Live-lining for Stripers
The tiniest peck on my bait set me instantly alert. With my index finger curled under the reel seat and just touching my rod blank, I tensed to feel another bite. There was no mistaking the rascal’s next move. Abruptly my rod tip jerked down, and I set the hook.
My light casting rod oscillated with the fish’s tight, frantic circles as it fought to the surface. Then I softly derricked the fish up and into my open palm. It was a Norfolk spot, or a yellowbelly as they call them farther south. This one was perfect, not quite five inches long.
Croaker are showing up in force. Big fish to 20 inches have been reported in the Choptank and are spreading across to Hackett’s and Podickery. The rockfish chum bite is still excellent from Podickery down through Hackett’s and all the way to Thomas Point on the Western Shore and from Love Point all the way down through Gum Thickets to Bloody Point on the Eastern wing. Spot are roaming in those areas as well, but the jumbos have not yet made an appearance. Bluefish numbers are continuing to grow but mostly on the Eastern side. White perch are in full summertime mode with good numbers swarming rocky shorelines and others holding in 15 to 20 feet along channel edges. Crabs are coming on stronger, but DNR projections for a poor season look like they are on the money.
Rich Jenkins of Pasadena was the overall top rod among 90 anglers in the Tenth Annual Coastal Conservation Association Kent Narrows Fly and Light Tackle Catch and Release Striper Tournament on June 1. Jenkins’ 34-inch striped bass was tops in the light tackle division. Andrew Uphoff of Chester won the kayak division with a 241⁄2-inch fish. David Sikorski of Ellicott City was first in the fly division with a 237⁄8-inch bass.
I was careful not to hold the fish too firmly as I removed the small hook from its jaw and set it scurrying into our aerated five-gallon pail with a half dozen or so of its kin that we had already secured.
Adding a fresh piece of bloodworm onto my hook, I lowered the hi-lo rig with its one-ounce sinker, bright-orange beads and flashing spinner-dressed snells back into the deep. Within five minutes another frisky Norfolk jumped my bait.
Jumbo Norfolk spot, those over 10 or 11 inches, have long been popular among anglers working on a delicious fish fry. But to rockfishers, spot under six inches, yearlings, are the holy grail of baits for live-lining.
The rockfish chum bite has been outstanding in the mid-Bay, but the best is coming to an end. Undersized schoolie rockfish, eager and apt to swallow your baits intended for bigger fish, have joined in the mix.
Another reason is the arrival of scads of small-mouthed, bait-stealing croaker. But the big tackle-busting cownosed rays will soon (if they haven’t already) make chumming more of a chore than a joy as they swarm the chum field and consume all the cut bait they find on the bottom.
The Norfolk spot have arrived in our neck of the Chesapeake just in time to save the day. Big rockfish love them, they are too quick for the rays and too sizeable for little schoolie stripers to swallow. Thus, they’re an ideal way to hook a striper on light tackle.
The first requirement for securing a supply of live spot for bait is a well-aerated live well or bait bucket. Spot are not a hardy fish and are especially intolerant of low oxygen levels. They cannot be kept in containers without oxygenation, even for short periods.
This time of year, spot will usually be found over shell bottoms or bridge structures in depths of around 15 feet. In the rivers and creeks and around structures such as piers, docks or jetties, they can be in as little as three feet of water.
Bloodworms, Fish Bites (artificial blood worms) and grass shrimp will attract them, and generally they bite with abandon. In shallow waters, a small-baited shad dart under a bobber works well. Deeper, hi-lo rigs with one-ounce sinkers and size 6 to 8 hooks work well.
Picking an area to live-line usually involves searching channel edges and river mouths and identifying marks on your fish finder that indicate a school of nice-sized rockfish. You can also target bridge supports, jetties, light houses or channel edges. The mouths of small and large tributaries in early morning or late afternoon hours are also prime locations.
I prefer to hook the spot lightly, just in front of the dorsal fin and to drift fish without weight, letting them swim down on their own to the areas I suspect hold stripers. If the tide is moving too rapidly to stay over the area you wish to target or if you intend to fish at anchor, hooking the spot through both lips and adding an in-line sinker or using a weighted fish finder rig will get the baits down while still keeping them lively.
In early June, this is the best way to get a big striper on your line.