Updated: Jun 2, 2020
April is a magical month around the Connecticut shoreline and in the tidal rivers. Alewife and herring are running up the rivers to their spawning grounds, and any holdover striped bass who have wintered over in those rivers have taken notice of this influx of bait. Fresh, migratory bass are on the heels of the river herring as well, looking for a high protein food source after swimming many miles up the striper coast. Schoolies and barely legal fish show up first. Inside the larger tidal rivers, there may be fish of 25 lbs. or more, that have hunkered down and spent the winter there. Migratory fish will end up in all types of environments along the shoreline and in tidal rivers, but all these environments will have two variables in common: food and moderately warm water.
Striped bass are a fairly predictable species, generally showing up in the same areas at the same time year after year. Every spring is different though. There are many variables that may drive fish into one area and deter them from another. Water temperature, heavy rains, murky water, tides, predators such as seals, man made obstructions, and many other factors will come into play, but the main, driving factor is bait. Wherever the bait goes, you can bet there will be striped bass very close by.
For me, most of April and early May are spent targeting striped bass in tidal estuaries, in the kayak and on foot. These areas can warm quickly and are highways for a variety of bait including grass shrimp, silversides, mummichogs, and herring. I realize the vague term "estuaries" can mean anything from a large tidal river to a salt pond. Half the fun in fishing is finding the fish for yourself. Check out some different areas at different stages of the tide to figure out if fish have taken up residence and how they set up. If there is heavy current, the fish may be right in the rip. If there is a flat next to a channel drop off, they may be right on the edge of the drop off. During the day they may hunker down in a hole, while at night they may be in two feet of water. As always, the bass will move around a lot with changing tides, fluctuating temperatures, and of course, the baitfish they are pursuing.
My early spring plug bag usually is usually limited on variety, but will always include topwater plugs (mainly spook style baits), swimming minnow plugs, maybe a needlefish or two, different styles of soft plastics ranging from 4"-9" in length and various hooks and jigheads to rig them with. I tend to focus on bass with a strict herring diet, so larger, slender profile baits around 6-9" long are my mainstay. For this time of year, I will typically use 30# fluorocarbon leader instead of 50#. I have more confidence in my presentation of weightless soft plastics and slow moving minnow plugs with a lighter leader, and I am not as worried about fish rubbing my leader on rocks. Not to say that it can't happen, but it is certainly easier to control a mid 20-30" fish in tight quarters than it is a 40"+ fish. I will switch to 50# once the bigger fish arrive and I start fishing more boulder laden areas. The rod and reel I use for spring bass is the same spinning setup I will be using primarily for bass all season in the kayak and on foot in backwaters. The rod is a St. Croix Mojo Inshore 7'6" MH. The reel is a Penn Slammer III 4500 spooled with 30# braid. I have found this setup to be very versatile for many different presentations. Eels, large soft plastics, jigs, and topwater plugs will all be used on this setup over the course of the year. It's funny, when I go freshwater fishing, I bring multiple rods with a select lure tied on each one, for easily presenting and managing that lure in the water. It makes a lot of sense. Line weight, sensitivity, feel, and power are all factors. When it comes to lure fishing for striped bass though, I feel confident presenting almost any lure on that one setup.
My Top 5 Early Spring Run Picks
24/7 Lures Mully (Pearl or Bone)
This wooden plug, made by good friend and fellow kayak angler/surfcaster Elliot Thomas, is one that will be in my plug bag from the start of the season until the end. There isn't another spook style bait out there that I have more confidence in throughout the year. I guess that's easy to say when you've topped your personal best fish on a lure several times. The Mully is the perfect size to mimic a herring struggling on the surface. It doesn't have a real wide glide like some spooks, but it creates a lot of commotion in the water and casts like a missile. It performs just as well on rough water as it does on glass calm, but in the spring it does seem to excel on the choppy days where fish throw caution to the wind and will aggressively attack a surface plug. My confidence is with topwater for daytime fishing, simply because stripers have a harder time examining a bait thrashing around on the surface. They can't tell exactly what they are looking at, but it looks injured and it looks like food. Sometimes the faster your cadence, the more the fish will commit to the plug. You can source your own Mully in several different colors, as well as a variety of other awesome plugs made by this CT. based company here: https://247lures.com/
Cobra Bait Sad Shad Lucky 7" (Pearl or JR Special)
The Sad Shad Lucky 7" has probably accounted for 85% of my lifetime striped bass caught in the early parts of the spring run. This lure was designed and manufactured by my good friend Johnathan Weeks. This bait, along with it's 5" and 9" counterparts, are probably the most underrated soft plastics out there. I like to rig the 7" on an Owner Beast 8/0 hook, either weightless or belly weighted, depending on current and depth, as well as fish mood. If I'm fishing a little deeper, I will rig this plastic on a 1/2 oz jighead. Sad Shads have an interesting tail, which is shaped like a spade, but can be modified to change the profile and fall rate. The tail and the slightly wider profile will actually slow the sink rate down a bit, giving it a graceful fall toward the bottom. The tail, though not a swimming tail will catch the water and create vibration and give the bait some added action. My favorite spring time presentation with the Lucky 7" is to cast it up current at a diagonal, and let it drift, keeping contact with the bait and giving it light twitches. If you've ever seen herring holding in current at night, they are trying to do their best to not be noticed. They aren't making sudden movements. I try to mimic the subtle movements of a herring the best I can with these plastics. During the day, I will twitch these a little harder to trigger fish, subsurface or topwater. Once the bunker show up, I will switch to the 9" version primarily, but I will keep 7" baits handy all season. Sometimes downsizing is the key. You can get these great, locally made soft plastics at Rivers End Tackle or online: http://www.cobrabait.com
Daiwa SP Minnow (Bone or Blurple)
This plug should be a mainstay in every saltwater angler's bag, and probably already is. I won't go into too much detail on this one. For me, this plug excels in moderate current, fished painfully slow with light twitches, generally at night. You may already know this, but these plugs don't come with the best hardware, so change out the split rings and the hooks for some heavier duty stuff. VMC 4x trebles are the way to go. I like the blurple color on those darker than dark nights with no ambient light to speak of. Even though you can source these at Walmart now, please do the industry a favor and go to your local tackle shop to buy these, where you will also find a wider selection of colors. JB Tackle or Rivers End are your best bets on the Eastern CT. shoreline.
Storm Arashi Top Walker
This little spook style plug made it's way into my spring bag quite a few years ago. From what I can tell, this is not a plug made specifically for striped bass. The stock, black nickel hooks are okay, but more suited for big largemouth than anything else. It also has 3 trebles right out of the package, which for me is a no-no. I completely remove the middle hook, and swap the forward hook for a VMC 4x 2/0, and the tail hook for a VMC Inline Single 2/0. The hook hangers are turned 90° from what a bass plug typically has, so the inline single hook isn't exactly "in line", but it serves the purpose intended (less trebles to deal with and still has hooking capability). The Top Walker is a nice size, a bit smaller than the Mully, so may be a little less intimidating to finicky daytime fish. The plastic construction with internal rattles seems to irritate fish to the point where they must attack it. I've had some stellar days throwing this plug where nothing else would elicit a topwater strike. If using this plug in tidal rivers such as the Connecticut, expect bycatch species such as largemouth, smallmouth, and pike to take it as well, depending on your location. One of my favorite things about a plastic spook style bait is that most are level weighted, unlike wood plugs that may sit tail down at rest. Sometimes just a slight pause, leaving the lure at rest horizontally, will get a fish that is following the plug to fully commit.
Lunker City Fin-S Fish 7" (Sexy Shad)
Another Connecticut based company, Lunker City, makes a wide variety of soft plastics for saltwater and freshwater gamefish. The Fin-S Fish 7" is one that for many years I forgot about because of my loyalty to the Sad Shad. There are instances however, where profile is EVERYTHING. The Fin-S Fish looks more like a herring than a herring! These can be rigged on a weightless swimbait hook, belly weighted swimbait hook, or jighead. I like to fish them weightless, just under the surface or skipping along the top. There are some days where fooling a striped bass into hitting a lure feels almost impossible. The Fin-S fish should help. One thing I should mention, a minor subtlety, is that these baits do not perform well when attached to your leader via a quick clip. Tie to the hook direct to get the truest, most natural presentation. Get these baits here: https://lunkercity.com/
One style of lure I did not showcase but deserves some mention are jigs. Whether it is a bucktail or a soft plastic on a jighead, these are always kicking around in my spring bag as well. There are days where the fish will be hunkered down, whether it's post frontal conditions or a bright, sunny sky that turn them off, they will position themselves deeper in a channel swing or a hole, and fish will be schooled together fairly tightly. Jigs won't always get them to bite, but they will get you down to where the fish are. I'm more of a soft plastic guy than a bucktail guy, so I will bring a variety of 4 - 7" plastics and jigheads ranging from 1/4oz - 1 oz for the areas I'm likely to fish.
Spring fills the striped bass angler with hope for the season ahead. The arrival of migratory bass and bait every year give us that hope. Fill your plug bag with stuff that works and get confident using those tools. The best way to become comfortable and confident with new lure is to use it and catch fish on it. A lot can change from one season to the next, as the bass and their forage make huge seasonal movements. The recent declines in baitfish and in bass stocks have us all a little concerned for the seasons to come. The numbers don't lie. Please practice catch and release as much as possible, handle your fish with care, and revive your fish before releasing them. If you do decide to keep fish, please follow the new regulations put into place this year.