Stripers in the Surf on the Outer Banks
by Joe Malat
Stripers have appeared as incidental catches from the surf and piers since last spring. Most were small, and all had to be returned, because they were under the 28 inch minimum for ocean caught stripers. There is also a 2 per person per day bag limit.
Last fall, plenty of them were caught by anglers fishing for speckled trout on the beaches north of Oregon Inlet, and there were some days when stripers staged fantastic runs in the surf at Cape Point, near Buxton. Many of these fish exceeded the 28 inch legal minimum, and already this fall we have seen some good action with stripers in the surf around Oregon Inlet. The fish have ranged from 12 up to 36 inches.
All the evidence shows a strong comeback of the striped bass, and this year the striped bass could become THE late fall fish in the Outer Banks, a position once held by the jumbo blues. Like bluefish, stripers are aggressive, highly predatory fish. They sometimes travel and feed in large schools, and when they move into an area that's holding bait, they can stage a feeding frenzy that will rival any bluefish "blitz" we have ever seen.
What kind of conditions might put stripers on the beach? The highest numbers of them will probably arrive in late fall, and any time from November through January can be good. A moderate to calm surf, an onshore breeze, and fairly clear water may set the stage for an appearance, but last fall some of the best catches of stripers came when the wind was howling out of the northeast. If the stripers show during the day, it may be prudent for an angler to return to the scene of the crime under the cover of darkness, since these fish are often nocturnal feeders.
Stripers also prefer to feed around hard structure like jetties and rocks, which are conspicuously absent from most of the Outer Banks beaches. Beach formations or "soft structures" with deep holes, steep beaches, and breaks in the outer sand bar which produce strong rip currents are all good bets after the sun goes down. Again, it's a roll of the dice, and persistence is key for success.
According to local reports, stripers were concentrated around Oregon Inlet for most of last winter, and this area certainly has enough structure to attract fish. For boaters, trolling around the bridge pilings is a good bet, and shore bound anglers who work the rocks on the south side of the inlet have a good shot at these fish.
There are plenty of deep holes along the open beach from Rodanthe down to Avon that hold large red drum every year. Those same sloughs could produce stripers, after a majority of the drum have migrated south.
Of course, Cape Point near Buxton, probably the "fishiest" section of beach along the Outer Banks, is a strong contender. During the early seventies, jumbo stripers would school up with big blues and produce some splendid catches at the Point. This section of beach is a good bet for December, and maybe early January.
Fishing on the bottom with fresh bait is probably the best bet to score with the stripers, but it's tough to always find good bait in the late fall. Mullet, or fresh menhaden impaled on 6/0 hooks and fishfinder or triple swivel surf rigs, with 50 pound test monofilament leaders should suffice. Small bait stealers such as spot or croakers that roam the surf in the early fall are not a problem at this time of the year, and a fresh bait will stay on your hook longer. An enterprising angler who can find some small live eels might be able to make an offering that no self respecting striper can refuse.
Swimming plugs with a smaller dropper hook dressed with a bit of bucktail, or a 1/4 ounce bucktail rigged on a short piece of monofilament to follow a swimming plug might produce when the stripers are feeding on small baitfish in the surf. The fish will go after the small lure, the swimming plug only provides the means to get the tiny offerings in the strike zone. Small tandem bucktail rigs similar to what folks use for speckled trout or bluefish from the piers might be effective.
If you are lucky enough to find the fish chasing bait in close to the beach, watch what they are feeding on, and cast something that looks like the baitfish. Assuming that 15 pound fish are eating large baitfish may be a mistake. The same lead head jigs, with green twister tails we use for speckled trout will also catch stripers.
I think flexibility is the key. Keep your eyes and mind open. Most Outer Banks surfcasters are used to catching jumbo blues as they were feeding on menhaden, mullet, small bluefish, and speckled or gray trout in the surf. Try to figure out what the stripers are eating, and replicate the food.
Good luck, see you on the beach!