by Captain Bruce Peters www.sportfishingcapecod.com
It was July 10, the peak of the striper season at Chatham Massachusetts. We were carefully picking our way flag by flag, through the foggy inlet, spotlight in hand, with the last of the outgoing tide. At the bar, the waves were standing up larger than normal with the resistance of the tide running against them. The sound and diesel smell of a long liner we were following wavered and faded, but still lingered in the channel. The blips on the radar screen indicated it and several other larger vessels had made their way safely out the narrow channel ahead of us and were headed eastward. At this time of year, many long liners of this area are targeting the spiny dogfish that migrate northward to the abundant waters of Cape Cod. We cleared the last radar reflector of the channel and turning to the southeast, headed towards the striper grounds.
Outside the breaker line the fog had thinned considerably and we could now make out the lobster pot buoys a couple hundred yards outside us. As the gray light of predawn gave way to the magenta and rose colored horizon, the gulls rose up off the sandbars and like us, headed out to sea for what the day would bring. About a quarter mile away from the Chatham “C” buoy the captain slowed our boat to about half throttle and turned on the bottom sounder. After a few seconds the blue glow of the machine filled the cockpit with its light, registering a brick red line representing the surface, and another thicker one tinged with orange and yellow at the bottom. As we steamed along there were widely scattered blotches and streaks of light blue and yellow in between the two red lines. Our captain explained the light blue areas were the bait fish we sought and the yellow was dogfish. Occasionally we went across marks that were bright red. These were the striped bass that we were looking for. Apparently, the fish under our boat registered differing colors depending on the density of the school or the density of the fish.
The captain alternated between looking at the sounding machine and looking to the eastward as if he was looking for something. When I asked what he was looking for he showed me the high flyers of the lobster trawls that were scattered around us. I was amazed at how many there were and that I hadn’t noticed them before. He explained that he was just looking to see how much tide was running past the stationary buoys in the water. Closer now, I could clearly see the buoy being pulled under the water with the force of the tide, its flag and reflector waving from side to side. The tide was coming from the south and according to the skipper, was slowing down and would soon be slack.
As we headed down to the south towards Monomoy Island’s tip and the rips located there, we noticed the birds. They were black backs and herring gulls mostly, but some terns and smaller laughing gulls were mixed in. There were bass bulging and slurping under them as well. Our sounding machine suddenly began to beep steadily. “Fish ! Fish ! That’s fish “ ! the captain crowed, “Lets get some baits in the water” ! He took the boat out of gear and quickly had a rod in each hand, and was headed for the stern. Lifting a green bucket from the corner of the stern where the scuppers were awash, he popped open the lid and I watched as he held a green scrub pad in his hand. Reaching into the bucket with the pad he waited for a second and then came out of the bucket swiftly with a smallish live eel squirming in his grasp. He hooked the eel under the lower jaw and up and out one of its eyes and dropped it quickly into the water. Picking up the rod he cast the eel straight up into the tide flowing towards us. He then repeated the procedure with the other rod, casting it into the opposite direction. Large sand eels could be seen swimming just under the boat with stripers and dogfish feeding among them. All this time the machine was still beeping regularly, adding to the pandemonium of the moment. By now, I was holding onto my rod not really knowing what to expect. I was watching the slack in the monofilament as it floated on the surface and was getting ready to ask why it wasn’t tight like the other rod when it twitched, twitched again and then started steadily moving out. I reeled up quickly and then set the hook. My reel started buzzing and complaining with the first run of the fish. I reached to tighten the drag and fortunately was stopped in time by the attentive skipper, reminding me that we were only using 12 pound test. Fifteen minutes later, we had the first striper of the day alongside, a beautiful, glistening twenty pounder !
Our second rod did not get hit and we reeled it in and headed back to where we had started the drift. It took us a few minutes of motoring around to find another spot of red on the machine. It was if the stripers had scattered. The birds were also scattered, as if waiting for the bait to come up to the surface. Again we laid out the baits as we drifted along, this time I asked why one was tight and the other not. The skipper explained the bait cast out with the tide was held near the surface by the force of the moving water, the other cast against the tide, moved the line and eel towards the boat. The reduced resistance of this rod enabled the eel to swim deep towards the bottom and under the boat. This rod again twitched and I was ready . I reeled up the slack and in my excitement set the hook so hard I almost fell over. Our skipper looked at me in a concerned way but said nothing as he quickly reeled up the other rod and cast it too up into the tide, hoping for a bite there as well. “This fish is much smaller” ! I declared as I pumped and reeled quite easily. Just then it broke water next to the boat and thrashed on the surface quite loudly. It was a dog fish. It didn’t even have the hook in its mouth, it was just repeatedly bitting on the eel, its jaws snapping wickedly. I lifted the rod tip and the small shark dropped off and slowly circled around looking for the now mangled eel that hung off my leader. Bitten in three or four places, some almost cleanly through, it was clear that this eel wasn’t usable anymore. Our skipper took my rod to put on another live eel, and as I picked up the other pole I had one on immediately. I again was hopeful, but this one felt as small as the last and sure enough, another spiny dogfish, this one was wrapped around itself and the hook was deep in its gullet. I heard the skipper grumble something under his breath I could not make out as he set the other rod down without putting a bait on.
As he worked on untangling and dehooking the writhing dogfish he explained we were all done at this spot. “The tide has slowed too much” he told me, “when the tide slacks, the less streamlined dogfish come off the bottom to feed aggressively and will hit a bait before the bass can find it. We will have to move, to get away from them”. He showed me how to handle the writhing dogfish to calm them down, by firmly grabbing them around the back side of the head at the spot where the gills are. As hand pressure is squeezed at the side of the head and the gills the dogfish stops writhing. This is important as the dogfish have two wicked spikes on the dorsal fins. If the fish sticks one of these slime covered spines into your arm it will be throbbing painfully for hours if not days ! By squeezing the dogfish this way you are able to unhook the fish more safely.
We motored to the south, to get to the other side of the huge area of scattered bait, birds and fish. The first rod produced a bass, the second, a dogfish, then we started again catching only dogfish, although we could still see the bass feeding around and below us. The skipper said he wanted to try something as he disappeared down below. He came out from the foc’stle with a plastic bag full of some strange looking rubber lures similar to lizards and worms for largemouths. First the captain tied on a hook with a molded on weighted head and shank directly to the line. The shank with its special ridges, similar to a ring nail, is threaded into the exact center of the rubber baits’ nose, through the body for about an inch and then out the flat portion of the back with the hook riding up. If the bait isn’t threaded true to center, it will not track properly and may spin in the water or swim sideways. Then he rummaged into the bag and found some minnow shaped rubber baits with forked tails. The assortment of colors was astounding. The white/gold one was threaded on mine and a clear metal flake pattern on the other rod. He asked me to cast it out and not to let it sink, but to reel it in slowly and steadily. I followed his direction and started the slow retrieve. I had turned maybe a dozen cranks when the fish hit. It surprised me as I didn’t really have any confidence in the rubber bait. As he reeled in to help me boat my fish the skipper also hooked up, doubling us up. On the next drift we again hooked into two bass, even though the dogs were still in the area and could be seen following the bass up to the boat. Occasionally I caught dogfish, but only if my retrieve was too slow or I stopped and let it sink to the bottom. I found out the hard way that the bait must not have too large a jighead, or too slow a retrieve, as it will sink too quickly.
The bass kept popping and slurping around us, and I kept casting and catching. The skipper put the spare rod away as I continually caught fish after fish. It was the best day of striper fishing I had ever had. We finally had to quit as the cap had another party, and I reeled in my last catch of the day, a fish smaller than the first, but healthy, bulging with sand eels and looking much like a football, I guess it weighed a good 16 pounds.
It seems that the trick to catching these bass was to use a small enough bait to imitate the sand eels that were in the area. There are times when the bait the fish are feeding on is only 3 inches long. To be able to throw a small imitation any distance at all, you will need some light tackle. We were using light graphite spinning rods with 10 to 12 pound test line. Because of the need to unhook and release many fish, we used a leader of 40 lb test about 18 inches long connected to the main line with a small dark swivel. There was not a snap at the place where the lure is attached as my captain feels it just another something that the fish can spook from. It also seemed important to get above the dogfish that dominated the area and to imitate the sand eels without smelling like bait. Some rubber baits are made with an impregnated smell. We found that this may not be a positive if there are “woofies” in the area. Although there are many varieties of soft plastic lures on the market, we used a lure called the “Fin-S” made by Lunker City. The lure is fantastic in combination with their exclusive jighead with a serrated shank that holds the soft plastic bait on. Any of the different lures that you may select need to be properly matched to the size of the jighead. Using the 6 inch baits, we found that the 3/8 and ½ ounce jig sizes worked best in the top 10 feet of depth, or when the tide was running slowly. As the tide ran faster or the dogs cleared out , giving us access to the bass on the bottom, we used the ¾ and one ounce sizes. Hook sizes range from a 1/0 on the ½ ounce to a 7/0 on the over 1 ounce sizes. If we found bait schools of a smaller size, less weight and a proportionally smaller lure would be used. In that case we would try a 3 or 4 inch lure coupled to a jighead of maybe a ¼ or 3/8 ounce size. We did find however, that the smaller jigheads come with a light diameter wire hook, causing large fish to be lost due to the hook opening up in the fight.
Colors are important and we found that the closest match to the bait fish we observed in the water were the best producers. On a bright day, the sand eels might appear light blue or green, possibly even yellowish. Today we used the lighter shades of clear with flakes, light greens and blues, fishing near the surface. A darker day, having less light entering the water may show the same baitfish as an olive green or motor oil shade. As we fished closer to the bottom, we caught stripers on brighter colors of pink, white, chartreuse and red and orange. Soft plastic or rubber lures are available in a huge variety these days. It seems they are made in an assortment of shapes, sizes colors and scents. Lure shapes can be worm like, or baitfish like with a forked or paddle shaped tail. I have even seen corkscrew tails and legged baits. There are jighead and bait combinations, Carolina rigs, Texas rigs, simple worm on the hook rigs, offset hook rigs, etc. There is no one way to fish these lures, experiment with what you like and see what works for you. If you do catch an occasional bluefish or dogfish, it doesn’t cost the dollar for the ruined live eel, merely 40 cents for the plastic tail, usually it can be rehooked and fished again. When they do get too tattered, throw them in the trash bucket and put on a fresh one. These soft rubber baits really do work, I have seen the proof. You try it, and you too will be telling your friends to “Beat the Dogfish With Rubber” !
Captain Bruce Peters
NOTE: This article and others appeared in On the Water Magazine. Back Issues can be had from the magazines office at Onthewater.com. Click the weblink on my "links" page.