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Livelining Menhaden for Striped Bass
by Captain Steve Byrne

Mossbunker, Bunker and Pogy are historic, regional common names for the
Atlantic Menhaden  Brevoortia tyrannus
More about Menhaden in Footnotes

hrow it near the rocks,” I instructed, and Jim lobbed the 2-pound bunker as he was told. It hit the surface with a distinct “splat.” Copyright J. FredaHis line jumped nervously as the boat drifted back, and then line started peeling off. After just a few seconds, it stopped. “I think he dropped it,” said Jim. No sooner were the words out, than the bunker flew out of the water. We watched as a 25-pound striper toyed with it, like a seal playing with a ball. Another thirty seconds of knocking the bunker around and Jim's striper got serious. Line peeled from the reel once again, but this time there was no stopping. A few seconds later, Jimmy put the reel in gear and waited for the line to come tight before lifting the rod and leaning back against the bass.

That was the fifth bass of what turned out to be a twenty-plus fish morning for the three of us. All of the stripers were between 18 and 30 pounds, and nearly all of them gave us a show similar to the one just described. The best part was the consistency of the action from day to day. Once the stripers were located, the bite was a lock as long as the water was moving.

When it comes to working our local waters for striped bass, one of the most exciting methods of enticing big fish is by using live bunker for bait. There is a real adrenaline rush that comes from watching an out-sized bass bat around the bunker on the end of your line. You know you're in when the line starts peeling off your reel as though it was attached to a jet ski. While the concept of livelining couldn't be simpler - put a big bunker on the hook and let it swim - there are some finer points to consider that will up your score and eliminate some of the frustration that comes with using big, live bait.

Copyright Capt. Steve Byrne

In most situations, the best presentation is one that allows the bunker to swim naturally. To accomplish this, I prefer passing a single 8/0 hook through the bait. While many anglers use a treble hook when livelining, I would rather avoid risking unnecessary damage to the striper that hits my bait. With the relative abundance of today's stripers, there is no reason to use anything other than a single hook when using bait - live or dead. On most days, you will have plenty of chances to hook up. Single hooks are nearly as effective as trebles, and they greatly minimize injury to the fish.

Hook placement is an often-debated topic, with many anglers opting for hooking their baits through the lips. There are two problems associated with this choice. First, the fish cannot breathe. Before long, you won't be livelining; you will be fishing dead bunker. Second, by placing your hook through the lips, there is a tendency for the hook to find its way back into your bait when you try to set on a fish. My personal choice for placing the hook is on top of the bunker, just behind the head. The meat is firm there, and the hook can pull free of the bait when it's time to stick a striper. Another choice is to go through the nostrils, so that the hook sits at a ninety-degree angler to the bait. A few captains I know prefer to hook the bait near the anus. The idea behind this choice is that the bunker will swim down in an effort to relieve pressure. No matter where you put the hook, rest assured that stripers will find - and eat - your bait. The only question is whether or not your hook point will find a home in the striper's mouth.

Now that we have a live bunker on the line, it's time to get it back where it belongs - in the water! Most liveliners I know prefer lobbing their bunker into the water. We believe that the slap of the bunker hitting the water is unmistakable, and the sound is like ringing the dinner bell for stripers. There are some options to consider before tossing your offering into the brine. Do you want to use a sinker? Do you want to injure your bunker? These questions cannot be properly addressed without first considering the circumstances in which you are fishing.

Copyright Capt. Steve Byrne

The most common scenario where anglers are using live bunker is one where schools or small pods of bunker are being harassed by stripers or bluefish. When you are fishing around large schools of bunker, there are thousands of menhaden for predators to choose from. How can you increase the odds of your bunker becoming one of the unfortunates in this situation? First, consider that the drag created by the running line will significantly slow most bunker; but that might not be enough. Some anglers subscribe to the “cut off the tail” approach. The problem with this is that the bunker will swim unnaturally, often in circles, and that will cause many bass to turn away. The most effective method I have found is to make one or two deep cuts at the base of the tail - not on the fin itself. The bunker will swim normally, but will quickly tire. The steady loss of blood will act as a beacon guiding hungry stripers to your offering. If it has enough energy to rejoin the school for protection, it will be too tired to outrun the predators when they come. Your bunker will be the straggler that gets nailed by the stripers.

Let's say you are fishing around a school of bunker that is pushed up against the beach or some other structure and your baits keep getting chopped up by bluefish. That's the time to let your boat drift away from the school. Stripers will be hanging back from the chaos, waiting for pieces of bunker to drift back to them. On the other hand, if you find that bluefish are cutting up a school in open water, try to put your boat behind the school. As the pack moves, they leave behind a trail of food for the bass. It is not uncommon to find stripers feeding fifty to one hundred yards away from the war zone of bunker and bluefish.

Livelining around harbor-residing bunker schools will yield good results with stripers and bluefish, but I have found that most of these bass are in the 20-pound range. Taking bunker out of the harbor and livelining them in the adjacent waters often produces larger stripers. These fish can be located by making long drifts with live bunker. When you get a take, hit the MOB button on your GPS. Subsequent drifts can be shortened as you hone in on the area where the bass are holding. Covering an area with live bunker is a little different than livelining around schools or structure. You want the bunker to come with you during the drift, but bring him along in short spurts. Let the bunker swim naturally, for a minute or two and then give it a nudge so it follows your drift. If you have too much line out, reel in and let your bunker start from the boat again. Too much line between you and your bunker will make it difficult to know what is happening in the water.

When working an area that holds bass but not bait, send out your bunker in the best condition possible. Open water is all the advantage that stripers need to catch a lone bunker. There is no need to slow the bait down by cutting it.

As far as sinkers are concerned, I will only resort to them as a final option. Sinkers have a habit of wrapping up in running line, finding junk in the water, or getting snagged on the bottom. If you must add weight to get down to the bass, go with an egg-style sinker. They have the least chance of getting hung up.

My ideal liveline setup consists of a 7-foot medium heavy rod and a Penn 975 or Calcutta 400 loaded with 30-pound-test. I put a barrel swivel on the tag end of my running line, with three or four feet of 50-pound-test between the swivel and an 8/0 Mustad hook. A large landing net should be considered required gear, as well as a gaff for any large bluefish you happen to encounter.

Copyright Capt. Steve Byrne

The eternal question when fishing large baits like live bunker is when to set the hook. The truth is, there is no hard and fast answer. Every fish takes the bait differently, and each opportunity presents its own unique set of variables. Generally though, the take goes something like this: You have your reel in free spool, with your thumb keeping light pressure as the bunker swims happily along. Suddenly, you feel your bunker getting jumpy. It might swim a quick burst, or just start thumping the line, creating a quivering sensation that is quickly passed to your hands. Next, there may be a short run or two. This is the bass knocking the bunker around, getting it into position to be eaten. If the bass are not aggressive, they can knock your bunker around like a beach ball for a few minutes. When the take finally comes, there will be a new smooth feel to the line tumbling off your reel as the striper swims away with your bunker.

Staying in touch with your bunker while it is in the water is the key to livelining success, and it requires some finesse. One of the most common mistakes made by anglers is losing their sense of what is happening below the surface. Very often, anglers put a hook through their bunker and free spool it away, expecting a striper to give them a courtesy call when it is time to set the hook. This inattentive approach usually results in lost bait. When the bare hook comes up, the most common belief is that the bunker “fell” off the hook. Fresh, live bunker never “fall” off hooks - they get eaten off hooks! Your line is the telegraph wire between your bait and your brain. If the line goes dead, you have to get tight as quickly as possible, and then take the reel out of gear again. It is a give and take between the angler and the bunker - allow it to swim wherever it wants, but don't lose touch with it. Bunker will swim circles around your boat, swim under your boat, around buoys and snags - you name it. It's all part of the game.

Another scenario that I see on most trips is the bass that runs straight at the boat. The line will go slack, and as the angler reels it in, it continues to go slack. The first thought that comes to mind is that the line broke. That's when I start yelling, “Reel, reel, reel”! When the line comes tight, the striper will often be within ten feet of the boat. With such a short distance between you and the fish, there is no room for error. Smooth movements are critical, as line stretch is virtually eliminated at this short distance. Your move here is to get tight, and hold on. The bass will set the hook by itself.

The ability to reel up slack while remaining ready to put the reel in free spool at a moment's notice is what will, to a large extent, determine your level of success. This is the main reason why spinning gear is a no-no for livelining. The other reason is that for the most part, spinning reels fall short when it comes to free spooling live bait. The one exception that comes to mind are the Baitrunner models, made by Penn and Shimano. If you really can't bear the thought of using conventional gear, one of these reels is a viable option. End

Copyright © 2007 - 2013 Steve Byrne, All Rights Reserved

FOOTNOTES:

  • “The Narragansett (Native American Indians) called the fish munnawhatteaug, “that which manures,” soon corrupted to “menhaden” by the English colonists. The Abenaki (Native American Indians) of Maine called them pauhagen, their word for “fertilizer,” hence “pogy,” still a common name for the fish. This is the fish Squanto may have taught the Pilgrims to plant with their corn.” Source: MotherJones.com Net Losses: Declaring War on the MenhadenOffsite Link An excellent and alarming article detailing the astronomical depletion of the Menhaden by one company, Omega Protein of Virginia.
  • MenhadenDefenders.org Organization fighting to protect Menhaden from over harvesting.
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