If striped bass (Morone saxatilis) aren’t the most popular saltwater gamefish in the United States, they’re certainly close to the top of the list. Stripers are also a favorite among freshwater anglers in fisheries where they’ve been stocked or have established a landlocked population.
Local knowledge always gets you the best advice, but here are some thoughts on where to find the stripers and what to feed them.
Habitat and distribution
In saltwater, stripers live in coastal waters, usually close enough to shore that reelers can target them by surfcasting or using fly rods. They prefer sandy or rocky bottoms with structure that either attracts bait or that the rockfish — another common name for striped bass — can use to ambush passing prey.
Saltwater populations of striped bass are highly migratory. They chase warm water and baitfish, running from the Gulf Coast and Florida to New England and the Gulf of St. Lawrence — California to Washington on the West Coast —in the spring or early summer. They turn around and head south again in the fall and late winter.
Some smaller stripers may not migrate and instead, winter in a single locale.
“I can fish the holdover stripers all winter long. They’re smaller — only 12 to 18 inches — but I get the beach all to myself,” according to Morgan Mattioli, who chases stripers with a fly rod from Cape Cod to the Jersey Shore.
Striped bass will enter brackish water or freshwater to chase baitfish. In freshwater, like their cousins white and yellow bass, stripers suspend over or hide in structure and wait for passing baitfish.
Figuring out where to fish — at least for coastal stripers — is a matter of looking for the right wind, weather, moon, and tidal conditions. On the coast you want to look for moving water.
For example, Mattioli says you want to look for pockets where baitfish may have been trapped by a slack tide. Once the tide starts running, it will sweep the bait over the sandbar — where the stripers are likely waiting to eat.
Sandbar, piling, jetty, fallen trees — salt or freshwater, structure is key.
”Find the structure, figure out the tides, and you’ll catch the stripers,” Mattioli says.
What will they hit?
Stripers are aggressive predators, hitting just about anything that looks edible or pisses them off. Smaller baitfish, like alewives or menhaden, are their dietary staples. Check with a local bait shop or other reelers to find out what the stripers are hitting at that time of year and in the location you’re fishing.
They’re usually not too picky about what they’ll eat. It’s more a question of whether they’ll hit it.
“If you’re fishing and you know you should be getting bites, but you’re not, that’s when you need to change things up,” says Mattioli.
Crab, shrimp, lobster, eels, squid — running stripers need a lot of calories to support their migration, and their aggressive feeding habits make them voracious eaters. You can use live or dead bait, or any of several artificials.
In 2012, an Arkansas reeler caught a 68-pound, freshwater striper on a spinner bait. Many East Coast reelers swear by clams.
Trolling, casting, or bottom fishing from a boat or pier are effective. So is surfcasting and fly fishing.
Mattioli swears by a chartreuse and white Clouser fly in a little shrimp pattern. If that’s not working, she may switch to a half and half, change locations, or as a last resort, try a pink fly.
“And I hate pink,” she says.