When mi­grat­ing stripers col­lide with men­haden schools, pre­pare for fall carnage

Field and Stream - - CON­TENTS - By Joe Cer­mele

Men­haden and stripers: a recipe for fall dy­na­mite. By Joe Cer­mele

SEND OUT a 12-inch live At­lantic men­haden with a 6-inch girth and it’s go­ing to catch a big striped bass. That’s the first part of the magic. A lit­tle “rat” striper isn’t likely to take a swipe at a meal so mas­sive. Even a 10-pound schoolie would be at risk of chok­ing to death. When line starts peel­ing out af­ter a pickup, you can usu­ally bank on the diner weigh­ing at least in the high teens. You could also be a five-count away from lock­ing up on the next world record. The sec­ond part of the magic is the warn­ing. The bait’s tail beat quick­ens. It moves in ter­ri­fied bursts of speed. In a last-ditch ef­fort to sur­vive, it of­ten comes to the surface. That’s when the striper makes its final ap­proach, in­hal­ing the bait in a thun­der­clap of white­wa­ter that I’d use as a ring­tone if only I could record it. It’s one of my fa­vorite fall sounds, and with­out these over­size bait­fish I might never get to hear it.


At­lantic men­haden—or bunker as they’re called where I fish in New Jersey—can grow up to 15 inches. They’re a sta­ple food source for every­thing from Florida snook to gi­ant bluefin tuna in Nova Sco­tia, and it’s their pro­tein-packed, oil-rich flesh that helps game­fish reach heavy­weight sta­tus. That oil has also made At­lantic men­haden big busi­ness for com­mer­cial fish­ing from the birth of the na­tion to the present day. Do you take an omega-3 pill in the morn­ing? Con­grats, you’re eat­ing bunker. Fish oil is in such high de­mand that At­lantic men­haden were nearly wiped out, which di­rectly af­fected the health of the east coast striper pop­u­la­tion. It was a cap placed on the com­mer­cial take in 2012 that would ul­ti­mately flip the switch for the bass and the fish­er­men that chase them.

“As far as I’m con­cerned, bunker are the most im­por­tant fish in the en­tire ocean,” my good friend, New Jersey char­ter cap­tain Eric Ker­ber, says. “If we didn’t have a strong bunker pop­u­la­tion, we wouldn’t have any big bass. They helped the striper fish­ery bounce back along a lot of the east coast.”

An­glers from Bos­ton to Delaware get two chances to cash in; once in spring when the bass are push­ing north, and again from early Septem­ber through early De­cem­ber when the fish are head­ing south. Dur­ing both runs, bunker pro­vide the fuel the heav­i­est stripers need for the trek, and when the feed is on, it’s an in­cred­i­ble sight.


To find the bass, just read the bunker pods. The more densely they’re packed and the more tightly they swim in a cir­cle, the more ner­vous they are. When stripers go on the of­fen­sive, strik­ing from below, an en­tire school of bunker—some­times thou­sands of fish—will leap out of the wa­ter in a line like a wave in the stands of a foot­ball sta­dium. Many an­glers ap­proach a hot pod with the snag-and-drop method, fir­ing a weighted tre­ble hook into the fray, snag­ging a bunker, and let­ting it fall below the school. I pre­fer to send a livie out un­weighted with a single hook through its back just for­ward of the dor­sal fin. Stripers eat men­haden head­first, so I want to be sure the hook is in the best po­si­tion. Like­wise, re­mov­ing a single hook that ends up deep in the throat is much eas­ier than yank­ing out a big tre­ble. When the bait is thick, get­ting a striper to lock in on an ar­ti­fi­cial can be a chal­lenge, but ac­cord­ing to Ker­ber, one lure out­shines the rest.

“If I’ve got guys that want to cast lures, I’m ty­ing on pen­cil pop­pers,” he says. “No lure does a bet­ter job of im­i­tat­ing a bunker flip­ping on the surface. The trick is work­ing the edges of a school, not cast­ing to the cen­ter. You want to mimic that one bunker that got sep­a­rated and is now an easy tar­get.”

Re­gard­less of whether you’re wait­ing for a live bunker to get ham­mered or hop­ing to see a pen­cil pop­per get oblit­er­ated, it’s

not know­ing how big the bass that takes the shot is go­ing to be that keeps the pulse boosted. It is the salty an­gler’s equiv­a­lent of know­ing that any buck that steps into range will be a shooter. Ev­ery single striper I’ve caught that weighed 40 pounds or bet­ter fell to a live men­haden, and ev­ery time we leave the dock in Oc­to­ber and Novem­ber, I know that adding an­other check to that list of 40s is an ex­tremely real pos­si­bil­ity.

Pod Cast­ingEric Ker­ber with a Jersey bunkerblitz striper.

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