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PRO RECOMMENDS DEEP DIVING PLUGS FOR SPRING STRIPERS

Posted 4/13/2012

Capt. Brian Rice uses light tackle to troll for early season striped bass - Here’s how he does it

Captain Brian Rice ran the Jersey Devil, a 29’ Yamaha-powered Contender®, from its slip in the Nevasink River down into Raritan Bay, a large embayment nestled between the tip of Sandy Hook, New Jersey and Staten Island, New York.  He was headed toward the mouth of the Raritan River to an area of flats surrounding the main shipping channels. Upon reaching his destination, he slowed the boat, and the depth finder lit up with pods of striped bass hugging the bottom in 20-to-30-feet of water. This area is part of the larger estuary complex that is home to the Hudson River stock of striped bass, which also includes places such as Jamaica Bay and Western Long Island Sound. It is similar to other estuary complexes associated with the Chesapeake and Delaware Bay stocks of stripers, and they are all great places to fish for linesiders in the spring months. 

Mate Jim “Peaches” Massimino, Jr. shows off a particularly large spring bass that could resist a Stretch plug.

The overwhelming majority of the East Coast striped bass population is comprised of cohorts from those three major spawning stocks. Younger stripers remain in these estuaries, using them as nursery areas until they are mature enough to join the larger fish on their annual migration cycles. The initial migration is back into the feeder rivers of their birth where they spawn. Stripers by the thousands will swim far upstream into freshwater, spawn and then come back down river, eventually moving back into ocean waters to recover and feed. From there, they begin their migration to their summer haunts, which can be anywhere from off the coast of New Jersey to as far north as Nova Scotia, Canada. In the late summer and early fall they head back south to their wintering grounds, which can be anywhere from New Jersey to the ocean waters off North Carolina. 

In the spring, younger bass that wintered over in the estuaries will begin to stir looking for food to recharge their strength after the sparse months. They will first feed on river herring and alewives that come in from the ocean to spawn in freshwater rivers, streams and ponds. The herring will soon be joined by menhaden, which are prime forage for striped bass, and the fattening up process will begin in earnest. As the time to reproduce grows nearer, larger breeders will begin to invade the same estuaries to feed heavily on baitfish while staging for their run upriver to spawn. During the prespawn months in spring, one of Rice’s favorite techniques for catching striped bass is trolling with light tackle and deep diving plugs. These lures dive down far enough to be worked close to the bottom where the bass tend to hold most of the day. 

“My clients love this kind of fishing because we use light graphite rods, small, conventional reels and braided line, which lets them feel every lunge and head shake when fighting a fish,” said Rice.  “It’s not very difficult to get started, but you will find there are nuances, little tricks, you have to learn.”

Deep diving plugs come in a variety of models capable of running at very specific depths and also in a whole host of colors.

Brian trolls with a pair of Shimano Terez® conventional rods (7’ medium action). They are light weight and have a soft action, which is excellent for two reasons. The rod tip pulsates in unison with the action of the plug so you always know if it is swimming correctly, and when a fish strikes, the rod bows to the fish just long enough for it to get the plug and then set the hook. 

He combines the rods with an appropriately sized conventional reel loaded with 30-pound test braided line. He also chooses reels with line counters that let him accurately adjust the distance the lure is running behind the boat, which can affect the running depth of the plug. The braided line is used for a reason, too. It has a smaller diameter than monofilament and hence less drag moving through the water so it allows the plugs dive to their full depth potential. He finishes up the system with a mono or fluorocarbon leader about 6 feet long and ties a snap swivel to the terminal end for quick plug changes.  

The lures for this trolling are all plastic body deep divers, which are available from a variety of manufacturers. Rice prefers Mann Bait Company’s® “Stretch” series lures, which are available in a variety of models tuned to run at 10, 15, 20 or 30 feet in two different body shapes. He often uses Stretch 25s in several different colors with great success. 

“Color can be a factor especially in bay waters, which can vary from turbid to just-stained depending on how much silt the rivers are carrying into the bay on any given day,” Rice said. “It pays to have a selection of colors from dark to bright chartreuse, and switch them off regularly until you see what the fish prefer.”

In the Hudson complex, this kind of fishing can start as early as late March, but most years April and May are prime for stripers. Timing is a little earlier in the Chesapeake and Delaware complexes as their waters warm earlier.  The magic water temperature seems to be 50 degrees, then it’s time to break out the plugs and troll. 

Here are a few of Rice’s tips for getting the most from your diving plug trolling efforts. Keep an eye on your depth finder at all times. When you find an area where there are concentrations of bass, fish it hard. Be sure to track the bottom depth so you can switch off from deeper to shallower running plugs when needed. Stripers will tend to stay close to the bottom but will show up as strong returns. Start out using two different color plugs and see which one gets the most attention. If a pattern arises, switch the other rod to that color to up your catch. Use outrodders, special rod holders that hold the rods out to the side and horizontal to the water, to spread your lures farther apart. This allows you to run a third plug on a shorter line down the middle, too. 

Diving plugs are great spring striper producers, but can also catch well during the fall run in the open ocean so keep them handy whenever stripers are your target species. For southern fishermen, especially those who fish the shallow waters of the Gulf of Mexico, this same technique catches fish like gag grouper extremely well. 

Capt. Brian Rice, a native or the Raritan Bay area of New Jersey, shows off a nice bass.

Capt. Brian Rice, a native or the Raritan Bay area of New Jersey, shows off a nice bass.

 

For more information about Jersey Devil Charters and Capt. Rice, visit www.jerseydevilcharters.com.