus saxatilis, with the genus “Roccus” a Latin reference to the striper’s preference for hanging around the hard stuff.
Rocky shorelines have all the ingredients necessary for a striper’s survival. Not only does the physical structure allow bass to prowl and then pounce on unsuspecting prey, the maelstrom of sudsy water provides the same benefit. When forage such as peanut bunker aggregate close to shore in big numbers, the coves that define craggy coastlines are perfect places for stripers to pin prey up against the shore. When it happens, the massacres can be legendary.
Even if there is no obvious bait to attract stripers, the varied habitat of a rocky shoreline provides a veritable buffet of prey. When I hear of friends who harvested an occasional striper, the stomach contents reveal lobster, squid, flounder, pollock, and even the occasional cunner. Simply put, a groveling striper poking its nose around the rocks usually finds something to eat.
Those rocks also enable the landlubber to bridge the gap between the “booter” and the boater. Anglers with boats who really know their stuff also are aware that the striper strike zone, at times, is as close to a craggy coastline as they can get. You’ll see them live-lining or trolling a tube-and-worm or a live mackerel in as tight as they dare. It’s among the sweetest of ironies that the “limited” shore-caster is often right where the boaters aspire to be.
Reading the Suds
When I approach an unfamiliar section of crunchy shoreline, before I even cast a line I try to get a feel for two essentials: where a potential fish may be hiding and, every bit as important, where I’m going to land that fish. A blind-cast and hook-up while standing from rocky promontory eight feet above the whitewash is a disaster waiting to happen. Not only does it imperil the angler, but it reduces the likelihood of successfully landing that personal-best bass.
There is usually a natural architecture to rocky shorelines. We can thank the Ice Age’s retreating and advancing glaciers for the irregular bedrock, granite and glacial till that defines much of the New England coast. Whitewater is where it’s at! Shorelines where waves crash and create a striper-holding washing machine of suds and foam is where you want to cast. The “hiss” that follows a comber crashing exceptionally hard along a shoreline is music to the ears of rock-hopping shore-anglers. I’ve often wondered what it must look like below the surface when a big wave crashes. I’m convinced that bass get excited, seize the opportunity, and rush in as close as they can get to the shoreline to snare prey that never saw them coming. If I had to pick a spot within a spot, it would be the “green seam” between white water and clear water. Striped bass love prowling structure edges, and it doesn’t have to necessarily be hard structure. Just like a nighttime shadow edge, water clarity edges are prime places for stripers to ambush prey.
Areas with different types of structure inevitably fish best. For example, I used to fish off a rocky drumlin surrounded by deep water. While I caught respectable fish there, things bumped up a lot when my buddy, Dave Flaherty, began frequenting a rocky platform that bordered a sandy beach. The diversity of this area meant more potential prey, and it manifested itself in better bass almost immediately. If you find such structure bordering an inlet, estuary or river, even better. That spot will almost always produce more than a place composed of uniform rocky structure. Striped bass are among the more opportunistic predators we have along our coast. Piggyback several different environments in close proximity to each other, and there inevitably will be more opportunity to catch.
Random, long casts may cut it on a beach, but they have no place among a craggy coastline. Stripers, especially larger ones, are fond of lurking tight to structure among boulders, ledges, and rocky outcroppings, especially the down-current side. Get in the habit of learning how to place your plug close to such hazards. Bigger bass will not give chase to offerings that are placed 10 feet away, but put the same lure 2 feet from a feeding bass and it will pop it!
Be aware of more than just the obvious structure. Before I approach a likely fishing location that I’m unfamiliar with, I look for a high spot from which to survey the bottom topography. My hope is to find hidden gems of mussel beds, boulders, granite, weed groves, or other types of live bottom, all of which may hold stripers. Pepper the front, sides, and back of that structure to see if anyone’s home. I always carry something weedless that I can drag along the top and sometimes slide through bubble weed, kelp patches, and other areas.
Above all, pick a place for a happy landing. If you spend a couple of minutes and watch the flow of the waves, you can usually find a low-lying lee where you can land that linesider.
The Right Stuff
If you’re a beach bomber used to long casts with long rods, then prepare to ditch the big stick for something significantly different. While it may seem counterintuitive, casting distance is not a priority. The big bass are just about under your feet when you fish among rocky structure. What you will need is a rod, reel, and line with the guts to lock down a stubborn striper determined to make a figure-eight around nearby boulders and lobster pots.
Feather-light, fast-action blanks have no place among the unforgiving environment of a rocky coast. A desirable rod for this sort of fishing should consist of a moderate-action blank that, while pliable toward the tip, has enough starch at the fore-grip to move a big bass. My current reel is a Shimano Twin Power spinner loaded with yellow 50-pound-test Maxcuatro Power Pro. When buckling down on a big bass with a powerful reel and 50-pound braid, there must be some give somewhere, and that’s where the moderate-action rod comes in handy.
I always use my rod to play the fish out, but it’s particularly important among the rocks. I’ve seen the sorry results of a stiff rod and locked-down reel, and it’s usually lure failure, rod breakage, or some other catastrophe that results in mangled gear and lost opportunity. The ideal rock rod runs somewhere between 8 and 9 feet – I have two that I rotate. One is an old-school GLoomis Surf Series 9-footer, and the other is a newer GLoomis 8-foot Pro Blue. I tote along the longer rod if I have word (as has been the case this year) that there are swarms of fast-moving small baitfish around, knowing that I might need a little more distance to reach surface feeds.
For plugs, I opt for GRS BigWaterLures pikes, fast-sinking Sebile Magic Swimmers and Stick Shadds, Shimano Coltsniper Jerk Baits, and big spooks such as the NTA Custom spook, the RM Smith Jackhammer, and Musky Mania’s Doc. If there are peanut bunker in the mix, I’ll throw in a blue/chrome 1½-ounce Acme Kastmaster as well. For a squid imitator, I prefer Bill Hurley’s squid-style jerkbait.
Other gear essentials are a lip-gripper, boots with studded soles for traction, and proper eyewear, which helps you see structure below the surface. Considering that I indulge in most of my rock fishing during low-light conditions, this year I picked up a pair of Costas with Sunrise Silver Mirror lenses. They have been very helpful for spotting fish and structure during dusk, dawn, and overcast conditions.
The Give And The Take
High-visibility line is essential to determine what your next move is when playing out a big bass. A 30-pound-plus fish that makes it around a barnacle-covered boulder is a lost bass. It’s a delicate balancing act when deciding whether to give line or just haul on the fish. Ideally, let the striper make its initial run and then put the boots to it, which is what a powerful combo allows you to do. But, things don’t always go according to script. That bright-yellow braid allows me the luxury of clearly seeing where the fish is in relation to a hazard. If the fish is running out of harm’s way, you should begrudgingly let it go since a spirited slob striper is the last thing you want below your feet among sharp rocks. If there are structural pitfalls nearby, your best bet is to clamp down on that cow and wage a war that, barring equipment failure, you should win.
Topwater spooks aside, the plugs I prefer either sink quickly or dive deeply. I want one that swims significantly below the surface all the way in. Surface swimmers and shallow swimmers lose their cool in the up-close surf zone and look unnatural. Striped bass will often slam a plug just as you attempt to pull it from the water, but not if the plug suddenly changes cadence, which is exactly what shallow swimmers do in the washing machine of the shoreline.
One of the most versatile lures I use among the snags and crags is an 8-inch Soft Magic Swimmer. While the hard-plastic Sebile gets universal love among striper fanatics, for me, the soft version with its snag-less configuration is more versatile since it can be pitched and slithered among structure that would catch on a treble. For all lure styles, I’m packing large ones into my surf bag. Save the finesse stuff for the micros of May.