Vet Craft Sport Fishing


STRIPER HABITAT AND BEHAVIOR
IN THE CAPE MAY RIPS

by Captain Harvey Yenkinson


In the spring, changes in temperature of a few hundredths of a degree have triggerred many of the stripers to leave the Chesapeake, Delaware, and Hudson estuaries and begin their migration north. In the summer, temperatures begin to cool to the north, and the stripers start their southern migration back to their natal rivers, the place of their birth. Stripers, many of which begin their migration at age 2-3 travel in schools matched by size rather than age. Tagging studies have demonstated that stripers can travel at least 16 miles in a day. Many of the stripers that we catch in the Cape May Rips are fish that have migrated from their feeding grounds up north, possibly as far north as Canada. Most of the striped bass in the rips are there temporarily, feeding as the temperatures stay above 50 degrees. (This past season has been the exception with a large number of stripers overwinterring in the area of the rips.) From there stripers migrate three places. Some continue their migration south. Some migrate up the bay and through the C and D canal to enter the Chesapeake. Some will overwinter in the Delaware Bay and River, to eventually spawn in the fresh water reaches of the Delaware. Fishing for stripers in the Delaware River and Bay has been going on since colonial times, and was once a prolific breeding grounds before victorian period industrial pollution made the river almost uninhabitable for the striped bass, shad, and herring. Fortunately the pollution is being controlled and the striped bass population that spawn in the tributaries of the Delaware is once again on the increase.

The mouth of the Delaware Bay has been called one of the greatest estuaries of the East coast, and one of the richest shellfish and finfish regions of our nation. The area we call the rips is an area rich in bottom structure, a perfect place for fish to converge and hunt. The constant ebb and flow of the tides in combination with the northeast storms and erosion has molded the bay-ocean convergent area into an array of shoals, channels, and depressions. The shape of the shoals coincides to large degree to the direction of the current flow.

To understand the direction of current flow, and hence the direction your boat will drift (on a windless day) one must envision the mouth of the Delaware Bay from Cape May to Cape Henlopen as a funnel through which the ocean floods in and out with the tides. Ocean waters move on an east-west axis along the coast of Cape May, gradually shifting to a north-south flow as one nears the center of the mouth of the bay and along the coast of Delaware.

Knowledge of how to properly fish the structure nature created in the area we call the Cape May rips, is partly based on knowledge of fish behavior in areas of such structure and partly based on understanding the ebb and flow of the ocean around and over the shoals.


FISH BEHAVIOR

Everyone who fishes the Cape May rips knows that the fishing is best when the tidal current starts to move and "rips" start to make up. The reason that fishing is best at this time is related to food harvesting skills essential for survival in nature. Nature is a cruel but efficient teacher. Fish must have the skills to eat more calories then they burn up chasing prey, or they die. Hence, fish that have survived in our oceans, have learned how to feed efficiently, without getting eaten themselves. Turbulent water in general is an excitatory stimulus for many fish. Anyone who has seen tuna grab a lure in the wake of a boat can surely attest to this. Predators have learned that turbulent water means two things, bait is likely to be present, and turbulence creates confusion, ideal for ambushing prey.

The schooling behavior of fish means that stripers will not be uniformly distributed over the entire rip line. The inborn and learned behavior causes stripers to congregate in the best "hunting" area of each individual rip. Once rockfish have congregating in this way, their competitive and often synchronous feeding behavior can cause multiple repeated hookups, drifting through a small portion of a very long rip. It is also known that migrating fish feed more voraciously then sedentary fish. Striped bass are much easier to catch during the migration season then in the summer when resident fish feed mostly in dim light conditions, and are very particular about which bait or lures they will attack.

Another interesting fact about striper fishing is that fishing will always be better when drifting from a deep water spot onto the shallow shoal then when drifting from on the shoal into the deep. This is the opposite of what humans would think, as we would think hiding in the deep, off the edge of the shoal, would be ideal, waiting for bait to flush off the shoal,over the edge. In fact the opposite is true. Most of the stripers will congregate just in front of the shoal, in the deep or on the edge, as the water rushes uphill onto the shoal.

Stripers also have a habit of migrating inshore during the evening. This is one of the reasons surf fishermen do best at night, dawn, or dusk. I will fish the inshore rips in the early morning often within 50 yards of shore, but find these rips unproductive once the sun is high in the sky. Noise from boats also chase fish more readily from shallow water than from deep water.

I also use fish behavior to determine which shoals I will fish. Basically I fish the inshore shoals on the high tide, and work my way offshore as the tide moves out. My experience suggests to me that these 7 striped fish do not like to hunt on the inshore shoals when the tide is low. When the incoming (flood) tide begins I might be at Overfalls or offshore of Overfalls at 27130/42655 or around 8A-B at 27141/42664. As the tide rushes in, I work my way inshore towards Middle Shoal and then Somers or Prissy Wick. As I am moving about, I am constantly on the lookout for any rip in the water or productive looking bottom change that might yield fish. Every year I find new uncharted rips, that although small, can be very productive.

Another aspect of fish behavior is a process called conditioning. This is a behavioral phenomenon present in most all animals and is a response of the brain to a repeated stimulus. If stripers have been feeding up north on the clam beds, they will prefer clam baits in the rips. This is a common finding towards the end of November into December. When stripers have been feeding on herring, sand eels, peanut bunker, etc. bucktails (with a white twister), ava jigs, gibbs minnows, hopkins lures, etc may be the preferred means of fishing the rips. In the spring bucktails with a strip of mackerel often will outfish eels.


STRUCTURE

The shoals of the Cape May rips are essentially underwater islands left behind as the shoreline of Cape May has eroded over the years. Although some of the shoals are constructed from shale and rock, storms constantly change the shape of the named shoals, hence charts of the area are not always accurate. On days when the wind blows less then 15 knots, your vision can guide you to the edges of the shoals. On rougher days, the less obvious rips can be hard to see. The sharpest edge of each shoal is the beginning edge of the shoal, less abrupt bottom depth changes occur as one drifts across the shoal, till another abrupt change occurs as you drift off the edge of the shoal into the deeper water. Times of new or full moons (spring tides) create the strongest currents, largest rip visibility, and shortest slack tide interval. The most productive spot on each shoal will be the edge or first rip of each shoal. Stripers instincts tell them that this is the most bait rich environment and the turbulence there is an ideal hunting environment.

Striper fishing is mostly a sight fishing sport and many boats fish the rips paying little attention to their gps/loran units. Captains who fish the rips on a regular basis know each shoal has a unique "fingerprint". By this I mean that each shoal has shapes to its rips that are unique to each shoal. Every rip in the Cape May Rips is as different as the retina of the eye or the fingerprints of ones hands. Experience allows you to use the shape and character of the rip to determine the characteristics of the shoal beneath the turbulence. When approaching a rip line, visual clues will tell you which part of that rip is likely to be the most productive. The current allows you to know the shape of the edge beneath in the same way that a law enforcement officer can use fine powder to detect the shape of unseen fingerprints. Finding the correct rips to drift over and positioning your boat to drift over the intended spot is the art of fishing for striped bass.

I observe that people fish the rips in two distinct ways. One is what I call the flounder fishing technique which works well for flounder but not so well for striper fishing. Some folks see the large fleet, join the mass of floating boats and drift the expanse of the shoal. Fish are caught this way but due to fish behavior in the rips, this is not the most productive technique.

To maximize your catch numbers, you have to spend your time in the most productive areas. With a few exceptions, this means making alot of small drifts over the edges of the shoals.


DRIFTING TECHNIQUE

I liken striper fishing to stealth warfare. Stripers are easily put off their feed or scared from their location by noise. Scuba divers report that even their air bubbles frighten the stripers away. The proper technique is to move about the rips slowly and shut the engine(s) off as you drift over your intended edge. After drifting the edge, start up your engine(s), make a semicircle slowly across the rip line and hit the same edge or an adjacent edge again. Try to keep your movements less than 5 knots and do not change the rpm's of your engines as you move about as stripers seem not so offended by consistent noise.

Experience will teach you which edge of the rip will likely hold the most fish. Look for the most turbulent water on the edge, signalling the biggest bottom change. Eddies created by uneven edges are always striper hideouts. Try to drift the points as well as the u shaped areas of the rips. If you are not too confident in your ability to spot these "sweet spots," you can watch the boats drifting the area and watch for bent rods, and get on their drift. In your mind you must calculate the current direction in combination with the wind speed and direction to hit the spot of your choice. On windy days, the wind may actually try to blow you away from the rip. You can compensate for this by shutting down your engines closer to the rip, maintaining a little momentum from your boat speed to carry you over the rip.

The ideal way to fish the edges is to keep your boat bow into the rips. Rips love to turn the boat beam to the rip or even stern to the rip, which can create a dangerous situation. This effect is greater on smaller boats. Be cautious when fishing areas of intense rips, specifically those on Prissy Wick Shoal and particularly on the outgoing tides. Mid sections of this shoal have depth changes from 30 to 5 feet, and huge waves can form and break unexpectedly when large volumes of water are moving up onto the shoal, exactly like waves breaking on the beach. Small boats should avoid this area altogether. Every year boats are capsized there. Larger boats have wet their patrons or ruined their running gear.

Try also to find good looking edges of shoals not too heavily fished by novices. Novices tend to blast over the shoals and put the fish off feed. If boats fish the area quietly, however, many boats can drift over the same spot and catch fish. Sometimes fish will congregate on the interior parts of the shoals, particularly if the edges have been heavily fished, in this case, long drifts pay off.

Another reason the first edge is the most productive is also because the water is the cleanest there. Silt from storms and high tides has settled onto the ocean floor in the rips and underwater surge created by strong winds or ocean swells stir up the silt on the ocean floor, making visibility poor at times.

One should be aware that there are hundreds of unnamed and uncharted shoals in the areas of the rips. Some are only visible as a very minor or no surface disturbance particularly in deeper water. For example, an abrupt change from 30 to 25 feet may hold quite a few big fish, but be all but invisible as a surface change except under calm conditions with strong tides, so keep an eye on your depth finder when searching for fish.


CONCLUSION

It is no wonder that striper fishing is so addictive. The challenge of studying the characteristics of the many hundreds of rips on the bay-ocean interface and mentally calculating your drift profile to hit the intended spot is indeed a skill to be honed. The pleasure of slipping out of your marina in near dark conditions, fishing among the rips in a stealth like fashion, landing stripers from the turbulent waters, releasing some of these beautiful fish, and bringing a couple back for dinner, is truly a day that rejuvenates the soul.