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Angler at Rock's Pond Village in the Merrimac River, MA
Early, Very Early Striper Fishing

By Mike Edwards

If you are like me, the spring has you busy with yard chores, turkey hunting, and some small river/stream fly-fishing.  The boat in your garage hasn't seen the light of day since about November when you took that last trip out and had to keep putting the rod tip in your mouth to keep the ice off it.

For many of us the exciting and challenging angling of striper fishing is not something that comes to mind until the middle of June when the evenings are warming and you know that some 35+ inch fish are cruising in the rivers and along the shores of New England.

Anglers catching schoolies at the Mouth of the Merrimac in Newburyport MANow, for other New Englanders striper season starts as early as April.   These hardy souls start appearing on the banks of the estuaries, rivers and bays with light spinning tackle or fly rods in hand.  They also start showing up in the rivers and along the Atlantic's shores bundled up while driving their boats.

Early striper fishing is not as consistent as striper fishing once the majority of the fish arrive in late May, but it can be a lot of fun and 30 fish days do happen. 

So, in order to increase my own fishing season (as well as to share some knowledge) I asked Allan Butler of Light Lines Guiding to help me understand more about early season striper fishing.

Striper Migrations in New England
In the rivers of New England there are always some stripers that remain all winter long.  Some of these fish can be keeper size, but many are smaller, younger fish.   These fish start to turn on in certain deep holes during the early to mid part of April.  Some anglers can be seen successfully catching these fish in the Thames River in Connecticut, to the Haverhill section of the Merrimack River in Massachusetts, to the many tributaries of Great Bay on the New Hampshire/Maine border.

The initial migration of stripers reach the southern most parts of New England in mid April.  Anglers in CT and RI are the first to start reporting successful catches of "schoolie stripers" leading the migration.   Paul Balukis with a schoolie striper caught on a Hopkins spoonThen around late April the folks in MA will start reporting success as these schoolies show up on their shores, with NH and ME reporting in around early May.  Generally, by the middle to the end of May is when the reports of larger fish start.  And by early June, the striper season is in full swing with numbers of large fish being caught by anglers throughout the New England region.

During the earliest part of the migration the fishing is sporadic and the fish are generally in the 15 to 25 inch range.  Early fishing striper season is a numbers game rather than a size game.  Using light to medium fly or spinning tackle, anglers can enjoy catching numbers of fish suited to this size gear without fear of losing a monster.

Lures, Rods, and Line Size
If you are fly-fishing then your best bet is the following setup:

  • 5 weight rod or larger (9 weight works best for the bigger flies later in the season)
  • Intermediate line is ideal, yet floating will suffice in many situations
  • 15lb tippet (land the little ones fast, and be ready for the big ones)
  • Chartreuse or other bright colored fly, #1 to 2/0 hook size (click buttons below to see example images)

Fly-fishing for these schoolies can be a lot of fun.  It's the equivalent of catching a 3-4 pound brown or smallmouth in fast current.  Imagine doing that 30 times in one day!

If you are using spinning gear and are fishing artificials, the following setup and lures should work:

  • 6 1/2 to 7 foot medium action rod with a sturdy spinning reel
  • 10 to 12lb test line
  • Hopkins spoons, saltwater sluggos in bright colors, bucktail jigs in bright colors, saltwater silver buddies, and other lures as shown by clicking the buttons below

Don't be afraid to work the baits quickly and cover a lot of water.  Cast at shallow objects, submerged structure, bridge pilings, leeward ends of islands, and any other areas that act as current breaks.  Try casting to extremely shallow water (less than 2 feet) along the main river channel and you might be surprised just how many fish are in this very shallow water during a tide run.  And while the tide is just starting in one direction or the other don't hesitate to cast out into the middle of the river and work the bait quickly cross current.  Although the water is cold the fish are very fast and very active...and very hungry.

If you are using bait , then try the following setup:

  • 6 1/2 to 7 foot medium action rod with a sturdy spinning reel
  • 10 to 12lb test line
  • Single sliding egg sinker and then a swivel with about 3 feet of leader attached.   Use approximately 1/0 circle-hooks for seaworms since almost all this early striper fishing is catch and release (most of the fish caught will be below the legal minimum length limit)

There are some very general rules about tides, but like all rules they are meant to be broken at times.  The best way to truly identify what tide is best for a given fishing spot is to fish that area during multiple tides.  This is the only real method to identify the best tide for each spot.  Regardless, here are the general rules:

  • Shallow flats are often most active during incoming and high tides
  • Ledges and mouths of creeks are good during outgoing tides
  • Channel edges and deepwater holes are good during low tide

One last comment about tides is to keep in mind the angle and amount of sun.  One side of a flat may be great during a particular morning tide but may not produce at all during an evening tide.  The same holds true for night versus day tides.   So, if the fish were near an area during high tide in the morning but they don't seem to be there during the same tide in the evening try moving around the area.   Chances are you will find the fish staged in a different area.

A good example of the effect of increasing and decreasing light levels is seen on Joppa Flats in the Merrimack River.  The American Yacht Club side of the flats is best in the morning, yet the Woodbridge Island side is best in the evening.  The possible reason that the American Yacht Club side is better in the morning is because it is nearer to deeper water.

Current is not as important in the early season as it is later on.  In the months of April and early May the fish tend to be smaller and more apt to stage in areas other than 'rips'.  'Rips' are sections of water that have enormous water flow and are typically visible at the surface as almost a straight line or wave across parts of a tributary.  These can be phenomenal areas to catch larger stripers from late May to the end of the season, but they are not usually as productive in April and early May.  

So, from April to early May don't hesitate to search out the slower current areas.   But, once the big boys show up be sure to spend some quality time fishing rips during the turning tides.

So, whether you bring your waders or your boat the early spring is a good time to start honing up those striper techniques in preparation for the big fish to come.  It can be a nice time to be on the water due to the lack of traffic, and it can turn into a day of fantastic fishing. 

As the season moves toward summer, it is a good idea to increase the line size and perhaps move to some bigger gear since the chances of hooking into a keeper striper increase.  It would be a shame to miss the opportunity to land a 40 inch fish because you never retired the light line as the month of May progressed!

As always when fishing during the early spring, remember to be extra careful about safety because the water is very cold and that in itself can be extremely dangerous should an accidental soaking occur.

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