Fishing Whitewater Zones for Striped Bass
April 7, 2019
Much of the northern New England seacoast features granite shores and shallow ledges. While this type of topography is typically associated with Maine and Cape Ann, Massachusetts, it also exists in some isolated southern locales such as Boston Harbor, Newport and Fishers Island.
In all cases, a turbulent zone of “whitewater” is created where ocean swells meet the rocks, and that’s the key to locating striped bass—even during the hot summer months when the bays and rivers are devoid of fish. After all, ocean waters are cooler, and stripers are built for this environment. With their broad, powerful tails, they can effortlessly patrol the area below the ceiling of frothy water churned by the wave action, looking for injured and confused prey.
Where to Cast
As in any type of fishing, there are certain spots along the rocks that tend to produce better than others. For example, pockets, troughs and fissures along the rock face concentrate current flow. When a wave meets the rock, water rushes deep into these places, sweeping baitfish along with the flow. As the wave recedes, the out-rushing water sweeps the disoriented prey to where the bass are waiting in ambush.
In this game, timing and accuracy are everything. The trick is to cast your lure, fly or bait next to the rocks—or even onto the rocks—as the water rushes out, so that it will be swept into the ambush zone.
Another type of shoreline feature to fish is any place water is channeled between 2 rocks. A deep hole often lies on either side of these narrow passages, and this is where you’ll find the bass. Again, it’s important to let the lure or fly be swept into the hole and allowed to tumble in the wash like a real baitfish, because that’s where the fish will be waiting.
If using a fly or light soft-plastic bait, try to let the lure tumble around in the whitewater without imparting any extra action, save for an occasional twitch. Just remember to keep tension on the line so you can feel a strike.
Safe Boat Handling
You need to know how to handle a boat in this type of environment, especially if a large swell is running, as it can be dangerous. Always have one person at the helm and keep the engine running. The helmsman should keep one eye on the rocks and the other looking for approaching swells, then be ready to hit the throttle should he need to motor out of harm’s way.
Ideally, you want to keep the boat as far from the rocks as possible while remaining within casting distance. This will ultimately depend on conditions and the angler’s casting ability, but a minimum of 50’ is a good start.
If winds are light and the swell gentle, an electric trolling motor can be a huge help in working stretch of shoreline or submerged ledge.
Casting & Spinning Gear
A medium (15-25 pound test) spinning or casting outfit is ideal for this type of fishing. For casting soft-plastics and other light lures, many pros prefer a 7’ rod with a light tip. Reels should hold a at least 200 yards of 30-pound braided line and have a substantial drag for keeping a big fish from diving into the rocks.
Leaders are generally 3’ of 30- to 40-pound fluorocarbon, connected to a double section of main line via a Bristol knot, Triple Surgeon’s knot, Slim Beauty knot, or Albright knot. Whichever knot you use, it should pass easily through the rod guides for casting or for landing a fish. (Watch a video on making a good line-to-leader connection by CLICKING HERE.)
Fly gear often excels in this environment, as the near-weightless flies do not hang up as often in the rocks and weeds as do plugs and jigs. While floating and intermediate-sink fly lines can be used, fast-sink shooting heads are generally preferred. The latter have a 30’ section of fast-sink line attached to a smooth length of running line. With this system, it’s easy to make a false cast or 2 and quickly shoot the fly into a fishy-looking spot at just the right time. Just be sure the running line is well lubricated several times per day to avoid tangles.
Leaders need not be long or light. In fact, heavy stuff is preferred in this rugged environment. Keep it simple and tie on 4’ to 5’ of 30-pound-test butt section connected to 3’ to 4’ of 20-pound-test fluorocarbon tippet via a Surgeon’s knot. If bluefish are in the area, attach a 6” trace of single-strand wire.
Top Flies & Lures
Fly selection varies according to season and baitfish availability. Small (1/0-2/0) Clousers and Deceivers work well early in the season, with longer snake flies, eel flies and “slab-type” bunker and mackerel imitations taking over as summer sets in. Mega 5/0 chartreuse-and-white Clousers, Deceivers and 6” green-and-white or blue-and-white “baby bunker” or herring-type flies also work well, especially when targeting big fish. The latter can be tied with lead wrapped around the shank to get them down through the current and into deep holes. Snake flies with long rabbit-strip tails that undulate in the current can be deadly, too. Top colors include olive, purple, and black.
In the lure department, soft-plastics (Slug-Gos, Hogies, Fin-S-Fish, Got Strypers) are terrific for this type of fishing, especially when rigged “weedless” to avoid snags. Again, the key is to let the lure tumble in the turbulent zone while imparting the occasional twitch. Go-to colors and patterns include pearl, black-white, olive-white, and bubble gum, while sizes can range from 7” to 14” depending on the local bait.
(Watch a video on how to rig a weedless soft-plastic bait by CLICKING HERE.)
Natural Bait Techniques
Of course, live bait or chunks can often work wonders in the whitewater. Live mackerel are tops, if you can get them, and can be fished under a small float to keep them in the strike zone. Chunks of fresh bait can also be cast next to the rocks where the fish are feeding and allowed to settle toward the bottom. Again, try to keep in touch with the bait as it drifts downward and be ready to set the hook.
No matter what technique you choose, you’ll find that fishing the whitewater can be an exhilarating and productive technique, throughout the entire striper season!