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Fishing schoolies

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Spring means schoolies tugging on the line

Spring means schoolies tugging on the line

These first fish of the season, though small in size, are always welcome after a long winter

Finally, after some false starts and teaser days of warm weather, another fishing and boating season has come to our home waters. Most of us will target schoolie stripers, the first of the legions that follow, adding zest to the lives of many thinking about the next day off, away from the job, traffic and the normal trappings of everyday life.

A couple of issues back we suggested you buy a 6- to 7-foot spinning rod with roughly 12-pound line and light reel. Now is the time to use such a tool, heading to any of southern New England’s many bays and rivers. Places like the Housatonic and Connecticut Rivers are usually productive, but there are many others, including the Niantic, Thames and Pawcatuck in the eastern part of the Nutmeg state. Other good choices for this small-boat angling would be the top part of Narragansett Bay and upper Mount Hope Bay from the Bristol Narrows over to the Braga Bridge.

Most people will pull into some shoreline structure like an undercut bank along a river or a fishy-looking island that acts as a current break with bass at either end, depending on tide and conditions. They use the light spinning rod to cast small, white bucktails — an old reliable and still productive today — or small plastic worms or shads, the latter perhaps the Top Gun of the striper scene in 2006.

You don’t have to do anything fancy — just toss the smaller versions of these lures into the shore, then start a slow retrieve back to the boat. Work the shoreline as you go past and if things look promising or you get a hit, repeat the drift.

Some folks would rather anchor up around a hot spot, working the area well, maybe waiting for fish to drop down out of a small stream emptying into the bay or river and hoping they stop for a while to feed.

If you’re not sure about what lures to buy, you only need ask the tackle salesperson. He or she can recommend a few that won’t break the bank — but be sure to buy extras so when you neighbor loses his second of the morning you have replacements.

Along with the lures, you might want to tie up some leaders made up of 20- to 30-pound mono. Tie a small, two-sway swivel on one end and small snap on the other. The latter allows easy change of lures if one color is working better than others.

Each area bay or river or section has its own characteristics when fish bite better than other stages of the tide. For instance, the well-known early season spot of Cemetery Cove in the upper Pawcatuck River is best one hour before to one hour after high tide. The beach and cove can be deserted until that time, then “poof,” the locals start showing up, casting from the bank or casting in small boats, hopefully being courteous and giving the shore anglers some room.

Always take extra clothes with you as the spring weather on land, miles from the marina, can be quite different than along the shore with water temperatures in the mid to upper 40s. While we all look forward to those beautiful warm, calm mornings — the rejuvenator after long winters — many of the first schoolies are caught on chilly days, the occupants of small, open boats glad they brought a heavy jacket or foul weather gear to break the cool breeze.

As the water warms up to — but not necessarily right at — the 50-degree mark, look for the bass to take a small popping plug as well as the small plastic baits or bucktails. Nothing quite gets a youngster’s attention more than a determined school bass boiling behind a lure. Just make sure in the excitement of the moment they don’t reel so fast he or she pulls the lure away from the fish.

With our striped bass population at good levels of abundance, it’s common during the height of the spring run to land a dozen or more small bass in one trip. Some of the local pros will catch and release 50-plus small bass each. Those fellows are usually ones who’ve been at the game a while.

Since most of the fish are small, you can just grab the leader and hoist them aboard, be your boat a small car-topper that doubles as freshwater boat during trout season or the reliable clamming skiff. If the fish is hooked on a treble of a plug, watch as children unhook it. If you have doubts, attend to that chore yourself, keeping small hands out of harm’s way.

Once unhooked, grab the bass by the lower jaw, heft it over the side and gently lower it back into the water so it will thrive and provide excitement this same time in 2007.

Our striped bass fishery is ongoing because many anglers practice catch and release.

However, that’s not to say you can’t take home some great-tasting striped bass for the table. As the days lengthen we generally see some larger fish, the first of the keepers. It’s often a point of great pride that your children display their keeper bass to mom or the neighbors upon arrival back at the ranch after a successful day on the local river.

We might also suggest you check out the lower parts of the river as spring yields to early summer. The very same Pawcatuck River that provided 14- to 20-inch stripers early in the season produces 28- to 35-inch bass between Hall’s Island and Sandy Point in late May. People in the know will also be on the same river after dark before and after Memorial Day, drifting a live eel for a chance at a striper up to 50 pounds — the above pattern holding true for many rivers along the striper’s coast.

That first day at the ramp or marina is often a quickening event, participants anxious to get back on the water, shake off thoughts of winter storms or boredom, able to get out, breathe some salt air and have something tugging at the end of the line. Schoolies may not be the largest fish in the ocean, but they are the first, and welcomed by many.

Tim Coleman has been fishing New England waters for more than 30 years. He was managing editor of The Fisherman magazine’s New England edition until 2001, and is now a freelance writer based in Rhode Island.