When I first started getting really into surfcasting, I can remember reading stories about big fish pushing big baits; mackerel, sea herring, hickory shad and, of course, bunker were the big names I read over and over. I also remember thinking that those baitfish seemed to be curiously absent from the menu in the local wash. There could be a million reasons for this, perhaps the most likely is that I just didn’t know what I was really looking for—but there was enough outcry on the message boards to “save the bait” to make me believe that they just weren’t around in any real numbers.
I was working in a coastal Massachusetts town at the time called Mattapoisett and I used to drive down to the pier every day at lunch to absorb some of that feeling only the ocean can give you. As is typical of most piers in the fall, there always seemed to be someone looking for snapper blues there. One day I was just sitting there eating my lunch and I could hear some grunts of frustration as one of these snapper chasers was casting to a particularly animated school but the fish wouldn’t eat his fly and float combo. I walked over and could see with my polarized sunglasses on that these were bigger than your typical snapper and they were swimming in a large tornado pattern with those at the top of the school splashing on the surface.
As always, I had a rod in the car and I grabbed a tin with a treble hook on it, cast it over the school and snagged one, lo and behold, it was a sizeable bunker, probably close to two pounds. I let it swim around out there with an 8/0 octopus hook in its nose for another 20 minutes but no one was home—this was my first experience with bunker.
As I was driving home that day my mind reached back to a story I read about a Columbus Day Blitz on Martha’s Vineyard back in the early 1980’s. This event lasted, as I recall, almost an entire day as giant bass into the 50-pound class pushed bunker up onto the sand. Needless to say it was hard to win the daily in the Derby that day!
A few weeks later I was exploring a deep spot I spied on a map. I walked out onto a shallow flat, casting a Bomber in the late morning sunlight. My first cast was followed by at least five small bass, my next cast was eaten by one of them and then my third cast was eaten as well—the fish were cookie cutters, 26 inches or so. I got the idea that if I was catching small fish on plugs that I might get a bigger one on an eel, so I re-rigged and gave it a shot. My first cast was inhaled by a 20-pounder! A few casts later I had another! As I walked out further, I hit back-to-back 26-pounders and several others between 18 and 22. As I was skirting the edge of the drop, something odd caught my eye—flashes with repetitive motion. My eyes wouldn’t focus on the motion, it was almost as if whatever it was, was reflecting the bottom coloration back at me. Then, finally, my eyes focused and I saw a small pod of bunker—no more than 30 of them. But it was immediately apparent why all these fish were eating under a bright sun in this little deep pocket!
In twelve years since that day, bunker have made a dramatic comeback. Regulations on commercial harvest have really helped bring these protein-packed baitfish back to the menu in the surf. The downside to their return is that there are too many inexperienced fishermen using them for bait and causing true harm to fish that they intend to release. To be clear, I’m not faulting them for being inexperienced; I’m faulting a lack of information on how to catch fish on live bunker.
A couple years ago I was at the Canal with my usual fishing partner and a friend of ours. The fishing was good, but not “all out”. It was late in the tide but about 300 yards up-current of us there were a couple guys who kept catching big fish when no one else was even really casting. They were too far away for me to be sure what they were using, but they caught some big fish! Then, like a lit fuse, more anglers began hooking and the bent rods were getting closer and closer. Right in tight to the shore we saw a massive bulge streaking toward us… it was a speeding school of bunker being chased by some very big bass!
I don’t usually carry a snag hook and today was no different, but I quickly snapped a needlefish on and let it sink to the bottom right where I expected them to come through. They came by fast, a pod of at least 300—when they covered my needle I hauled back viciously and snagged one. These were pound and a half bunker and our friend looked at me and asked “What are you going to do with THAT!?”
“Just watch this,” was all I said.
I pulled an eel rig out of my pouch, cut the hook off and snapped it right to my snap. Then I threaded the hook through its nostrils and lobbed it out into the current. The bunker was in the water maybe 30 seconds before we saw a large swirl open up near the bait and then a wide wake fell into place behind the terrified bunker. My bunker made one half-assed attempt at jumping but just kind of rolled over on its side and then I felt the “tick” as the fish engulfed the bunker.
I had the line off the rolled on my Van Staal and I let that fish take line for about two seconds, maybe three. Then I hooked the line on the roller and gave two short but powerful tugs to sink the hook. The fish was very heavy and unfortunately, won the battle when she dove over the ledge, buried her face in the rocks and cut my 80-pound leader.
But it’s not the catching of the fish that’s the important part of this story it’s the feel and the timing. Sometimes bass will play with your bunker—most of the time this is a small fish, but it might also be the condition of your bait that’s keeping a big fish from eating it. The hit, in my experience, is not usually a smash, it’s usually a soft ‘tick’ like the first tap on a live eel. But no matter if it’s a light tick or a heart-stopping smash, the fish should not be allowed to swim off for 30 seconds; it should be allowed to swim for no more than FIVE seconds that’s all you need to hook a good one. If you pull the bait out of its mouth, odds are it was a small fish that couldn’t choke the bunker down.
I’m sure there are several people scoffing at me right now, but this is fact as I’ve come to know it. Releasing a fish that’s pouring blood out of both gills is no different than throwing it up into the rocks to rot. The fish you really want to catch is going to get that bunker down fast, because it is feeding competitively, and swimming around with half a bunker sticking out of its mouth is an invitation to have it stolen! When you get into a snag-and-drop situation, feel the hit and count to three (or five if you have to), you might miss a few small ones but your release mortality will go way down and that’s really what’s most important. A bloody bass is a dead bass—think about that—is it worth it?