Spring stripers up and down with weather

Author of Light Tackle Kayak Trolling the Chesapeake, Alan Battista fights a schoolie striper caught on a pencil popper. Photo Jeff Little
Author of Light Tackle Kayak Trolling the Chesapeake, Alan Battista fights a schoolie spring striper caught on a Pencil Popper. Photo Jeff Little

By Jeffrey Little

Springtime weather is a tease. One day you’re enjoying the fragrant air of newly sprouted blossoms on a warm breeze, and 24 hours later those blossoms are shredded by a heavy cold rain. This up and down battle of summer trying to wrestle control away from winter has been matched by the ups and downs fishing spring stipers.

Late winter featured sporadically hot action at warm water discharges, and as the ambient temperatures stayed in the upper 40’s big fish could be had on any given flat in the 7 foot depth range by trolling or jigging. Clusters of big fish moved into the shallow estuaries to feed on shad, river herring and white perch. The most upstream stretches of tidal rivers were a frothy jumble of multiple species converging in one spot.

One early April day featured multiple big fish caught on an extremely low tide. The flats that are usually two feet deep at low tide were showing bare muddy ridges piercing the flat glassy surface. Stripers that had been feeding in grass beds on that flat had pulled down into a 6 foot deep ditch adjacent to a main channel of 20 feet or more.

Subsequent passes trolling 7 inch long jerkbaits resulted in 28, 35, 33, 39 and 38.5 inchers. Fish in the mid and upper 40s were caught in the same area that day by friends. One friend joined me on that pod of fish after I called him on the phone and insisted he paddle over and get in on the action. That simple act, a phone call, represented our best chance of staying on a hot bite: using a network of trusted friends to stay on moving pods of big fish.

I found that out the next trip back to that spot, four days later. I got skunked. Warm front, cold front. Hot bite, no bite. In fact I went the next two trips to the same spot without a single fish. On a third trip, I tried a different spot, and found fish again. They weren’t the massive drag screamers I found before, but I was glad to not be skunked again.

“That simple act, a phone call, represented our best chance of staying on a hot bite: using a network of trusted friends to stay on moving pods of big fish.”

Then a friend who I had shared location intel with two weeks prior dropped a gift on me. He texted a photo of his depth finder screen including the chart and coordinates. That was followed by Jon’s selfie with a 49 inch striper. I was to be on the water the next day, so I knew where I would be before the sun was up.

I pulled up on the grassbed edge where Jon had caught so many big fish the day before and was greeted by the whirlpool of a huge fish I spooked out of two feet of water. My first cast with a topwater plug into shallow water was met with an explosion. My line peeled off the reel quickly at first, then tapered off. I thought, "Nice fish, but not the giants Jon was on the day before.” It was a fish in the low 30s and its head thrashes tossed my topwater plug as I was trying to latch my Fish Grip on its lower jaw.

Multiple fish in the 28-inch range blasted a River2Sea Whopper Plopper. Mid-day I moved to deeper water and jigged schoolie spring stripers in the 18- to 23-inch range. One streak of casts with hooked and landed fish reached six in a row. The 1-ounce jig head and 8-inch soft plastic slug rarely hit the bottom before a fish had self hooked and started moving with it. Still, in search of a better class of fish, I moved to the grass beds again.

By early evening my buddy Alan joined me for more topwater action. He asked if I had caught 100 fish yet on the day. I had, but questioned how he knew. He explained that this sort of all day action usually marks the end of the big fish being around. The 30-, 40- and 50-inch range fish have finished their spawning ritual and would soon be on their way to the Atlantic to forage on the larger populations of menhaden, shad and other baitfish in New England waters.

I hate that we only get these huge fish for two months a year each spring, but appreciate that the upper Chesapeake is a major contributor to the recruitment of the entire Atlantic striped bass fishery. I also appreciate that we get to enjoy the sub-30-inch stripers year round.

When the big fish do return, they’ll be another year bigger and able to peel off even more line on that first run. Can’t wait!