8 takeaways from the 2019 striper season

The definitive end of the striper season around the Cape usually bookends in the first half of November. That is unless you’re a crazy person. And I know some of you reading this are.

But mine finished a week or two early with the birth of Miss Emilia. And in this time of no fishing and sleep-deprived delusions, I’ve had the chance to reflect on my season–the ups and downs, things I’ve come to expect that came to fruition and of course the downright confounding things that I never foresaw. This season and subsequent reflection forced me to think about striper biology and feeding habits, the importance (or unimportance) of atmospheric factors and the ways in which I present certain lures and flies to better mimic common forage. This type of reflection is important if we ever want to get better at this whole ‘catching stripers’ thing.

Browsing forums or chatting with the locals at the tackle shop the past few weeks gives me the impression that no one caught a single striper this season and that they’ve already enacted a moratorium. It’s easy to get negative with this type of thing, especially considering all of the rhetoric surrounding the state of the striper and the seemingly inadequate support measures being considered. And on top of all this, the end of the season always makes us striper anglers miserable.

But let’s try to stay positive. We had a great season all things considered. And I urge you, if you got out there and targeted stripers at least a few times, to change your mindset. Consider any stripers caught a win and a positive season–even if it wasn’t as good as past seasons.

Getting good at this whole fishing thing is about learning–most often from times that you sucked. So, what follows is some random observations, musings and takeaways from this season, mostly from instances of me sucking, that I’ll use to figure out a few more small pieces of the striper puzzle.

Fishing is frustrating

There’s a myth that fishing should be a pure form of stress relief. I’ve got news for you: It rarely is. I had some frustrating stretches this season. The lack of quality bass, whack-a-mole pogie feeds, and albies on snot bait created some blood-pressure raising trips. But we need to remember, fishing is tough. If we’re trying to achieve something difficult, we’re going to fail.

There’s a time to strive for perfection–instances where you should focus on your fishing goals and reach for them mercilessly. But there are certainly times when you should just get out there cast. It’s about setting expectations for your trip and keeping that level balanced. Don’t let unwilling stripers come between you and your sanity. This whole thing is supposed to be fun.

It begins and ends in the rivers

You’ve heard this before. Find the bait, find the bass. So, in the spring and fall, where’s the bait? Well, more often than not, they’ll be in the estuaries, harbors, and rivers. This is where you’ll find shoulder season stripers.

In the spring, you should be where the water is warmest and the most bait is present: way up in the rivers. Remember, most of our forage spends it’s early time in the brackish of freshwater sections of our watersheds. This includes pogies, herring and silversides.

We found April stripers that may or may not have been holdovers way up in the rivers around Buzzards Bay in dense concentrations of bait balls. These were the exact same locations we found late fall bass. Year of young bait will be pouring out of these brackish tidal areas during the Fall.

Fishing pogie schools is not as easy as snagging a pogie and letting it swim

For the past few seasons, we had massive schools of flipping pogies arrive in the middle of the summer. But this didn’t always mean big bass. No, we spent plenty of long days searching the pogie schools for bass and more often than not, came out with the skunk.

What I learned is that stripers have a relatively long digestion period. After gorging on a few pogies, they may not eat for 24 hours. So, even though we may have been marking fish, they were not eating. The plan we figured out was to jump pogie schools very often to find a school of bass that hadn’t filled up already. We often spent no more than five minutes on one school before moving on. Schools being split up or moving erratically were indicators of pogies with bass under them.

It still took time, but we had some of our best days ever around the Three Bays when the pogie schools were in town. That is until the bluefish showed up.

Fish when you can

There are lots of factors to consider when you get deep in the striper sauce. Things get complicated when you consider tidal stage, moon phase, water temperature, prevalence of bait, atmospheric pressure and the myriad of other factors that wholly or barely affect whether a striper is going to eat or not, depending on what you believe.

But it can be easy to fall into a mindset where you only fish when conditions are perfect. Sometimes, it works. Other times, when it doesn’t pan out, it can feel even worse.

So here’s what I learned this year: If you can get out for an hour to make a few casts, do it. It can often be helpful to find a fishy spot, tie on your confidence lure, forget everything you learned and just simplify your approach. If, on a windless, muggy, Sunday afternoon, in between moon cycles at slack tide, you have a few hours to head out and fish the pogie schools, you should, because it will probably be the best day of fishing you’ll have that season.

But new moon is still king

However, if there’s one condition that I consider to be “must-fish” it’s the new moons. You already know this to be the fishiest times of the year. But this season just solidified the revelation for me. June new moon had big bass feeds around the East End and Billingsgate, as well as around the West End of the Canal. The July and August new moons were some of our best days in the Three Bays around the pogie schools. While the June new moon is the one we circle, the July new moon has consistently produced our largest bass for the past three seasons.

The new moon just seems to pull the bass in and up. You can pretty much set your watch by a topwater feed. Get out there during these moon phases.

Throw a spook or a weighless soft plastic

This was the year of the spook for me. Jumpin’ Minnows, Heddon Super Spooks and Skitter Walks consistenly caught fish when other lures wouldn’t catch. Docs of course were essential in June when the big bass were blitzing on herring and mackerel.

But when fishing around structure, especially shallow structure, a spook or a weightless sot plastic, like a 6″ Hogy or Albie Snax, consistently got blind strikes. I learned to change up retrieve and speed to trigger unwilling bass.

Fish flies and sinking lures low and slow or deaddrifted

When there aren’t active baitfish present, stripers will be grubbing on lobsters, shrimp and crabs along the bottom. This is especially true around structure points like deep channels, around drop offs, in boulder fields, and on tidal flats.

Here’s what I learned: Keeping a clouser or a Brackish Flies-tied Grim Reaper close to the bottom, and just barely moving it, would trigger strikes from bass, even if the tide wasn’t moving. This is also true for swim shads and lead head soft plastics. Take your time on the retrieve. You don’t have to be reeling to trigger a strike.

Don’t be afraid to take the ‘L’

As you find success in this thing, it can be easy to just stick to what you know produces. Once you get used to finding bass consistently, it can be tough to pull away. Don’t leave fish to find fish, on a macro level, in a way.

But you’ll never get any better if you don’t take a risk. Try new spots, new tide cycles, new techniques, even if it means you’ll take the skunk. This season, some of the spots around the Three Bays that used to produce on specific tides seemed to dry up. This forced me to try new spots across the Bay.

In general, I really branched out this season, fishing new areas around the Vineyard, Buzzards Bay, and around Billingsgate. While we weren’t always successful, and it was sometimes frustrating to not be dialed in to these specific spots, it was exciting to be in the “figure it out” mode again. And on a few occasions, we did very well at these new locations.

What were some of your takeaways from this season? Let’s hear them. Email us sevenstripesfishing@gmail.com.

Billy Mitchell

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