Fishing “Peanut” Bunker Blitzes in the Surf... By Nick Criaris
This past fall was certainly one for the books. From Raritan Bay all the way down the coast, on the sand or in a boat Striped Bass were found terrorizing schools of bunker daily. These past two falls I have noticed in particular an array of sizes with the bunker available that spanned anywhere from 2 inch “peanuts” to full size pound and a half adult menhaden. This is not necessarily an odd occurrence, but seeing bait of this size in the same schools is something I haven’t noticed with any regularity much previously. This makes things easier, or more difficult depending on how you approach the situation. Such is the topic at hand, how to fish “peanut” bunker blitzes…. From the beach.
First, we need to ask ourselves some questions. The first subject is, what is a “peanut”? What constitutes it being a peanut…. and so on. This is a topic of everlasting argument. Peanut bunker size to me is 2-5”, 6-8” are “lollipops”, and everything larger is just an adult bunker.
The best bites that occur on the beach, in my opinion, are when the so called lollipops are in the wash. This happened very frequently this past fall, producing some incredible long-lived action. The bass just seem to get particularly fired up on schools of baits in that 5-8” range. They are large enough to draw attention for prolonged periods of time, and the bass can consume numerous individuals in one feeding session. Typically, a peanut bite hosts fish to 35-36”, with tons of 24-30” fish on the gorge. The lollipop bite can sustain much larger fish, consistently.
We are often asked about fishing the beaches when the “peanut” bite is on. What to throw lure wise, what rod and reel combinations we like, and how to catch fish when they are picky and difficult to catch. Many times there are fish blitzing and marauding bunker of various sizes and it is tough to get bites. There are reasons for this, and I will get to that…
First off, the tackle…
There need be nothing fancy here. Typically walking the beach when the action is good on a bunker bite comes with westerly winds and fairly calm weather. No need for the 11’ meat stick and the VS 250. An 8 or 9’ rod will be more than enough to handle your desired targets and fish most offerings. Something like an ODM DNA or any 8-9’ rod capable of handling 1/2-3 oz will cover you. If there is wind in your face you may want to reach for something a bit bigger, but you most likely will not be seeing bunker being harassed at your feet in such conditions. For reels, a Shimano Saragosa 5000, Tsunami Salt x 4000, Penn Slammer 4500, or other comparable reels will do you just fine. Loaded with a 30 lb braid of your choice you are more than ready. For leader, I usually fish 40 or 50 fluorocarbon on the beach, but there is certainly no need, mono is fine.
When it comes to lure choices if you asked 50 different people you will probably get 50 different answers. Various sizes of bunker present in the same locales present a unique opportunity/ challenge. In years past, if there were peanuts on the beach they typically did not exceed 5” and often were 2-3” in size. The classic offerings for this were a 3-5” shad or a 1/2-3/4 oz bucktail swam through or below the schools when fish were picky and keyed in on the smaller sizes. Homemade snags were the stuff of invention and bragging rights when no one could get a bite in a school of fish on peanuts, but that is a thing of the past now with new regulations outlawing snagging. Of course small poppers, swimmers, and spooks take fish on the smaller bait but only when the fish are really on the feed or in great numbers. There was a time this year where a 1/2 oz bucktail with no trailer was the only thing getting bit with fish on smaller peanuts and thick bait schools making it tough.
Without abandoning the go-to lure(s) topic, I feel it would be foolish to not interrupt myself to discuss the most important aspect of this topic which is when and WHY. Observation is the single most lacking aspect of the modern fisher person. Sometimes a step back, a break from casting, and simple observation will tell you all you need to know.
In November I was out on the sandbar with my fly rod in the middle of a three hour long feed. That day I walked up to two anglers having a hell of a time with shads and swimming plugs with steady fish blitzing all around us. With all the bait and the volume of it, I couldn't get touched with a 4” deceiver. It simply wasn’t getting noticed even though it “matched the hatch” perfectly, there was too much bait. Also, I noticed some bigger “lollipops” coming through the trough outside the bar and that triggered my mind. I put on an 8” synthetic bunker fly and instantly was tight to a mid teen fish. Being out with the fish, in gin clear water, with them blitzing all around me/literally bumping my legs, watching other guys bail fish on spin, and getting denied on fly, put me into a tizzy of epic proportions. I can not lie. But then I took a breath and watched, made an adjustment and had a hell of a day for the next couple hours. Was it the “not matching the hatch” theory having its moment? Or were the larger fish simply ignoring the millions of 3-5” baits, keying on the larger 6-8 inchers? Sometimes, not matching the hatch is the key to success.
At times your offering must be matched perfectly to the size bait the fish are focused on and presented a very certain way. For example, if the water is black with peanuts, and fish are busting them it is going to be difficult. You will need to fish the edges of the schools or way outside them. Shads and swimmers like YoZuri MagDarters or wood metal lips as well as gliders sized appropriately are very effective on the edges of active schools. Outside them, pencil poppers, spooks, and cup faced poppers of your preference will draw strikes,often from larger fish and get you way outside the mayhem. Sometimes when the bait is thick you need to fish beneath it, although snagging can be a problem here. This is the old 1/2 oz bucktail routine, especially when bait is small.
When there are baits 3-8” and swimming together, larger fish will take a larger metal lip. If I’m catching 24-34” fish on traditional “peanut” sized baits, I will start heaving 6-7” surface swimming metal lips. It almost always results in a larger fish if they are present. The last couple years, during these bites there are always some 40+” fish lurking waiting for that 8” lollipop. The larger fish roam around and outside the carnage, waiting for an easy meal such as an injured larger option.
To summarize, I have touched on tackle, and lure offerings. The moral of this story however is to pay close attention to what is in front of you. Matching your offerings to the behavior and size of the baits present is much more important than what EXACT lure you clip on. If you see fish swirling and notice they are of larger size, they are probably going to take a larger offering. If the water is clear you can see the exact sizes of bait present and the class of fish in front of you. Whether the fish are singling out the bigger bunker in a school of peanuts, or are simply enticed by a larger offering standing out amongst smaller baits; larger plugs are what will generally catch your larger fish.
I could go on and on, but studying the action in front of you on that specific day and having that mindset will help you more than a list of specific plugs. I have been absolutely mesmerized by the diversity in the striped bass fishery on the NJ coast the last few years. It is ever changing, and the amount of bait we have had present is simply staggering. The fish have been changing, evolving… we must evolve our tactics as that happens.