This time of year nearly every species is on the move and feeding ravenously as they continue on their spring and summer migrations to feeding grounds in this region. To me, May is the beginning of the marine fishing season as warming waters on all fronts get every species revved up and active for the season.
Like everyone who reads magazines like Boating World, we are “fishy” people. It is a combination of one’s upbringing and genetics. In freshwater, my favorite species are the “toothy critters”, northern pike and muskellunge. In the ocean, the vast majority of time invested has been targeting striped bass and fluke.
Peak times to catch fish are when predators are chowing down on large concentrations of prey. One such event that has not been as major as it was a few years ago is erroneously called “the worm hatch”. An interesting but short lived event that occurs literally all up and down the coast. It is not a hatch at all but a spawning event of a small segmented worm that takes place in salt ponds and large coastal rivers, usually in the spring when water temperatures are rising towards summertime levels.
The “worm spawn” is my personal favorite because there is a great deal going on in a shallow protected area, with the worms swimming up into the water column to release their eggs and sperm, by the tens of thousands if not millions, with schools of stripers swimming around slurping the worms down as fast as they can. I’ve literally seen stripers swimming by my boat in clear shallow water with worms hanging out of their mouths.
This is a fishery that requires matching those worms in size and with a similar action or the outing will be an exercise in casting with little or no “catching”. The feeding stripers will take small swimming plugs but more often than not they pass up on the plugs in favor of soft plastic lures of the proper size or flies that can be tied up to nearly duplicate those worms that some people refer to as “cinder worms”.
When I first began participating in this fishery I was using six inch long Slug-Go’s by Lunker City Specialties, a famous and very effective freshwater bass lure. I had some success but the early trips involved lots of accurate casting to visible surfacing stripers with only an occasional strike or follow.
I had met and fished freshwater bass with Herb Reed at a major freshwater bass tournament I went to get a story for my newspaper column. I got lucky and won the lesser tournament at the event which was among writers and press people who came from all over the region, like me to get a story.
We struck up a friendship that has endured since that event back in 1990. Herb must have been impressed because for many years when he came up with a new lure design he would send me samples to try with a note saying: “let me know what you think about these”. Herb knew that I would probably do some unconventional things with them that he was not interested in. As I have said many times my claim to fishing fame is I have been skunked fishing for everything. Most of the lures worked well but there were a couple of “stinkers” in the mix either never got to the market or didn’t sell very well if they did.
When at one point Lunker City came out with an expanded line of Slug-Go’s including sizes including three and a half inch, six and nine inch models in a rainbow of colors. When I saw a three inch Slug-Go in a brownish red color called “Texas Chili” which was a dead ringer for those small segmented worms, I may have shed some tears of joy.
These small, light lures cast well with a light freshwater rig. It is a seven foot, medium action spinning rod, matching reel, spooled with six pound test Fireline, with a short ten pound test mono leader, a small Texposer hook. These fit the small lures perfectly and worked extremely well on those worm slurping stripers at Charleston Salt Pond, the place where I did most of my worm spawn fishing.
The technique was to get to the salt pond around dusk when the worms would come out of the mud and the stripers would move in for the easy pickings. This shallow salt pond would come alive with surfacing stripers and spawning worms. It was a kind of fishing that requires some finesse. First, you had to quietly get into an area where the bass could be seen on and near the surface. Then pick out a specific fish that was swimming in a relatively straight line, feeding as it went, drop the Slug-Go a foot or so in front of its nose and hold on because very often that fish and “bam”, the strike was almost inevitable.
Those worm feeding stripers tended to be smaller schoolies averaging from the high teens to the high twenty inch range. My personal best was a thirty nine incher but very few catches broke the thirty inch mark. The point of this fishery for me was the sight fishing and what could be an action packed couple of hours of action packed “catching” just around dark.
When the salt pond action died out we would start hunting for stripers out in the ocean around the many rocky reefs in the area about the time hordes of squid were moving into the region creating another potentially action packed fishery for much larger stripers. I would run my boat out into the general area, look for working terns and gulls, cut the motor and drift through the fray, casting to the surfacing stripers until we drifted past the action.
Again preferring to use light casting or spinning tackle rather than trolling or bottom bouncing gear I would hit the reefs with stiffer, but still relatively light spinning rigs that also double very nicely inland for the northern pike. Like striped bass, muskellunge have a way of getting under one’s skin to the point they can become an angling obsession.
One old codger we became friendly with over the course of ten years fishing muskies in a lake in northern Maine. He called them “alligatah’s without legs” an appropriate and descriptive name for this challenging hard hitting and difficult to fool freshwater fish.
Usually by May the squid were abundant around what I refer to as the Watch Hill / Fishers Island reef complex, a series of reefs stretching between the mainland and eastern end of Fishers Island. To this stretch of fishy water add the Race, Sluiceway, Gardner’s Island and the waters from there to Montauk Point and you have one of the most striper and bluefish rich zones on the east coast.
When the bass are feeding on squid near the surface over the top of these reefs they create some of the most productive, fast action striper fishing we would experience every season. These were bass that ranged from “just legal keepers” to fish of fifty pounds up to record class monsters we have all dreamt about hooking.
Again when I first began participating in this fishery like everyone else, we cast bucktail jigs, swimming plugs, poppers and pretty much all of the standard striper lures on the market. They all caught fish, some better than others.
I did well casting six and nine inch Slug-Go’s but they got torn up so fast I quickly found a better sturdier alternative that for me never came off my rig, the Yozuri Hydro Squid. This plug casts well, is hard plastic with a plastic skirt attached to the rear treble. This lure is a dead ringer for a squid as it is retrieved, with an action the stripers found hard to resist.
This fishery was the closest thing to ‘easy almost sure “catching” I have ever experienced. My son Jared, who sadly died a few years ago was a skilled “fish catcher” and a constant partner who loved this squid fishery as much as me.
A few years ago, quite a few years ago Jared and I made a short trip to fish our favorite of these rock piles one evening. It was and probably will always be the best striper trip on a fish per cast basis we ever made. We hooked and landed thirty nine stripers between thirty and forty inches casting Hydro squid. We only had a cast or two during that entire outing when we didn’t hook. Essentially we spent that entire trip on a calm, gorgeous late May evening, literally playing fish, decent sized fish ranging from thirty to just under forty inches the entire time. We released everyone in great shape. I have caught larger fish and more stripers during much longer trips, but that quick evening outing is by far the best two or three hours of striper fishing I have ever experienced.
Around that same time, there is a week or so when the stripers and other species seem to simply disappear. They don’t go anywhere, they simply feed intensively on a different food source, one you would not think any predator would even consider. It is a very abundant but tiny morsel, a small amphipod, which is a segmented member of the arthropod family that becomes superabundant during the early summer. At that time I suspect many species of fish fill up on these superabundant easy to catch critters.
Fishermen call them “noseeums”. It is a very frustrating time to be on the water because you will see stripers swirling and feeding, not splashing like they do when blasting squid or baitfish but simply lolling around lazily near the surface and down through the water column.
I figured this out late one afternoon while getting skunked in the middle of hundreds of visible surfacing stripers in the clear water on the south side of Fishers Island. A live menhaden or eel might have got some attention but none of the lures I tried drew so much as a sniff from a game fish. Frustrated and curious I put my rod down, sat still and peered into the clear water to determine what was taking place. I could see the small amphipods like a cloud under the boat. I caught a few using my hat, took them home, pulled out a copy of a very good reference called “Marine Animals of New England and Southern New York” and figured out what those little buggers were.
From that time on when I heard the “noseeums” were around, I would not waste my time on the ocean but instead fish my favorite freshwater lakes for a few days until this unique event was over.
Below the squid feeding stripers, sliding almost invisible and well camouflaged along the bottom, well camouflaged fluke were taking the same squid from below. From that point in the season on a day trip would, depending on winds and tides, would begin drifting for fluke along one of Rhode Islands’ south shore beaches or the eastern end of the Sound in the waters between Mystic and Stonington. Once we had the fluke we wanted, we would run out to the reefs or Fishers Island to have some fun with stripers.
After the easy spring fisheries had run their course the best, most predictable way to be sure of some action from decent sized stripers was trolling the rocky shoreline of the island using tube and worm rigs. If possible we would bait the hook with a sandworm, though night crawlers and even some of the scented soft plastic worms on the market also worked and worked well. Though according to my records the most productive bait was a real, live sandworm.
After being trapped at home this past winter like everyone else, I am sitting here watching a couple of crows being harassed by a couple of “Tweetie birds” that are protecting their turf and wondering if the high winds have plagued this area all winter are ever going to subside. When they do, its time to hit the reefs and maybe drift a fluke rig out in front of the Merry-Go-Round at Misquamicut Beach to kick off my 2021 season.