Gamefish along the Northeast Coast, such as stripers, bonito, weakfish, and tuna, can be downright ravenous during a classic baitfish blitz. In these exciting cases, you can just about toss anything into the fray and connect. But then there are times when these species can be a stubborn as a wary rainbow trout. There are near-countless forage options in salt of the Northeast, and knowing how to identify what the gamefish are eating is of dire importance for presenting baits and choosing lures and flies. So here are 20 of the most prevalent bait species from North Carolina to Maine, including schooling baitfish, non-schooling fish, and invertebrates. This primer will help you figure out where to find them, how to match them, and how trophy bass, blues, and weakies stalk and attack them.
Atlantic Menhaden (Adult)
Pogies, bunker, menhaden – whatever you decide to call them – are a cornerstone of the Northeast marine world. The adults filter our dirty water and make a superb bait for all manners of gamefish from giant striped bass to mako sharks. Grab a castnet and check protected harbors and coves for whirling schools of these fish that stick around spring through fall.
Atlantic Menhaden (Juvenille)
Most commonly referred to as peanut bunker, these young menhaden drop out of rivers and ponds in mid-summer where they’re likely to meet greedy blues, fat weakfish, and hungry tuna. Peanuts are all-around gamefish candy, but handle them lightly because they’re pretty delicate and you want them lively on the hook.
When found near shore, the sand eel (a.k.a sand lance) is a striper fisherman’s best friend. Nighttime fishing amongst sand eel schools can make for a trip to remember or one to curse. Bass can be picky in a very sinister way when these skinny, snaky fish are on the menu. Try a smaller foam sand eel pattern on a floating line and hang on tight!
Silversides, or spearing, are favorites of all species and are typically found in or around estuaries most of the season. Explosive bonito and false albacore blitzes can occur during years that feature a healthy silverside population. They typically make for good nighttime striper fishing in areas with strong current. Clouser flies or Deadly Dick metals are spot-on matches.
Anchovies look a lot like silversides, but they sure don’t act like them. Both the diminutive bay anchovy and its larger relative, the striped anchovy, school tightly and are a prime target for all gamesters from Rhode Island on down the coast. The famous blitzes of Montauk in New York and Cape Lookout, North Carolina, are usually related to ‘chovies. Here too, small, slender flies, plugs, and spoons get the nod, as anchovies are too fragile to effectively fish live.
Mackerel of all sizes are thought to be delicious by nearly every North Atlantic gamefish species. Young-of-the-year “spike” mackerel can be found mid-summer and come autumn they’re usually a solid six to eight inches long. Full-size “Boston” ‘macks swing by most of the Northeast Coast in the early spring to summer. Multi-hook mackerel tube rigs will fill your livewell fast.
Mullet are the surf fisherman’s dream baitfish. This nervous cigar-shaped minnow always hugs the shoreline, is prevalent from Martha’s Vineyard south and is very high on the list of the striper’s favorite foods. Watch the September whitewater for spraying silvery mullets with big olive dorsal fins behind them in hot pursuit. A sharp eye and small-diameter castnet will help you get a quick bucket of livies
This round, thin fish is popular offshore for pelagics like yellowfin tuna, but is rarely used closer to the beach. Look for baby butters mid-summer around buoys further out and in areas with strong tidal rips and you’ll probably find bass, blues and maybe even a few Atlantic bonito. Bucktail jigs and Soft Hackle Deceivers work wonders when butters are about.
A variety of
Cluepeids (alewife, round, and blueback herring) have traditionally been the main course for everything from cod to bluefin tuna in years past. The spring runs of the anadramous herring have been weak in recent times and most states have enacted moratoriums on the possession of any river herring. Atlantic (ocean) herring still make an occasional appearance for hungry predators and lucky anglers out in open water, and the oddball school of round herring is found from time to time as well.
Oh, the lowly hickory shad. Not as sporty as its bigger American shad cousin and a frequent nuisance to fly fishermen pursuing stripers early and late in the season. The hick’ is most revered by bait fishermen who live-line them for big spring stripers. They can be tricky to castnet, but they’ll readily attack shad darts or small spoons.
Black Sea Bass
Black sea bass are one of a few fish species that live in rocky, kelp-strewn areas. You’re not likely to see this species get “blitzed,” but stripers and other gamefish enjoy a steady diet of them throughout the summer and sometimes into the fall if no schooling baits become available. Thing is, sea bass have their own size limit, so make sure you’ve got a keeper before dropping it down as bait. The con here is that a keeper will mean a pretty large bait. The pro is that if it gets hit, there’s a good chance you connected with a striper of a lifetime.
The scup, or porgy, is a common live bait for sharpie striper fishermen. It’s basically a northern pinfish that can grow to an obscene size (for a pinfish, at least). They’re good-looking on a hook and tasty in the frying pan, too. Check local scup size limits before using them as bait. Many serious trophy bass hunters in Montauk prefer live scup to fool the biggest of the big on heavy tackle and 50-pound fluorocarbon leader.
There aren’t too many American eels left swimming around the northeast these days, but there are seemingly enough that you can still buy one for two bucks at a local bait shop. You might even spot some in their “silver phase” on their journey to spawn in their supposed breeding ground, the Sargasso Sea. Either way, fish them slowly like a plug at night with a big circle hook through the lips, a stout shock leader, and some heavy braid!
I remember, years ago, finding some postage stamp-size baby flounder in the belly of a small bluefish my Dad was cleaning. I thought it was a fluke at the time (pun intended, thank you), but I’ve since learned that small flounder play a substantial role in the diet of your average striper. Watch for them when walking mud and sand flats in the dead of summer. They’re well camouflaged and really quick, but they’re there and a keen eye will spot them darting about. Of course, you can’t use a baby flounder for bait, but you can find some great fly imitations or try a brown jig with a white grub tail.
Both the native lady calico (shown) and the invasive European green crab are dietary mainstays of the striped bass and other species. Look for the ladies on the outside beaches or sandy estuaries, and look for greenies around mussel or rock beds or other dark bottoms. Scanning the high tide line for shells is a good way to figure out which one is more prevalent at you favorite fishingr hole. Crabs are best imitated by flies like Del Brown’s Merkin or those tied by Alan Caolo. Fairly recently, a few companies have begun producing pretty solid soft-plastic crab imitations.
Mole crabs are the little, toe-sized hoppers you see in the receding waves on open beaches. Stripers will cruise right in the first wave when these little burrowers are on the menu. A live mole or a well-placed mole crab fly will often draw a strike from these picky eaters. A good way to collect crabs is by scooping sand into a fine-mesh dip net at the water’s edge and filtering the sand out in the waves.
A swarm of any member of the
Nereis genus will literally bring bass out of the woodwork. A seemingly devoid sea can go electric with stripers when good numbers of cinder, clam, sea or sand worms make themselves known. A worm “hatch” can be frustrating fishing but it’s pretty remarkable at the same time. Timing the hatch involves some inside knowledge so call a local tackle shop to get the word. Small red and orange Worm Gurglers, Snake Flies, or some red curly tail jigs and Slug-Gos usually work pretty well.
Nothing brings bass to the surface like a nice blast of squid. Adult longfin squid blow through the tide rips in the spring and early summer. Stripers and blues wait behind the bars for the feast to begin. Tiny “peanut” squid pour back across the same reefs later in the season. Try something pink or orange or purple – lure or fly style won’t matter much if the buffet line is open.
Studies have shown that shrimp are an important part of striper, bluefish, and weakfish diets coastwide. Due to their incredible tolerance for salinity and temperature, the often speckled sand shrimp (above) are found in nearly every environment you’d expect to find gamefish, plus a few you wouldn’t. Grass shrimp are clear with an olive or tan tint and are typically found in estuaries where bass and weakfish feed on them at night. The mantis shrimp is an odd one as it’s neither a shrimp nor a mantis by classification and it seems to mostly be consumed by striped bass in November and December. No matter which species you run in to, it always pays to have a few shrimpy-looking concoctions in the tackle bag.
Hooks are rarely baited with lobster these days, but stripers still love them as much as humans! By consuming the lobster themselves, most folks today are wiser than the wealthy industrialists who, around the turn of the century, fished tails as bait from the bass stands of Newport and Cuttyhunk, Rhode Island. Mid-summer is typically lobster season for stripers and a well-placed lobster fly is often the ticket to a bite when baitfish patterns are barely inspected or simply ignored. Plastic and rubber lobster imitations, like those made by Hogy, are available for spinfishermen.
If you’re after striped bass, weakfish, or tuna along the Northeast Coast, know ahead of time that bait options are endless. Photographer and Boston-based fly fishing guru Dave Skok chronicles the most popular bait species, and tell you where to find them and how to match the hatch.