As the first week of May arrives every year, I find myself very distracted by silvery fish with seven stripes. Freshwater fishing takes a backseat (more like gets downright kicked out of the car), as does many of life's commitments and worries. More coffee is being made at 10pm than usual, and sleep is foregone, sometimes burning the candle at both ends. Surfcasting and trudging through marshes at night, maybe catching a few hours of sleep if the fishing was slow, then launching the kayak to catch the topwater bite at false dawn. There are many events over the course of the year that excite anglers in the northeast, and at the top of that list is spring run striped bass. May is when it all starts taking shape. April can be a fun start with the arrival of alewife and the holdover populations taking notice of the fresh, large baitfish that have infiltrated their wintering grounds. Usually by the end of April, some school sized bass have moved in to central/eastern LIS as well. May has a very different feel. On every outing, you know in the back of your mind you could tie into your first really good fish of the year. Striped bass school up according to size generally, but their are no hard and fast rules as far as I can tell. I've been surprised many times when catching nothing but early season schoolies to find there is a less aggressive, very large bass hanging behind or below those schoolies, possibly picking up their scraps or baitfish they have stunned. Sometimes those bigger fish move in earlier, under the cover of schoolies. Because they may be less aggressive, you may not know they are there. So when the 20"+ fish arrive, there could seemingly be 30"+ fish mixed in with them, and so on. To find out for yourself, you just have to fish. Don't follow the reports and migration maps blindly. Yes, it is useful information, but at times may be embellished or old news.
If you are anything like me, you get stuck doing the same thing, going to the same spots, trip after trip, year after year. I'm not saying there is anything wrong with it, especially if your log books give you good reason to visit these areas consistently. I have about a dozen or so spots I will frequent in early May, and only a handful are "secret". It's frustrating when you drive 20 minutes to fish a tide to find there is either no parking, no good place to stand, or there are boats and kayaks as far as the eye can see. Finding new water is the solution to this problem. Striped bass will utilize many different types of habitat in the spring, and there are many options. When you get some time out of your busy, modern day schedule to take a fishing trip, usually you want to go to a spot you have figured out and are certain there will be catchable fish. SO DOES EVERY OTHER ANGLER. It's hard to justify trying something new if you only have a few hours before you need to pick up little Billy at baseball practice or the wife needs you home to take care of the honey-do list. Fishing crowded water and pressured fish takes a lot of the fun out of it for me, personally. There is nothing better than having an awesome day or night of fishing with nobody else in sight.
Scouting can be exciting, no matter if you are catching fish or not while doing so. You may find a pile of active fish, you may find nothing. You may find the area is loaded with unmolested bait, to return later that night to find stripers gorging on that bait. You may find something you weren't even looking for, like a small patch of fiddlehead ferns! Exploration is engrained in humans. We all strive to find new places, see new things, and have new experiences. Force yourself to find new spots. Anyone can take a piece of information and have success. Finding your own fish is more fun, more rewarding, and helps you actually learn. I like to do my scouting during the day, and preferably at low tide. Low tides can tell you a lot of what you need to know about a spot. How water moves through the area, where the key boulders and bars are, and where fish may hold on a more suitable tide. It may take two, three, maybe even four trips to a spot before it pays off. Tide, time of day, conditions, and progression of the migration are all factors. The right combination of those things have to align for a spot to produce. Again, it is difficult to discipline yourself to figuring out new spots, but it is worth it in the long run, as this new water has the potential to become some of your favorite water.
As far as scouring goes, hit those well-known-to-you spots, and fish them hard. If your shoulders and wrists don't hurt from casting and working plugs and plastics, you aren't fishing hard enough. Make as many casts as you can, and as conditions or tides change, vary your lure choices and presentation speeds according to what the fish want (or what it seems like the fish want). I have several early May spots that I have been fishing for about 10 years, and with the correct mix of tide and conditions, I can almost pinpoint when I need to be on the water and when the bite will turn sour. Over the years, I've had some days and nights with some great action, and a few surprise big fish. A few of those bigger fish have been landed, but some have straightened hooks and broken line by rubbing it on rocks. It is harder to pattern big fish this early in the season, so to get a few good ones while bending a rod on big schoolies and small keepers is a real blessing. Scouring a spot is the only way to find (or luck into) those bigger ones. Once the run progresses and bunker move into the area, things will change dramatically of course.
Over the past week, I had some pretty reassuring trips that my log books contain some good info on spots I've scoured for years. By no means did I catch any monsters (28" and 30" were the biggest), but I found consistent action on the tides I thought would produce in my well known areas, give or take. The "right" tides might be very different at every spot you frequent or scout, and the only way to learn for yourself is to beat the area up on all tides. I've also done some scouting this past week to find alternative options if the bite is off at my original spot or if a spot is too crowded to fish. I didn't find much in the way of bass on a dead low tide in the middle of the day, but I found herring and structure, which tells me the spot is worthy of a return trip with a better tide and conditions. Who knows if it will pay off, but that is part of the fun, figuring it all out. Scouting and scouring can combine and turn a new-to-you spot into a spot you return to for decades to come, finding consistent action when all those tricky variables come together.