Every sport has its pinnacle, an achievement that only happens when the stars align, and practice, persistence and opportunity come together in one impressive payoff. In baseball, it’s the perfect game. In golf, it’s the hole-in-one. In striped bass fishing, it’s the 50-pounder.
Many excellent fishermen have spent years and small fortunes searching for this trophy only to come up empty-handed, while just as many novice fishermen have booked a charter or strolled down to the sand and bested one of these impressive stripers without a full understanding of their accomplishment. It goes without saying that lady luck plays a role in the pursuit of the 50-pound striped bass, but some anglers seem to have figured out how to put luck on their side. The multiple second-grader-sized striped bass the following fishermen have put on the beach or in the boat have proven that these guys have gotten into the heads of super-sized stripers.
Meet The Anglers
Captain Ken Zwirko
Home Waters: New Jersey
Credentials: Zwirko has boated numerous 50-pounders fishing from Virginia to Massachusetts.
Advice: “The best days are the roughest. When the water is whipped up, the fish are easier to fool.”
Few fishermen range as far in their pursuit of striped bass as Captain Ken Zwirko. Based in New Jersey, Zwirko follows the bass as far as Massachusetts in the summer and all the way down to Virginia and North Carolina in the winter. With a number of 40- and 50-pounders to his credit, and more that he has guided clients to, he has definitely figured out a thing or two about where and when to look for big bass.
Zwirko finds many of his trophy bass in the spring, when he looks for an indication of fish that is more often associated with offshore fishing: temperature breaks. “In late May and early June, the bays are much warmer than the ocean, so when that water pours out, it creates a temperature break that the big bass will follow,” Zwirko said.
The big spring stripers off New Jersey, Zwirko explained, are on the move, and may not be relating to structure at all. His goal is to intercept these fish as they migrate by drifting with live baits in the lanes the fish are following north. “You’re not always going to mark fish, because the fish aren’t staying in one place for long. I know that if you find bait in 50 or 60 feet of water, the bass are there because those are the depths through which the big bass like to migrate in the spring.”
Zwirko maintains that, with the bass on the move, it’s important to hold their interest. “Once you find the fish, you need to keep chumming or keep live baits in the water to keep the bass in the area. As soon as the easy meal is gone, the school of bass will keep heading north.”
Even in water as deep as 50 or 60 feet, Zwirko doesn’t fish baits on the bottom with heavy weights. He keeps the baits on the surface and said that the big stripers have no problem rocketing up from the depths to inhale a lively bunker.
Zwirko likes the nastiest conditions he can safely fish in his boat. According to Ken: “The best days are the roughest. When the water is whipped up, the fish are easier to fool.”
Zwirko attributed much of his success with monster stripers to the use of properly cared-for and well-prepared baits. “Bunker can lose their slime if you pack too many of them into a livewell,” Zwirko said. This not only affects the bait’s longevity and liveliness on a hook, but the bass actually have a more difficult time engulfing a dried-out bait. The slime on a well-cared-for bunker will help the bait slide down the striper’s throat “like a gumdrop,” and this will help the fisherman get a better hookset. Dried-out baits will be knocked around by the bass on the surface and may never be fully engulfed, leading to missed fish.
“Crazy” Alberto Knie
Home Waters: Long Island, NY
Credentials: Nine Surf-Caught 50-Pounders
Advice: “If you want to catch the really big fish, you’ll throw [menhaden] chunks.”
Alberto Knie takes his striped bass fishing seriously. He meticulously studies tide charts and carves out time around the new moon phases specifically to hunt for monster striped bass. As the 2010 season gets underway, Knie is looking for his tenth 50-plus-pound striped bass from the Long Island surf.
In discussing how to decipher what combinations of structure, conditions and technique offer the very best shot of encountering what he calls, “the one,” Knie used as an example a 2009 trip into the surf. With a fall storm approaching, Knie decided to roll the dice and fish an area he’d never before tried under that particular set of conditions. He knew the structure he’d be fishing had the potential to draw big fish, he knew the pre-storm conditions were just right to get the big bass in a feeding mood, and he knew the technique he would employ, chunking with fresh menhaden, offered him the best chance at the largest striped bass in the vicinity. The grand total of striped bass that he caught on that trip? Zero.
Knie’s reaction to the trip may come as a surprise: “The trips when you don’t catch anything are just as important as the ones where you catch fish,” he said. He explained that unless he’d gotten out there and tried that specific location in those conditions, he wouldn’t have been able to cross that spot off the list next time such a set of conditions arose.
Though Knie agrees that you can’t rule out any set of conditions, he does think that stormy weather gives anglers a better shot at encountering the striper of their dreams. “The early part of a storm, when the water is rough but not dirty, is the time to look for that big fish,” Knie said. They know that once the water gets dirty, they won’t be able to feed for a couple days, so they turn on before the storm.”
As for technique, Knie said he isn’t afraid to get down and dirty to catch giant stripers. When asked his opinion on the best way to hook a 50-pounder, Knie replied: “If you want to catch the really big fish, you’ll throw [bunker] chunks.”
Home Waters: Beaches of Cape Cod, Massachusetts
Credentials: Stetzko beached two 60-pounders and a 73-pound Massachusetts State record.
Advice: “The most important thing is knowing where the bait is.”
You can count on one hand the number of 70-pound stripers caught from the surf in the past 100 years, and one of those fish belongs to the late Cape Cod surfcaster Tony Stetzko. His 73-pound striped bass is at the top of an impressive list of surf-caught trophy stripers, which also includes a couple 60-plus-pounders.
Stetzko made one thing clear about the first step in catching a monstrous striped bass – the importance of finding baitfish. Stetzko took note of even the smallest details when it came to locating the Cape’s primary baitfish, the sand eel. Being a burrowing species, the sand eel takes to certain types of sand better than others, and Stetzko would note the sand’s consistency when fishing a new area. If the sand is too coarse, then the sand eels won’t be able to bury themselves.
Stetzko also looked to other signs of life to direct him to the baitfish. While diving birds are great to point out where the baitfish are during the day, Stetzko told me he relied on other animals to sniff out the baitfish after dark. Believe it or not, Stetzko said when he saw a fox running along the waterline, he’d found an area worth investigating, because the foxes will scarf down sand eels that have burrowed into the sand right at the water’s edge.
Stetzko said that big stripers spend the day hanging around drop-offs and offshore structure, but they move in after dark to feed on the sand eels. “The bass have a route they follow each night when they move in to feed,” said Stetzko. “This route is determined by the tide, structure and bait, and these fish will follow the tide to a number of different areas on their feeding run before returning to the deeper water offshore after sunrise.”
In Stetzko’s years of surfcasting, he discovered that ugly weather can produce some beautiful fish. When asked about his favorite conditions, Stetzko insisted, “The most important thing is knowing where the bait is, but I will say that the rougher the weather, the bigger the bass that come into the surf.”
Structure was critical to Stetzko’s search for large bass. Because rocks much larger than peas are rare in the areas where he did most of his fishing, Stetzko relied on “soft structure” to concentrate bass and bait. When Stetzko found an area where “finger bars” (sandbars that extend straight off the beach) flank a “bowl” (a dug-out section of deep water right on the beach), he knew big fish will show up there sooner or later. Such dramatic structure on a sandy beach will draw in sand eels to hold in the pockets, and give bass an excellent place to hunt for these baitfish.
One of Stetzko’s theories was that many big fish sneak by after most anglers have hung up the rods for the season. His 73-pound behemoth, taken on small black teaser from the Cape Cod surf, speaks to this theory. He landed it on November 3 – late in the year for Cape Cod surfcasting. Before the sun went down that night, Stetzko said the birds were going crazy. There was more bait around than he’d ever seen, with herring and sand eels all over the beach. With the bass keying in on the smaller baitfish, it was no surprise, as the story goes, that his massive catch opted for the sand-eel imitating teaser rather than the live eel trailing behind it.
Stetzko’s final bits of advice related to what to throw once you find the baitfish and big-fish-holding structure. “Eels, jointed plugs and needlefish all take big fish. You’ll also want to fish a dropper, of course. Sometimes even the biggest fish are on tiny bait.”
Captain Jason Colby
Home Waters: Montauk, NY & Boston, MA
Credentials: Colby has landed two-dozen 50-pounders from shore and boat.
Advice: “If you’re catching fish in the thirties, I mean thirty-two pounds and up, then you are right where you want to be.”
Captain Jason Colby is the Bo Jackson of striped bass fishing. With a dozen 50-plus-pound striped bass from the surf, Colby knows surfcasting. With a dozen 50-plus-pound fish from the boat, Colby knows boat fishing.
The timing, location and conditions that contributed to Colby’s two-dozen 50-pounders run the gamut of striper fishing experience: summer, fall, north wind, northeast wind, southwest wind, inlets, rips, open beaches, eels, bunker chunks, needlefish plugs, and the list goes on. It’s obvious that being proficient at fishing a variety of techniques in a number of locations helped Colby land all of those 50-pound stripers.
For anglers to have the best shot at catching a massive striper, they have to be just as opportunistic as the fish they’re after. One story Colby recounted serves as an excellent example. One morning, while chunking bunker on a sandy beach on the south side of Montauk, terns were diving everywhere, yet nothing was showing any interest in his chunk bait, other than crabs. While reeling in his cleaned-off bottom-fishing rig, Colby snagged a sand eel. Deciding to use it as bait, he tied a pompano rig onto his second rod and made a few more casts with the baitless bottom-fishing rig, hoping to snag another sand eel. Once he snared his second sand eel, he baited up the pompano rig with a sand eel on each hook and cast it into the surf. Within 10 minutes, Colby’s rod was doubled over in the rod holder and the drag was screaming. The result was a 56-pound striped bass.
Colby maintains that logging plenty of time on the water is the first step on an angler’s quest to a 50-pound striped bass. “I put a lot of time and effort in,” Colby said. “Maybe I wasn’t all that good, and maybe anyone who was fishing that much would have caught those big fish.”
While it’s hard to believe that anyone would have caught all those fish, there’s a kernel of truth in Colby’s comment that the more time and effort you put into fishing, the greater your odds of eclipsing that 50-pound mark.
Colby believes that anglers who are successfully finding and catching 30-pound-plus stripers are on the right track for finding a 50. “If you’re catching fish in the thirties, I mean real thirties, thirty-two pounds and up, then you are right where you want to be,” Colby said. “Once fish hit that size, they lose the need to school up according to size and form a motley crew of size classes from the low-30-pounders to 60-pounders.” Therefore, if a fisherman has found a good bite on bass in the 30- to 35-pound range, it would be wise to stick with it, because there may be a true giant mixed in.
Joe “Roccus” Brotz
Home Waters: Massachusetts North Shore
Credentials: Brotz has landed 13 bass over 50 pounds.
Advice: “A lot of guys shy away from the bright full-moon nights, but big fish aren’t afraid of the full moon.”
Joe Brotz fishes at what he considers the northernmost limit where you can consistently encounter trophy-sized striped bass. The waters around Plum Island and the Merrimack River in Massachusetts have given up all but two of his thirteen 50-pound-plus striped bass.
To find these big bass, Brotz hopes for conditions that would have many other striper fishermen cursing their ill fortune. Brotz gets excited about big fish when he’s faced with flat calm water, a full moon, and depths of 3 feet or less.
“My first fish over 50 pounds, a 61-pounder, came under a bright full moon in water so shallow, my motor was in the sand,” Brotz said. “A lot of guys shy away from the bright full-moon nights, but I take my vacations around those nights. Those big fish aren’t afraid of the full moon.”
Brotz believes that on dark new-moon nights when there’s “fire” in the water – that underwater light created when your fishing line and lure disturb bioluminescent organisms – it can be near impossible to get a fish to hit until you have the gray light of dawn cracking the horizon. But on full-moon nights, the light of the moon neutralizes the negative effects of glowing fishing line.
Contrary to the beliefs of many other striper fishermen, Brotz prefers glass-calm conditions for big striped bass. “Rough conditions are great for smaller fish, but those big fish aren’t going to go into shallow water and get beat up,” says Brotz. “Big fish are lazy; they don’t even like strong currents.” Brotz finds that big bass will hang on the fringes of rough or fast-moving water, and says his best fishing comes on the smaller tides with weaker currents.
Brotz estimates that he fishes live eels about 90 percent of the time, and his key to success is fishing them in very skinny water. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ll be in the boat and cast a bait right up onto the beach only to have a fish hit it as soon as I drag it into the wash,” Brotz said. “In shallow water around low tide, there are fewer places for the big fish to hide. The low water concentrates the fish.”
In the areas Brotz fishes, there is relatively little obvious structure, so finding big fish takes a keen eye in discovering even a small difference in the bottom contour. “I fish a lot of river flats, and people always say the flats have no structure, but they do,” Brotz said. “A big fish doesn’t need much structure to get it to hold in an area. A rock sitting 18 inches off the bottom or a small depression can be enough to hold a big bass.”
The first 50-pound-plus fish Brotz put on his boat was in 1986, and the most recent was in 2008, when he landed three such trophy stripers. Brotz is optimistic about adding to his list of 50-pounders in 2010. “We have a good year-class of fish right now. There are lots of big stripers around.”
Join The Club
While all five of these trophy striped bass hunters fish in very different ways, there were several consistent themes that could unlock the secret to membership in the 50-pounder club.
1. Be Observant – Whether it’s a fox running along the waterline, a temperature break of just a few degrees outside an inlet, or a single rock along a shallow flat, don’t ignore the subtle details that could lead you to your trophy striped bass.
2. Put in the Time – If you spend time on the water, you’ll be able to recognize patterns that attract big fish to your area. And if you put in enough time on the water, you’re bound to come across a big fish.
3. Find the Baitfish – Big stripers won’t stray far from a reliable source of food, and almost every fisherman in the 50-pounder club would probably agree that finding bait is the first and most important step to locating a trophy striped bass.
4. Fish Bait – Of the dozens of 50-plus-pound striped bass caught by these five fishermen, the majority came on live or fresh bait, including live eels, live menhaden, menhaden chunks, eel skins and sand eels. While artificial lures have accounted for their fair share of trophy stripers over the years, to give yourself the best chance of hooking a 50-pound-plus striped bass, you have to offer them the real thing.
Originally published in the June 2010 issue of On The Water.