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School stripers start the season

Northeast fishing -

With a small boat in a shallow cove, you can be reeling them in with the first warm stretch

Northeast fishing -

With a small boat in a shallow cove, you can be reeling them in with the first warm stretch

Victory is ours, or so says the weatherman if a pleasant, warm stretch of weather is predicted for the coming week, shaking off — finally — the last of the snow and bringing stirrings of springtime to coastal waters. With the renewal, the waterfront comes alive and the early birds are out on rivers and back bays looking for small bass, the gateway to another season.

A small boat is fine for this fishing, able to get up into the river or maybe some shallow cove where spring sun warms the water, especially if the bottom is soft and muddy, able to absorb the sun’s rays and heat quicker than surrounding areas. A light spinning rod with 8- to 10-pound line with a small, white bucktail is all you need to get started. Cast the bucktail around the banks and points of land that jut out into the river acting as current breaks where fish wait on the down-current side for food to come their way. A slow, steady retrieve is best for most situations.

In some cases the fish may move up into a cove on high water and then drop back with the tide. They may be hanging around a spot where a small stream enters the river or bay, waiting to pick off baitfish that entered the creek on the incoming tide and washed out with the outgoing.

This is the time of year when fish will be way up in a river, sometimes caught in curious spots not normally associated with striper fishing. Not far from my home is a town park below a road bridge that serves as part of the main drag between two small coastal towns. A wooden dock borders the park that borders the upper reaches of a tidal river. During the spring run, youngsters casting lures from the dock sometimes land bass as big as 20 pounds not far from where others cast for trout.

Spots where power plants dump warmer water into bays or rivers are also prime if you can get close enough to the outflow in these times of national security. If you can, anchor alongside the flow, cast a bucktail up into the current, let it sink if the water is deep, then start a retrieve, working the lure slow.

Spring can still be very cool so bring extra clothes and maybe some foul-weather gear if skies lower and temperatures drop.

As the water warms, bass start to hit top water plugs. A good benchmark for such is usually around 50 degrees, maybe a little higher, and always depending on the bait supply. If baitfish are in short supply, some anchor their boats then fish a second rod with bait on the bottom. Anglers could use a smaller chunk of frozen bait from the year before or maybe a sandworm, possibly picking up a winter flounder or white perch as well as a small striper. With the second rod they might cast into a shoreside point of land, keeping warm while waiting on a hit from the bottom rod.

Bucktails are the tried and true way of catching early bass, but in today’s whiz-bang world many have switched over to plastic baits such as life-like small shad rigged on a lighter lead head, those looking like mummichogs or other early season bait prevalent in rivers or bays. These can be bought in plastic bags of four or more for a very reasonable rate. And, unlike later in the year when toothy blues are around, you can catch more than one fish per lure since bass can’t bite a plastic lure in two like a bluefish can.

Another way to catch early bass is to drift a sandworm deep along a channel. You do this with rigs made for drifting worms, available in most shoreline tackle stores. The rig is made up around a three-way swivel with one eye used with metal snap for a sinker heavy enough to keep the rig near the bottom as tide and wind push you along. The other eye is used for long leader with one or two hooks to string a sandworm on. The third eye is used for tying the main line to the rod. Drop this down after baiting up, then let conditions move you along, hopefully parallel with the channel, marking fish or hits with either GPS or shore ranges, then returning to that spot to make shorter drifts until the action dies.

As waters warm, the size of the fish improves, from little micro-bass at the onset to keepers and teen fish later on. If regulations allow, live herring are prime bait at this time. The fish drawn from colder ocean water up into the rivers are seeking alewives, or river herring as they are sometimes called. A boat with a circulating live well lets you keep six or more of these large, silvery baitfish alive after catching them with a long-handled net. Another effective method is with plain, gold hooks rigged in tandem, then cast out and retrieved slowly around spots where herring gather in streams to spawn. Your local bait shop will be able to help you more if you wish to pursue live herring fishing in late April through the month of May, the traditional time for such.

Daybreak and dusk are the best times to be on a tidal river, casting lures into promising structure along the banks. But on those chilly days, as the beginning of the year, it might be wise to wait until the sun warms portions a bit before trying.

As the season picks up speed there will come a time when bass can be caught after dark, maybe the biggest ones to date. I’ve always had luck with this around the 15th of May, typically on a calm, pleasant evening after a day with better-than-average temperatures.

One place we usually catch some fish is at the entrance of a shallow bay that has a herring run. The bay empties out past a railroad bridge, down a small channel cut through mud flats into the river. In the summer the spot is full of anchored sailboats but early in the season it’s free of both mooring buoys and their charges. This allows us to anchor up in small boat and fish a chunk of herring on the bottom with one rod and cast a bucktail or plastic bait the size of a herring with the other. A 6-inch shad that looks like a herring may be too big for the fish present in early April, but possibly just the right size for those prowling a dark river 30 to 45 days later.

There’s no time like the present to prepare to get out, shake off the cobwebs and enjoy the benefits of a new year. That first warm spell in April brings out bass and early birds, a sure sign of another boating season under way. n

Tim Coleman has been fishing New England waters for 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.