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Fishing for Striped Bass: How to Catch Stripers by Drifting Bait

Anthony enjoys spending time in the workshop, kitchen, garden, and out fishing. Many of his DIY projects are featured in his yard.

I caught this South River striper by drifting a chunk of herring.

I caught this South River striper by drifting a chunk of herring.

Fishing the Current With Light Tackle to Catch Stripers

One of my favorite places to fish for striped bass is right from our dock. Located on the South River and close to the ocean inlet, the current runs fast during the incoming and outgoing tides.

Stripers flow into the river with the tide to feed on schools of baitfish, sand eels, and green crabs. While schoolie-size stripers offer most of the fishing action, larger fish also move in with the tides.

The current runs fast enough to require a fair amount of weight to hold the bait near the bottom with a traditional slip rig and drops the bait down within the reach of hordes of hungry crabs.

So instead of using a heavy sinker to hold the bait on the bottom, I use a Cast-Drift-Retrieve technique. Drifting bait naturally through the currents without adding any extra weight is an easy yet very productive technique for catching stripers.

Another South River schoolie striper

Another South River schoolie striper

Striped Bass Fishing Techniques: Cast-Drift-Retrieve

I use a 7' medium weight pole and spinning reel that's rigged with a 20-lb test braided fishing line, and a 36" long leader tied to a #7 in-line circle hook.

To reduce line twist, I tie a stainless steel barrel swivel to the end of the braided fishing line, then use a snap ring to attach a stainless steel snap swivel to the barrel swivel.

Then, I make a 36" leader from a 20-lb test monofilament line that's tied to a #7 in-line circle hook. The leader connects to the braided line with another snap swivel.

When conditions allow, I don't use a sinker or any other tackle. Depending on the tide, the depth, and strength of the current, the swivel combination together with the baited hook has enough weight to carry the bait down with the current and into the feeding zone.

My bait of choice is fresh, salted herring that is often used by lobstermen to bait their pots. Herring is an oily fish that creates a scent trail as it drifts through the water and attracts the attention of the hungry bass.

I also drift chunks of mackerel, clams, and sandworms, and all are effective baits for catching stripers. Larger baitfish are cut in half or into thirds depending on the size of the fish. While fresh bait is preferred, frozen bait works too.

The baited hook is cast upstream and then allows the bait to drift back down through the current. After casting out, I leave the bail open to allow the line to free-spool as the bait is carried along and downward with the current. I use my forefinger to control the line as it payouts during the drift.

Using In-line Circle Hooks

New regulations now require using a in-line circle hook when bait fishing for striped bass. Using inline circle hooks significantly increase the survival rate of releasing stripers, and decreases the chances of gut-hooking a fish.

How Does a Circle Hook Work?

When a striper takes the bait, the in-line circle hook is designed to slide out of the fish's throat and catch in the corner of its jaw. When a striped bass hits the bait, I let the line free-spool as the bass starts its run.

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While pointing the rod towards the fish, the bail is snapped shut and as the fish pulls the line taut, the hook sets itself. Keep the line tight, and land the fish quickly to allow a better recovery before releasing.

In-line circle hooks result in more lip and mouth hook-ups than traditional hooks and are swallowed less often, which helps to minimize injuries when catch and release fishing. If a bass does swallow the hook, cut the leader as close as possible to the hook and leave it in the fish.

A nice schoolie striper caught from the dock

A nice schoolie striper caught from the dock

Fine-Tuning the Drift

The river is about 14' deep off the dock at high tide. The best time to fish is between an hour before high tide to about 1-1/2 hours after high tide. Ideally, the combination of baited hook and swivel hardware carries the bait downward through the current and near the bottom for the better part of the drift.

Striped bass usually hit the bait as it drifts downward near the bottom. By varying my casts—both in distance and angle of direction—I can thoroughly cover the area around the dock (as well as around the neighbors' docks).

At times, the current carries the bait along too swiftly to sink so I'll add a split shot or two near the top of the leader. If the bait still shoots by just under the surface, more weight is needed but I add just a little at a time until the bait sinks properly.

When I start catching crabs, I know that I've added too much weight and the bait is drifting too slowly along the bottom.

Cast-Drift-Retrieve Fishing Tips

  • The Cast-Drift-Retrieve technique to catch striped bass works from a dock or shoreline, and also works well from an anchored or slowly drifting boat. I use this technique to drift bait into areas around piers and along rocky points where striped bass tend to congregate.
  • Match the weight of the bait and tackle to the depth of the water and the speed of the current. The goal is to use as little weight as possible, yet drift the bait down into the striper's strike one.
  • Herring, mackerel, clams, sandworms, and squid are effective baits for catching striped bass. The natural baits create a scent trail in the water that helps to attract hungry fish.
  • Always use an inline circle hook when bait fishing for striped bass.

Catch and Release Fishing

Most trophy-sized striped bass—fish measuring 50 inches or longer—are females. Known as cows, these large females lay many times more eggs than their smaller sisters and are essential to maintaining healthy populations of striped bass.

Safely releasing large cows helps to ensure future generations of these spectacular fish for many years to come.

Help Maintain a Healthy Striped Bass Fishery

Successful catch-and-release fishing begins with your fishing tackle. Circle hooks are very effective and setting the hook properly usually results in catching the corners of the bass's mouth. Circle hooks are swallowed much less frequently than traditional hooks, saving unnecessary internal injury to the fish.

I also crimp the barbs closed with pliers, making it easier to remove hooks and reducing injury.

Landing the fish quickly will help to keep the bass strong for a safe release. Grab the striped bass firmly by the lower jaw, and use your other hand to support the midsection of a large fish while lifting and holding it out of the water. Do not hold the fish by the gills.

I keep a set of aluminum fishing pliers handy to remove any embedded hooks. Grab the hook as close to the point as possible, while gently yet firmly twisting and backing out the hook. The pliers provide extra leverage without putting additional pressure against the fish, and the aluminum pliers don't rust or corrode from exposure to saltwater.

Return the fish to the water as quickly as practical. But keep in mind that releasing an exhausted and disoriented fish before it has time to recover is lethal. Hold the fish in the water by its tail while supporting the midsection, and within a few minutes, a healthy and uninjured fish will begin to regain its strength.

Taking the time to allow a tired fish to recover fully before swimming off on its own will significantly increase its chances of surviving and fighting again on another day.


This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2011 Anthony Altorenna

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