Backwater Basics for Striped Bass

The air and water may still be chilly in April, but as long as the latter is over 50 degrees you’ll start to find schoolies getting active in backwater areas. Photo by AJ Derosa

There’s nothing like catching the first striped bass of the season to make winter a distant memory.

In southern New England, holdover bass and the first migratory schoolies begin to get active in coastal waters around mid-April. Connecticut sees its first action well inside the major estuaries, followed by the Rhode Island salt ponds and up inside Narragansett Bay. Buzzards Bay gets rolling in late April/early May, with the fish spreading into Cape Cod’s south shore waters around the same time. Once mid-May rolls around, schoolies will likely have spread north from Cape Cod to the New Hampshire border.

To find and catch these early-season bass, you don’t have to venture very far. Also, anglers in skiffs, canoes, and kayaks tend to have a better chance of scoring at this time, as most of the fish will be gathered in saltwater creeks, mud-bottomed coves and estuaries, seeking warmer water and the presence of baitfish such as silversides and grass shrimp.

Unlike mid- and late-season striper fishing, the best fishing tends to occur from late morning through the evening, once the water has had a chance to warm. Bright, warm days tend to make the fish more active, especially if the nights have been chilly (below 40 degrees). Also, be aware that an afternoon tide will tend to produce better, as the water flowing out of the upriver areas will be warmer than water coming from the open ocean. In recent years I have learned that an incoming tide can produce as well if not better than an outgoing tide. The key is moving water.

Another thing I have found is that the deeper areas (10-20 feet) slightly (1/4 – 1/2 mile) upstream from the river mouth, especially around river bends, are very productive.

This illustration shows several spots to focus on when fishing a tidal estuary, creek or marsh system.

While early-season stripers can be found anywhere in a backwater system, focusing your efforts on the following spots will improve your score. Also note that many of these same spots will produce at night during the warmer months:

1.  Flats & Coves

  • Shallow, mud-bottomed coves tend to attract stripers in the early season because the dark, porous substrate retains the sun’s warmth. If fishing well upriver or in the upper reaches of a salt pond, focus on the coves and flats on the upper stages of the tide, particularly in the afternoon. As the tide ebbs, concentrate on the coves and creeks closer to the ocean, as the fish will be forced into these areas as the water level drops.

2.  Bridges

  • Bridge pilings and abutments in small creeks and rivers provide ideal ambush spots for stripers to wait for shrimp and baitfish to be swept past in the current. Generally, an outgoing tide produces best around bridges. Expect the stripers to hold very close to the bridge structure, so try to cast your flies and lures as close to the structure as possible and let them be swept back with the current.

3.  Riprap

  • The boulders used around the base of many bridges or along creeks and riverbanks provide a perfect spot for baitfish and stripers to gather. The fish will hang tight to the rocks, so cast your lures upstream and close to the bank and let the current carry them along the shore.

4.  Deep Holes

  • Pockets and depressions in a creek or river usually hold bait and predators, particularly on the lower stages of the tide when other spots become too shallow. Detailed charts and satellite images can help you find some of these spots. Pay close attention to river bends, as the current often scoops out a deep trench along the outside of the bend.

5.  Boulders

  • Large rocks and other debris that break the flow of current and provide ambush spots for predators are good places to cast a lure in the early season. Be sure to work all sides of the structure before moving on.

6.  Docks

  • Similar to bridges, dock pilings serve as natural gathering spots for bait and bass. Expect the fish to hold on the downcurrent side of the pilings, so cast upcurrent and let your lure be carried past the pilings.

7.  Feeder Creeks

  • The mouths of small creeks flowing into a larger river or salt pond are great places to find stripers in the early season. The bass tend to gang up in these spots, waiting for grass shrimp and silversides to vacate the marsh as water level drops. Always investigate these places thoroughly.

8.  Bars

  • Sand, gravel and shellfish bars are wonderful places to find stripers. Look for these spots to form “mini rips” extending from points along a river. Cast your flies and lures upcurrent and let the current carry them over the bar, where fish will hopefully be waiting to intercept them.

Top Backwater Flies & Lures

The majority of forage in the backwater areas will be small, which is why light tackle and fly gear is most appropriate for this type of fishing. Small, lightweight flies, soft-plastics and jigs work very well at this time and at night, but it’s most important to match the size and shape of prevailing baitfish. Here’s a list of some productive early-season and nighttime lures for New England backwaters:

1.  Flies

  • No. 1 – 2/0 chartreuse-and-white Clouser Minnows (use black at night)
  • No. 1 – 2/0 white-and-black Deceivers (use black at night)
  • No. 2-No. 6 grass shrimp flies
  • No. 1 – 2/0 olive snake flies

2.  Soft-Plastics

  • 4”-6” white or olive Slug-Gos, rigged on work hook or on 1/4 oz. jighead
  • 4”-6” white or olive FinSFish, rigged on work hook or on 1/4 oz. jighead
  • 4”-6” chartreuse SwimFish rigged on 1/4 oz. jighead
  • 1/4 oz. paddletail shads in olive, chartreuse or blue-over-white
  • 1/4 oz. curl-tail grubs or worms in red, pink, olive or chartreuse

3.  Plugs

  • 4”-6” popping plugs (Atom Striper Swipe, Rebel Popr, Storm Chug Bug)
  • 4”-6” walk-the-dog stickbaits (Zara Spook)
  • 4”-6” swimming plugs (Bomber, Rebels, Yo-Zuri Crystal Minnow)

Backwater Tackle

A light spinning or baitcasting outfit loaded with 6- to 8-pound-test line is ideal for fishing the backwaters. A 7- to 7 1/2-foot rod with a light flexible tip will help deliver light lures you’ll need to use, and let you feel the subtle strike of a striper inhaling the lure as it drifts along in the current.

If you prefer fly gear, a 7- or 8-weight outfit rigged with floating or intermediate line will do the job in most areas. Use a fluorocarbon leader of 6 to 9 feet with a 10- to 12-pound-test tippet.

Flies do a great job of imitating the smaller forage found in many backwater areas | Photo by Tom Richardson