Its emerging crown spiny dorsal fish will be the first clue of what is on your line when you hook the King of Coastal Water Game Fish- The Striped Bass
From Bull Island to south of the Capes, from the end of March to the beginning of June, internet chat lines are alive with the talk of striped bass taking on the Delaware. The condition of the Delaware estuary can be measured by the amount of striped bass that makes it back to their spring birthplace every year. In fact it’s believed by some marine biologist that the fish are more plentiful today than when our early forefathers entered this land. These fish always returned with seasonal number that very greatly from year to year. It was not long ago all striped bass had to be release, but today you can keep some but under very strict and controlled conditions. Since the fish spends the first two years of its life in these brackish and fresh water estuary, making them very susceptible to pollution, it is a sign that our efforts to clean our rivers and streams are working when one of these magnificent creatures are pulled from the water.
No other fish in the region comes close to the striped bass visible appeal, strong fighting spirit, variety of sizes and ease of capture, once you know where and when to fish for them. The large legal keepers will be quick to test your knot tying skills and the condition of your fish equipment. The black lateral lines on the side are the calling card of the fish. The fish comes close in appearance to the white perch, fresh water white bass, and the fresh water hybrid bass which are all related. The best way to tell the marine apart from the others is the location of capture. If the waterway connects to the ocean, you have most likely caught a marine strip bass. If you caught one in a lake it’s mostly a Hybrid Bass which are stocker than the marine strip bass members, lighter in color with fewer and less distinct strips. Off course, you can count the eleven soft rays on the marine’s anal fin, its fresh water cousins normally have more and softer rays. Record fish of a 100 plus pound have been recorded but most mature fish will weigh in from three to fifteen pounds, with prize catches of 35 to 40 ponders are common. The weight/size relationship for a 20 inch fish is 3 pounds, for a 24-inch – 5 pounds, for a 30 inch – 10 pounds and for a 36 inch fish 20 pounds. The largest striper caught in the bay measured 62 ½ pounds in November 2000 by Jodi Clarkson. Al McReynolds caught the largest recreational fish at 78 ½ pounds in Atlantic City in September 1982. Scientists estimated today the overall Atlantic Coast population of three to fifteen year old striped bass to be approximately 40 million . The females, like most fish, are bigger and heavier than the males. Large females are called cows because of their wide girth and heavy weight. The males are term bulls. In order to catch food and handle surf, the fish has developed into a strong and fast swimmer making it an ideal game fish for costal and inland waterways Unlike, freshwater black bass and trout this fish is not known for dancing on the surface, but with its strength, speed and beauty, no one is complaining.
Reading about the migration patterns of striped bass or rockfish (as they call them in Maryland and Virginia) is like reading about the migration habits of Canadian Geese. Each regional estuary group has a pattern that differs from the next estuary group and inside these regions are sub-groups and like geese, some subgroups are residents that migrate very little. Generally mature fish from the Chesapeake and Delaware will move into the waters around Long Island in the summer and early fall months. Some have been tracked as far north as Maine . The basic pattern of movement for mature striped bass is after breeding the mature fish move back out into the open ocean, remaining close to shore and traveling northeastward in late spring thru early summer. While in the ocean, these fish follow the combination of water temperature and food. To locate the schools in the summer months takes skill, knowledge and a little luck. Once the water temperature starts to cool in September, they will begin a southwestern migration back to the shorelines of South Jersey and Delaware. In the months of November, and December, reports of catches on the surf and at openings of inlets starts. There may be more in the non-tidal river during fall and winter than most would believe since the fishing pressure is lighter. Fall and winter reports of large fish, taken from the fresh water section of the river, will always lead to lots of controversy among fisherman as to whether it was a resident or migration fish. It has been well documented in some fresh water rivers that stripers do winter over in non-tidal fresh water sections . Most people forget the fish are in the river over the winter because, like most fish, its eating habits drop when the water temperature goes below the mid 40’s degree range.
In early springtime, many will gather, in the brackish back-bay pools before beginning their journey up into the freshwater channels. In the Delaware, the salt-front at Chester is the gate where the fresh water migration starts in mid April. Even though reports of large stripers north of Chester will be announced before mid April, the main run of striped bass follows the blue back herring migration that will begin late April in the fresh water river. Besides herring, the bass will also follow the young eel spring run that begins about this time. It is always said that if you can find the main herring run, you will find the large stripers. When the herring are running up river, reports of other marine life such as whales and seals are commonly sighted. Recently a whale was reported as far north as Trenton Falls.
Daytime hot spots en-route up the river are in deep narrow channels (generally under highway bridges) and at the mouth of inlet streams that empty into the river. At night, deep holes along the bank and at the mouth of a stream are good places for the shore fisherman. Typical popular points for both bank and boat fisherman are at the following locations:
There are many more locations along the tidal limits of the river in the months of April to June for the striper run. I have read from several sources that many stop at Bull Island. I have caught many juvenile bass there, indicating that large quantities of bass get further upstream. The limits of the migration seem based more on food source, and water conditions than a fixed location with a name. Bass have been recorded all the way north into the State of New York with a record catch in Walton State Park NJ,
Typically, the fish like to lay their eggs above the tidal limits of the river in water that has a gentle flow with a stone or gravel bottom when the river water is in the upper fifty degrees. I have also read that they lay their eggs in the tidal section of the bays and river as well. I hope both are correct to give the fish diverse breeding spots. The eggs must stay afloat If they are left to settle on the bottom and become covered in silt, they will die. For that reason, I believe that the further up-stream the mature fish get, the better the odds of survival. The warmer the water, the faster the eggs will hatch with the average at 70 to 74 hours in 60 degree water. Once the eggs hatch, the juvenile remains in the river for two year. The new fish will slowly work their way downstream to the brackish water estuary at the end of the second season. They will stay there until they hook up with the departing spring fish and head out to sea.
Tactics for these fish in the river depends on the time of year and temperature of water. In the early spring coldwater times, live or cut bait are normally the best because the fish are sluggish and tend to feed off the bottom, while lures are good in the warmer late spring and early fall waters. When the water temperature drops below the mid 40’s in January, the feeding stops. I judge the bait type, live bait or lures, by the water temperature of mid 50s degrees.
The most popular live river bait for the spring run is live herring and blood worms. A second and third choice bait, is eels if you can get them, and fresh clams. Good standby choices is cut herring, chicken liver, earthworms and large minnows or legal bait fish. Live herring are the most popular for people in the fresh water sections in boats. You tend to catch the bass in the same place you catch the herring. Herring don’t live long and must be caught and used right away. I have seen herring so thick at the wing dam in New Hope that I could have scooped them from the river with a landing net. The basic technique in the lower river is to jig for the herring with gold hooks on a weighted line. You can acquire one of these rigs at local bait shops that cater to the local fisherman. Once the herrings are located with fish finders in the main channel, the actions starts. Because of the size, depth and shipping traffic, the most poplar spot for fishing with herring is between Bristol and Trenton. Once you have several herring, you can begin fishing for stripers. When fishing with herring, you will most likely catch the larger cows of 15 to 30 pounds, so heavy tackle is a must. The herring is hook through the mouth and place back into the channel. Try to keep the fish suspended in the water near the bottom. One technique is to place the herring on downrigger setups with the fish placed close to the bottom while anchored in the channel. Always check the condition of the fish. If it looks dead, replace it with a fresh one. Blood worms are a popular bait, unlike live herring, you can buy these but supplies are limited and prices are high. Channel cats are starting to get hungry this time and will eat up your $12.00 a doz. supply quickly. Most people I see on the banks resort to claims and frozen cut herring, which works well at night. Baby foot long eels are on the move in the river and as such are another favorite food. Few places sell eels in this section of the river and I guess that is why people don’t use them in the fresh water sections. I’ve used them in Maryland and Virginia and can say that even at a price of $2.00 per eel it’s cheaper than feeding $1.00 blood worms to catfish. Eels are tough and on slow fishing tirp, you can fish with one all day if you don’t lose it to snags. Eels are normally caught by wire traps, but you can easily catch a few with worms or chicken liver baited on small trout or minnow hooks left in dark shady holes near the bank. The water is full of them this time of year. Always have a cheap pair of cloth gloves on hand to handle these slippery creatures. Some people place them on ice to slow them down before hooking them. Set the hook up through the lower jaw and some like to have it protrude out through the eye. Some people will cut the eels with small scratches so to bleed it. A good place to set eels is just outside of large rocks piles where bass will be looking for them. If fishing from a boat, set the eel close too the bottom in the current of the channel but try to keep it suspended in the water. Don’t let them lay on the bottom to long, try to keep them moving. In the open bay, most fisherman will draft eels through rips. When using clams, it’s best to use fresh ones and tie string or rubber band the clam to the hook. When you get a strike using eel as bait let the fish run with it. Besides eels a small croaker type fish from Virginia is used called spots. These bait fish have become popular choice to drift through riffs in the fall.
In the spring expect the warmer out going tide to be productive.
In the fall expect the cooler incoming tide to be productive
Fall fishing in the bay will be mostly lures. Your chose of color is easily, white for both plastic and crank bait. The local favorite is a 6 to 10 inch long, diving crank bait or what some call stick bait. This appears to be the bread and butter of artificial lures used here, with no particular choice of colors on top as long as the bottom is white. I have been told, and believe the shallow diving ones, are more successful than deep diving plugs. One interesting fact about striped bass taking lures is that sometime before striking the bait they circle the fish bait to confuse it, so snags fish are a common problem with crank bait. Some fishermen like to remove the center trivial hook on these large lures so not to overstress the fish with multiple snags when caught. I have found that plastic lures are the most effective means for the more plentiful smaller striped bass of the 18-25 inch size. For plastic bait, I use white twister tails weighted by a jig sinker. Surface plugs at night have been noted to be good also. These fish lack the cutting teeth of blues. They are also line sight sensitive meaning that they can see and detect steel leaders. When fishing for striped bass, keep this in mind when setting rigs or attaching lures. A clear monofilament line is the recommended leader for them.
Fishing for striped bass is regulated by numerous rules and seasons. Read and understand these rules before fishing them. Rules for fishing striped bass are under joint control of several states and the Federal government. Know the season, size limits, the required hook type, and the geography of the region before going out. No one, rulebook covers them all. The rules change from year to year. Generally, the limit is one and size varies between 27 to 28 inches with some upper limit sizes as well. In the river above Trenton, the rules are more generous while below, it becomes more restrictive in size and season. Saltwater rules are different as well with different restrictions in the open ocean. The type of hooks are controlled and should be followed when fishing live or cut bait in the river. A good safe rule to follow when you catch one of these magnificent fish is, take a picture and return it. The trouble is once you have eaten one, you will never want to throw it back.
FISHING THE Big D (DELAWARE)
JAMES S. McKay