To their own disadvantage, the majority of fishermen are pack animals. Take stock of your personal observations and experiences and tell me this isn’t so. How often does the sight of frothing white water and diving birds of a blitz not send a lineup of surfcasters into a chaotic stampede? Time just how long that lone head boat sharpie is afforded breathing room before their railmates begin converging on his or her flanks. Marvel at how one or two isolated boats magically multiplies into a ragtag armada after just a few drifts. Bottom line, no matter how you fish or where you fish, anglers are almost instinctually drawn to one another as if an ironic parallel to the very schools they chase.
We’re all guilty of exhibiting this drone-like behavior at one time or another and sometimes it’s warranted based on situational necessity and prevailing circumstances. More often than not, however, particularly when striper fishing from a boat, pack hunting fosters bad habits and limits catch potential.
What pray tell are these bad habits? The biggest one certainly has to be classic ‘monkey see, monkey do’ behavior. Don’t get me wrong, if you’re an inexperienced angler or new to an area there is no shame in shadowing a knowledgeable skipper to learn the bite, pattern the fish and acquaint yourself with the water so long as you aren’t hindering their activities. Following the leader, however, becomes counterproductive when fishing tunnel vision corrupts common sense and leads otherwise competent anglers to follow along with boats making classic googan mistakes. As a charter captain spending a great deal of time on the water, this is something I see constantly and it never fails to make me cringe.
Perhaps the most heinous blunder I observe with astonishing regularity is boats running directly over a school of bass in order to return to the starting point of a drift. This is a tremendous no-no since bass, especially big bass, are far from foolish, nor oblivious to cacophonous disturbances in their environment. Run over their heads once and they’ll be on alert. Do it multiple times with a procession of boats in your wake and the fish will become exponentially gun shy. Such wariness directly correlates to a notably diminished bite right down to the fish developing total lockjaw or their mass exodus in extreme cases. Deny it all you want, but whether you’re in 15 or 50 feet of water this still holds true. The problem is many anglers rationalize these consequences by formulating other excuses. We’re marking them on sonar but they just haven’t turned on yet. They’re finicky because they’re keyed on small bait. They fed heavily last tide so they’re appetite is suppressed now. We missed the “magic window” or that window is starting to close. I could continue but the lines are endless. Yes, all of these excuses can actually be scientific truths at times so fishermen have a tendency of pawning off their own ineptitude/negligence on these natural phenomena. With all that being said, how does one approach a school of trophy linesiders?
First off, never prospect an area you’re serious about fishing by motoring through it. Take a wide, up-tide approach to your waypoint and then kill the engine(s) once in line with the drift. At that point you can check the sonar for signs of bass, bait and attractive contour changes. Should you see fish on the screen, don’t jump the gun and immediately go racing up ahead of them. Employ some restraint and wait till the marks thin out or disappear entirely. Hold off just a tad longer beyond that point before cranking the ignition. Then put the engine in gear and slowly motor perpendicular to the drift track. Use your best judgment as to how far you stray from the track before cutting the wheel to port or starboard and running parallel back to your starting point. Consider sea conditions and the depth the fish are in and proceed with discretion.
As common sense dictates, the calmer the seas and/or the shallower the fish are, the wider your returning arc should be since they’ll have heightened sensitivity to sound. There are times I’ll run a solid quarter mile out of my way in order to get back on the fish if I’m particularly leery about spooking them. This same approach should be taken with each successive drift once you’re actively fishing. As a side note, other sources of noise should likewise be kept to a bare minimum while on the drift. Avoid letting sinkers clank against the hull, tread lightly on deck and quickly subdue any gaffed or netted fish once in the cockpit. Boisterous celebration should also be left for the dock or the ride home. Remember, any disturbance is quick to reverberate through the boat and will only amplify in the water.
Alright, you’ve dialed-in your approach but now the question lingers if you’re perceptive enough to know when to leave fish. Yes, you read correctly. Leave fish. Let’s say you’re amid a flotilla of striper fishermen and into a steady pick of bass. The fish are nice, quality 20- to 30-pound-class specimens, but you know there are slobs of 40 pounds and better in the area. There’s your sign. If you’re content with steady action and average-sized fish by all means stick around, but if you’re looking for that true trophy it’s better to bail out and look elsewhere.
The logic behind this breaks down into two parts. First and foremost, giant bass will not and cannot compete with smaller fish. Their body mass simply doesn’t allow for it and they can’t afford to expel critical energy reserves keeping pace with nimbler schoolmates on an active feed. Second, if you’re a true cow hunter then your behaviors and mentality should match that of your quarry. Quality is your mission, not quantity. With this being the case, do you really want to compete with a dozen or more boats for that one special fish? Absolutely not, and since there’s bound to be more than a few inexperienced or inept helmsmen in the mix, the fleet has probably spooked the big girls already anyway. Find a different piece of bottom apart from the pack, somewhere you’ve caught big fish before or have an inkling they might be. Work that area diligently and in solitude and you might just be surprised by the results.
Case in point, just this year I sailed a night charter during the June full moon and had plenty of company in the Montauk rips. Everyone was into fish ranging from the teen to 30-pound class, but I couldn’t stand sharing what I felt was a tiny piece of water with so many anglers. As an alternative, I called lines in and ran further east to an isolated rock pile that has been a consistent producer of mine. Off in the distance I could see the navigation lights of several boats and hear the telltale hooting and hollering of lines coming tight. I wasn’t marking anything on sonar but assured my clients that fish hug bottom at this spot and asked they be patient. Wouldn’t you know it, before the end of the first drift we got the right bite and one of the men was into a beast. He subsequently won the battle and the fish later weighed 52.80 pounds on the Westlake Marina scale. Once the fleet had finally cleared out, I returned to where we started earlier in the night and my clients proceeded to wail on more big fish up to 41.05 pounds to conclude their charter. Later on, I discovered that the next biggest fish taken by the local fleet topped out in the mid-thirties that night.
The lessons in targeting trophy stripers are endless and there is plethora of ways to tailor your tactics and techniques and alter your perception to make you a more efficient hunter. Perhaps after reading this article, however, you’ll at least be on a better path to mitigating mistakes and changing approaches so your true angling prowess can begin to shine forth. Pay close attention to everything you do and whatever you witness while on the water, analyze it through the eyes of a striped bass and adapt as necessary. Learn how to think and move independently and ditch that pack mentality and I guarantee you’ll soon be into more and bigger fish.