Decreasing daylight and falling water temperatures in October and November prompt striped bass to bunch up, chow down and migrate south along the Atlantic coast. As they head for their wintering grounds off Virginia and North Carolina, many stripers will spend time at the mouth of Delaware Bay where they’ll provide some of the most exciting action of the entire year.
Needing to fatten up on this long southward journey so they can survive the winter, stripers will patrol the shoals at the mouth of Delaware Bay in search of fish and crabs. This need to feed makes them very vulnerable to anglers drifting live eels over the shoals.
Shoals are hill-like uprisings on the bottom. The presence of shoals is often indicated by ripples or “rips,” — areas of disturbed surface water, which will form over a shoal. Rips are created when the current collides with a shoal and the moving water is forced up and over the shoal. Water tumbling over a shoal creates rips on the surface of the water. Rips can range from mere ripples to waves as much as four feet higher than the surrounding water. The extent of the turbulence is determined by the strength of the current, the depth of the shoal and surrounding water, the phase of the moon, and the speed and direction of the wind.
Zero In On The “Rips”
Whether subtle or obvious, rips indicate the presence of bottom structure and moving water — two crucial ingredients for catching striped bass. As the current collides with a shoal and tumbles over it, it carries with it crabs, baitfish, worms, eels and other food morsels. In a strong current these critters can be overwhelmed by the force of the water, making them easy pickings for stripers that are stationed on the shoals.
In the fall, anglers along the Atlantic Coast hook up with 10-pound to 25-pound striped bass while drifting live eels over shoals and other bottom structure.
The mouth of Delaware Bay, all the way from Cape Henlopen, Del., to Cape May, N. J., is loaded with shoals and rips and stripers. These shoals include Overfalls Shoal, Prissy Wicks Shoal, North Shoal, Somer Shoal, and Hen and Chicken Shoal. On relatively calm days these shoals are easily accessible to anglers in seaworthy boats of 18 feet in length and larger.
Live eels are the No. 1 bait, and a fish-finder rig is commonly used. A fish-finder is a small plastic sleeve with a small wire snap attached that hold the sinker (weighing 3 ounces to 8 ounces). The main line from the reel (17-pound to 20-pound test monofilament) is threaded through the plastic sleeve of the fish-finder. Then a barrel swivel is tied to the other end of the line. Tied to the other of the swivel is a 3-foot leader of 30-pound to 50-pound test monofilament. A 5/0 live bait hook or circle hook is snelled or tied on the other end of the leader. Along with connecting the leader to the line, the swivel separates the fish-finder rig from the hook so the eel can swim freely. Live eels are hooked through the lips. Eels are available in most coastal Delaware and New Jersey tackle shops for $10 to $15 a dozen.
Use A Baitcasting Reel
A conventional or baitcasting reel works well because it provides pinpoint control over the line. Position the boat upcurrent of the rip, disengage the reel and lower the eel to the bottom. Keep the reel disengaged and use your thumb to keep line from coming off the reel. As the boat drifts, the sinker should bounce on the bottom, which will keep the eel on or near the bottom. The drifting boat will move the eel up the shoal, across the top and down the other side of the shoal.
Do not set the hook when there’s a strike, as an immediate hookset will almost always come up empty. Instead, lift the thumb so line can come freely off the reel, allowing the striper to move the eel fully into its mouth while pulling line through the fish-finder rig without detecting the weight of the sinker. Slowly count to at least five, then reel in the slack until the rod tip is pointed at the water and then set the hook with authority (do not set the hook when using circle hooks, instead just keep reeling).
When it’s time to crank up the motor and position the boat for another drift, be sure to run around the shoal. Running directly over a shoal will spook the fish and bring an immediate halt to the bite.
Autumn action with Delaware Bay stripers begins in October. The best bite is from Halloween to Thanksgiving. And depending on the weather, stripers can often be right through Christmas and into the new year.