Spring Striped Bass; Follow the Spawning Run
Spring is one of my favorite fishing seasons, and after a long, cold winter, many mid-atlantic anglers will likely agree. Without trout, the winters would feel even longer and be void of any highly productive fishing efforts. However, come early April, I am turning my focus from trout fishing to another one of my favorite species, the striped bass - or rockfish as some say here in Maryland.
Spring is quickly becoming one of my favorite seasons to target striped bass, rivaling the famed fall run of striped bass which brings topwater blitzes and world record sized bass to our east coast beaches and bays. Compared to the fall, some may consider the spring striper season less exciting, but to me it seems like a better chance to target numbers of healthy, hungry, and energetic stripers.
Spring is spawning season for the anadromous striped bass. If you have never heard the word anadromous before, it describes a fish species that moves from saltwater to freshwater (or brackish water) to spawn. Salmon, shad, herring, white perch, and striped bass are commonly known anadromous fish species. Striped bass begin their spawning journeys in early spring, working their way up bays and river systems to spawn. Along the way, these large breeding fish feed aggressively, often taking advantage of the spawning run of other small anadromous fish, like herring and shad. This is a great time to find large striped bass in easily accessible locations like urban and tidal rivers. When fishing to breeding fish, be mindful of the local regulations and follow them strictly. Many states may close the fishery in specific river systems entirely. DC, VA, and Maryland ban the use of live (or dead) herring or shad as bait. The best thing to do is know your local regulations before you head for the water and stick to them. Instead of bait, use large baitfish imitations like swim shads, plugs, and other plastics to entice these fish. If you are lucky enough to catch a breeding fish, please fight them quickly, keep them in the water while photographing and unhooking, and revive them properly before release.
I had a chance to talk to local Jersey angler Nick Honachefsky about the upcoming striper season. I asked his thoughts around spring vs. fall fishing. "I’ll take both." Nick said. "It used to be that the Fall Run was the best time for absolute action in the surf, as well as boats...but, in the last three years or so, the Spring run has outproduced the fall run as larger bass are around in the spring [feeding] on the bunker schools." He continued, "Spring also ushers in that first glimmer of hope for the fishing year."
For those of you who don't know Nick, he is an avid fisherman, published author of several saltwater fishing articles and books - including The Jersey Surf Diaries and The New Jersey Boat Fisherman - and the host and executive producer of Saltwater Underground, a web TV series focused on saltwater fishing in New Jersey. If you don't already know Nick's work, check out Saltwater Underground and feel free to connect with him on Instagram @nickhonachefsky.
Going along with Nick's comments about stripers, up and down the Mid-Atlantic striped bass begin to show themselves in early spring in a variety of waterways. This makes them very accessible to all types of fisherman in many different settings. From urban rivers to secluded tidal bays and creeks, any angler can have the opportunity to chase spring striped bass.
The striped bass spawning run, and subsequent migration, follow a fairly predictable south to north pattern. If you search online, many fishing publications release an updated map to show the estimated arrival of the striped bass migration. While these maps are helpful to keyboard fisherman, I suggest trying to anticipate the run yourself, as online reports are often several weeks behind the real action. I like to think of the striper migration like a wave, starting slowly in early March, building speed in early April, cresting in early May, and then rolling out as quickly as it arrived. First, some of the early fish start to feed and are often there before most anglers would think to target them. Along the shorelines, in saltwater bays and tidal creeks, resident "schoolie" stripers begin to move around and provide action as well. Next, the larger spawning fish move into the southern region's rivers and begin entering the Chesapeake Bay as well. Following the spawn, these fish begin their journey north, up the coastline, feeding aggressively along the way.
In the spring, my favorite offering is medium to large baitfish imitations, fished with a medium-fast retrieve in the mid-water column. If you are fly fishing, this would include deceivers, half and half's, clouser minnows, and epoxy minnows. If spin fishing, I would recommend carrying some swim shads, rattling crankbaits, SP minnows (or similar plugs), and topwater poppers, although the topwater bite can be non-existent at times in the spring. As the run builds and wanes, the bottom of a waterway can at times feel like it is paved with striped bass. Other days, it feels like you couldn't force a striped bass to eat. However, more often than not, spring offers a chance to catch good numbers of striped bass with an above average size. Large, trophy striped bass are also accessible to shore anglers as they make their spawning runs.
For anglers, this cyclical journey is one that should not be missed, but it should also be respected and cared for. Large striped bass are vulnerable on beaches, bays, and in rivers, and poachers and unethical fisherman are often there to cash in. While I believe the regulations need to be changed to further protect breeding sized striped bass, I still encourage everyone to closely follow the current regulations for the waters they are fishing. If you are an angler that sometimes keeps their catch, please be mindful that striped bass populations are on a significant decline due to recreational and commercial/charter boat harvest and also due to lenient regulations over the past decade. I encourage all anglers fishing for any sized striped bass to practice catch and release, but specifically ask that you photograph, revive, and release all striped bass over 28". Nick Honachefsky had a chance to weigh in on the topic: "Right now studies show [the striped bass population] in a downward trend...The late 90’s and up to 2011 were incredible years, but too many people keeping too many big fish has really started to put a dent in recruitment of stocks." Nick supports the idea of a slot limit for striped bass, which would protect the breeding sized fish from harvest by requiring their release. At Surf to Stream, we support a slot limit as well. We will feature a guest article coming soon detailing the struggles of our striped bass population and how you can help to positively effect change. Please keep an eye out for this article!
Not wanting to end this post on a negative note, I will say this: Spring striper fishing is some of the best action we will have all year in the Mid-Atlantic region and I encourage you to get out and fish. Whether you hit the urban rivers, tidal creeks, bays, or beaches, striped bass will be around in high numbers between the end of March and early June. Get out there and fish - maybe we will run into you on the water!