Rock On!



Topwater plugs like the Jumping’ Minnow are proven winners during the early-season bass bite. Photo by Tommy Costello

Shallow stones yield heart-pounding, light-tackle action with spring stripers along the southern New England coast. Text & Photography by Tom Richardson

My home waters of Buzzards Bay offer no shortage of rocks, particularly the hard, propeller-bending kind. But I wouldn’t have it any other way, because the same ledges and boulders that make boating so interesting in the bay also provide prime structure for striped bass, especially in late spring.

The fun starts around mid-May, when the first migratory schools of bass push into the shallow bays and coves, feasting on squid, silversides and herring. Once they find a food source, the fish tend to hang around for a few weeks, moving onto the warmer flats and ganging up around structure in 3 to 15 feet of water. And that’s when things get exciting.

Of special interest are isolated patches of boulders or ledges surrounded by 10 to 12 feet of water at high tide. Many of these rock piles, or reefs, are completely submerged at high water, or may have one or two especially large boulders poking above the surface. In any case, caution is needed when fishing them.

Flies will take their share of fish over shallow rocky areas. Photo Tom Richardson

Prime Structure
Also on my target list are boulder-strewn stretches of shoreline, submerged jetties or groins, and rocky points, especially those near river, pond and creek mouths. The latter can attract large bass if associated with a herring run.

While dawn is always a great time to find stripers around the stones, I’ve found that tide is most important in the early season. I prefer a rising tide in most cases, and strive to be on the water at least three hours before high tide. That gives me plenty of time to “work” a series of prime spots before slack high.

Ebb Tide Strategy
Slack tide can bring an abrupt halt to the action. The lack of current gives the bait a chance to scatter and the bass shut down accordingly. There are exceptions, of course, places that continue to hold fish as the tide ebbs.

For example, I find that rocky points washed by the outgoing current can be productive, especially on the first two hours of the dropping. And rocks near the mouths of tidal ponds and estuaries can be productive when large amounts of baitfish are being flushed out. During the lower half of the tide, try working any deep “holes” in the vicinity of creeks, pond inlets, rock piles and ledges.

Topwaters can produce heart-stopping strikes when fished around the boulders. Photo Tom Richardson

Drift & Move
To fish the rocks efficiently, set up a drift that takes you past either side of the hazard, keeping as far away as your casting range will allow. Drift past one side of the structure, then the other. If you don’t get a follow or a strike on your first pass, move a bit closer and try again. However, in my experience it’s usually a waste of time to make more than two drifts past the same spot; if the fish are present and in a feeding mood, you’ll usually know it by your first or second cast.

Fishing around such “bony” structure is best done from a small, maneuverable, shallow-draft boat, for obvious reasons. Boats with low freeboards offer another advantage, as they can be equipped with a trolling motor, which makes avoiding the rocks infinitely easier—and less stressful.

Trolling motors prove useful for navigating rocky areas. Photo by Tom Richardson

Top Plugs

No matter what the tide, my arsenal of lures never changes. Favorite hard-bodied plugs include the bone-colored Rebel Jumpin’ Minnow, Zara Spook, Cordell Pencil Popper and the Rapala Skitter Pop. All four make a commotion on the surface and contain rattles that attract fish. Retrieve them at a moderate speed to make them slash, wobble and pop on the surface.

In the soft-plastic department, I love the seven-inch Slug-Go and Fin-S-Fish, in pearl or Arkansas shiner. I rig mine Texas-style on a worm hook. This bait is dynamite when twitched slowly on or just below the surface, and can be a day-saver if weeds or grass are a problem.

Rock Tackle

All the above lures fish well on light spinning gear. My go-to outfit is a 7 ½-foot, fast-action graphite rod rated for 15- to 30-pound-test line. I fill the reel with 30-pound-test braid or 10- to 12-pound-test mono. The leader is a three-foot section of 20-pound-test fluorocarbon attached to a two-foot loop tied in the end of the main line using a Spider hitch or Bimini twist. I use a Bristol knot or slim beauty knot to connect the doubled main line to the leader. This wind-on system allows the leader to pass easily through the rod guides for better casting accuracy and also helps when landing fish.

Of course, flies also work well around the rocks, and it’s tough to beat a 2/0 or 3/0 Clouser Minnow, Half-and-Half or Rhody Flat Wing in olive-over-white, all-white or chartreuse-over-white. Large herring and squid patterns are also effective in the early season. Fish all of the aforementioned flies on a nine-weight outfit with an intermediate-sink or a sink-tip line and a nine-foot leader ending in a 20-pound-test fluorocarbon tippet.

Catch the Breeze

I’ve mentioned that tide is an important factor in early-season rock pile fishing, but wind can also play a role. I’m a firm believer in the famous angler’s saw, “east is least.” Not that I’m superstitious; it’s simply that my experience over the last 30 years of fishing bears this out. Even the slightest whisper of wind from the east seems to shut down the inshore action, perhaps due to barometric pressure.

On the other hand, a rising southwest breeze really seems to rile the fish and put them in a feeding mood. Combine it with a rising tide and you’ve got the recipe for a superb day of fishing the rocks!