If the month of May doesn't strike you as a good time for striper fishing, you could be making a big mistake. The river herring runs, that are comprised of alewives and black backed river herring start in late April and they are what brings some of the best runs of stripers up into the rivers that their preferred food are frequenting!
In New Hampshire, it's no doubt that the Lamprey and Cocheco Rivers have some of the largest herring runs, as do other of the smaller Great Bay Tributaries. The Salmon Falls River, which the States of Maine and New Hampshire share with the boundary running down the middle of the river, also has a great run of river herring along with a pretty good run of shad. And in Massachusetts, the Merrimack River also has a big run of river herring and shad.
Don't make the mistake of thinking that these early-run stripers are all undersized, as every year fish well into the twenty pound range are caught in May and some even larger.
In New Hampshire, probably the best bets are below the dam in Newmarket on the Lamprey and below the fishway at Henry Law Park in Dover on the Cocheco River. The Squamscott River in Exeter usually has a nice run of river herring but for some reason, unknown to us, the stripers don't seem to appreciate it.
At the Salmon Falls River, there's a conflict in Maine and New Hampshire's bag and size limits so be darn sure of what state's waters you are possessing stripers in or your prize catch might be the most expensive one you've ever caught. But there's no doubt that the best fishing is below the dam at South Berwick/Rollisford and the fish seem to mostly be within a couple hundred yards below the dam.
Live herring are priceless baits for catching some of the larger fish, but when that's not possible, chunk herring run a close second. Back when we used to be pretty much bait fishing, rather than the trolling with artificials we almost always do now, the largest size of tommy cod that we could trap would only be about 3 inches long, but you wouldn't want to lug the pile of stripers that we've fooled on those small baits. It seems that when you put a hook into one of those tommy cod, because of the stress that puts onto the baitfish, the stripers seem to sense this and are not shy at gobbling them up.
We can remember standing on a little point using light tackle and had about a dozen tommy cod in a bait bucket floating next to us. Every single bait caught at least one striper and when we could rescue our bait after catching a fish on it, it wasn't a problem to catch another striper on the same bait. We were practicing catch and release, which was easy as we'd set the hook immediately and had no problems getting the hook out without much damage to the striper.
If you are having trouble catching stripers on chunk bait, it's a good idea to try a different bait cut. Fillet the side of a herring or alewife and split it lengthwise. Hook it by the large end of the fillet so that the slim tail will have some action in the currents. Use the smallest hook you can get away with, as the big hooks are pretty visible and also dampen the action of your fillet-cut bait.
Sometimes when the stripers are really active and you can see them smashing bait up on the surface, a surface striper popper lure will often produce some great hits. You'll have to try different retrieve actions to attract a strike, with often the stripers are so worked up in a feeding spree that just dead-drifting a swimming plug such as a Rapala or similar plug without imparting any action. Just make sure you don't have too much slack in your line as hook sets are key and lots of loose line make hook setting almost impossible.
Getting on the river real early in the morning or last thing at night may be good strategy, especially if there's going to be a gang of anglers show up. The competition for a good place to cast from shore or bridge can be pretty fierce and plenty of poor sportsmanship can ruin your fun. And you also have to be a good sport and not cast over anyone's line and definitely not cast over anyone's line that is playing a fish!
Moving downstream when playing a big striper is often necessary but don't expect your place upriver where you hooked the fish will be reserved for you to come back to it! It's the natural thing for someone to fill the void you made by taking your place and that's just part of the early-season striper traditions. Don't try to drag a big striper up current through a bunch of other shore anglers fishing lines as you'll soon find out that these peoples patience with you will wear pretty thin. Drop down river while playing the fish if tangling will be a problem other wise. That solves lots of problems!
If you're having one of those days when you can't do anything wrong and catching fish after fish, you'll soon become pretty unpopular with those fishing around you if they are not having any action. Don't rub it in! After a couple of fish landed, make yourself a hero by moving to another place or just leaving the river. That's just good sportsmanship.
Dick Pinney's column appears weekly in the New Hampshire Sunday News. Email him at DoDuckInn@aol.com.