LOTS of the fishing techniques for using live bait for striped bass and bluefish seem to be not very well explained or get little or no use by those people that don't have the knowledge and experience to "take it to the limit."
There's no doubt that much of the live bait fishing for both stripers and bluefish revolve around mackerel, that sometimes are very easy to catch and other times, especially when the mackerel schools are being pushed around by marauding bluefish packs, are almost impossible to catch.
When they are not being pursued, mackerel are relatively easy to catch by either drifting or anchoring over a rocky structure that has current running over it. Here in our Piscataqua River outlet, about a mile offshore the famous #2KR Buoy has that combination, as the Piscataqua River on both incoming and outgoing tide provides the current and the actual rock ledge, called Kitts Rock, provides cover for schools of small herring, silversides and other small minnows that are a great pull for the hungry mackerel.
But this place is noted for the #2KR Buoy, which actually isn't located right on the ledge where the mackerel are the thickest. By using your chart or depth finder you can easily find the peak of the Kitts Rock Ledge and that's where you're apt to find the biggest concentration of both mackerel and bait-sized pollock, which are also valuable striper and bluefish bait.
Scattered inshore of the #2KR Buoy are other small sunken rock outcroppings that are also good choices for filling your live bait tank with macks and pollock. It really doesn't make any sense to try to join a big fleet of mackerel anglers, unless of course they are chumming and have the mackerel in among them constantly.
There's a lot more use for mackerel that are not alive. First of all, both stripers and bluefish will take a dead mackerel floated under a bobber, with balloon bobbers being the choice of most of the bait anglers. This works especially well when fishing near a tide or wave surge that will provide motion to the bait. These tide and wave surges occur near shore or structures just under the surface.
Fresh dead mackerel or pollock can be a very effective trolling bait. A single hook, preferably a circle hook for easy removal, is best hooked up or down through the bait's upper and lower jaw, trying to center it the best you can to prevent the bait from spinning and keeping it running straight like a live bait.
When trolling with a circle hook, whether it's alive or dead, it's important to let the fish take the bait for a few seconds before tightening your line to allow the hook to set itself. Do not try to manually set the hook as it will just pull out and not sink into the fish's mouth.
Chunk mackerel are much better bait than pollock but both will work. The mackerel, being very oily, will create a scent flow that will attract the stripers and bluefish.
Drift fishing with cut bait, unless you are chumming with chunks, should be keeping your baits as close to bottom as possible, as that is where most of the game fish are encountered. If you are chumming, let your chunk bait drift with the chum chunks without any weight and keep slack in your line to allow for a natural drift. Again, the use of circle hooks is mandatory in some states and should be used anyhow as it's good conservation.
A couple of hours spent in catching your live bait sure isn't a waste of time and if you are hosting any new anglers, the thrill of landing a mackerel or pollock can be the highlight of their day. And when you get a few live baits in your bait tank or even fresh dead ones on ice, you've got a valuable ticket to the dance.
Dick Pinney's column appears weekly in the New Hampshire Sunday News. Email him at DoDuckInn@aol.com.