Bunker Lunkers: How to Catch Big Striped Bass on Menhaden

Category: Best Bass Lures
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Eric Kerber with a Jersey bunker-blitz striper.

Pod Casting: Eric Kerber with a Jersey bunker-blitz striper.
Tim Romano

Send out a 12-inch live Atlantic menhaden with a 6-inch girth and it’s going to catch a big striped bass. That’s the first part of the magic. A little “rat” striper isn’t likely to take a swipe at a meal so massive. Even a 10-pound schoolie would be at risk of choking to death. When line starts peeling out after a pickup, you can usually bank on the diner weighing at least in the high teens. You could also be a five-count away from locking up on the next world record. The second part of the magic is the warning. The bait’s tail beat quickens. It moves in terrified bursts of speed. In a last-ditch effort to survive, it often comes to the surface. That’s when the striper makes its final approach, inhaling the bait in a thunderclap of whitewater that I’d use as a ringtone if only I could record it. It’s one of my favorite fall sounds, and without these oversize baitfish I might never get to hear it.

Striking Oil

Atlantic menhaden—or bunker as they’re called where I fish in New Jersey—can grow up to 15 inches. They’re a staple food source for everything from Florida snook to giant bluefin tuna in Nova Scotia, and it’s their protein-packed, oil-rich flesh that helps gamefish reach heavyweight status. That oil has also made Atlantic menhaden big business for commercial fishing from the birth of the nation to the present day. Do you take an omega-3 pill in the morning? Congrats, you’re eating bunker. Fish oil is in such high demand that Atlantic menhaden were nearly wiped out, which directly affected the health of the east coast striper population. It was a cap placed on the commercial take in 2012 that would ultimately flip the switch for the bass and the fishermen that chase them.

Atlantic Menhaden used for striped bass fishing

Fish oil has made Atlantic menhaden big business for commercial fishing.
Joe Cermele

“As far as I’m concerned, bunker are the most important fish in the entire ocean,” my good friend, New Jersey charter captain Eric Kerber, says. “If we didn’t have a strong bunker population, we wouldn’t have any big bass. They helped the striper fishery bounce back along a lot of the east coast.”

Atlantic Menhaden

Atlantic menhaden can grow up to 15 inches.
Joe Cermele

Anglers from Boston to Delaware get two chances to cash in; once in spring when the bass are pushing north, and again from early September through early December when the fish are heading south. During both runs, bunker provide the fuel the heaviest stripers need for the trek, and when the feed is on, it’s an incredible sight.

Striped bass fishing

Striped bass eat menhaden head first.
Joe Cermele
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