With August usually comes the arrival of peanut bunker, here’s how to capitalize on this baitfish in the surf.
If all goes according to schedule, sometime in mid-August huge schools of peanut bunker will start moving along the shores of southern New England. They will transform the oceanfront from the summer doldrums to a sea of life and excitement. On their tails will be a variety of hungry predators in a frenzy to feed up before the fall migration. These peanut bunker schools attract a hit parade of predators, which includes stripers, bluefish, albies, and bonito. The peanuts should touch off a pre Labor Day bonanza of fishing that will continue and stretch out way into late fall.
Last year’s peanut bunker invasion and the blitzes it touched off started earlier than normal and that could happen again this year. During the first and second week of August I began to find huge amounts of bait along the Narragansett, RI shoreline. On just about every outing I found large, dark areas of water moving along the shoreline; an indication that big schools of bait were there. Frequently I’d find birds diving and masses of stripers breaking. It sometimes even happened right around swimming vacationers in the water along several of the beaches.
You’d think it would be easy pickings for fishermen to catch when finding feeding stripers. Some days it’s easy as the fish attack any offering, but more often than not, when stripers are feeding on tons of easy to get peanut bunker, they can get mighty fussy as they key on the real thing. The warm water at this time also contributes to the predator’s fussiness. While there is no silver bullet to attach to the end of your line when fussy predators are on peanut bunker, there are a number of lures and plugs that can increase the effectiveness of your fishing.
Look Below the School
Keep in mind that feeding predators are often under the schools of peanut bunker. They attack the schools from below for the most part. Therefore, some sort of jig or plug that drops down below the surface becomes an effective lure especially when the peanuts are on the small size. In deep water, I tend to start off with a homemade flathead jig. It’s got that flat shape like a peanut bunker, and if you add a curly tail to it, the lure swims with a fluttering tail action like a peanut bunker. You might need to change the size of your jig depending on wind and surf conditions and how far you need to cast to reach the fish. I carry bucktail jigs that vary in size from a half ounce to an ounce and a half.
In shallow, rocky areas, I might fish that jig off a homemade wooden egg float. With 2-1/2 to 3 feet of heavy mono (30- to 40-pound test) coming off the float to which the jig is attached, your offering tracks a few feet below the surface on the retrieve. In shallow areas, that is just enough to get the lure below the bait and to the feeding stripers and blues. In addition, that float allows the surfcaster to make a booming cast, something that can be advantageous when the fish and bait are out far.
If you are not into using bucktail jigs, you can substitute plastics in the applications described above. Such offerings such as shad bodies on jigheads, Cocahoe minnows on jigheads and Storm shads are just a few offerings that are effective when stripers are on peanuts. Note that blues are a problem when using plastics as they will often cut your lures. The bucktail jig is a better choice when there is a mix of stripers and bluefish around.
Plug ‘em Up
Plugs can also be effective. Last year I hit an interesting situation. For a couple of weeks we had large peanut bunker around. These were peanuts in the 4- to 6-inch range. My son Jon and I turned to some of our Cape Cod Canal favorites to score some larger fish that seemed to key on the larger offerings. One effective lure was a Sebile Stick Shadd. This was a dead ringer for large peanut bunker, and that Ghostescent color was deadly. We also did well with Sebile Magic swimmers in a 6-inch length. We used the sinking models in both these lures to get under the schools of bait. In a two-night stretch of fishing after dark, these lures accounted for a dozen small keepers that were feeding on peanut bunker in one of the local outflows. I also used these bigger plugs along Rhode Island’s south shore beaches again later in the fall and seemed to catch bigger fish.
I know a lot of fishermen like to use topwater plugs. Will they work when the stripers are on peanut bunker? The answer is “yes,” at times. I find that when the stripers have the peanuts pinned in very close to shore or in very shallow water, there is little room to drop a jig. In those situations topwater plugs are effective. I also find that topwater plugs such as spook type lures are more effective than traditional poppers. My favorite topwater plug is a Rebel Jumpin’ Minnow in a bone or blueback color. These plugs will dance and dart on the surface when twitching the rod tip vigorously and seem to draw the attention of even finicky stripers. Other pointy nosed lures such as Super Spooks and Yo-Zuri Hydro pencils also work well in this situation.
I’ve also seen instances over the years when someone comes along casting a huge plug that looks nothing like a peanut bunker. Sometimes, they are able to get a big fish to hit their large offering. I’ve seen many times those who use large traditional poppers, pencil poppers and even large wooden swimmers can score a large, aggressive fish. However, those large plugs often do not consistently score when peanut bunker are around.
Finally, keep in mind that you might find bonito or false albacore (albies) feeding with the stripers and blues when peanut bunker are around. These pelagic fish are different animals and often do not play by the striper rules. While they will sometimes hit all of the above mentioned plugs, these fish can be super fussy. I like to carry an “albie bag of tricks” with me for those times when they are around. Such lures as a wooden egg float and Deceiver fly, skinny metal like Kastmaster XLs, and Albie Snax are all good choices to snap on when the finicky pelagics are around. Note that your chances of catching albies and bonito are much better from the boat than from shore because these fish tend to favor deeper water.
If all goes according to plan, the peanut bunker invasion should arrive sometime in August; expect it to transform the slow summer fishing. Realize that no one method of fishing and no one lure often does the job when stripers and other predators are feeding on peanuts. The fish can be fussy when the plate is full in front of them, and you might need to try a variety of lures before finding the best offering. What works one day might not work the next. Stock your surf bag of tricks with lots of offerings, and be ready for some of the most exciting action of the year!