Major League Fishing

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As our electric trolling motor moved us along the thick edge of Jamaica Bay’s cordgrass-covered sod banks, I couldn’t help but marvel at all the life that surrounded us on this windless spring morning. Small crabs scurried into low-tide holes; grass shrimp dimpled the surface; schools of Atlantic silverside spooked around the boat; and Atlantic menhaden schooled up in big herds just on the other side of the drop-off. A great blue heron extended above a field of marsh grass on our left, moving in deliberate slow motion, occasionally piercing the water with its beak and coming up with something wiggly and shiny.

We were throwing small Yo-Zuri Swimmers up against the sod banks and slowly swimming them back in about 3 feet of water. But with a quick flip, I tossed the plug in the other direction so I could attend to the trolling motor. I looked down for a second to engage the motor when I heard a violent explosion in the water. I looked up to see my plug had disappeared. Instinctively setting the hook, I was into a nice bass as it thrashed about the surface, unsure of what had just happened. When the fish figured it out, it was off to the races as the drag screamed and line melted off the reel. After a 10-minute tug of war, the fish was beat, and I reached down to lip a fat 20-pound bass, its purplish iridescent flanks reflecting off sun in a way that made me feel particularly happy to be alive.

I am drawn to the salt marsh because of the extraordinary angling opportunities it offers. The abundance of wildlife, the isolation and the serenity such environments provide make the experience of fishing for stripers much more interesting. But many Northeast anglers overlook salt-marsh areas, choosing to focus their efforts on traditional deep-water striped bass habitat. However, the Northeast’s many estuaries and intricate networks of salt marshes provide some of the best striper fishing on the East Coast. This is not surprising, considering Northeast salt marshes are among the most productive ecosystems on earth.

Suspended between dry land and open water, the often-submerged grasses provide habitat for numerous invertebrate and fish species. The detritus left by dying grasses produces a rich organic substrate that fuels the entire marine food chain.

Marshes further serve as important nurseries for bait and juvenile sport fish. In other words, there are many things in the marsh system for stripers and other predators to eat.

Consider this in light of the fact that most salt-marsh habitats in the Northeast have been dredged and channelized to make way for boat traffic and other development. This has definitely created its own set of problems, but it has also made these areas more attractive to big predators that need the security of deeper water. The combination of this natural crustacean and baitfish habitat in the shallow water, adjacent to sometimes drastic drop-offs where the depth dips 20 feet in the space of a few yards, results in wonderful opportunities for stripers to come out of the deep and feed in shallow water. This can provide anglers with an optimum situation to target these predators.

Grass shrimp and a spring awakening

As the ice melts and the cordgrass begins to turn green, the marsh comes alive. The action begins in most areas of the Northeast from mid-April to early May. It does so because of the prolific grass-shrimp hatches that occur in the salt marsh during this month, as well as the influx of Atlantic menhaden.

But, it’s the grass shrimp that fuel the first striper bite. Because these tiny crustaceans feed on detritus, algae and dead plant material, they exist in dense numbers in this sort of habitat. Although these critters are year-round inhabitants in Northeast marsh systems, their eggs hatch in mass very early in the spring, resulting in thousands of them populating relatively small, shallow mudflats. There are a few different species of grass shrimp native to Northeast marshes, but they all hold one trait in common – they are abundant under the right circumstances. Once the water temperature gets to be in the high 40s, expect to see grass shrimp flourish, particularly on a sunny day.

In early spring, the first fish tend to be on the small side, ranging from 20 to 26 inches, but it’s not uncommon to find a few larger fish in the mix. The best areas to begin targeting these early season stripers are the shallow, dark, mud-bottom flats, as these areas tend to warm quickly when exposed to the sun. Fortunately, because of the decaying grass and the resulting peat deposits, many mudflats in Northeast marshes do, in fact, have dark-bottom characteristics.

When early season bass are eating grass shrimp, they do so subtly. They roll on the bait instead of boiling or crashing on it. Because these fish are not as aggressive as you might find them to be later in the season, and because grass shrimp can be so numerous, using small grass-shrimp imitations can be a futile exercise. The odds of getting a small artificial offering noticed amongst casually feeding stripers sucking down bunches of the real thing are pretty low. Furthermore, because of snow melt and runoff in these nutrient-rich waters, you can expect April to be a month of murky water and poor visibility.

Experienced anglers trigger aggressive responses from early season stripers with commotion-causing poppers. Gags Grabbers of about 4 inches and 3/4 ounces are a favorite for this. The sheer noise-making properties will annoy a striper into striking. Bright-colored plugs like Red Fins and Bombers in the 4-inch range worked very slowly just below the surface can also produce. Expect grass shrimp to be numerous well through May.

Bunker and big bass in the spring

Adult Atlantic menhaden (locally called mossbunker or pogies) arrive in mid-April, generally around the same time the grass-shrimp hatch occurs. Marsh grasses that have decomposed into detritus create high nutrient levels, which, in turn, create large concentrations of phytoplankton and algae blooms in the marsh. Bunker are filter-feeders, and because they feed on these blooms, they gravitate into salt marshes in large numbers. This is big bait, however, ranging from 9 to 14 inches, and most Northeast salt marshes don’t see stripers large enough to eat them this early in the season. Toward the later part of April and into May, this changes as large, sometimes huge, stripers begin to flood into the marsh to take advantage of the copious schools. While concentrations of bunker are mostly found on the surface over deeper water, they are often chased up into the shallow marsh flats. This is the time of year when you are most likely to get a 30-pound-plus fish in shallow water.

Fly anglers target these big fish in the marsh by casting 9-inch broad, thick flies on 10- and 11-weight rods. People employing light spinning gear have a good amount of success fishing 7-inch shad-type baits like the Storm Wild Eye or the Tsunami version.

Atlantic menhaden stick around in Northeast salt marshes through June and thin out considerably by July. Once into the later part of June, it gets very hard to entice a big striper into eating anything artificial, and they prefer chunk bait to live ones. Bunker don’t go much farther north than Connecticut. In northern salt marshes, herring take the place of bunker, and this big-bait influx can be fished just like the menhaden one.

Summer doldrums?

Many consider July and early August to be the doldrums. Because there isn’t as much of a fast-moving current and the bulk of salt marshes are shallow, they warm to the point where it becomes uncomfortable for striped bass to remain. To some extent, this is true, and the big fish tend to leave during this time period and are replaced by big, mean, toothy bluefish that prowl the marsh flats. Many folks don’t care to target bluefish because they lack the eating qualities of a striped bass – not to mention they destroy plugs, jigs and flies, and they cut line with their razor-sharp teeth. But they are worth mentioning here because they are tremendous fighters, especially when hooked in just a couple feet of water. They often jump and tail-walk just like a tarpon and scream across a flat when hooked.

Still, however, there will be smaller stripers around during the summer months. They seem to prefer the winding networks of shallow creeks that snake though the inside of the marsh. These creeks hold an abundance of worms, shrimp and small crabs, as well as small baitfish. In the dawn hours at low tides, one can witness these bass feeding in less than a foot of water, rooting in the mud while their tails flop on the surface. It can be a pretty neat thing to see when they do this – dozens of tails flapping on the surface of very shallow water. Because these creeks are shallow and very tide-dependant, working them on an incoming tide will ensure you don’t get stuck a mile into one with no way out.

While these fish are usually in the 14- to 24-inch range, with the occasional 28-incher in the mix, they can be a lot of fun when fished with ultralight spinning gear. Fishing them with 6- and 7-weight fly rods can also be a blast.

Any striper, no matter what the size, fights like the dickens when hooked in shallow water. Small chartreuse and white Clousers work well for these fish. Poppers can provide some fun surface action as well. Four-inch pearl or chartreuse Slug-Gos fished on a weedless hook without any weight can be very effective in these situations.

A productive fall

Early fall is marked by extraordinary numbers of juvenile menhaden (aka peanut bunker). These new of-the-year menhaden hatch and flood out of the creeks and coves creating all sorts of action. The bluefish are the first to take advantage of all this bait, but the stripers are not far behind. The bait becomes denser later in the fall, and more stripers show up to feed on them.

Peanut bunker will congregate in shallow water, and this can create perhaps the best shallow-water fishing of the year as large blitzes can unfold on marsh flats.

Furthermore, the summer microscopic blooms begin to die off in mid-October, and the winter blooms haven’t taken hold yet. This can create one of the only times of the year when conditions allow for clearwater sight-fishing in the marsh. Big stripers push this bait back into shallow marsh areas and aggressively feed in crystal-clear water. When it is really going off, it can be quite a spectacle.

Other baits like bay anchovies and silversides fuel feeding frenzies that occur in the marsh. While hard to believe, pelagic fish like false albacore and green bonito can be caught in Northeast salt marshes in September. Because there are such large concentrations of silverside and other small bait in these bays, they will occasionally come in to feed. I’ve seen false albacore blitzing schools of bait in as little as 3 feet of water. Catching them is extremely difficult, however, and requires quite a bit of luck. These fish move so fast that getting close to them and getting a cast off before they are gone is close to impossible. Having a fly or a small tin in the water when they happen to come by is about the only way to get a hook-up.

Stripers are priming for their migration during this time of the year, so they are very aggressive. In October and November, when stripers are really on the feed, just about anything works, but poppers fished on light tackle are very effective and provide some heart-stopping strikes. Nine-inch Slug-Go’s seem to account for many of the larger fish, though. Bucktail jigs fished in the marsh’s deeper spots also work well, as their profile is very similar to a peanut bunker’s. Fly anglers using intermediate lines and 3- to 4-inch broad-profile flies do well, sometimes taking fish in the high 20-pound range. This is also a good time to fish foam poppers on a floating line.

By mid- to late November, herring may make an appearance, in which case the stripers that remain will be there for the sole reason that there is big bait around. Because of a herring’s long, slender profile, those large soft-plastic jerkbaits are deadly when bait is around. Expect to catch some of your biggest fish during this time of the year in the marsh.

In conclusion

Without a doubt, the many salt marshes of the Northeast are productive environments for fish and fishermen – yet their importance stretches quite a bit further. They act as massive filters, removing tide-driven silt, sediments and toxins from storm-water runoff and breaking down pollutants into less harmful forms. They also act as a buffer, absorbing large volumes of water associated with wave action from storm surges, thus minimizing the impacts of flooding and erosion to nearby upland communities.

However, in this part of the world, as well as others, there are serious problems with these ecologically rich areas. Thousands of acres of tidal marsh have been, and are being, drained or filled to provide space for industrial sites, housing developments, garbage dumps, highways, etc. The marshes that remain are naturally deteriorating at astounding rates, with some losing many acres per year because of human-caused factors such as dredging and channelization. Little money is available for remediation.

Tidal wetlands are under constant threat by those who have no understanding or appreciation of what salt marshes provide. Keep your ear to the ground and let politicians and other decision-makers know you wish to keep them intact.

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