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How to Catch Striped Bass
Striped bass are famously fun to fish. They’re majestic for all the same reasons as salmon, and can be found all over the country. They eat lots of stuff, which means you can fish for them with lots of different methods. And they grow to be absolutely huge! So where can you find them, and how do you fish them? Here’s the low down.
Striped Bass Basics
Why Fish For Striped Bass?
Striped bass are a symbol of the Atlantic Coast, the same way salmon are in the Pacific Northwest. They’re amazingly fun and sporty to fish. Seriously, people are crazy about striped bass fishing. Folks will pull their hair out trying to find them and grow old learning to fish them. They’re delicious and nutritious, and there are tons of way to cook them. So really, how could you not want to fish for them?
Identifying Striped Bass
Striped bass have a lot of similarities to their half-cousins, the large and smallmouth bass. However, there are a few dead giveaways that make striped bass easy to spot. First, striped bass have (as you might expect) stripes of dark color running laterally from their heads to their tails. These stripes sit on a background of whitish silver, which can sometimes fade to green around the spine.
The shapes of their bodies are also slightly different from freshwater bass. They are much larger, averaging between 20 and 40 pounds. The standing record was a 124 pound monster caught in the late 1800s. Striped bass have more of a sleek, streamlined shape than freshwater bass, as they spend more time fighting the current. They also differ in that they have two distinct dorsal fins, one with stiff spines and one with soft rays. Their anal fins also feature three rigid spines followed by seven to 13 softer rays.
Striped Bass Range and Locations
Striped bass occur broadly along the Atlantic coast. But they move around a lot, and have been introduced to many places as well. The most important striper spawning populations live in Chesapeake Bay, around Cape Cod, and near the Hudson and Delaware Rivers. Depending on the time of year they may be further north or south, as we’ll cover more in a minute.
There are many places across the country where stripers have been introduced. Most are stocked annually, but a few of these non-native populations are self-sustaining. Specifically, Lake Texoma, Lake Weiss on the Coosa R., the Arkansas R., Lake Marion in South Carolina, and the Colorado R. (including its man made reservoirs, like Lake Powell) hold stable populations of landlocked striped bass. These fish have become totally adapted to life in freshwater. Freshwater stripers don’t grow to be as large, but the variability of their diets allows them to subsist in surprising places.
There are also native populations of striped bass in the Gulf of Mexico. These fish have similar habits to the Mid-Atlantic variety, but are genetically different. They’re referred to as Gulf Coast striped bass, and don’t intermingle with the populations along the East Coast.
Striped Bass Life History
In fresh water, striped bass are found in similar places to largemouth. The difference is that stripers like rocky bottomed lakes and open water. Their affinity for rocks is why many people call them “rockfish.” They usually hang out in deep, cool, clear water. Temperature-wise, the “comfy zone” for striped bass is right around 75 degrees F.
Despite the way they look, stripers aren’t exactly fast or graceful swimmers. So when you find them in the ocean, you’ll often find them in slower or still water that’s sheltered from the current. Additionally, they don’t like venturing too far from shore. They can venture out up to sixty-ish miles, but they’re more effective hunters when they can use the shoreline to their advantage. As a general rule, you won’t see them more than a few miles out. They will spend much of their time feeding in and around oyster reefs, which can be a good sign if you’re looking for a spot to cast.
Probably the most interesting thing about striped bass is that they’re anadromous. This means that much like salmon, they migrate to and from freshwater to spawn. They spend most of their time in the ocean, hunting smaller fish and moving along the coast. When it’s time to reproduce, they hustle upriver. They will often swim great distances during spawning, sometimes as far as 200 miles. This has caused some stripers to become “trapped” behind dams and in man made lakes. These fish still run upstream to spawn, returning to their deep water lakes when they’re done.
Surprisingly, these landlocked fish do fairly well. Their ability to adapt to completely different habitats is pretty astounding. In fact, scientists have observed some populations choosing to favor fresh water, running to the ocean only when the rivers get too hot to survive in. This is a bonus for sport fishermen away from the coast, of course. Many states have since begun stocking lakes with striped bass, with mixed success.
The life cycle of the striped bass, like any anadromous fish, begins in freshwater. Far upstream, in the spawning grounds where their parents were born, the juveniles begin their long journey. Baby fish eat zooplankton until they reach around two inches long. After this, they switch diets, consuming small invertebrates like aquatic insects, unfortunate crickets, roaches, and shrimp.
All the while they venture further from the spawning ground, growing larger on bigger and bigger prey. They will spend a few years hanging around estuaries, where food is easy to find. After four to nine years, the stripers reach maturity and are ready to live in the open ocean. At this point they begin to join the other adults on their annual migratory patterns up and down the coast.
These migrations will lead them back to estuaries for the winter, waiting for warmer water. In the spring, they travel upstream and return to where they were born. The females lay eggs, the males fertilize them, and then both sexes return quickly to the sea. They go north first, as far north as New England. After the summer, they head south to the Mid-Atlantic and beyond. Here, the stripers prepare for winter and start the cycle all over again. They will continue this pattern for another 20-30 years on average.
Striped bass occupy the niche of predators. They control populations of all of their prey species, and they have a lot of prey species. For adults, this mostly means smaller schooling fish. Stripers hunt individuals that become separated from their schools by strong currents, lying in wait or creeping through oyster reefs.
But just because striped bass can eat lots of things doesn’t mean they do. Generally they will pick a few species, depending on what’s available, and focus on them. They commonly take bay anchovy, menhaden, alewives, shad, spot, croaker, and herring. However, in places like the Delaware Bay where schooling fish are less common, they also prey on invertebrates like lobster, shrimp, rock crabs, and even squid.
Like with most fish that have expanded outside their native range, this can have negative effects. In places where they don’t occur naturally, striped bass can stress populations of prey fish. But luckily, striped bass don’t do well enough to maintain their own populations in non-native waterways.
Strategies for Catching Striped Bass
There is a wide variation in how people approach striper angling. You can go fresh or saltwater, from the shore or a boat. Some go all-out on boat setups complete with fish finding sonar to help them find stripers in the water. Some folks cast with huge surf rigs on the beach. Some even catch striped bass on fly rods. But regardless of the setting, there are a few things that should always work. To get started, this is what you should try.
When striped bass fishing, we’re almost always going to be using live bait. What you use depends on what you can get. Shad, herring, and menhaden are all universally effective.
Line Set Up
When arranging your line, use a sliding sinker followed by a bead or two above your swivel. Then attach a leader a few feet long with a circle hook, and your bait fish goes on that. As for timing, the worst is midday and the best is at night. When the sun is out, stripers chase the shade. They get more confident in the dark.
Striped bass hunt near strong currents. So look for precipices, either where a creek meets a lake, or an embankment rocky embankment that the surf rushes past. We’re also looking for deep water. On the coast, rocks are a good sign. In and around estuaries can also be good, especially with strong current. If you have a boat, use it to position yourself near a feature like this and then drop anchor. If you’re on the shore, read the water and look for places where small fish will be getting caught and pushed by the current. This is where you’ll cast. You can try letting the line sit or trolling it behind a boat, depending on the setting.
Lastly, think about the time of year. If you’re up north on the coast, late spring into summer is your season. Further south, autumn is when you’ll have better luck. If you’re fishing freshwater, try rivers during the spawn or find a nearby lake that gets stocked. Once you get a feel for what works, you can start to experiment and try different things.
You’re going to need something heavy duty, with a medium action. Striped bass are often larger than 40 lbs. If you’re going boat fishing on saltwater, you want a saltwater rod between six and eight feet long. If you’re casting from the shore, something closer to ten feet will work better. Surf rods are even longer, between ten and 12 feet,
The main thing here is you’re looking for a heavyweight reel. Any size from 4000 to 6500 could be appropriate, depending on what you’re doing. For freshwater, smaller is ok. For saltwater, go bigger. It’s also helpful to have an anti-reverse handle to make reeling them in easier. As far as the material goes, people usually shell out for high quality stuff like carbon fiber and graphite. If you’re fishing on saltwater, corrosion resistance is going to be a necessity as well. For bass fishing, the preferred gear ratio is 5:1, so stick with that.
Heavy rod, heavy reel, and guess what else? Heavy line. With braided line, go 12-30 pounds. If you prefer monofilament or fluorocarbon, use a 20 to 50 pound line. Remember, freshwater stripers are smaller than saltwater, so plan accordingly.
Most use a sliding weight, a few beads, a swivel, and circle hooks.
Live bait is best. Shad, menhaden, anchovies, and alewives all work. You can usually catch bait fish in your local waterway, or else buy them at the tackle shop. Some use jigs and spoon lures when boat fishing.
It’s no wonder striped bass are considered the “big leagues” for East Coast anglers. It takes a lot of skill, know-how, and specialized tools to get them in the boat. But hey, if it was easy, it probably wouldn’t be as rewarding! Now you know where to start, you can get out and start mastering the art of striper angling.