ABUNDANT BAIT MAKES NEW YORK A TOP-TIER STRIPER DESTINATION
By John Mcmurray
AS WE DROVE THOUGH THE CITY, SEARCH ING FOR A PLACE TO GET COFFEE, THE CLUB SCENE WAS IN FULL SWING. KIDS POURED OUT OF BUILDINGS AS IF THE NIGHT WOULD NEVER END FOR THEM. FOR US, THOUGH, THE DAY HAD JUST BEGUN.
In a half-hour we were just south of JFK airport, unloading rods onto a skiff. A short run from there, we were throwing poppers against a sod bank as the sun pushed against New York City skyscrapers.
We had little time to enjoy the view because on the second cast, kaboom! A striper in the 30-pound class crushed a popper.
New York’s striped bass fishery, while often overlooked by outsiders, enjoys a singular distinction: Sitting smack-dab in the middle of the annual migration, it’s ground zero for stripers.
In April and May, Jamaica Bay is awesome. “Jamaica Bay is fishy, man,” notes Islamorada native but current New Yorker Capt. Danny Reich. “All sorts of bait, structure, flats.”
He’s right. The spring in particular can be off-thecharts good.
Jamaica Bay, part of the National Park system, hosts some 10,000 acres of protected salt marsh. It’s about as close to wild as you’ll find in the New York City metro area.
“It’s unique for a few reasons,” says Reich. “Lots of deep water next to really productive mud flats is one of them.” But the bait concentrations are extraordinary. “There’s more bait here than anywhere else on Long Island,” he says.
In the spring, Jamaica Bay gets loaded with adult menhaden (aka bunker). Yet in recent years there’s been a solid influx of juvenile menhaden (aka peanut bunker). This is unusual and a relatively new occurrence.
“The peanuts push up into those mud flats and load up in the creeks,” says Reich. “That makes the topwater fishing insane.”
Stripers destroy poppers, like the 5-inch Madd Mantis Atasi or the Guides Secret Baby Bottle Pop. But walkthe-dog baits kill it too. The 7-inch Cotton Cordell Pencil Popper has always been a go-to. But my recent fave is the 7-inch Drifter Tackle Doc. Big Jamaica Bay stripers absolutely crush them.
“There is nothing cooler than seeing a few 20-pound stripers cruising across a white-sand flat,” says Capt. Paul Dixon. “Then when one turns on the fly, the red gill plates flare, and the line comes tight. It’s the ultimate experience.”
In the back bays, from Fire Island all the way to Montauk, gorgeous whitesand flats extend for dozens of acres. In June, they fill up with sand eels and small crabs, and the stripers come in to feed.
This is often technical fishing, dominated by flats skiffs and fly rods, but a lot of these flats are just as accessible to the wade fishermen, and spin-fishing is often just as productive with the right gear and a stealthy approach. “We use 4-inch Slug-gos fished unweighted,” says Dixon. “Heavy plugs seem to spook them.
“Small epoxy sand-eel patterns are the go-to fly for us,” he adds, “but we use crab patterns sometimes too.”
Just south of the city proper, long swells roll in to crash on sandbars and beaches, creating prime striper — and angler — hunting grounds. “The rougher the water, the more white water, the better the fishing,” says Gateway Striper Club President Lou Dericco.
Finger mullet — filter feeders — sustain them-
selves by sifting suspended sand though their gill plates and filtering out organic material. Thus, the more white water you have, the richer the feeding grounds for baitfish and the more mullet.
Boat guys like me fish the sandbars in and around the inlets, whereas the surf-casters fish the wash, often catching big stripers in knee-deep water.
When the sun is at the right angle, you see big stripers inside every approaching swell. Once it breaks, it’s pandemonium, with birds diving and the fish crashing bait.
“It’s pretty intense,” says Reich. “We pull the boat up to these big breaking waves, launch a cast as far into it as we can, then try and scoot out of there before the next set of waves comes along.”
Because you are competing with a lot of bait in rough water, you want big poppers that make a lot of noise.
Pretty much every hungry striper from Maine to Massachusetts passes through here going south on their great migration, and in October and November, they arrive in force.
“It’s all-out mayhem,” says Capt. Brendan Mccarthy. “Birds, bait and stripers go nuts on top!”
“Turn the corner around Breezy Point and it’s sometimes like a scene from
Hitchcock’s The Birds,” says Reich.
Such blitzes are generally fueled by bay anchovies out east on Long Island. To the west, it’s more about the peanut bunker. Juvy menhaden fuel a late-season back-bay bite.
“The bay is pretty cool,” says Reich. “Peanuts get pushed up into some really shallow water, and big stripers send bait spraying in every direction.”
You can throw about anything at them then, but it’s been my policy to throw topwaters to enjoy those awesome surface strikes.
Don’t forget about the adult bunker that have been super-abundant on the South Shore during the last few years. Large pods of 9-inch menhaden create some extraordinary fall fishing for large stripers.
“We usually drag 9-inch Drifter Docs or 8½-inch Guides Secret Poppa Pencils along the outskirts of the bait schools, and they absolutely get pounded,” says Reich.
December can be one of the best months in lower New York Harbor and the western South Shore of Long Island. During warm years, of which we’re having more and more, Atlantic herring show up right when the larger stripers are migrating through. This creates extraordinary conditions for big-bass blitzes.
“It’s crazy, man,” says Mccarthy. “Gannets divebombing, stripers in the 40-pound class rolling, and not another boat within sight.”
Indeed, because of its location, New York remains largely a sleeping giant for stripers. If you have yet to discover this amazing fishery, now is the time to make your plans.
TRAVELERS: The striper migration provides unmatched opportunity, above right, opposite. IN SIGHT: Inshore waters offer classic flats fishing action, above.
HEADS-UP: Topwater lures get a striper’s attention.
PASS THROUGH: Migrating fish offer abundant seasonal action.