Sunday, January 13, 2013

Meadowlands Striped Bass: Fish Early Season in this Transformed Environment

Meadowlands Stripers

Fish Early Season in this Transformed Environment

The Meadowlands are the most paradoxical place in the state, possibly in the world—an immense landfill thriving with wildlife and fish. With the dumps inactive since about 1980, garbage remains underground. It’s said that anywhere you would dig in the Meadowlands, you would find something. The grassy hills that grace horizons are mounds of trash underneath. Near some Richard W. Dekorte Park trails you can see a few small drain pipes that empty black leachate—liquid decomposition from the bottoms of these piles, pure pollution and poison.

But this alien mixture does not empty into the approximately 500 acres of Hackensack River associated tidal flats in the park. When calm, the surface of these waters will sometimes reflect a peregrine falcon and landing passenger jet alike flying overhead. And the big secret for anglers is that for years now, from late March into June, a few fishermen have been scoring big on school stripers. I have heard of them caught as large as 11 pounds, and from another source, 10 pounds. The flats can be an excellent early season starting point because they are mostly very shallow. During a March or April heat wave, falling tide pulls out warmed water from flats above the lower set, and stripers congregate in the currents.

Spillways and a Sluice—Stripers Seek the Action

Being artificial, the lay-out of the few flats is fairly simple. Two have higher water levels than the lower. All three are cordoned off from one another by lengthy dikes with trails and fishing access all along them. But a great deal of acreage is simplified for the purpose of fishing by pipe spillways between these flats, and one large sluiceway with flow under a bridge. Without these striper magnets, it seems doubtful the bass would bother with these flats at all. At low tide, most of the lower flat is exposed mud and huge Atlantic white cedar stumps from the 19th century. But channels leading to the spillways and sluice are perfectly evident; it all makes sense.

Each one of the eight pipe flows can hold bass. But everyone seems to agree that the outflow closest to the Meadowlands Environmental Center building is hot. Simply exit the parking lot towards the first flat visible to the right of the building facing it. That corner with the outflow looks humble, but can be loaded with bass. So is the outflow at the far corner of the straight dike which proceeds from the first corner. I spoke to an angler who has fished these waters for years, and he told of once catching a dozen keeper sized stripers on a blistering cold day in March when the tide approached its lowest point. The first corner was “nothing but a shallow creek, and I pulled one bass after the other out of it!”

The far corner outflow seems to pump straight out into deep open water, but I bet you will get snagged and change your notion. At low tide stumps are visible and a few lures gracing them. It’s best to begin a retrieve when a swimbait hits water, keep rod tip high, and turn that crank. Plenty of bass congregate here, and one angler told me that a big bass hit his floating Rapala, so big that it never stopped running before the 8 pound test mono parted.

From the far corner, a 10 minutes’ walk—a good half mile or so—takes you to the walk bridge over the sluice. Here the upper flat has the deepest water of all the acreage, about 35 feet, a big hole unlike all the other area. As tide falls, water moves through this sluice with great force because of the uneven water levels between flats. That water is deep under the bridge and typically too fast to fish. But immediately past the bridge portal, edges and eddies develop. A great deal of possibility exists for working a lure, the water is not so deep as it empties onto the lower flat, and bass pack it.

Lures to Choose and Retrieves that Work

Especially early on, nothing seems to beat a paddletail swimbait, with other swimbait styles following as close seconds. I did, however, once run out of paddletails (the stumps are voracious), and settled for straight tailed swimbaits, only to have the bite stop dead. I don’t think it was because the stripers moved on or stopped hitting altogether. Rather, I think paddle action is deadly and can make all the difference sometimes.

This isn’t largemouth bass fishing. Even with fairly cold water a moderate retrieve tends to be most effective. If the bass are associated with these currents, they are here with an interest to feed. By retrieving a paddletail along a current edge, either steady or with some pulls and twitches, it’s not important and often not advisable to keep close contact with bottom. You have two objectives: to provoke feeding stripers to mistake your lure for a frantic herring, and to keep it rather than lose it to a stump.

3/8ths to 3/4 ounce sizes work well; I’ve done best with white and pearl. A light rod will suffice, but with an 8 foot spinning rod ideal for casting lures in the fall surf you can get the most casting distance from half to ¾ ounce swimbaits. This helps in the sluice area—the current reaches well out onto the flat as tide falls—and even in the corners. Naturally with such a beefy rod you will need at least 10 pound test line so that you don’t break it on a hook set. With lighter rods it’s wise not to go under 8 pound test, just in case.

As water warms, lure choice increases: jerkbaits and even topwaters are more appealing because their erratic action approximates the increased activity of herring and bass alike as the season progresses. Fish those edges and eddies especially, but always check strong current, except under the bridge when it’s useless. I’ve caught bass in direct current even early in the season.

Experiment with retrieves since variation might hit a nerve that regular patterns just don’t excite. Nature is less regular and lawful than schoolbooks lead us to believe. Its complexity is infinite and always deviating from any norm. While everything that swims has a constant intent to survive, most everything doesn’t survive long, so irony gets the best of most intentions—bass are looking for motions that catch their attention in whatever natural way moves them to strike. Since we usually can’t know exactly what those ways may be—experiment.

Evening is the Best Bet

For whatever reasons, it’s not always the case that an early warm spell with a falling evening tide provokes a bite. Early in April this past year, I had what I thought was a perfect combination of sun, 87 degree temperatures, and falling late afternoon/evening tide. I would almost have succumbed to believing a big score was inevitable; my ability to put hope in check developed over years of fishing saved face. I had one hit.

Although the best bet early on are conditions that produce warm water ebb, my best fishing in April has been during overcast, light rain on mid-afternoon ebb. And catches, as I have illustrated, are made in blustery, cold conditions as well. At least relatively cold--I don’t suppose a March day in the mid-teens would be worthwhile.

Once water has warmed appreciably by May, early and late becomes the rule that may be broken, especially during overcast or rainy weather. By June, if it gets too hot, those shallow flats become a frying pan and you may as well chase the bass back into the Hackensack River.

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