PHOTOGRAPHS BY ANDREW BURKE
“That’s why you need to be ready! I’ll throw a bunker and make a bass eat!”
That scolding from Captain Rob Taylor came after I failed to launch a cast in time to reach the boiling stripers that Rob had brought to the surface. I deserved it. Not only had I blown the first shot of the morning, I’d been a bit of a Doubting Thomas that the bunker Rob had launched would actually ignite a blitz.
I first experienced “live chumming” with Captain Mike Holliday out of St. Lucie Inlet in Florida. After cast-netting several dozen baitfish near a bridge, Mike blasted out to the ocean side and set the boat over a nearshore wreck, where he fixed his position with his trolling motor. It took just a few handfuls of live pilchards tossed over the side to get a school of false albacore frothing behind the boat.
About three years ago, Rob took this same tactic from the warm, clear waters of Florida, and applied it to the cold, green waters of Narragansett Bay. In doing so, he took part in the long tradition of striper fishermen borrowing techniques from other fisheries and applying them to waters in the Northeast. Some of the most recent examples of this piscine intellectual-property theft include the Doc, a topwater lure designed for muskies and pike; the Magnum Flutter Spoon, developed for largemouth bass in Tennessee; and the Mojo Rig, a striper tactic with origins in the Chesapeake.
Chumming to attract striped bass is nothing new. More than 100 years ago, well-to-do fishermen visiting the bass stands of Cuttyhunk, Newport, Westport, and Martha’s Vineyard employed “chummers” to lace the waters with lobster tails and herring to attract large stripers. Today, anglers regularly draw in bass by doling out clam bellies or cut bunker—but I’d never seen stripers chummed up with whole, live, 1-pound baitfish until that early June morning aboard Rob’s 35-foot Terry Jason, the Reel E-Z.
Why Live Chumming Works
Individual bunker lack the speed, spines, camouflage, or wit needed to evade predation from hungry striped bass. They rely, instead, on a “strength in numbers” strategy. By forming a large, dense school, bunker can momentarily baffle predators that struggle to identify a single target in a wall of baitfish. Any bunker that stands out from the school, whether due to injury or simply zigging when the school zags, is not long for this world.
When Rob lobs three or four bunker over a school of stripers, the bunker, separated from the safety of their school, hit the panic button, and the stripers’ predatory instinct takes over. The bass greatly outnumbering the bunker works in the angler’s favor, because the stripers compete over the baitfish, making them more likely to attack a hook bait or artificial lure.
Filling The Livewell
Rob likes to have a minimum of 50 baits for a live-chumming trip but prefers to fill his livewell to capacity. The Reel E-Z has a 100-gallon pressurized livewell; allowing for 1 gallon of water per live bait, Rob can carry up to 100 adult bunker.
We’d begun our day looking for bunker in a small cove, with Rob watching the side-imaging on his Humminbird Solix 15 while I scanned the surface. Bunker often give away their location by flipping on top. Their small, forked tails make a distinct sound, but in rough water, early morning, or around heavy boat traffic, schools of bunker sound. When we reached the cove, there was already a carousel of boats looking for bait, so any bunker that had been on the surface had gone deep. This left it up to Rob and his electronics.
Rob uses a through-hull transducer (the Humminbird SSPH14HWMSI) over a transom mount because of the role his electronics play when he’s catching bait. With a transom-mounted transducer, by the time the bunker schools appear on the fishfinder, they’re already behind the boat. With the through-hull mounted just ahead of Rob’s position at the controls, he’s able to spot the school in plenty of time to get a cast net over them.
Rob spotted a school relatively quickly and gathered up his net as he pinwheeled the The Reel E-Z over the bait. His cast net has a 20-foot diameter with 2 pounds of weight per foot, helping it sink fast enough to trap the bunker, even over deeper water. In one motion, Rob backed off the throttles and threw a perfect circle with the cast net, which weighs 45 pounds empty. It weighed significantly more when it reached the surface with a few dozen frantic bunker.
The first (and only) throw of the cast net yielded about 75 baits, and as we tossed them in the livewell, Rob pointed the Reel E-Z toward the striper grounds.
Narragansett Slow Trolling
Every spring, migrating stripers use Narragansett Bay as a layover on their swim north. Narragansett is fed by several freshwater rivers, including the Blackstone, Taunton, and Pawtuxet, and with a surface area of 147 square miles, it falls between Buzzards Bay and Raritan Bay in size.
Like Buzzards and Raritan bays, Narragansett loads up with bunker in the springtime, when spring runoff flushes nutrients into the bay, providing plenty of nourishment for these filter-feeding baitfish. By May, large stripers begin entering the bay, attracted by the warmer waters and bunker bounty.
Unlike the Raritan, where stripers stage before moving up the Hudson River to spawn, stripers reaching the Narragansett have already spawned and are trying to replenish the calories expended from the spawn.
Most anglers chasing Narragansett’s spring stripers do so with live bunker, though topwater lures, soft plastics, and cut bait also catch fish.
Rob’s preferred presentation of live bunker is slow-trolling. By using a trolling valve, he is able to creep along at a speed just fast enough to keep the bunker pointed at the boat. He sets out two baits at a time, staggering the distances from the boat to keep them from tangling when he turns.
To comply with the current striped bass circle-hook mandate, Rob fishes the bunker on 10/0 Eagle Claw Lazer Sharp Circle Sea Inline hooks. To maximize hook-ups, Rob bridles the bunker, using a rigging needle and a small black rubber band threaded ahead of the bunker’s eye and wrapped around the hook. This allows the baitfish to swim freely and the hook to remain unobstructed for the hookset.
Slow-trolling allows Rob to cover water while watching his side-scanning sonar for schools of stripers. When he spots a bass on the sonar, he turns the boat in that direction, angling the bunker toward the striper’s position.
Rob refers to slow-trolling as “gentleman’s fishing,” because once he sets the rods, the anglers sit back and wait for a fish. When a bass first takes the bait, Rob instructs his anglers to leave the rod in the holder until it completely loads up under the weight of a fish. The movement of the boat and the circle hook (which Rob sharpens with the hook file he keeps handy) will do the work to button up the striper.
Three years ago, when Rob began integrating live chumming into his slow-trolling program, he was thrilled with the results. By dropping a few live bunker from above, he found he could take a school of inactive fish and get them competing over a few baitfish. Once the bass were on top, it was only a matter of time before one found his hook baits.
He keeps a topwater-rigged rod at the ready, instructing his clients to cast toward the frenzy created by his bunker barrage. I had that rod in hand on our trip, with the Doc still hooked on the first guide, when the stripers began to boil.
After the initial flurry, we spent two hours looking for another school of stripers large enough to tempt with live chumming. Even with a livewell full of bait, Rob is conservative about sending out bunker. He saves them for the larger schools he marks, in order to have enough on hand to keep his manmade blitzes going as long as possible.
Those two hours weren’t completely without excitement, though. During that time, the other angler on board, On The Water publisher Chris Megan, and I each fought and landed beautiful striped bass. Chris’ was a single fish Rob marked with the side imaging just a few seconds before the rod went down. My fish was part of a small wolf pack of stripers that Rob had steered toward in order to show them our baits. Both were fat, healthy, beautiful fish, with a few sea lice clinging to their scales and a brilliant purple cast to their flanks.
Despite the action, Rob wasn’t seeing enough fish, so he took us out to a mid-bay flat where, within a few minutes of setting out the baits, he spotted the motherlode of fish. They appeared on the side-scanning sonar as a regiment of dark shadows. Rob darted back to the livewell, instructing me to get the Doc ready, and launched the first bunker toward the school like a right fielder trying to catch a runner at the plate. It was as if he’d tossed a grenade. The bunker landed, six seconds passed, and the surface exploded with multiple stripers pursuing the baitfish.
I let the Doc fly while Rob threw more bunker. Within seconds, there were stripers everywhere, including one hot on the tail of my topwater. I paused the plug for half a heartbeat, and the fish took. Chris prepared to cast his own lure, but was interrupted by a bass eating one of the slow-trolled bunker—a double header in the midst of a manmade blitz!
After releasing those fish, Rob located the school again, threw more bunker, and started another blitz. Before I could fire off a cast with the Doc, the slow-trolled bunker was devoured and I was tight to another beautiful striped bass.
The entire process repeated twice more before other anglers spotted the commotion, and the increased boat traffic scattered the bass.
We freed the rest of the bunker in the livewell, and headed to the dock, no longer doubtful about live chumming in the Northeast—only excited about where else it can be applied.