The sun had yet to rise but there was enough light peeking over Elk Neck State Park to illuminate the Susquehanna Flats, a broad expanse of shallow, grass-filled water at the top of Chesapeake Bay. There wasn’t a breath of wind on that cool spring morning, leaving the flats looking like a seamless piece of wet glass. The only sounds were migrating warblers, the occasional squawky seagull and our 18-foot center console slicing through the water.
We had the whole place to ourselves. There wasn’t another boat in sight.
Fatigued after a 3 a.m. wake-up and 90-minute drive from my home in Annapolis to Havre de Grace, Maryland, I stood holding the console handrail with my eyes closed, nodding in and out of sleep. Moments later, the water erupted with splashing and popping as the flats came alive with feeding striped bass.
My fishing buddy and I sprung to life, fly-casting poppers into the frothy melee as we reeled in and released fish after 40-plus-inch fish. The drags on our reels screamed, rods bent deep and the adrenaline flowed as the stripers made explosive attacks on our flies. The bite was so absurd that at one point we just looked at each other and laughed. We lost count after releasing about 20 fish. It was one of the best fishing days of my life.
Everyone has a fish story, whether it’s ocean-run red drum or tarpon caught on fly. But here on the East Coast, one fish more than any other delivers the goods: Morone saxatilis, or striped bass.
The movements of striped bass in mid-Atlantic and Northeast waters have been widely studied and are well-known. The breeding stock travels hundreds if not thousands of miles each year on the way back and forth to spawning and summer feeding grounds. Striped bass are anadromous, meaning they can adapt and survive in salt- and fresh-water environments. The fish are slow-growing and have long life spans, some as long as 30 years. The current all-tackle record is for a specimen caught in Long Island Sound by Gregory Myerson in 2011 that weighed 81 pounds, 14 ounces.
Each late winter into early spring, hundreds of thousands of striped bass congregate in search of romantic encounters at the head of Chesapeake Bay—and in some of its larger brackish tributaries—as well as in the Delaware and Hudson Rivers. Other spawning populations can be found in the Carolinas, with the Roanoke River maintaining decent runs of the fish. The population’s range is situated between Maine and northern Florida, though the mid-Atlantic and Northeast host the largest numbers of striped bass.
Though access to the Susquehanna Flats where I’d fished is no longer available (reportedly to bolster striper spawning success), each spring, Chesapeake Bay anglers pull their boats out of winterization and rig up their gear to target large female striped bass moving up and down the bay. Though the Maryland “trophy season” is somewhat controversial (some feel breeding females should be left alone during their journey and harvesting the big fish is wasteful) it is the best chance Chesapeake anglers have all year at catching fish as long as 35 to 45 inches.
The most popular method for catching these migrating fish is trolling umbrella and tandem rigs tipped with lead-headed jigs, soft plastic tails and parachute skirts in and around the bay’s deep main channels. However, more anglers are now chumming with ground menhaden and dipping circle hooks baited with menhaden chunks. Regulations for catching these fish change drastically from year-to-year and state-to-state, so it’s best to check a state’s regulations before dipping a line.
As the trophy run hits Chesapeake Bay, anglers in New Jersey and New York gear up to intercept striped bass during their spring runs in Raritan Bay and New York Harbor on their way into smaller backwaters and up the Hudson River.
Capt. Gene Quigley of Shore Catch Guide Service in New Jersey begins to focus on these large fish in late March. “We fish the back bays of Raritan Bay and around New York Harbor, where there are staging areas for the second-largest spawning runs of East Coast striped bass,” Quigley says. “There’s a good surf run for these fish on New Jersey beaches, too. We’re able to hook up with light-tackle jigs and flies.”
Quigley is clear on what he loves about these fish. “They are aggressive, hard-fighting and exciting to play on light tackle and fly,” he explains. “Some people like trolling, but I like the thrill of the hunt. The fish give us clues. Some are obvious, such as when the fish break the surface, drawing birds overhead. Other times we have to find them where they like to lurk, usually in places with structure or a nice current. Using knowledge gained over years of fishing makes it a thrill to hook up with a striper.”
By late May, the vast majority of the East Coast spawning run has ended, and the larger, breeding-age fish are on the move from their spawning grounds north toward Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine, where they will spend the summer. Younger fish, usually less than 4 or 5 years old, generally stay behind around the near-shore waters within 100 miles or so of where they hatched. One area with a large holdover of these fish is the Chesapeake Bay.
One Chesapeake skipper who puts his clients on these resident summer stripers is Capt. Chris Newsome of Bay Fly Fishing. He’s a fly and light-tackle authority with 20 years of experience fishing the summer season along Virginia’s marsh-lined rivers and bays.
“There’s a wide variety of habitat here that holds lots of stripers,” says Newsome, who fishes out of a Triton 240 LTS Pro bay boat. “We use all sorts of techniques to find them. I like to scout for stripers by tossing live bait toward likely spots to see what sort of reaction we get.” Once they find the fish, which generally range from 18 to 30 inches in length, Newsome’s clients work on placing a lure or fly in just the right place for a hookup. “Watching the take is just the best. I’ve found the low-light periods at dawn and dusk are the best times for the bite, though the fish can really be caught all day long, They are pound-for-pound very athletic and fun to fight.”
Like many guides, Newsome relies on a variety of tackle and techniques to fool the wily stripers. Popular fly patterns include Clouser deep minnows, Lefty’s deceiver-like patterns and a variety of popper-like flies for top-water action. Metal jig heads with soft-plastic tails and surface poppers are popular lures for anglers using spinning tackle.
Approximately 400 miles north of the mouth of Chesapeake Bay lie a few more striper hot spots where from late spring through fall anglers can tangle with different sizes of fish. I’m referring to the waters around Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket and Buzzard’s Bay.
According to guide Capt. Jaime Boyle, who runs a 24-foot Silverhawk with a 300-hp Yamaha around Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, the striper season starts around mid-May. “We primarily fish tide rips, the flats and areas with rocky structure,” Boyle says. “The best years are when we have a good squid run. The stripers love that bait.”
As summer fades into fall, stripers get on the move again to fatten up for the upcoming winter months. As baitfish such as bay anchovies, silversides and menhaden flush from back bays, smaller tributaries and sounds into more open waters, stripers herd them and gorge as if they’re visiting an all-you-can-eat buffet.
The “fall blitz” is a time when striped bass lovers up and down the East Coast put together their topwater gear, look for working birds, and then cast lures and flies into the pods of breaking fish. A memorable blitz can last for an hour or more. As fall turns into winter, the bass move to deeper, warmer waters.
As rugged and adaptable as striped bass are, they are under significant pressure from recreational and commercial anglers at most every point in their lifecycle, explains Tony Friedrich, vice president and policy director for the American Saltwater Guides Association, a conservation group on the East Coast. “Stocks of striped bass are down significantly,” Friedrich explains. “The 2018 benchmark stock assessment, while not yet completely peer-reviewed, shows that striped bass are overfished.”
It’s a complex issue with many moving parts, Friedrich explains. There are numerous regulatory agencies to deal with, disagreements over scientific stock assessments, anglers who want their share and fishing guides and commercial fishermen who depend on striped bass to make a living.
Asked what everyday anglers can do to help, Friedrich says, “Use safe catch-and-release practices. And avoid targeting summer stripers altogether when water temps are in the 80s.” (Striped bass that are caught and released during hot weather have a significantly reduced survival rate.) “We also need to get the ‘getting your limit’ mentality out of our fishing culture,” he adds. “There’s nothing wrong with keeping a few fish each year as a special treat for the table, but if you’re taking home fish every week, it might be time to reduce your catch.”
Friedrich is confident that striped bass numbers can be turned around with the right management. “This fish is amazingly rugged and adaptable. You can find them in muddy, dirty conditions, tailing in 6 inches of clear ocean water and other tough environments,” he says. “If we just ease up on the pressure they will come back. We’ve done it before, and we can do it again. It’s an iconic species worth saving.”
With spring on the horizon, I am reminded of a striped bass spot that I’ve fished for a couple of decades. Illuminated by overhead dock lights, the pier attracts baitfish, which in turn brings stripers to the party. On an outgoing tide, the place bursts with life as striped bass chase baitfish in and out of the lighted water. A well-placed crease fly almost always results in a hookup on every cast. I can’t wait.
This article was originally published in the May 2021 issue.