Striped bass are travelers that undertake three mass migrations each year. The first migration takes place in the early part of the year when mature stripers, much like salmon, gather in estuaries in great numbers in anticipation of spawning in freshwater rivers. Striped bass are migrating and knowing their patterns will help you catch more fish.The major spawning events take place in the larger rivers feeding Chesapeake Bay and in the Hudson River. Spawning also occurs in the Delaware River, some of the rivers feeding Albemarle Sound and even as far north as the Connecticut River, but these are considered secondary spawning areas because they do not host the millions of stripers that the two major spawning areas attract each spring.
Spawning takes place from April through June, depending on water temperatures and latitude with Chesapeake fish spawning a month or more before the Hudson contingent. The fishing in the estuaries where stripers stage is extraordinary. After they spawn, spent bass head back down river to replenish their strength by ravaging local baitfish populations before they begin their second migration, a northward jaunt that for some extends all the way to Nova Scotia.
Most stripers from the major spawning groups summer over in the waters off New England where they feed in forage rich waters until early September when daylight hours get shorter and water temperatures begin to cool quickly. These signs trigger their urge to migrate south where huge bodies of bass will winter over in the ocean waters adjacent to the places where they spawn. The largest concentrations end up congregating between Cape Henry, Va. and the Outer Banks of N.C., waters rich in forage species for sustenance.
Fall marks the third migration of the year for mature stripers, some of which will travel 2,000 to 3,000 miles during the course of the year. It also marks a time when striped bass fishing can be fast and furious because the bass are feeding heavily along the path so they will have extra fat and muscle to carry them through the winter months when they feed much less frequently. The colder the water on the wintering grounds, the less they feed. Therefore, the stripers eat with abandon as they travel southward. The migration takes them through New England waters into Long Island Sound, around Montauk Point, N.Y., and back west along the South Shore of the island.
The parade of bass does not pass in one massive movement, but rather in wave after wave that can take two months or more to pass. Prime time on Long Island is mid September through late October. New Jersey anglers see an early run of fall bass in mid to late September, as fish that spawned in the Delaware River tend to move back into bay waters earlier than the Chesapeake fish. But the action really heats up in mid October, and bass can still be migrating through New Jersey waters well into December when water temperatures are dipping into the 40s.
Delaware anglers can enjoy hot bass fishing in the Delaware Bay throughout October and into November, as large schools of fish head into the bay to winter. The mouth of the bay complex acts as a feeding waypoint for stripers heading further south well into December. Fishing at the mouth and in the lower reaches of the Chesapeake Bay starts to really heat up in November and can last well past New Years if the winter is mild. When winter is more severe, the bay and nearby ocean waters will get so cold that the bass feed only infrequently and they can be pushed even further south into N.C. waters.
The main winter fishery ranges from the mouth of the Chesapeake to the Oregon Inlet on the Outer Banks where, on a winter day when the wind isn't blowing too hard, you can find lines of out-of-state anglers waiting their turn to launch their boats at the Oregon Inlet Fishing Center. There, fishermen are only allowed to retain striped bass caught within three miles of the beach, as all federal waters are closed to the harvest, which can present a problem.
Need we say more? Striped bass are big fish and mean big fun for anglers.
The bass are frequently considerably further offshore; sometimes 10, 15, even 20 miles out feeding on schools of herring, menhaden and other baitfish that inhabit the same area.
Fall is the time of year when almost any technique will catch bass. Trolling, jigging and plugging all have the ability to produce at one time or another. Large schools of feeding bass can frequently be located by doing nothing more than looking for swarms of birds diving into schools of baitfish driven to the surface by feeding stripers. Dropping jigs or casting plugs into the surrounding melee is usually met with an instantaneous strike, and the fish can range in size from the low teens to massive 40- and 50-pound cows.
By understanding the migratory patterns of striped bass, you can position yourself appropriately to enjoy some incredible fishing - and you don't have to be a pro to enjoy the fun from your own boat. Just be sure you have the proper safety equipment on board. Wear your PFD and plenty of warm clothing to keep out the cold wind.