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Bunker Down For Bass´┐Ż
By Rich Johnson

You’re drifting along your favorite channel or bay area and suddenly it sounds as if it’s raining outside. You look skyward and you see there’s no chance for rain, but the water looks as if it’s raining with dimples and splashes everywhere. Suddenly, the surrounding water explodes with the spray of baitfish being savagely attacked by large bluefish and bass. Have you figured out what’s going on?

What you’re witnessing is the start of the fall migration and it’s been going on for a couple of weeks with plenty more to come. It’s exactly why I’m always preaching not to put the boat way after Labor Day. What we have this year are millions of baby bunker, or what we call “peanut” bunker working their way out of our bays and estuaries. Bass and blues love gorging on these tasty three to four-inch morsels and this can be some of the most exciting action of the year, with the best chance for putting a real trophy in the boat.

Using the actual forage base of a predator is always a step in the right direction and there is a certain technique to using live, baby bunker or any live bait for that matter. You need a livewell because bunker, large or small do not survive well without fresh, running seawater. Another tip; the live-well needs to be circular in shape because the nature of bunker is to continually swim. If the live well is square, they “nose” themselves into the corner, stop swimming and die.

So to gather your bait you have two options. Get it yourself or buy it from the tackle shop. This is one case where fresh frozen is just not going to cut it. You really want live bait! If your local tackle doesn’t have live bunker, you can learn to throw a cast net and gather your own, or snag some bait. Using a small, number #1 treble hook, with a small split shot or rubber core sinker just above it, cast your line into the school of bait fish and pull sharply, snagging the bait and putting it in the well. These schools are so thick it is easy to snag your own.

RIGGING. Once you’ve gathered enough bait, several dozen pieces or so, the next step is to rig your baits. Baby bunker can be delicate in nature so handle them gently. Using a #1 treble hook, tie off a three-foot section of 40 to 50-pound leader material to your hook. Now tie that to a three-way swivel and attach it to your running line. Next step, tie a section on mono to your three-way swivel for your sinker. Start with about six to 18 inches of length and tie off a loop for quick changing sinkers depending on tide conditions, you want to use a light a weight as possible.

You want to start fishing close to the bottom because large fish usually feed from the bottom of the bait school. If this doesn’t work, lengthen the sinker line and experiment until you find the depth at which the fish are feeding. Don’t be fooled by splashing and feeding activity on the surface, what you see on the surface is only a fraction of what goes on below.

Now take your treble and hook, and hook only one of the treble points through the bottom of the chin and through the nostril of the baby bunker. Lower your line to the bottom and hold on. There is no mistaking the take on a bay bunker by blues and bass. When using treble hooks, you don’t want to let the fish run with the bait. When you feel the bite, set the hook immediately and hold on! You can also let the baby bunker free swim without any weights. This can work very well at times too.

TIPS. When you find a school of bunker, start fishing the school and stay with it as it moves through the channel or bay. No matter how far it moves, stay with them, the fish will cooperate. Make sure you have the tackle to do the job. I use Berkley Big Game 40-pound test on my Ambassadeur 7000 reels with a rod that can do battle with big bass.

TACKLE. When it comes to fishing with live bait, you have to expect to catch BIG fish. Bass to 40 pounds are not uncommon when fishing like this. Your tackle has to be strong enough to handle this battle so you come out on top. I use an Ambassadeur 7000 reel spooled with 30 to 40-pound Big Game line. My rod is a Seeker BS85-7, which has enough backbone to handle large game fish yet a soft enough tip to allow the bait to swim freely. When a big fish takes the bait, you point the rod at the fish and when the line comes tight set the hook as hard as you can.


LIVE EELS: This is just one example of many rigs for stripers on the East Coast. Tie a 3-way swivel to the running line (40-pound test), while tying a lighter (15# test) piece of mono (12 to 18 inches) with a sinker loop to act as a breakaway to the other eye. Next, use a 3/0 or 4/0 short shank tuna hook tied to a three-foot (slow tide) or six-foot (fast tide) leader of 50-60-pound test leader, connected to the remaining eye. The eel is hooked from below the chin and out an eye socket, then fished with the sinker a couple of handle turns off the bottom. When you feel a bump, “bow” to the cow, let the line come taught and set the hook…hard!

ONE HOOK RIGS: When trolling live forage for game fish, hook size depends on the bait, not the game fish! Use the lightest hook you can get away with, so the bait survives the ordeal. Live bait must stay alive! Tie hook to a short length of leader attached to a barrel swivel to diminish line twist. Hook bait through fleshy part of the back just behind the head, or place hook through hollow area between nostrils as in the case of herring.

TWO HOOK RIG: Use this rig when game fish seem to find the area of a bait without the hook. Using a barrel swivel rated for 50-75 pounds tied directly to your running line, tie off two equal lengths (8-12 inches) of mono or braided wire (for toothy critters) to the other eye. Use 6/0 hooks and tie to the equal lengths of line. Insert one hook in the nose and the other in the tail of the bait. This allows bait to swim freely while on the drift, doubling chances of a hook up.

WEAKFISH & SEA TROUT: Use whole crabs (3 inch diameter) or shedder crabs when possible. Use a 4/0 to 6/0 hook tied to an 18 to 24-inch leader which in turn is tied a barrel swivel. This can be fished on the drift, with sinkers or from the surf. Use a rubber band to hold crab onto hook.

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