Here in the Northeast, rumors have already started to fly: the striped bass are moving in. In some areas of New Jersey, anglers were already reporting catches in early March.
Coastal striped bass movements coincide with the baseball season, with most of the excitement centered around opening day and the fall classic. But in the anticipation and excitement, some people look for spring bass in the wrong places. Or the right places at the wrong times. It never hurts to step back and look at why the fish are migrating in the first place: sex and food.
Most striped bass along the East Coast, over 80 percent in fact, flood north from the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay following the spring spawn. Striped bass spawning activities are keyed by a few factors: increasing daylight, rising angle of the sun, and increasing water temperatures.
When water temps hit the 50s in the Chesapeake, everything gets a kick start. Spawning begins in earnest in mid to late March in the upper freshwater regions of the Chesapeake and continues into June. The Hudson River stock also migrates post spawn, but studies have shown it doesn’t travel farther than Rhode Island.
Wherever they’re coming from, spring migration fish are hungry. They’re following baitfish up the coast and into the mouths of rivers and bays, where the herring and alewives spawn. So, naturally, some of the best places to look for early spring bass are in the backwaters of bays or the mouths of rivers and small tributaries.
As water temperatures along the coast warm up into the mid 40s and head toward 50 degrees, school-sized striped bass in the 16-24 inch range are the first to show up. A quick, unscientific look through my fishing logs shows my first fish of the season for the last 10 seasons has fallen in that size range. The schoolies can feed aggressively, especially in areas with warmer water temperatures. Look for mud flats in shallow water that heat up quickly on a warm day, salt ponds in back marshes, and other areas where the water temperature will be slightly elevated. If those fail, it never hurts to look for unnaturally warm water, such as powerplant outflows, that attract bait and predators alike.
The bigger striped bass charge up the coast a few weeks after the schoolies and also congregate in the river mouths, up on the warmer flats, and along the beaches, particularly if they are in pursuit of migrating bunker. One sign that the big bass are en route: busting bluefish, which usually migrate after the menhaden first. Wherever the menhaden are, something will be following along trying to eat them.
When clocking the big fish, consider that trophy season starts in the Chesapeake Bay in mid-April while the cows are funneling out under the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel and heading up the coast. Here in New York, I’ve typically caught my first bigger fish in Mid-May; plenty of others catch them earlier. Last season, an unusual pattern produced an off-the-charts striper bite in New Jersey and New York in April. My personal best times for big fish have come in late May and early June, particularly around the mouth of a certain tidal river with a sustained baitfish run in that time frame.
The striped bass will continue their assault up the coast and into Maine until summer patterns fall into place. And in the fall, when the baitfish head south again, the migrating bass won’t be far behind.
Pete McDonald writes for Boating, Yachting, and other marine and fishing publications. In the past, he has written for Power & Motoryacht and Salt Water Sportsman, and spent 11 years on staff as a technical editor at Boating. All things considered, at any given moment he would prefer to be fishing.