Spring trophy rockfish trolling is highly effective, there's no doubt, but eventually you might grow sick and tired of cranking up thousand-pound umbrella rigs on broomstick-like rods. You wish you could actually feel that fish on the end of your line? Wouldn’t it be great if there was a way to catch trophy sized stripers during the early spring season on light tackle? Counter to what many traditionalists say, there is. The numbers usually are not as great – though occasionally they may be even greater, depending on the conditions each particular season – and you will have to follow a strict pattern of timing the fish. But it’s well worth it, to catch true trophies on 12-pound gear.

big striper on light tackle
This fish took a bunker chunk on the mud flats off Love Point.

Timing the Striper Bite

I’ve maintained catch records going back to the first trophy season when it was re-opened after the moratorium, including each and every trophy striper caught on my boat and my father’s, and it’s documented an astonishing pattern: 65-percent of the trophies caught with the light tackle tactics outlined in this article came during a specific slice of the tide. Twenty percent of the remaining fish were caught in the following hour, and many of the oddball remaining 15-percent came to the hook at sunrise or sunset, which we all know is a time of active feeding for the fish. This remained true across the board, regardless of weather patterns, water temperature and clarity, and variations in the basic technique. During the first decade after the turn of the century this ratio was even tighter (75-15-10), but it’s become a bit more variable since then.

So, what’s this magic time frame? The last 90 minutes of the tidal cycle. The incoming tide beats the outgoing by a slight margin, but both are productive (some seasons one more than the other). The first 60 minutes of the following tidal cycle accounts for the other active, though slower, productive period. Put together, this two and a half hour stretch accounts for 85-percent of the catches. And when this timeframe coincides with sunrise or sunset, you have the very best opportunity to hunt big fish on bait.

Of course, certain variables do have an effect on this form of fishing; more rainfall in the spring generally translates into fewer trophies caught on bait. Clarity, however, is not imperative. Clear water during springs of heavy fresh flow are not as productive as cloudy water during springs of less fresh flow, and fishing in very cloudy water is usually when bait fishing beats out trolling.

Finding the Striper Fishing Hotspot

While I suspect this methodology would work in just about any areas of the Bay, I’ve applied and documented it directly in a few specific locations: the mud flats west of Love Point (especially north-west the LP buoy), the mud flats east of Hackett’s Bar, the mud flats east of Thomas Point, the mud flats east of Franklin Manor, and the mud flats east of Chesapeake Beach. In all cases, the productive spots ranged between 30 and 45 feet of water. The specific place you anchor up on the mud flat isn’t nearly as important as the depth, and the hot depth can change from week to week. To locate it for the first time, simply cruise around and look for the scattered bait marks on your fishfinder. Usually, you’ll be able to identify a particular depth range where the bulk of the fish seem to be.

rockfish on bunker chunks
A bunker chunk sitting on the mud east of Hacketts Bar, in 35 feet of water, did the trick for John and Gavin.

It’s important to note that fish caught using this technique are behaving in a different way than those being caught by trollers, and the “hot” area for trolling at any given time will not necessarily be a good choice for light tackle fishing. Conversely, trollers in a particular location may be catching a skunk when light tackle anglers using this tactic are tearing the fish up.

Since the window of opportunity is small, this method of fishing is a bit riskier than trolling. You have to chose your spot, and remain dedicated to it through the hot period of the tide. If it doesn’t produce, however, all is not lost. You can run to another spot which experiences the tidal flow later than the one you started at, and “chase” the changing tide to get in a couple of shots at different locations. Depending on your starting point, if you cruise at 30-mph or better you can usually find a second spot that takes a 20 minute or so run to get to but gains you the better part of an hour on tidal flow. So pore over the tide tables before you fish, and make up a game plan accordingly.

Bunker for Bait

Some would call this methodology chumming, but chunking is a better description and it’s very different from the late season chumming so effective in summer and in the fall. First off, recognize that the fish will not be holding in anyone’s chum line. The chum and chunks will attract the fish’s attention and get it to swim through the area near your baits, at best. But these big fish are more interested in migrating than sitting in one spot, and will not stick around in a particular spot for long.

These trophies also feed differently than fish chummed in summer or fall. Virtually every keeper fish you hook will come from baits set dead on the bottom. Jigged baits will go untouched and drifted baits will be ignored, or you may catch small schoolies on them – but almost never a trophy.

Wait a sec – when trolling in the spring the majority of your fish come on lines run in the top third of the water column. So, what gives? The fish you catch chumming at this time of year are feeding in a different way they are when you catch them on the troll. I can’t tell you why – that’s a question for the scientists – but it means you’ll have to act accordingly if you want to hook them. You’ll need to sink your chum pot to the bottom, and hang it just a foot or two above mud so the motion of the boat helps shake out the chum. Then, toss domino-sized chunks of bunker over the side and all around the boat continually as you fish.

Baits should be large chunks about the size of your fist. Go in through one side of the back section and out the other, making sure your hook penetrates skin going both in and out of the bait. Remember that with circle hooks now mandated for this type of fishing, you want as much of the hook exposed as possible and the bait just threaded on by a hair, or you’ll miss a lot of bites.

striper on bunker chunks
Note the chunks on the cutting board and the size of those rods. This fish may not be a giant, but it fought like one on that gear.

IMPERATIVE FISHING TIP: after cutting your bunker chunk – but before putting it on the hook – pop out the baitfish’s guts and thread them on, making sure the hook penetrates the hard gizzard, or the guts will quickly wash away. Stripers love bunker guts, and they should accompany each and every bunker chunk you send to the bottom. That means one bunker equals only one bait; the remainder of the fish is dedicated to chopping into chunks.

Rigs should be made with four feet of fluorocarbon 30-pound test leader terminating with an 8/0 to 10/0 hook. Generally speaking, with circles bigger is better. Rig an egg sinker above your leader and stagger different rigs with different sized weights, so they sit on bottom at different distances behind the boat. Then connect the main line to the leader with a ball-bearing swivel.

Quality of baits can be categorized as follows: Fresh menhaden is best, frozen is okay, and thawed then re-frozen is practically useless. Unfortunately, it’s hard to find a reliable supply of fresh menhaden. You’ll have to check out each and every shop within a reasonable drive, and hope that one of them carries fresh menhaden. (Anglers Sport Center on Rt. 50 near Annapolis is about as reliable as you’ll find).

With your offering deployed, rods should be left in holders with the clicker on and only sight tension on the drag. (Yes, this runs counter to what I have said in the past about holding your rod versus leaving it in the holder, but circle hooks simply work best this way – we anglers seem unable to stop ourselves from jerking back to set the hook when we feel a fish bite). Don’t even think about picking up the rod on a short bite or when the bait’s obviously being played with. Wait for that rod to bend all the way over, then apply full drag and begin the fight.

The number of fish you catch may not be as great using this tactic as compared to trolling, but fishing with this light gear I absolutely, positively guarantee the adrenaline blast will be twice as high. And when you fight that fish to the surface on light tackle, for once it really will seem worthy of being called a trophy.

- By Lenny Rudow

Editor’s note: You say you’d rather play it safe and troll, but you need to brush up on spring trolling tactics? No problem – see these trolling articles to get the skinny.