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New England - stripers, fluke, sea bass, cod

May is a tricky month for fishing in New England — tricky in large part because it marks the beginning of real “in-season” fishing for a variety of species over a major geographic sprawl, and tricky because everything is in flux, somewhere between winter grounds and the first places we know to go looking.

The action heats up this month.

Water temperatures are on the rise. Weather is volatile the way it always is on the seasonal seams. Great shoals of squid and sand eels, butterfish, herring and mackerel are on the move. The game fish we seek roam with them or run age-old migratory courses to intercept the feed.

The trick is that fishing transforms, often overnight, from whatever it was to what we’ve been waiting for. One day it’s a dead, dusky-green ocean, the rain is spitting sideways, and we’re soaked to the bone and half-frozen. The next, it’s an aquarium in open water, the sun is warm, and the wind has fallen out.

My experience working on charter boats was a couple of ports and a handful of target species, but the pattern holds in every fish town from western Long Island Sound to the Gulf of Maine: Come July, the fishing deteriorated noticeably, and suddenly we were awash in anglers looking for June action on the wrong side of Independence Day — a month late and a dozen fish short. If you carry nothing else away from this entry, consider this: June may be early, relative to the hours you invest in the annual pursuit of finned quarry, but early in no way negates the possibility that this first fishing is also some of the year’s best.

One thing the highliners have worked out is the ability to perform the rod-and-reel equivalent of the hole shot — to forgo extensive planning and warm-up time and hit it hard as soon as the fishing materializes. They fish at the convenience of the species they target while the rest of us try to make fish chew according to our own rhythms of school vacation, office work and spring weddings.

A cruel irony in our corner of the watery world is that we get a half-dozen species’ worth, 25 distinct areas’ worth and a dozen fishing methods’ worth of peak action all at once and seemingly out of nowhere. In early May, it was dead ocean all the way to the horizon, and now there’s more catching in our immediate fore than we can pack into a standard-issue June, with its meager allotment of 30 days.

One caveat to this bonanza month: As much discipline as it takes to fish carefully and consistently on the heels of an interminable winter, June success demands additional reserves of focus and patience to tune out a whole array of worthy fishing distractions. Better to zero in on one or two fisheries than to steam all over the region, taking potshots at every critter in the ocean without ever managing to land one.

Stocky spring codfish are a staple of the May-June jigging on Gulf of Maine grounds.

The exact timing of all of these fast-developing fisheries fluctuates according to a host of variables, including water temperature, moon phases, tides, weather and forage movements, but as June progresses, more and more best-of-the-season fishing opportunities hit stride.

The other migration

Despite the recent coverage of steep declines in striper abundance, intensive effort in June will turn up all kinds of bass bound for points north and east from natal waters in the Hudson, Delaware Bay and the Chesapeake. It’s worth noting that all the attention given to the fall migratory runs of yore has created a whole mythology that autumn is the time to catch striped bass, though in reality that fishery has been more a fiction than a reality since the early 2000s.

Accordingly, it’s the migration on the front end of the season — big bodies of mostly school- to medium-size fish gorging on sand eels, squid and, in some areas, menhaden — that generates much of the excitement these days. In a typical season, the first heavyweight bass east of the New York border appear in close proximity to the bunker schools that invade harbors on both sides of western Long Island Sound, generally from mid-May into early June. The Montauk Rips and Block Island typically come alive during the third week of May and feed like gangbusters on the abundant early bait — sand eels, squid, etc.

Although bass action has been off around Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, Mass., there have been solid early showings and some fish-a-cast stretches on both sides of the Cape Cod Canal — first Buzzards Bay and then Cape Cod Bay — from the tail end of May through June. All of the spring migratory hotbeds provide ideal scenarios for downsized tackle, albeit with less visual drama than the autumn journey. It has become consensus that in terms of actual fish production, June is the “new October.”

30 days of the doormat

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The stretch of calendar connecting the last week of May to the third week of June generally sees substantial influxes of loligo squid, silversides and herring, and thus the first waves of big fluke pulling in from offshore, on the deep-water “staging” grounds off the south side of Montauk or Fishers Island, N.Y., as well as around the mouth of Rhode Island’s Narragansett Bay and along the Newport oceanfront.

All of these areas attract fluke aficionados, who recognize this month-long period as one of the more reliable times to target doormat-size specimens into the double-digits. As in most fisheries, when you’re trying to cull out the trophy-size fish, success depends as much on when (seasonally) you fish as where you fish.

I have spent a ludicrous number of hours during the past decade working short drifts in areas of tide-swept broken bottom; most of the best trips of my career have fallen within this “early” window. In an effort to wring every usable hour, I also try to plan plenty of time to jig up the giant spring squid that are a staple of doormat hunting.

First shot at sea bass

You won’t find cooperative scup or black sea bass in many places in the Northeast until later in the season, but the south side of Cape Cod and various pieces of shallow real estate around Nantucket Sound and Buzzards Bay witness massive pile-ups of both species in May and early June. I’ve always found huge therapeutic value in this unique spring scenario — the lock-and-load pace of the action a welcome respite from the long, grueling winter and the fishless tedium of scouting on the too early side of May.

For my money, few sights can generate more adolescent excitement than a 6-pound black sea bass spiraling up out of the dusky green gloom. One major bonus to this late-spring racket — other than 10-foot-thick stacks of 2-pound scup — is the ability to find leeward comfort, even under conditions that would blow out every other angling option.

Farther north in the second half of May, cod and haddock fishing — once a wide-open option from the season opener in April — really starts to take shape and holds up well through June during most seasons. Despite the catastrophic failure of cod management during the past several seasons — and a corresponding crash in populations — there are still good concentrations of market-size fish to be found on Stellwagen and Tillies banks (east of Boston and Gloucester, Mass.), as well as parts of Jeffreys Ledge in the Gulf of Maine. Haddock, including corkers over 10 pounds, set up shop on deeper soft bottom.

Filet yield be damned: The Gulf of Maine is like no other place in New England — worth a trip for sightseeing alone, especially when the sea herring, mackerel and sand eels draw the whole food chain onto the fishing grounds.

Long shot

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If it all sounds too tame, there is one more sleeper fishery threatening to materialize out beyond 50 fathoms — some years, beyond 1,000 fathoms. In yet another case study in the gulf between fishing tradition and fishing reality, canyon-obsessed trolling pioneers have been working the early warm-core eddies that peel off the Gulf Stream and spin north and west into long-shot range — anywhere from east of Oceanographer Canyon to west of the Fishtails.

Where canyon fishing was long associated with late summer and fall, arguably the best offshore fishing during the last five years — including yellowfin, bigeye and albacore, among all kinds of other, more exotic mystery meat — has unfolded between Memorial Day and Labor Day, and primarily on the daytime troll bite. It is a long steam with an uncertain yield and all kinds of exposure to the cranky early June fronts, but it does represent another compelling possibility in the first leg of an expanding season.

No matter where you fish, what you target, what you catch — heck, whether or not you so much as wet a line — it makes good sense to pry as many days as Mother Nature will give you out of the living months here on the tundra. That’s a tradition lashed tight to reality, and if chasing a few fish gives you a couple of days you might not otherwise get off the dock, this is the time to get after it.

See related articles:

- The Chesapeake Bay

- The Florida Keys

June 2014 issue