May Mania: Stripers, Stripers Everywhere

by Zach Harvey

After slim pickings in April, May’s striper fishing borders on too many choices

May is one humdinger of a month in Ocean State striper fishing. After the predictable and relatively tame schoolie fishing that unfolds around a limited number of well-known spring hotbeds, the month of May rolls out a veritable manic episode of bass-angling possibility. The striper world goes from ho-hum to mayhem, as spots in every far-flung corner of state waters explode into full bloom. One minute, you’re unhooking a casting session’s twentieth schoolie at the West Wall, racked by a shiver that tells you it’s time to trudge back to the car. The next minute, you’re trying to decide which one among a dozen distinct striper/forage scenarios you’ll sample next.

Before we wade into the specifics, it’s worth noting that for the most part, May offers numbers of keeper-sized linesides, but it’s not a stretch of fishing calendar known for cow-bass production—though slobs are landed every year during this 31-day striper bonanza. The average size of the bass you catch doesn’t much matter in the end, since, with a bit of recon and tackle on the right scale for the size of your quarry, you can cast and catch yourself silly.

Really, it’s a wild array of different striper forage that underwrites the state’s Month Five mania: As the month progresses, you can find and target bass that are feeding on tiny Nereid worms, squid, river herring, sand eels, full-grown bunker (menhaden) and other striper staples. If you’re willing to put some miles on your truck or some hours on your engine(s), you can plug, jig, live-line, fly-cast, chunk, troll your share of the bass; after the April sessions, flinging tiny lures at tiny fish with tiny tackle—the only game in town—May’s endless options in terms of territory and tactics can stop you in your tracks, overwhelmed by choice. Obviously, not every single distinct May striper bite erupts in the same week, but late in the month, there can be lots of overlap.

If, after some 50-fish schoolie trips last month, you’re ready to stick something with a bit more heft, you can rule out at least a handful of potential areas. Obviously, boat fishermen enjoy much better odds of connecting with a heavyweight during the month of May, but determined surfmen do manage some good fish—as early, some years, as the first week of the month. Since the loss of river herring as a legal spring bait, many have turned to fresh-caught squid, another prime natural bait for large fifth-month linesides. Where, during the herring years, a lot of the activity centered on estuaries fed by herring runs (like the upper reaches of the Narrow River in North Kingstown, or Buckeye Brook and Apponaug in Warwick, among a number of others), recent years have seen a shift toward rocky, ocean-facing areas with abundant bait and easy access to deeper water: Napatree Point, Charlestown Breachway, parts of Matunuck, the Narragansett rocks, Austin Hollow or Beavertail in Jamestown, and various spots along Ocean Drive in Newport, as well as Sachuest Point all see plenty of fishing effort from May 15 onward.

If you’re on a singular quest to hang a heavyweight before June, you might connect throwing plugs that mimic squid or herring, but your odds will improve exponentially if you lean on whole, just-caught squid as your main weaponry—fishing them on long fluorocarbon leaders, either weighted with a tiny egg sinker above the leader’s swivel, or unweighted altogether, casting the baits out and letting them tumble along the bottom in the wee hours. For those willing to travel, Block Island has been enjoying a gradual shift in surfcasting patterns the last decade or so. The West side—spots like the Dump beach, Charleston Beach at the mouth of New Harbor, Gracies and Dories Coves, among others—tends to witness not just squid, but major clouds of sand eels, May through July. Contrary to legend and surfcasting mythology, Block Island, long ranked as a surfman’s paradise for its late-autumn fishing through the Moratorium years, has actually seen most consistent surfcasting results from mid-May into July.

For those with access to boats, the number of areas that offer reasonable odds of landing a true pre-June cow increases dramatically, as does the list of effective methods. In upper Narragansett Bay—from Conimicut Point all the way northward to the hurricane barrier—a fleet of small boats capitalizes on numerous schools of full-sized bunker, heading out to snag or cast-net a well’s load of bunker, then patrolling the edges of the shipping channel in search of bodies of better fish. Others will round up their baits, then “transplant” them in areas where productive structure gathers better bass, while a third group leans on the old snag-and-drop method, shadowing the bait schools that show signs of predator activity, swimming their bunker right with the school of their origin. All methods yield fish, though most of the sharper Bay crew acquire their bunker wherever that process is least frustrating, then take them for a ride to various ledges and rockpiles around Prudence Island, Ohio Ledge, the North End of Jamestown, various lesser-known hangs in the Middletown/Portsmouth vicinity—even the reefs out in front of Newport—the driving idea that larger bass will take fresh/live bunker more often than not. Many sharpies would rather quit fishing than bob around in a fiberglass herd trying to catch bass that feel like they’re swimming beneath an invasion force not seen since Normandy in the mid-1940s.

Naturally, Block Island—the place where most of the state’s charter fleet targets its bass—offers plenty of fish across a range of sizes, at both the North End—the Rip over toward Clay Head on the east side—and all along the structure-rich Southwest Corner out to the three-mile “Fence.” Several experts I consulted mentioned May 15 as a pretty reliable starting point, adding that most of their May fishing involves squid-imitating parachute jigs snapped in wire-line—a method that tunes the bass when there are huge squid clouds around.

The Watch Hill Reef complex is another better-bass venue in the month of May. There, local skippers employ a variety of squid-imitating tactics, and land fish from keeper size all the way up. That area, like many tideswept high spots and rockpiles, surrenders many of its larger fish around the ends of the hard-charging tides, when big, calorie-conscious cows come off the bottom for a quick patrol and a substantial meal without frenzied swimming.