Fishing Eelgrass Beds

When fishing an eelgrass bed, position the boat upwind or upcurrent of the bed and off to one side, to avoid drifting over the fish. Illustration by Tom Richardson

To the untrained eye, a long stretch of unbroken shoreline might look pretty unproductive. However, take that same shoreline and place it in front of someone who’s well trained in reading the water (and equipped with a pair of polarized sunglasses), and all sorts of fish-holding hot spots begin to materialize.

When fishing shallow beachfronts in 5′ to 15′ of water, you can’t do wrong by targeting areas of dark bottom. One of the best types of dark bottom is created by eelgrass beds, which serves as a nursery and haven for many types of prey species. Eelgrass also allows predators to blend in better with their surroundings as they cruise for a meal. In short, eelgrass meadows act as life-filled oases in an otherwise barren, white bottom, which is why they deserve your attention.

Polarized sunglasses are useful for locating and fishing eelgrass beds, as the dark bottom stands out sharply when surface glare is eliminated. Sunglasses will also allow you to see the fish themselves cruising over the bottom.

Eelgrass provides food and shelter for many types of small fish, crabs and shrimp, which in turn attract larger predators. | Photo courtesy Cornell Cooperative Extension Marine Program

Eelgrass beds are notable for attracting striped bass and bluefish, although false albacore, weakfish, tautog, scup, fluke and bonito also hang around them. Fluke especially like to lurk along the edges of eelgrass beds, waiting in the sand for a hapless prey to wander within striking distance.

Setting up to fish an eelgrass bed is pretty simple. The goal is to position the boat upcurrent or upwind of the grassy area and drift parallel to it. If you drift directly over the bed you’ll often end up spooking the fish you want to catch. Try to keep the boat at least 60′ to 70′ from the grass and cast your lure along the transition zone where grass meets sand. Pockets of sand surrounded by grass are also worthy of attention. The key is to make the lure look like a disoriented baitfish swimming along the edge of the dark, grassy area.

Flies, small flashy spoons and soft-plastic jerkbaits are 2 of the most effective type of lures to use around shallow eelgrass beds. The prey items found in and among eelgrass tend to be small, and include silversides, peanut bunker, sand eels, bay anchovies, crabs and grass shrimp. However, American eels also make their home in eelgrass, and no fish loves eels more than big stripers. Therefore, consider throwing live eels or large eel-imitating soft-plastics (e.g., Hogies, RonZ’s) when you know big fish are present.

Scup are just one of several species of food and game fish attracted to eelgrass beds. | Photo courtesy Cornell Cooperative Extension Marine Program.

Early in the season (May and June), squid like to hold over grassy areas, so be sure to pack some squid-imitating flies and plugs. Some of my favorite early-season lures are the pearl Bomber Long-A, the Zara Spook, the Rebel Jumping’ Minnow and the Cordell pencil popper, all of which imitate squid and small baitfish.

As a general rule, lures and flies should be fished slowly along the edges of eelgrass beds, especially in calm conditions. A slight chop created by winds of 5 to 10 knots is preferable, as it seems to get the fish riled up and eager to feed.

One last note when fishing eelgrass: If you make a drift without getting a follow or seeing a fish, move to another spot. Similarly, don’t bother fishing areas of grass that see a lot of boating traffic, as this tends to spook the fish.