Buzzard's Bay

How-To: Finding Striped Bass on Cape Cod #130

How-To: Finding Striped Bass on Cape Cod #130

There are really three components to consider when breaking down any striper fishing situation: timing, signs and the elements.  

Timing: Like all good things in life, timing is everything but when fishing for stripers, thinking about “timing” can often tell you where they might be next. Often a “should have been here yesterday” situation can be pivoted to a “fish on” situation by extrapolating the conditions by understanding patterns from before, during and after the hot bite. Here’s how I look at timing.

  • Seasonality: Seasonality will help you state the obvious. For starters early season’s low water temps come with the territory and vice versa in the heat of the summer. Also, many spots follow the same patterns from year to year. Learn which spots fish better at the various stages of the season. Start there. Bait size and type will also change throughout the season.
  • "Yesterday": If you have good reports, start there. Replicate as much as possible if the conditions are similar to those a day or two prior to when you are fishing, but be prepared to work from there if what you encounter is different. Many times the playbook remains unchanged, but many times, a new day in the same spot calls for a few small adjustments to fully capitalize.
  • Tide: If you know what time the fishing was good yesterday; consider adjusting for the timing of today. Often stripers and the bait move with tide over the cycle. The fishing can move as many as a couple of miles over a couple hours of fishing. If you are fishing without a report, use this same concept to your advantage. The stage of the tide at hand might help suggest where to “put lines in.”
  • Time of Day: Obviously a non-issue if you are replicating a report, but there’s a few good rules of thumb here. Early morning fish and sunset fish tend to be far more aggressive, meaning that a faster trolling or retrieve speed might be the way to go. Stripers are sensitive to light and often go deeper during the high sun portions of the day.

SIGNS

A full on surface blitz with breaking fish and diving birds doesn’t happen every day. Nine times out of ten, we need to put a little investigative work in play before we start the hunt. Some signs are obvious, like fish we can see. Others are subtler. Here’s the list of possible signs; the more I recognize when fishing an area, the longer I will tend to linger even if fishing is slow since I have greater expectations that it will turn on at some point.

BIRDS

  • Size: For starters, bird size will likely tell you what size bait fish are feeding on. Small terns often mean sand eels, silversides, anchovies, small squid and whatever else might be small. Conversely with big gulls and gannets, odds are that fish in area are feeding on adult squid, herring, pogies (menhaden/bunker), large sand eels or mackerel. 
  • Activity: The Holy Grail for bird watching anglers is when they happen upon a concentration of seabirds that are working aggressively over a patch of water; it is very common for predator fish to be pushing bait up to the surface when you find flocks of seabirds diving and wheeling. Although you will usually see bird activity, sometimes you will hear their excited cries that can lead you to blitzing fish before you see them. When you are lucky enough to encounter “happy” birds, it is a no brainer situation to put lines in.
  • No matter how large the area is that birds are working over or how many flocks of birds are working that area, stopping to observe what is taking place is always a good practice.
  • The weakest bird activity scenario is when you happen terns “kissing” the water. This often occurs when terns feeding on very small bait without any help from predators below. Looking for any other signs is helpful since they can help you decide if there are predator fish around or the small seabirds are simply enjoying a snack, with no help from any fish.
  • Loitering: A bunch of birds “hanging” out can be a good sign, meaning that something just happened and they are waiting for it to happen again. It could also mean that a dragger went by earlier, leaving a supply of bycatch. It also might be that they are simply hanging out and resting. Who knows! One way to test what loitering birds are doing is to approach them; if they are annoyed but try to stay close, that’s a good sign. If they simply take off, they can be written off.
  • Certain species of seabirds such as shearwaters will look down into the water, often completely submerging their heads; if you see this behavior, there is a good chance that their something below that is drawing their attention.

BAIT

Do you see bait on the surface? On the finder? That’s a good sign. Is the bait clustered? It’s a good sign if bait is tightly balled up since that could be an indication that they are employing a strategy that some folks call “the strength in numbers.” By forming a tight school, individual baitfish decrease the odds of them being singled out and eaten by predators in the area. 

  • If you are marking or seeing lots of bait, but can’t determine whether there are fish in the area, this is a good time to rethink what any birds in the area are doing. Birds are pretty good at knowing where the action is about to happen. Do you see birds loitering and signs of bait? That’s a pretty good combination.
  • What do you know about the bait you are seeing or marking? What kind is it? If you don’t know the species, is it big or small? Packed? Scattered? Answers to any of these questions will guide you.
  • Another factor to consider is how the bait is swimming or moving. With experience, you will develop a sense of how each type of baitfish moves when it is being harassed or not. Then again, if you see bait spraying out of the water, quickly changing direction, or the larger schools breaking up into smaller clusters, there is a good chance that they are being hounded by predators.
  • I prefer seperated, dense clusters on the fishfinder over seeing the the bottom paved with bait with the idea being that the predators have balled up the bait. This is a good sign that something is going on. Happy baitfish are boring baitfish!
  • While you are waiting for something to start going on and you see baitfish milling around on the surface, it’s a good idea to drift with the school. When the stripers get active again, you’ll be at the right place at the right time.

SLICKS

  • An oil slick is a thin layer of oil floating on the surface of the water, which typically appears “flat” or very calm with a distinctive sheen. Slicks are important signs for anglers since when predator fish feed heavily on baitfish, the oil in the bodies of the latter is released and floats to the surface. One of the most common slick scenarios is when bluefish are feeding on pogies or menhaden, a species that is known for their heavy oil content. Many anglers believe that you must stop and investigate any slick, no matter how small. If you have a combination of bait, birds, and slicks, the odds that there are predator fish in the area have gone way up.

BREAKING FISH

  • Obviously, the best sign is when you can see “breaking” or feeding predator fish. If you see legitimate striper targets on the fish finder and no other signs, you’re in pretty good shape. If you see targets, birds, bait, and slicks, you are in great fish! If you add in breaking fish, well, if you are not catching fish, it’s something you’re doing and time to address your approach. It might be frustrating, and therefore tempting, to leave this kind of scenario, but always remember “It’s usually a bad idea to leave fish to find fish.”

ELEMENTS

Current Speed: Let’s say you are marking stripers and or bait and they are toward the bottom in 40’. Knowing the current speed is important as it will help you select lure weight and size, line type and boat speed to get down there.

Light: Thinking about the lighting will help you in a couple of ways. On darker rainy or foggy days, stripers can often feed closer to the surface throughout the day, which might impact trolling speed. A higher speed or a series of turns will raise your lures if you are using heavy gear. Also, sometimes switching to a darker lure for greater contrast in low light will help increase the lure’s visibility. I default to matching the hatch, but adapting lure color to the light conditions is my first lure adjustment.

Temperature: In the early season, a heat wave can fire up cool sluggish fish and conversely, a heat wave in high season can push fish into deeper water or shut them down by day.

Wind: I look at wind in three ways when assessing a trolling situation for stripers.

  • Direction: Did it change from yesterday?  If so, where might that wind direction have pushed the fish over the night? Did it change to the East or Northeast? Well that just stinks, because that wind kills fishing. In that case, you might be better off grinding it out where you know the fish are. You’ll be in the same boat in any other spot!
  • Wind Pull: Crosswinds can push and pull on trolling lines. If I’m fishing in heavy wind situations, I will let more line out or switch to a deeper or heavier lure.
  • Impact on Migrating Fish: Are fish following the general direction of the wind? Ask yourself if the past day to day variations on where they were was consistent with the prevailing wind direction. If they are moving with the wind, use this intel to project where you might start.

    Reading next

    Striper Baits: Best Eel Imitations #124
    How To: Soft Bait Retrieves #140

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