Striped bass fishing is not an activity for those with addiction issues.
The true striper faithful never fully recover from losing their minds during the season. The off-season is essentially one long hangover waiting for spring migration’s sweet relief.
When it arrives, personal and professional responsibility become something akin to suggestions. They’ll commonly travel hundreds of miles to popular and obscure spots to fish, shitty weather is a non-issue, and the only hours on the clock that matter are incoming, outgoing, slack high, and slack low.
The shared jones of striper fanatics and Phish fans for hitting the road to catch spring/summer tour dates is truly uncanny.
The striped bass is a beloved and iconic mid-Atlantic and New England inshore fish. Haunting the East Coast from May through November, the fish migrate from warm southern climes to colder northern waters to spawn.
Their presence pumps blood back into the coast and its communities after they’ve been mercilessly battered for months by winter.
The fight of a hot striper, whether you’re standing on a jetty, in the surf, or on the bow of a boat, is like a mainline shot of adrenaline. The battle feels primal — like it’s for keeps.
And if you get the chance to throw a fly or lure into a blitzing mass of bass that is chomping on baitfish with wheeling birds overhead, you’d better have your dukes up.
While their numbers are declining from years of poor fisheries management, these fish evoke a protective nature in anglers and conservationists unlike any other. Even the saltiest surfcaster or grizzled boat captain treats a striper they’ve landed with reverence.
To better understand why these fish have the following they do, let’s start with a look at what makes them tick.
Striped Bass, Striper, Rockfish, or Linesider
The Morone saxatilis, aka striped bass, striper, rockfish, or linesider, is native to the East Coast from the St. Lawrence River in Canada to St. John’s River in Florida and in the Gulf of Mexico from Florida to Louisiana.
They were stocked in California in 1879 and then again in 1882 and have thrived there ever since. Stripers are now found along the West Coast and in inland lakes and reservoirs from Mexico to British Columbia.
Striped bass are fish with big shoulders. They have stout bodies with seven to eight namesake horizontal stripes from their gills to their tail. Depending on the abundance of forage fish and habitat health, they can grow to 5 feet in length, weigh almost 80 pounds, and live up to 30 years.
Stripers migrate north in the spring to their spawning grounds in coastal rivers. The Chesapeake Bay spawning and nursery areas produce the majority of migratory Atlantic striped bass, with the Delaware and Hudson Rivers contributing a large number as well.
Fish remain in coastal estuaries for two to four years before joining the migratory population. At that point, the males are sexually mature. Females mature between 4 and 8 years old.
Striped bass in their larval stage feed on zooplankton until they get big enough to start scarfing down insect larvae, small crustaceans, mayflies, and other larval fish. Of course, as juveniles, they’re considered food by bluefish and other coastal species.
Once they’re adults, they’re voracious meat eaters, crushing almost any kind of small fish as well as crabs, shrimp, and squid. Their predators at this stage in their lives are primarily seals and sharks.
Best Striper Venues
MONTAUK, NEW YORK
There’s a reason that Montauk is a striper fishing mecca. As the easternmost point of Long Island, aka The End, every striped bass that has a spawning destination north of the lighthouse will pass Montauk’s boulder-strewn shores.
There is plenty of access along the shoreline in general, but Montauk Point State Park has parking and acts as a pre-show festival as waves of striper enthusiasts ebb and flow. Anglers can use fly and conventional tackle and live bait in the rips from the shore. The same goes for fishing from a boat, which gives anglers better access to blitzes of fish that might be out of reach from the beach.
If you go, make sure you stop by a local shop for the most up-to-date intel and hot flies or lures:
CHATHAM, CAPE COD, MASSACHUSETTS
Chatham is situated on the elbow of Cape Cod, which sticks out into the Atlantic like, well, an elbow. Much like Montauk, this is another location where piles of fish have to swim around as they move further up the coast.
Start at Chatham Lighthouse Beach and roam miles of shoreline as the tides move fish in and out of Pleasant Bay. Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge is also accessible from Lighthouse Beach and a great spot to target stripers. Plan on some exploring since there are endless inland and shoreline opportunities within minutes of Chatham.
Check in with the shops in the area before you head out to find out where the fish are and what they’re eating.
CAPE MAY, NEW JERSEY
Cape May is the perfect spot to intercept spring-run stripers. Fish leaving Delaware Bay swim near the beaches as they round Cape May Point, so surf fishing is target-rich. Live bait, minnow imitations, and streamers will all hunt.
Poverty Beach is a 2 1/2-mile sand spit on the south side of Cape May, and it’s a popular spot for surfcasters to dunk bait for big stripers during the spring migration. In the fall, get on a boat for your best chance at big stripers following bunker schools into Delaware Bay.
When you go, talk to some of the local pros for the latest intel.
- Jim’s Bait and Tackle – Cape May
- Hand’s Too Bait and Tackle – Cape May
- Off the Hook Bait and Tackle – Lower Township
CHESAPEAKE BAY, MARYLAND / VIRGINIA
The Chesapeake Bay is the nursery for somewhere between 70 and 90% of the striped bass found along the Atlantic Coast. They’re known as rockfish in the Chesapeake Bay region. In the spring, the fish will push up to the mouth of the Susquehanna River as the water warms on the flats. During the summer, you’ll want to fish deeper water. When fall arrives, so do the bigger fish as they head into the bay to feast on menhaden and other forage fish before continuing their migration south.
There must be a thousand tackle and fly shops surrounding the Chesapeake — many of which are big box stores. Here are a few locals to at least get you started.
- Tyler’s Tackle Shop and Crab House – Chesapeake Beach, Maryland
- Lee’s Bait Shop – Chester, Maryland
- District Angling – Arlington, Virginia
DELAWARE BAY, DELAWARE
Delaware Bay is bordered inland by the states of Delaware and New Jersey up to the mouth of the Delaware River. There are plenty of schoolies (2- to 3-pound fish) that push into the tidal tributaries. Bigger fish (10–20-pound range) are off the coast in the bay proper.
Cape Henlopen is pretty much the mirror of Cape May, so it’s a great spot to hit. The larger stripers come through the bay in the fall. Big bass can be caught with bucktails or eels in the rips, but cut bunker is your best bet.
SACRAMENTO RIVER, CALIFORNIA
Of course, we can’t leave out the West Coast. When the Sacramento starts running more turbid in the spring, that’s the green light for stripers to run upstream. The river is full of areas with clam beds and other holding water.
When the stripers are in, Knights Landing and Colusa are said to be some of the best spots for them since hundreds of thousands of stripers make their way to this area to spawn before returning to the sea.
That being said, during the spring spawning season, there’s good fishing as far north of Sacramento as Princeton.
Striped Bass Gear
When it’s on, skinny water striper fishing is spot-and-stalk nirvana. Whether they’re cruising, actively feeding, or just holding in an area, casting to your target and getting to watch it eat (or not) will get the blood pumping. A mid-length, medium-fast spinning rod is best for flats fishing on foot or from a skiff with conventional gear, and doing so will keep you locked and loaded for tight quarters or longer shots.
Skinny water combo:
PENN Fierce III Spinning Combo — $114.99 – $134.99
INSHORE / BOAT
Fishing from a boat puts you in bigger water, which invariably puts you in the living room of bigger fish. You’re going to want a rod that will punch your lures into the wind or send them to longer distances and deeper water with ease. Likewise, it has to have a backbone for battling the fish that wants to take you straight down to the bottom.
Solid Inshore/Boat combo:
PENN Battle III/Offshore Angler Inshore Extreme Spinning Combo — $219.98 – $239.98
FISHING THE SURF
Not all surf fishing is the same. Sometimes it’s monster waves and ankle-breaking boulders; other times, it’s dead-calm bays from the sand.
For those back bays and even some jetty fishing where you’re pitching 1-ounce lures or smaller, you want a rod that will give you some finesse and distance. A medium-fast rod will allow you to reach out to the deeper troughs off the beach and not feel like you’re waving a tree branch around all day.
Lighter surf combo:
PENN Pursuit IV/Ugly Stik Bigwater Surf Spinning Combo — $109.99
For heavier surf, you’re going to want a longer rod with a good backbone for hucking heavier lures or bait and weight. The longer length will translate into the distance you need to cast out past the breaking waves and to the cruising or blitzing fish.
Heavy surf combo:
Offshore Angler Breakwater Surf Spinning Rod and Reel Combo — $196.98
If you’re going to fly fish for stripers, you need to make sure you’re comfortable casting in a lot of wind and with weighted fly lines. Unless you find a unicorn day, you will be facing some sort of breeze and will have to adapt to fish water that could be 1 foot deep or 20 feet deep. Fly casting all day in pretty much any saltwater locale will work you over — make no mistake about it.
To give you the best all-around chance on the water, you’re going to want a fast-action 9-foot 9-weight. That will give you enough ass to fight through the wind and handle the weight of a sink-tip fly line or leader; it will also be light enough for stalking around in skinny marshes making quieter casts to cruising fish when the tide is heading out or coming in.
Of course, there are exceptions on the lighter and heavier ends of the rod weight spectrum; 7- and 8-weight rods are deadly if you’re strictly stalking flats for schoolies, and 10-weight rods are righteous if you’ve got a herd of giants blitzing bait.
Before You Head Out on Tour
Yes, the beauty of dropping everything and following the striper migration is the freedom and spontaneity of it all — but your ass will quickly be in a sling if you don’t do some planning ahead of time.
Because stripers are still overfished, and they transcend so many different boundaries — state-to-state and between state and federal — there are a lot of regs, licenses, and permits that you are going to need to fish legally. All the pertinent rules can be found on each state’s fish and game website, and you can purchase everything online, too. Get yourself lined up before you hit the road.
There’s some additional gear that will make your striper fishing life a lot easier:
- If you’re fly fishing, purchase a stripping basket for your fly line. You don’t want all of your loose line tangled around your feet or in sharp rocks when that giant takes your fly and runs.
- Boot spikes for slick rocks. This should be self-explanatory.
- Boga Grips are a great tool for securing fish if you don’t have a net. Just don’t hoist them out of the water by the grip alone.
- Clip a pair of forceps on your jacket collar or pack. You’ll want them if you hook a fish deep and can’t get at it with your fingers. Bass will chew your digits raw.
- Nets are definitely worthwhile whether you’re fishing solo or with a buddy. They make fish handling and unhooking a whole lot quicker and easier. Attach a D-ring to the handle so you can just clip it to the back of your wading belt or pack.
- A daypack/backpack is a must. Not only will it carry extra boxes of lures, flies, other tackle, or rain gear, you can pack snacks and water, too. Don’t forget the water.
- If you fish at all, you know the importance and value of polarized sunglasses.
Whether you’re going to make one epic run to Montauk or go totally dirtbag for a month or more following the migration, you’ll have a hell of a lot more fun if you do a little homework before you go. After all, nobody likes a bad trip.