LIGHT AND SHAL­LOW

TACKLE STRIPED BASS ROAM­ING THE FLATS OF THE NORTH­EAST

Saltwater Sportsman - - Top Shot - BY NICK HONACHEF­SKY

over deep struc­ture. Not only are we now catch­ing more and big­ger fish, but we are hav­ing more fun do­ing it.

Rig­ging ul­tra­light out­fits is sim­ple. Tie a 6-foot, 12- to 20-pound-test fluoro­car­bon leader to the braid with a dou­ble uni-knot and tie the light­est Tac­ti­cal An­glers Power Clip to the tag end. Then tie a drop­per loop about 18 inches above it, clip one leg and tie a sec­ond Power Clip to the other, so the drop­per stands out from the main line about 6 inches. The clips make chang­ing lure size and color sim­ple. The bot­tom po­si­tion gets a heav­ier buck­tail, typ­i­cally a 2- to 3-ounce, and the drop­per gets a lighter one from ¼- to 1-ounce. Dress the jigs with Gulp! Swim­ming Mul­let or shrimp bod­ies. A slen­der squid strip im­parts ad­di­tional ac­tion and scent. You can trade off Gulp! and squid or use both on the same jig.

Once you drop your rig to the bot­tom, reel up a half­turn or more and bring them to life. A rhyth­mic lift and slow-drop swim the buck­tails as the boat drifts. Watch the depth fin­der for struc­ture and fish hold­ing in the wa­ter col­umn. Most of the time, they will be within a few feet of the bot­tom, but not al­ways, so ad­just the depth of your lures ac­cord­ingly.

An­other pro­duc­tive tech­nique is to hold the rod hor­i­zon­tal to the wa­ter and twitch the tip at a quicker pace so the lighter jig on top dances while the heav­ier bot­tom jig barely moves. The twitch­ing at­tracts vi­o­lent strikes even when the fish are not feed­ing ag­gres­sively and tends to work best when the drift is slow. A Gulp! shrimp

on the top jig can be deadly us­ing this method.

DANCE A JIG

The Ja­panese brought us the flut­ter-jig craze some years back, and now they have an­other take on jig­ging called “slow pitch.”

I was in­tro­duced to it by Dave Ar­beit­man of the Reel Seat Tackle Shop in Brielle, New Jer­sey, and it works well for sea bass, of­fer­ing a slower tar­get that swims and flut­ters in the strike zone on a hor­i­zon­tal plane. The tackle is spe­cial­ized: light rods that bend from tip to butt, tiny reels with long han­dles that pick up a lot of line with each turn, and flat, cen­ter­weighted jigs. Ac­tion is gen­er­ated by reel­ing to cause a deep bend in the rod that then slowly re­cov­ers, lift­ing the jig. A pause af­ter each turn al­lows the jig to swim side to side. The tech­nique even draws strikes from fish that are not ac­tively feed­ing.

The two slow-pitch move­ments most com­monly used are the reel-and-stop, vary­ing the ca­dence as men­tioned, ef­fec­tive when sea bass are in a broad band of the wa­ter col­umn. The sec­ond is a more con­ven­tional high-lift­slow-drop, to keep the jig low in the wa­ter col­umn when fish are hold­ing tight to struc­ture.

Fight­ing fish on these noodle­like slow-pitch rods is a lit­tle dif­fer­ent too. Tuck the rod butt un­der your arm and turn the reel han­dle, let­ting the deep flex of the rod tire and lift the fish.

The pop­u­lar­ity of fish­ing for black sea bass con­tin­ues to grow with stocks at his­toric lev­els and the range ex­pand­ing north­ward on ar­ti­fi­cial and nat­u­ral reefs, nearshore wrecks and rock piles, and in the win­ter, deeper hard-bot­tom ar­eas off­shore. These tech­niques add more fun to the catch­ing by giv­ing the ag­gres­sive crit­ters the abil­ity to show off their fight­ing prow­ess. Give them a try and you won’t go back to bait rigs any time soon.

Sun­light sparkled off the spiked dor­sal fin pok­ing out of the clear, flat wa­ter, shim­mer­ing like wet di­a­monds. One wave of the rod and the fly landed silently in front of the on­com­ing V wake. A few quick short strips, the fin made its move and — hook-set!

Sounds like a per­fect day on the Ba­hamas flats, but this isn’t some trop­i­cal is­land. It’s New Jer­sey.

Twenty years ago, I was in­tro­duced to the world of flats fish­ing for striped bass in Jer­sey’s shal­low bays, where light tackle and stealth proved the per­fect com­bi­na­tion to score with stripers in ul­tra-skinny wa­ters. A se­cret so­ci­ety of fi­nesse fish­er­men, armed with scaled-down gear, con­tin­ues to stalk stripers on the flats with great suc­cess.

STEALTH MODE

For­get about rum­bling diesel ves­sels, “grind ’em in” reels, and wire lines. Leave all the mus­cle-bound stuff at home. Low-pro­file skiffs and light tackle are key here.

In gen­eral, flats stripers run from 20 to 36 inches and up­ward of 15 pounds, and though bass fish­ing in the ocean isn’t about qui­etude, ply­ing the back­wa­ter flats is.

Capt. Brian Wil­liams of Bad­fish goes to­tal stealth. “Many times we fish from 2 to 4 feet of wa­ter, where bass hear any com­mo­tion on deck and see shad­ows from your pro­file,” he says.

Trolling mo­tors or push poles al­low the boat to creep through a chan­nel or slip up on an over­hang or bay flat. “The key is to be su­per­si­lent, drift­ing or an­chor­ing with the pole in the mud bot­tom,” Wil­liams says. “The trolling-mo­tor po­si­tion hold works great to stem the tide when set­ting up on an area to make pre­ci­sion casts.”

Capt. Al Crudele of Bay­hound con­curs. “Ab­so­lutely no noise is the rule, not even waves hit­ting on the side of the boat. You need to be quiet, as si­lence is ev­ery­thing. If you spook the bass off the flat, you might as well just pack it up.”

Here, the strat­egy for cast­ing is stealth and pin­point ac­cu­racy; think pre­ci­sion like a ri­fle rather than a shot­gun blast. “When fish­ing the shal­lows, you’re not tro­phy hunt­ing, you’re sim­ply search­ing for a re­ward to a well-placed cast,” Wil­liams says.

Crudele adds: “Don’t spook the fish, throw­ing the big stuff that sur­prises and scares them. Be sub­tle and use smaller, low-pro­file lures in­stead.”

TIDE AND TEMP MAT­TER

There’s a marked dif­fer­ence to plan­ning your fish­ing ex­cur­sions through the sea­sons. “Spring­time wa­ter temps gen­er­ally fluc­tu­ate be­tween 53 and 60 de­grees and al­low an all-day bite. But you need to plan and an­tic­i­pate the tem­per­a­ture swings — as much as 15 de­grees or more — since the sun warms the flats on the low tides,” Wil­liams says. “Out­go­ing tides are usu­ally best, as they will be the warm­est. Plan for the warmer-wa­ter tides and you can pretty much catch fish through­out the en­tire day, mon­i­tor­ing the wa­ter to find the op­ti­mal feed­ing tem­per­a­tures.”

But the strat­egy flips come sum­mer­time. “It’s al­most a re­verse sit­u­a­tion from the spring: You want to fish in the cooler hours, pre-dawn

and sun­down, rather than in the mid­dle of the day,” Wil­liams says.

Tac­tics and tech­niques vary de­pend­ing upon the sea­son. In hot weather, fish seek pro­tec­tion in the shad­ows of the sod banks, which are still shal­low but pro­vide a roof over their heads that keeps them cool.

Crudele ex­pounds: “As am­bush preda­tors, bass al­ways have to have some­where to hide, and that’s usu­ally a deeper hole or pocket. When you search for pro­duc­tive flats, select shal­lows that are ad­ja­cent to deeper wa­ter, as bass po­si­tion them­selves in op­por­tune places, where for­age gets swept off the edge of the flat,” he says. “Look for deep cuts along ledges, and al­ways study sand­bars at low tide so you can plan your at­tack when the wa­ter gets deeper.”

In spring and fall, bass seek warmer wa­ter. Dur­ing the sum­mer, they want it cooler. But they al­ways want it around that mid- to high60-de­gree range.

“In July and Au­gust, it’s a top­wa­ter bite, where bass will seek cooler wa­ter. It’s the op­po­site in the spring and fall, when they search out warmer wa­ter,” Crudele says. “In­com­ing tides in the sum­mer usu­ally carry cooler ocean wa­ter that’s re­fresh­ing to the fish. In spring and fall, it has a chill­ing ef­fect.”

RIGHT STOP, RIGHT CAST

Once you’ve fig­ured out time, tide and tem­per­a­ture to the best of your abil­ity, plot a strat­egy. “Low tide pushes fish into the chan­nels, so you want to con­cen­trate on fish­ing there,” Wil­liams says. “A ris­ing tide pushes the bass onto flats that were ex­posed but now lie un­der 2 or 3 feet of wa­ter.”

Both cap­tains agree that it pays to look for creek mouths

where the tide spilling into a bay has cre­ated a de­pres­sion on the bot­tom. The bass stack up in these run-outs, feed­ing on the for­age that comes near them as it spills out with the cur­rent.

“Fish the slight de­pres­sions in the bay bot­tom; it could be only a 6-inch in­crease in depth, but it makes a world of dif­fer­ence. That’s where bass can hang out and feed,” Wil­liams says. When work­ing an area, un­der­stand that it’s not al­ways about fish­ing just one hole or one flat. A flat can have five or six smaller pro­duc­tive spots within it, where the creek out­flow and in­flow cuts deeper chan­nels. Wil­liams opts to toss a

1 D.O.A. C.A.L. on a light ⁄ 4

3 to ⁄ 8- ounce lead-head and works the bait with a slow re­trieve — just off the bot­tom — through the de­pres­sions. If it’s a con­sis­tently shal­low flat, he breaks out a fly rod and tosses a Half-and-half fly (Clouser and De­ceiver hy­brid) that lands in the skinny wa­ter with lit­tle dis­tur­bance.

Light weight is es­sen­tial, whether us­ing a fly or a soft­plas­tic bait. “As wa­ter spills off the flat on the out­go­ing tide, I use the light­est lead­head I can get away with and still main­tain con­trol, even

1 down to ⁄ ounce,” Crudele

8 notes. “Let the tide wash it off the flat nat­u­rally, with­out even re­triev­ing it. Just main­tain con­tact as it drifts.”

Sod banks lin­ing the wa­ter of­fer promis­ing pro­tec­tion for stripers. The over­hangs cre­ate shadow lines where bass wait on the dark side to am­bush prey. “Those lines are dif­fer­ent from sun­rise to sun­set; you play the an­gles of the shad­ows and ad­just ac­cord­ingly at dif­fer­ent times of day,” Wil­liams says.

Small top­wa­ter pop­pers, like the 3-inch Still­wa­ter Smack-it or a Z-man Chat­ter­bait, cre­ate the com­mo­tion needed to get a sum­mer flats bass to hit. Cast pop­pers right against the sod banks, then work them un­til they’re 10 feet off the bank. If there is no hit, reel up and cast again. Stripers pounce from the shadow line and won’t usu­ally fol­low the lure far off the bank.

Next time you are look­ing for a flats chal­lenge and a lit­tle off-the-beaten-path ad­ven­ture, don’t just con­sider trop­i­cal is­land des­ti­na­tions. Why not go off the grid closer to home in­stead and plan to stalk striped bass on the Jer­sey flats?

The broad pro­file of Shi­mano’s But­ter­fly Flat-fall lends it­self to a slower, more con­trolled re­trieve.

Select jigs such as the S&S Rat­tle­tail, among oth­ers in the 1⁄2- to 2-ounce range, de­pend­ing on con­di­tions.

STALK­ING GAME: Striped bass in the shal­lows de­mand a quiet ap­proach and light tackle.

CRUIS­ERS: Watch for the flood­ing tide to draw bass onto feed­ing grounds.ON THE EDGE: Sod banks of­fer cover for bass to lie in am­bush for a pass­ing meal, op­po­site.

Crys­tal Min­now, are ideal for mid­depth work. Soft plas­tics, like the Zoom Su­per Fluke, land softly and pro­duce en­tic­ing ac­tion.

LOW-LIGHT AC­TION: Stripers of­ten feel se­cure un­der cloud cover.

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