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Striper fishing the way it always should be

I have caught striped bass on flies, plugs, jigs, plastic baits, bucktails and natural baits — dead and alive — from squid to alewives to eels. I have taken them in skinny water and from 60 feet, chased them from boats, the sand, the rocks and on the flats. Casting, drifting, trolling, jigging and drowning bait on the bottom. I haven’t caught them kite fishing yet, but it’s in the back of my mind.

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But the most exciting method of all, I think, involves lobbing a live menhaden into shallow water along a rocky stretch of shore where a good number of stripers are holed up in the daytime and waiting for the mayhem to ensue. If the fish are there, it won’t take long. And if your pulse doesn’t race when that big bait starts motorboating across the surface, it’s time to put the rod down and take up golf — or retire to the easy chair on the porch.

Years back, my old fishing partner Bruce Freeman and I fished with live menhaden when the conditions were right, but you needed the bait and the weather to cooperate, and you had to devote a fair amount of daylight hours to pull it all together. Bruce is now doing more sailing than fishing and I simply don’t have the time or the inclination to run around snagging menhaden (also called bunker or pogies). I thought those days were gone.

A nice surprise. This summer I got a chance to experience the excitement of large stripers slurping and slapping at these big baits as they skitter across the top when I fished with charter skipper Duane Lynch out of Cuttyhunk, Mass., the westernmost island in the Elizabeth Islands chain. More important to me, my 12-year-old son, Michael, and my son-in-law, Dan, got to take part in the action, too.

We fished out of Lynch’s 23-foot SeaCraft one afternoon, anchored off a rocky island cove. And I am happy to report that some things in our hurry-up world don’t change. As fast as we could toss a bunker into the shallows, the stripers were on the baits. The only other competition came from aggressive great black-backed gulls, which harassed the menhaden from above while the bass did a number on them from below.

It was meat-and-potatoes fishing at its best. Big baits, heavy braid, raucous gulls and a seemingly endless supply of fish to crash the surface and maul the oversized porgies. A lot of smiles, a nice warm west wind, some salty language, a lot of fun.

Charter skipper Duane Lynch (left) specializes in live-bait fishing, and the writer's son, Michael, landed his share of bass.

It never ceases to amaze me just how many striped bass can pack themselves into one of these island coves. Work a surface plug over those waters in the daytime and you’ll raise a fish or two. Do the same with a live bunker and it’s like lighting the fuse on a Roman candle. Fireworks.

We fished two spinning rods at a time with Shimano Baitrunner reels — one off the bow, one from the cockpit — and had numerous double-headers. Through several hours, we ran through 30 live baits, maybe 40. More, perhaps? We fished hard and fast, and our excitement, I fear, made us a tad sloppy here and there; we were parched men out to slacken our thirst at a desert oasis.

“I love this kind of fishing,” says Lynch, 42, a fifth-generation Cuttyhunker who has been chartering for 17 years. “It’s so visual.” Auditory, too. Your ears fill with the crashing sound of feeding fish, gulls barking over scraps, surf smashing on the shore, the mechanical music of a tight drag reluctantly giving up 80-pound braid.

Like so many things in life, this kind of fishing is not as easy as it looks. What you don’t see is all the preparation that goes into locating the bait, catching it with a cast net, shuttling it 7 or 8 miles back to the island from the mainland and then keeping it alive in a large floating pen for weeks at a time. “The fishing is the easy part,” Lynch says. “You have to present them in the right way and you have to get them in the right area. If you get those two things together, it’s like a magnet to the fish. They can’t resist them.”

I’d say we got those two things to come together quite nicely.

A digression. The trick for a charter skipper who wants to specialize in daytime striper fishing with live menhaden is having access to a large supply of fresh bait. How do you keep a healthy, captive school close at hand? With the help of a friend who runs a sophisticated machine shop in New Bedford, Mass., Lynch has assembled a large second-generation floating pen that he keeps beside a float in the harbor. The structure is 15 feet across, 4 feet deep, 45 feet around and can hold a couple thousand fish. The frame is welded aluminum tubing. “This is probably the only pen designed on a CAD program,” Lynch quips.

Lynch's bait pen holds a couple thousand menhaden, which the bass at Cuttyhunk couldn't resist.

After five years of trial and error, Lynch has the bait game down pretty well. “The first few years was a lot of hit and miss,” he says. “There’s a lot to figure out, but I think I’m getting closer.”

For example, he’s got the height of the pen just about right this time. You need to leave enough space above the surface of the water to let the menhaden gulp a little air, the skipper says, but still have the top of the pen high enough to prevent the gulls that perch on the enclosure from reaching the fish with their beaks. Call it the art and science of bait management.

Lynch, like most of the Cuttyhunk guides, was an inveterate troller until three brothers from New York who regularly charter with him convinced him, after much arm-twisting, to try live bunker. “I threw my first live bait, it got slapped up into the air 3 feet and I said, ‘Oh man, I have to do this all the time,’ ” Lynch recalls. “There are guys who troll and guys who do light tackle, fly and spin, but no one out of Cuttyhunk does live bait.”

It’s more work, but Lynch says the results make it worth the extra effort. “It keeps everybody happy and I never have to come up with excuses,” he says.

Lynch works two boats: the 23 SeaCraft with a 75-gallon tank on deck for live-bait charters and a 29-foot, inboard-powered Hawk (a modified-vee hull that his father built), which he uses to carry larger, traditional trolling parties.

A bent rod on a sunny afternoon - classic summer.

Lynch enjoys his work, and it shows on the water and in the extra mile he goes in his new specialty. “It’s a cool way to make a living,” says Lynch, the youngest charter skipper on the island and, he hopes, not the last. “You meet a lot of great people. You have a lot of fun. I love to see the kids catch fish and the expressions on their faces when they pull a fish in.”

For information, contact Sea Hawk Charters, Capt. Duane Lynch, (508) 997-6387.

This article originally appeared in the September 2012 issue.