Spring is prime time to catch trophy-sized striped bass along the Jersey coast from Raritan Bay south to Barnegat Inlet, where some of the best action occurs as massive schools of menhaden choke the bay and the coast and attract schools of stripers.
Raritan Bay includes the New Jersey and Staten Island, New York coasts with numerous launch ramps for visiting anglers in several locations. Several Marinalife-member marinas in the area put you right in the heart of the action, where 25-pounders are average and striped bass well over 30 pounds are quite common.
Water temperature and arrival of the bunker are key factors to when the action heats up. A mild winter will get local anglers anxious to get out on the water, where they'll search for bass by late April, although live-lining begins around mid-May and lasts well into late June and sometimes early July.
Mixed in with the striped bass are the season's first bluefish, and these toothy critters start chopping on the menhaden and create a natural chum slick that seems to trigger the bass into a feeding mode. When the water temperature reaches 50 degrees, the bunker and bass will start to show in mass and the fishing gets red-hot.
Live bait is the key, and getting on the bait early is paramount. Look for bunker to pop up anywhere at any time, though daybreak and dusk offer the best chance at finding schools flipping on the surface. Bunker are plankton eaters and prefer off-colored water, and although they can be found at all depths, locating a surface school will quickly fill the livewell with a cast net, even though throwing an 8- or 10-foot net takes some practice.
An easier approach is using a bunker snag, a treble hook cast into a 3- or 4-ounce lead, to catch bait. Cast the snag into the bait school and allow it to sink to the bottom before beginning the retrieve. Once hooked, allow the bait to swim freely and apply light pressure to the reel to prevent a backlash until a bite occurs.
Another approach is to snag several bunker and place them in a livewell. Since striped bass are often caught and released after a quick photo this time of the year, anglers will usually snag bunker with the snag and transfer the bait to a circle hook rig. A good livewell that turns water over quickly to remove blood and slime is a must. Although bunker are pretty hearty, snagged baits last longer than those caught in a cast net since the slime is not removed from the bait.
Locating bass often can be as easy as locating the bunker. Often stripers will be found crushing the baitfish so don't hesitate work the same areas. Other spots where bass can often be found include edges found along the channel as well as holes and high bottom. Note marks along the bottom on the color scope but keep in mind bluefish could be mixed in with the bass as well. Most anglers prefer a 7- or 7 1/2-foot medium to medium heavy conventional rod matched to a light lever drag reel filled with 50-pound test braid or monofilament. Although some anglers prefer a fish-finder rig with a sinker slide or egg sinker, others utilize a three-way swivel to which they attach 36-inch, 50- or 80-pound test fluorocarbon leader and a 9/0 or 10/0 Gamakatsu Octopus Circle or Live Bait Circle hook with a snell. A large sinker snap is used for attaching weights that range from 6 to 10 ounces depending on current and water depth.
Bunker should be hooked through the lower jaw and out through the nose to keep the mouth of the bait nearly closed so it doesn't spin in the current and to keep the hook from fouling in the bait. Drop the bait to the bottom and apply light thumb pressure on the reel.
When a bass picks up a bunker it usually swallows the bait head first. Continue with light thumb pressure, and if the fish is still taking line, set the hook and hang on!