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Spring Stripers for Purists and Pragmatists

by Paul Kerlinger
Outdoors Editor

Spring is for bait. Whether it's clams or bloodworms or eels, the right bait is the key to snagging an early spring striper.

Although stripers can, theoretically, be caught all year in and around Cape May, the action really doesn’t pick up until the water warms to around 44-45° F, which means mid-March in South Jersey.

In some years, like 2005, water temperatures had not hit those levels until late in the month. It is also important to note that water temperatures can vary greatly from place to place, and in locales where water warms more quickly there will be more fish.

Bait and Spin

Three baits that consistently produce better than flies or spinning lures in spring are worms, clams, and eels.

Sandworms or bloodworms fished with a bobber or drifted near the bottom or along a sodbank or jetty can be produce very nicely once the fish are feeding.

One worm fishing trick that is seldom used any more is slowly trolling worms about 6” to a foot behind a willow-leaf spinner or a “turkey bone” (a white or candy striped solid tube).

Clams used whole or in larger pieces and fished on the bottom also works quite well. Fished in the ocean surf or off the Delaware Bay beaches, clams and works often produce fish.

These are the same places stripers are caught on the same baits in late fall. They can also be caught using this bait in the holes of the back bays or at the mouths of back bay creeks and sounds.

The spring striper fishing in recent years has become quite good in the rips.

Some of those charter boats on the Cape May Times fishing page fish the rips and do quite well right into May when they switch over to black drum. Bait is usually eels or clam. They also continue to catch bass on clams in the same spots they catch the drum, sometimes on the same drift.

The Purist Approach

As a sometimes purist flyrodder, I have to admit I’m a bit handicapped in early spring.

For the purists who won’t stoop to using bait, water temps have to be about 50° F before flies or spinning lures work. I’ve found that fishing them slowly and deliberately works in cooler water, but as things pick up in late April and early May, faster retrieves work best.

For early season bass, try Clouser minnows in chartreuse or olive over white or jiggie heads in the same colors. Fish them deep. You may find that the outgoing tides, late in the day are better, especially if the sun has heated the water in the back bays and sounds during the afternoon.

Back Bay Flats

One thing that I haven’t tried that needs to be better tested is fishing the flats of the back bay sounds in spring. These waters warm up faster than adjoining deeper water, mostly because the dark bottoms absorb sunlight, thereby warming the water.

As these warmer waters spill out of the back bays, bass often congregate along the sodbanks waiting for a meal to pass them by. It is at these locations that I’ve had decent luck with flies, but bait drifted in the same places will also pays off.

If you are a purist and will not stoop to using bait, don’t plan on being terribly successful before late April.

If you are a pragmatist and are willing to get your fingers smelling like bait, be ready for bass by mid-late March. As the water warms up, bait still works, but so will flies and spinning lures.

Whether you are a purist or a pragmatist spring striper fishing can be fun in South Jersey.


Paul Kerlinger has been fishing since he was 8 years old.

He's a dedicated salt water fly fisherman who enjoys nothing more than working a Cape May area sod bank or jetty.

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