Every year in early April, striped bass begin infiltrating the waters of Raritan Bay (near the New Jersey, New York coasts) on their early season migratory push.
Bass ranging from scrapper size to 40 pounds-plus make their first mark in the waters within the bay. Their residual, ancient memories signal them back here year after year telling their minds that this is the time when legendary schools of menhaden (baitfish) move in to the bay to gobble them up for fuel on their journey. But the menhaden are wishy-washy, and they come in when they feel the time is right. And as the bass wait, they get hungry … real hungry!
Enter The Clam
Clams are the answer to the feeding call of these early-season bass as catches of nearly 35 to 50 stripers abound on every trip. With water temperatures hovering in the high 40s and low 50s, striped bass are a bit sluggish on the move in the early season, and a clam on the bottom is just the treat they are looking for to use as the least amount of energy to feed.
These stripers are lean in their stomachs and are dead-set on sucking down any clam that comes their way — setting the stage for a clam-hammering frenzy for anglers willing and able to set out and target them.
To gear up, use a 7-foot Rogue LSW705 rod fixed with a Penn Slammer 360 reel, spooled with 15-pound-test monofilament. To the tag line, a fishfinder sinker slide is slipped through, a 75-pound barrel swivel is attached, a 36-inch piece of 25-pound-test fluorocarbon line tied on, and a size 4/0 Gamakatsu Octopus Circle Hook sits on the business end.
Use Circle Hooks
Circle hooks are recommended for this type of fishing since stripers will readily inhale dead-sticked clam baits, and the bottom line is that circle hooks minimize gut-hooked fish. You can use regular J-hooks, of course, just make sure that you are swift on the hook-set to prevent a swallowed bait.
The key to success is to establish a clam chum slick that gets these bass biting. Crush whole clams with the shells, pounding them with a 2×4 hunk of wood in a 5-gallon bucket, until they are sufficiently broken up to flutter and release scent when thrown overboard. Two chumpots filled with clams are draped over the sides of each gunwale, in order to establish a smelly slick that get the bass’ lips smacking.
Sometimes the bite gets to a fever pitch with stripers on the take every drop down with a clam. Other times, it takes a while for the bass to pick up on the scent of the slick, and then they follow their noses to the clam slick where your hooks will be waiting.
Bite Is Fickle
The bite can be a fickle one, with the bass tapping at the clam two or three times before he takes the bait. You need a bit of restraint to wait out the first two taps and then set the hook on the third take. I know you’ve been cooped up all winter and any strike you get will trigger the “hang ’em high” attitude, but you need patience with early season bass.
These early season stripers are usually not of trophy caliber, since they are the first wave of the younger bass to move through on the migratory path northward, and generally you will be bumping heads with bass in the 6-pound to 18-pound range. These are nice bass for sure, but there are exceptions. Some 20-pounders to 40-pounders may already have moved into the bay by late April, so don’t be surprised if you sometimes hook a cow.
The Raritan Bay fishery is like none other once the bite gets started. It’s the sounding call for fishermen around the area to dust off the rods, warm up the boat, and unstretch the rulers again. With a clam slick moving, you’ll be into dozens of early season stripers in no time.
Be sure to visit Sportsman’s Guide today for a fine assortment of fishing gear.