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Northeast Fishing - Schoolie stripers: a sure sign of spring

Even the small fish are a big draw after months in front of the television or computer

They can’t come soon enough. After the boredom of winter, you notice the grass turning green, the days getting longer and — hopefully — the phone call about the arrival of schoolies in the local bays and rivers. All are a welcome relief, a sign the time without boating and fishing is passing, and another saltwater season is about to crank up.

While they may not be large, having something tugging on a line after a winter in front of the tube or computer screen or shoveling snow is well-received.

How often, though, has the news about the arrival come on a weekday, sunny and mild, but the weekend brings a cold front? Be that as it may, we take extra clothes and head back out onto the water once more.

One of the best places to locate these fish is any spot one body of water flows into another. This could be a river mouth, the outflow from a power plant or just a small stream, not more than a few feet across, entering a river or bay. The latter spots are often overlooked, but on a dropping tide all the baitfish that entered the small creek will drop back out along with water slightly warmer than the main body. Both these factors bring small stripers looking for food.

Light spin rods, 6-1/2 to 7 feet long, with 8- to 12-pound mono and freshwater tackle are fine.

It’s not uncommon at this time of year to see high-powered freshwater bass boats with snazzy paint jobs alongside a battered aluminum boat and a 20-footer center console — their owners all glad to be outside.

While plastic baits have grown very popular, the time-tested white bucktail in 1/4- to 1-ounce sizes still work well. The latter sizes might be needed by those anchored in the outflow of a generating station. They toss the heavier lure up into the current, let it sink then start a slow retrieve, fishing deep in a spot where the bottom may have been dredged or simply scoured away by years of rushing water.

Most of the time, though, we use much lighter lures, casting those into rocky stretches of shoreline; possibly an island that acts as a current break (always a prime ambush point); along a deep sod bank; a spot a tidal river takes a steep bend; or places that provide stripers the opportunity to lie in wait for the current to bring them lunch. The down-tide side of a sandbar or just below rotting pilings are but two such areas.

Keep the retrieve slow and steady for best results. Remember, a target moving slowly in a straight line provides fish opportunity to time their attack so they don’t miss their prey. If you’re bumping bottom, pick up the speed a bit to keep from losing lures in a rocky stretch or from tangling in bottom weed.

In shallow water some anglers use a casting float to not only provide distance but also keep a Fin-S Fish or other popular lure suspended below the surface at just the right depth. These floats can be just a homemade, egg-shaped piece of wood with screw eyes in each end, or a clear glass float sold in tackle shops. You can add water to the glass float giving more distance, yet snaps in the float hold the lure at a preset distance from a shallow bottom.

Some anglers anchor their boats around a known productive spot, using a casting rod, but also tossing a piece of bait onto the bottom. As the bait soaks, they pass the time casting the bucktail or plastic lure into structure. The bait may be a chunk of fresh or frozen herring aimed at landing a somewhat bigger bass, or a small piece of sand worm on a flounder hook that can attract both sport and supper. As water warms a bit, blackfish begin grabbing at worms meant for flatfish.

If you live near a deeper, swifter flowing tidal river (maybe along a canal between two bays), you can drift for bass using a whole sand worm on a rig like one used for fluke. Only, instead of a piece of squid, try the whole worm.

What some do to stretch their bait supply is to rig two hooks in tandem on a 30-inch or so leader, then use the real worm on one hook and a plastic fake on the other. This, with a sinker just heavy enough to tend bottom as the boat drifts along, presents a very tempting meal for hungry schoolies.

Mark any spots you get a bite, then repeat drifts in that area. Rigs for this type of fishing and small bags of fake sandworms are sold in most shoreline tackle stores. If you can’t buy a fake sandworm, the plastic worms used by freshwater fishermen work well also.

Early morning and evening are always good times to be out and about, but on overcast days fish will bite right through the day. As the month wears on, the first of the night crew shows up, often anchoring in prime spot before dark (perhaps on high tide), waiting for a pond or shallow bay to start emptying on the upcoming ebb tide. Such flow may pass under a bridge or past a rocky point, the boat positioned to intercept bass interested by the flowing water. I always found the best times to try the first night trip were the warmer evenings with little wind. Those often produce a teen-sized striper, a welcome addition to the log book after catching small fish for the first week or so.

As the sun climbs higher, maybe past the last of the snow flurries, the larger fish we all look forward to begin arriving, starting the season in earnest for some. While a percentage of anglers may hold back for bigger game, many of us welcome the arrival of the little guys for the blessed renewal they are.

Tim Coleman has been fishing New England waters for 29 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.