Ocean Trolling For Stripers
by Dr. Julie Ball
The world-famous striped bass fishery splitting the seams of the waters bordering the Chesapeake Bay is certainly a phenomenon to be reckoned with. East coast anglers can’t resist the enticement of the bold strike and scuffle offered by the legendary striped bass. So, as the frenzied bay season squeaks to a halt on the 31st of the year, rockfish hunters will rush to the open waters of the Atlantic Ocean hoping to jump-start the New Year by intercepting the big ocean fish as they migrate down the coast for winter. Most won’t be disappointed, for these brutes are usually true to form, making their yearly venture punctually with little variation in their schedule. Look for these colossal fish to transit southward along the coast from New England toward the end of December and through at least mid-January as they journey on down to the warmer waters off the coast of North Carolina. Many anglers do not even bother targeting bay fish, opting for the predictable and effective ocean trolling methods used by the big rockfish experts for years.
Although new products become available each season, and trends come and go, the basics of the ocean trolling technique have not changed much. With all that said, I field more questions addressing ocean trolling for rockfish more than most any other fishing method. The basic striped bass ocean trolling techniques presented here will help jump-start any beginner to a trophy-catching level in no time. As you develop your own preferences and find variations that work for you, you can incorporate them into your personal striped bass trolling repertoire.
When and Where:
Although the coastal striped bass migration is in full swing by the end of December, many anglers will hit the coastline well before the close of the bay season with good results. Depending on the severity of the winter weather, and how quickly the temperature drops, ocean fish can sometimes be targeted into February. But once the water cools below 42 degrees, hits will become sparse and unpredictable, as many fish head south and out past the 3-mile limit to deeper water. If you don’t want to be the recipient of a hefty ticket bestowed by your friendly Coast Guard patrol, resist the urge to follow these fish beyond that 3-mile mark.
Stripers are pretty much everywhere along the ocean front, but most anglers will search for hints of actively feeding fish to up their chances of a strike. The winter-time visiting bird called the gannet, as well as local seagulls, can be a very good indicator of fish feeding on bait. The birds will circle and dive, often by the thousands, on the fish’s leftovers, creating the perfect calling-card for a striped bass blitz. These grand displays from our fine feathered friends are often so prominent that striped bass anglers will refer to them as “beehives.” Try to stay on the outside edge of these working birds, if you run right into the middle of them, you may scatter the fish, and end a really great bite. But, if no birds are on the horizon during your initial scan, you can either run to search for them, or choose to watch for changes in the composition of the ocean floor. Heading for nearby structure can also be a good choice. The most successful ocean striper hang-outs will include natural shoals and drop-offs, man-made channels, buoy markers, rock piles, wrecks, as well as natural points jutting from land. Also keep an eye on your bottom machine for indications of baitfish, which is most likely menhaden. More often than not, where there is bait, there are fish. The bait can present on your screen from small scattered pods to large acres of bait, displaying a solid or blacked-out screen. Very often, the actual fish will appear as marks as well. These marks are usually recognized as multiple individual hash marks or small clusters. When you see these fish, take note of their depth and position on your chart so you can adjust the depths of your lures, and circle back if necessary. Remember, if no birds, bait, or fish are noted, that does not necessarily mean there are no fish. I have caught some of my largest trophies with no indications of rockfish for miles.
When in an ocean trolling situation, you can’t have too many rod holders and rocket launchers. Pulling six or more rods is not uncommon, but a good starting point is a combination of four to five boat rods. String conventional-style reels with about 30-pound monofilament, braided line, and 60-pound wire. These combos should be appropriate to handle the stress of trolling somewhat heavy tackle and fighting up to 50-pound class fish.
A mixture of a few different lures is a good idea, as the fish’s preference can vary. To start, I recommend a simple combination of three different types of lures, then vary and change the mix to your preference. A good first choice of lure for your inventory is a lipped swimming plug such as the popular Stretch 30 by Mann, the broken back Jawbreaker by Rebel, or the Hydro Magnum by Yozuri. Choose a few to your liking, keeping in mind that the most popular colors are chartreuse, red and white, or chartreuse and green.
Secondly, one of the hottest new trends, as well as a very effective bait system, is the umbrella rig adorned with multiple shads which imitates a small pod of bait. A few of these added to your ocean striper trolling spread can be deadly. There are many different styles and sizes of umbrella rigs to choose from. Lately, the weighted lure, “mojos,” or ball-style jigs, have become extremely popular, and is the third type of lure system I recommend to round out a well-balanced ocean trolling collection. To set up an effective ball jig system, begin with a ball jig or “mojo” weighing on the hefty side, such as 32 to 48 ounces. These jigs come in a wide range of variations, such as round or cylindrical shapes, jointed varieties, and some are topped off with hair and even “eyes.” Thread the hook of the jig with a plain chartreuse, white, pearl, or pearl and black 9 to 12-inch shad, for a combination no striper can resist. Attach the jig to a sturdy 3-way swivel using a 3-4 foot dropper of about 80-pound test monofilament line. On an eight to ten-foot leader of the same test, fasten a trailing lure such as a 6 to 9-inch pre-rigged shad offered by several manufacturers such as Storm, Tsunami, or Calcutta. Other good choices of trailers include soft grubs, or medium to large alewives spoons (which are especially handy when bluefish abound).
Your local tackle shop can be helpful getting you set up with your trolling spread and color selections. Be aware this tackle can be pricey, but the initial investment is usually the largest, with occasional replacements and supplementation required as the season progresses.
With a 5-rod setup, begin by placing one of the lipped diving lures on a wire or braided line with a firm drag, and let it out as far as possible, down the center, while still maintaining control of the line. This will allow the lure to swim at its maximum depth while keeping it well out of danger of entangling your other lines. Next, place an umbrella rig on either mono (with an inline sinker) or a wire-line, in the port or starboard outwardly-directed rod holder and let it back a good ways to be your second farthest line. For your third placement, again on either wire or mono, stagger another lipped swimming plug or a spoon with an inline sinker, in the opposite rod holder just short enough to avoid tangling with the umbrella rig. Once you verify these are pulling in an acceptable pattern, deploy a ball jig with about a 10-foot trailer on wire utilizing the most streamlined rod holder on either the left or right side of the boat. Drop this jig directly behind the boat until it hits the bottom, and then some, then set the drag firmly. The last lure is another ball-style jig on wire with an eight-foot leader, placed on the opposite side, in the same manner as the last jig. The two “mojo” rigs should bounce lightly on the bottom, or remain lifted just off the bottom, with an occasional bounce. The lipped swimming plugs will usually wiggle and sway slightly back and forth, while the umbrella rigs will simply dip up and down a little.
Once your spread is in place, troll as slowly as your boat and the current will allow, anywhere from about 1 to 3 knots. It is important to observe your spread carefully, adjusting your trolling speed to keep the lures swimming properly, and to verify the weighted jigs are bouncing lightly on the bottom, and to head-off tangled messes. Be sure to make relatively wide turns when changing course in order to avoid crossing your lines. To find the best strike zones, try different trolling patterns such as zigzagging, large circles, and different depths. You can also vary your speed a bit, or bump the boat in and out of gear, as you discover what works best for your situation. You may notice more hits heading in one direction or another, or more with or against the tide, or even at different water temperatures, helping you zero in on the fishes preferences.
As you get the hang of the sea conditions, be sure to interact carefully with the obstacles around you. Keep in mind that other boats are also pulling lines, and at times there can be hundreds of boats trolling within a very small area, making navigating and maneuvering a little tricky.
Consideration for other boats and their spreads will help avoid angry words and yelling matches. In General, a pattern will usually emerge amongst a group of boats, trolling in one direction or another. Your safest bet is to maintain the pattern, and if you must cross the pattern, it should be done with careful consideration.
Other annoying obstacles causing much grief for anglers pulling expensive arrays of striper lures are strategically placed commercial gill nets and conch pots. If caught off guard by these lure-eating devices, wrapping around one or more of them will complicate your spread in a hurry. Gill nets have a smallish buoy sporting a tall flag on one end of the net, and a colored poly ball attached to the other end, with the net out of site. When you find either the flag or the ploy ball, look around for its match, with the net hanging between the two. The conch pot markers are usually small multi-colored buoys tethered to a pot on the bottom, and are often set in rows. With these, where you find one, you will normally find many, so you may as well find another spot to fish.
When a fish hits, you may have to slow up to clear the lines and allow the angler to gain on the fish. Pull in the lines at most risk of tangling with the fish first if possible, then concentrate on the lines closest to the boat. Once you get the hang of it, this process will become second nature.
Keep in mind where the bay delineations and parameters begin, so you don’t wonder too close to illegal waters after the close of the bay season. Also check your regulations, because the striped bass guidelines change yearly, and the ocean regulations differ from the bay and its tributaries.
As you master ocean trolling for striped bass, you will experience the hunt for the biggest of the big as they make their way southward… and they only grow larger each year. You may even land the next state or world record!