Here we are in the dead of winter, with roughly 3.5 months left to go before the first migratory striped bass filter into Cape Cod's waters. Yet if you are a fishing nut like me, it is tough to not have stripers on the brain - despite it being January.
The striper fishing this past season off Barnstable was nothing short of spectacular. Actually, the striper fishing in most Cape Cod locales was much better than normal during 2012. In particular, Cape Cod Canal fishing had one incredible near season-long bite, with big fish being taken right through the month of November.
Will 2013 provide the same sort of action?
Your guess is as good as mine, and only time will tell. Yet there are whales feeding right now in Cape Cod Bay, surprisingly close to shore (roughly 2 miles from the beach) as I write this. Whales mean plenty of bait, and plenty of bait means a healthy Cape Cod Bay ecosystem. Without a doubt this bodes well for spring striper fishing in our neck of the woods.
When the big bass do return Barnstable anglers will have no shortage of options when it comes to catching them. Yet one technique in particular usually outfishes all others. Most fishermen would agree that if you want a shot at a really nice fish, your best bet will be to use live bait.
Live Bait Fishing for Cow Stripers
Since I was a little kid I've had a blast catching striped bass using live eels and live mackerel. Both baits are relatively easy to acquire and stripers absolutely love them.
Live mackerel work best during the months of May and June off Cape Cod. They can be caught primarily in Cape Cod Bay but also on occasion around Nantucket, off the Back Side, off Provincetown and along the South Shore. I could not recommend a better fishing technique than live lining mackerel during the spring. I have had many trips where bass refused live eels and a variety of other baits, but would readily gobble up a live mack during this time of the season.
Live eels really begin producing for me once late July rolls around. From late July through the end of October, live eels have produced many big fish over the years. Fortunately for us fishermen, live eels are typically available at most bait and tackle shops throughout the Cape Cod region.
However during the 2012 season we did experience a live eel shortage which made eels very hard to find for a few weeks. Luckily eels can be kept alive for months in a properly aerated tank and for days in a moist environment. Eels don't even require water to breathe-however if you are storing eels I would recommend setting up a simple bait tank with an aerator. Be sure to change the water once it gets cloudy.
Of course other types of bait are available on Cape Cod as well. Live scup and pogies are two other types of bait fish that commonly catch big stripers.
I personally do not have a bunch of experience fishing with live scup (although I may give it a try during 2013). Pogies may very well be the stripers' favorite food so I'd recommend live-lining them if you can find them.
Live Bait Gear
To keep things simple I am going to refer to 2 separate Cape Cod fishing methods for fishing live bait. The first method is for fishing calm water and the second is for fishing in channels and areas with a lot of current.
For fishing opens bays, harbors, beach fronts and estuaries with little or no current, I recommend using a 6-7 foot medium action spinning rod. A good reel for me has been the Penn 440 ssg. Load the reel up with 30-50 pound braided line and connect the braid to a 30-50 pound mono or fluorocarbon leader using a Slim Beauty knot. I would highly recommend using a size 5/0 to 7/0 circle hook.
I would recommend not using any weight in these situations as often times the fish will be suspended and not holding tight to the bottom. If the wind is causing your boat to drift at extreme speeds then consider adding a small sinker to your leader to help get the bait down.
Once you locate the fish using your sonar or by following the birds, put the boat in neutral and drift through the area with the lines out.
Allow your baits to swim away from the boat a good 20-40 yards and keep the bail open. Keep your finger on the line and when you feel a take allow the line to go. Count to 4 and then flip the bail. No need to set the hook - allow the bass and the circle hook to do the hook-setting for you.
This method works well in areas where there is a lot of current. Often times in these spots bass will hug the bottom as opposed to being spread throughout the water column.
In these types of areas bass will settle in behind a rip or piece of structure.
What you want to do is get your live bait into these nooks and crannies. For example you want to get your bait into or around a hole, like the one in the below sonar image.The method to use in these scenarios is called "Three-Waying."
Presentation is Everything
Often times everyone in a fleet will be using the same bait. Why then do some folks hook up while others go without?
Generally the reason has to do with presentation. If you aren't hooking up but everyone is around you, then your presentation could be to blame.
Here are some things to keep in mind with regards to proper presentation:
1) When hooking a mackerel, insert the hook into the mouth and up through a nostril. Make sure the mackerel can open his mouth - this will help the mackerel stay alive much longer while on the hook.
2) When hooking an eel always have a dry rag on hand. Hook the eel up under both jaws and out through an eye ball. Use a lob type cast - quick snap type casts often result in the eel tearing from the hook.
3) Whenever possible do not use weight unless you are 3-waying. Bass will feel the added weight when they pick the bait up and spit the bait immediately.
4) When you get a bite, allow the fish to run for 4 seconds before flipping the bail over. Be sure that line comes smoothly off your reel. If the line gets hung up, or if someone touches the lines as it is ripping from the reel the bass will notice this and spit the bait.
5) When a fish takes the bait, point the rod tip in the direction of the fish. This will further reduce friction as you allow the fish to take line from the reel for 4 seconds. If you hold the rod tip high in the air, the bass will feel the friction of the line going through the rod guides and will spit the bait.
6) If you are going to put a rod in the rod holder, flip the bail. You will only frustrate yourself by leaving the bail or clicker on as the bass will feel that something is wrong and end up spitting the bait.
7) If you catch a fish, do everything in your power to repeat everything exactly - most importantly try to repeat the exact same drift.
8) If you drift through a bass filled area but don't get a bite, try changing the direction of your drift. For whatever reason we have often caught fishing drifting in one particular direction - but not in any other.
I hope this live bait run-down will help you catch a nice bass next season. As always feel free to contact me for any reason - I am happy to help!
Tight lines and take care,