Striped Bass Fishing with Bunker
Also known as bunker or porgy, the menhaden is hands down the best bait going when it comes to striped bass. Back in the day, bunker made up roughly 80% of the stripers diet. Bunker is a fatty, oily, high calorie bait that is an easy target for stripers. These days there is a large commercial fishery for the bunker. The oils in the bunker are used in everything from medicines to margarine to pet food. Next time you are in the grocery store with your wife, look at how many labels contain Omega-3 oils. The number of products that use bunker oil is staggering. The commercial fleets are incredibly efficient at wiping out entire schools of bunker in a single pass with their net. Some of the larger companies use spotter planes to locate the schools and radio the coordinates to the big boats. They swoop in using a technique called purse seining where a ship pays out a large net that encircles the entire school. As important a bait source as they are, they play an even bigger ecological role. Bunker are filter feeders meaning that they feed by straining suspended matter and food particles from water. Bunker swim in massive schools that can number in the millions. When you find one, there are sure to be many more in the immediate area. In the heat of the summer they find their way in to the back creeks and small estuaries where they can literally suck all of the oxygen from the water. Massive fish kills take place every summer when this happens.
Because they are filter feeders, they can’t be caught with bait, lures or flies like other striper baits. We will either snag them with weighted treble hooks or net them. Snagging can be a lot of work and very messy but it allows you to cover the entire water column to find them. Be sure to wear older clothes because you and your boat will be covered in blood in no time. Many times while snagging, we will catch stripers and bluefish before we can even get the bunker back to the boat. This past spring we would fish all day like that. We’d find the pod of bunker, cast into it and snag a bunker. Instead of reeling it back to the boat we’d just let it swim around with the rest of the pod. Eventually, with the weight of the snag hook in it, the bunker would start to swim lower and eventually get below the rest of the school. It never takes long for a striper to find a wounded bunker. When the schools of bunker get thick enough many people use a gill net. A gill net is usually between 50 and 100 feet long and is 4 to 6 feet deep. There are floats to keep it on the surface and small weights strung on the bottom to keep it stretched out. Typically the net is laid out off the back of an idling boat in a likely area. The mesh in the net is just big enough so that when the bunker swims into the net their head passes through the holes but their gill plates become entangled. The net is pulled back in and the bunker are removed. For me, the easiest way to catch bunker is to throw a cast net. I use a net with an eight foot radius. The important part is that the cast net is sufficiently weighted and had the right mesh size to allow the net to sink quickly once it hits the water. The mesh size should be no smaller than one inch and you want a net that has at least 1.25 pounds of lead per foot. Anything less and the fish will spook and clear the net before it has a chance to sink. I will usually net 4 dozen or so to start my morning. My boat has 3 separate live wells so keeping them alive and kicking is never a problem.
Once out on the reef, most mornings I like to start in very shallow water with no weight. Live lining like this produces some spectacular explosions on the surface. The first thing a bunker does when it’s being chased is to run to the surface. There is nothing more exciting than to see your bunker fleeing for its life only to be knocked 3 feet into the air by a vicious tail slap and be swallowed whole as soon as it lands back in the water again. As the sun gets high and the boat traffic increases, most of the bigger bass will retreat towards deeper water. At that point we will strap on the sinkers and 3 way them in the same exact places in same exact ways that we do with the porgy, hickory shad and eels. Bunker is so effective that we have actually ruined the fishing for boats fishing in the same area as we were when they were using baits other than bunker. Once that scent gets in the water, that’s all the striper can think about. Bunker is THAT deadly!