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