Mid Atlantic saltwater bays are currently chock full of spawning class striped bass, providing the best spring fishing in years. Anglers from Washington, D.C., to New York are within casting distance of great action.
Chesapeake Bay is the largest bay holding migrating spawning stripers each spring while the smaller Delaware Bay sits adjacent, off the shores of Delaware and New Jersey.
To the north resides Raritan Bay. The Raritan is part of the New York Bight, a true 'World Class Fishery' in anyone's book. Raritan Bay is fed by the Hudson River, the home to one of the largest populations of spawning class striped bass in the world.
Each of these estuarial environments, at their furthest up-stream most portion of the waterway, deliver marine as well as freshwater river influences. These two influences alone force anglers and charter captains alike to be well-versed in trends and specie habits for day in and day out success, especially during the spring spawning patterns.
All three waterways, the Chesapeake, the Delaware and the Raritan witness a spawning body of striped bass, blueback and alewife herring (also known as river herring) and American shad.
The Chesapeake Bay is 200 miles long with the Susquehanna River to its northern most portions. This area is often referred to as 'The Susquehanna Flats.' The flats are an expansive shallow water area with deeper channels surrounding its outer edge.
Anglers fishing this section of the bay for years have been catching very large bass and numbers of bass on flies and plugs with plenty of 50-pounders to show for their efforts.
What I have witnessed over the years is that river herring populations on this body of water are low when compared to adjacent bays such as the Delaware and Raritan Bay. For this reason, the prevalent striped bass population on the 'Flats' combined with a smaller herring biomass, have less to eat, making the plug and fly angler highly successful.
On Raritan Bay, anglers do witness a nice run of river herring as they migrate into the Hudson and Raritan Rivers. But, much like the Susquehanna Flats, the striped bass biomass to river herring ratio in my opinion is off balance, forcing striped bass to find alternative food sources, making plugs and flies a great choice.
Although fresh clams and bunker (if present) do take plenty of fish, larger striped bass seek out river herring in late March and early April. Female River herring are loaded with protein rich eggs and yield more energy per eaten meal for the bass.
Through the years, the larger bass on this bay key in and search out herring as they migrate into freshwater rivers to spawn. Those of you who have found success while trolling Mann's Stretch 25's in early spring understand what I am talking about.
A unique aspect to Raritan Bay is that most boat anglers have immediate access to fishing the Raritan River as well as the Hudson River around the Statue of Liberty and within the backdrop of Manhattan. Using river herring imitations or live herring (if you can catch them) is your best bet during this early migration of fish.
The Delaware Bay and River on the other hand yields a very high population of river herring closely matched to the striped bass migrations. What I have experienced over the past 20 years on the waterways is that due to the high number of river herring swimming up the Delaware River, catching striped bass on plugs and flies is a tough feat till river herring exit the river system after the full moon in May.
There are so many river herring in this system in April and early May that a striped bass simply opens his mouth and a herring swims in I am not kidding. With that said, we can and do catch striped bass on artificial lures but your timing must be right and your lures better match the hatch.
When is timing right to cast lures on the Delaware Bay and more importantly the Delaware River?
I have found success in three situations: When tidal flows are near extreme low, during low light conditions and in between schools of river herring migrating through my fishing area. If catching herring is tough on a particular day, less food exists for the bass and this in turn equates to lure time.
Right now, the Delaware Bay is producing the hottest striped bass action. Situated between New Jersey and the State of Delaware, this body of water is producing excellent numbers of respectable sized bass falling to fresh clams and live herring presentations.
During tidal movement, most captains are on anchor and using freshly shucked clam. As tidal flows ease, some captains have been known to drift as they cover more ground. Either way, anglers are reaping the rewards with double digit bass on most outings.
Up bay, a growing group of anglers are casting herring imitation plugs along shallow flats and river confluences and doing well for themselves. The Delaware River is home to one of the last healthy populations of spawning river herring.
As river herring hone in on spawning creeks and rivers along the shorelines, savvy anglers are casting plugs such as Sebile's Stick Shad in size 182 or their Magic Swimmer in size 228. These two lures match the hatch perfectly and are identical to the size and profile of river herring. Anglers looking to cast plastics will find success with Fishbelly's Kick S Shad as well as SluG-Go's, both in their 9" sizes.
As the month of April moves forward, expect the Susquehanna Flats as well as Raritan Bay and its tributary, The Hudson River to explode much like the Delaware Bay is experiencing now.
Editor's note: Capt. Chris Gatley can be found with his fishing clients chasing striped bass in front of the Statue of Liberty, or heading offshore to the Atlantic Ocean canyons off the NJ/NY coast for tuna. His articles on cutting-edge fishing techniques can be found in The Fisherman Magazine, and he's a regular presenter at key sports shows during the winter months (when he's not pursuing whatever he can find in East Coast rivers).