Good vibrations at Poplar Island
Alan poses with our best striper of the day. His hat, face-covering buff and sunglasses provide protection fro m sun, wind and errant casts. Note the electric bow motor on the port side of the boat. (Bill May photo)

Striped bass are hard to figure sometimes.

The mid-Atlantic's most popular gamefish and food fish, often better known as stripers or rock, is often depicted as a chump that will hit any lure, fly and bait put in front of them. There are days when that seems to be the case. Then there are days, like that of a recent trip to Poplar Island, when they can be as selective as brown trout.


Alan Feiken invited me to fish Eastern Bay with him. The weather report called for one of those rare days this year when winds would be minimal. Alan is an excellent fly fisherman and owns one of my favorite salt water boats, a 21-foot Parker Deep V, powered by a Yamaha 150 horsepower motor. Besides proving a safe, dry ride even in the oft-choppy Chesapeake Bay, the outstanding feature of this boat, for me, is its high gunwhales, which this balance-impaired senior can lean against and cast with conventional and fly tackle in almost any fishable conditions. A second outstanding feature, added by Alan, is a 24-volt, bow-mounted electric motor, which Alan operates by hand. Both features were critical to our success on this trip.

We launched at the Shipping Creek ramp about 6:30 in the morning, and it immediately became obvious the weather had changed from the predicted 2-3 mph winds to 15-20 mph with occasional gusts. We knew the boat could handle it, and Alan assured me, incorrectly, that winds would become more moderate after 10 a.m.

We ran down to the magical "Green Buoy" and picked up a few, undersized breaking stripers on jigheads and soft plastics. Then things shut down. So we worked our way further down Eastern Bay then headed into the mainstem Bay to one of Alan's favorite spots, Poplar Island.

This restored island of over 1,000 acres has proven a boon for a variety of wildlife and also attracts stripers, with its shoreline boulders and fields of massive boulders 50-100 feet from the shoreline in places.

We arrived to find crystal clear waters, waves and whitecaps in the persistent high winds and no signs of fish activity. So we began working spinning lures around the abundant structure.

I struck out with a Stingsilver, jighead and Bass Assassin and popper. Alan had several rigged rods in his boat and likewise went through a series of lures in vain. We also took a few small stripers in brief forays with fly rods, although dealing with the winds and constant boat handling needed to navigate the narrow channel and holes between the shoreline and offshore rocks made fly fishing nearly impossible.

Finally, returning to spinning tackle, Alan tried a shallow running (5 feet) Rapala X-Rap and took a couple of keeper-sized stripers. I figured maybe vibration was the key, so I tried a bright colored Rattletrap. The stripers ignored it while Alan continued to have success with the X-Rap. I looked at the lure and wondered if the natural, muted silvery color was the key.

I remembered a trip to this area with Alan a few years prior under better weather conditions but with the same clear water. We were both fly fishing. I was striking out that day with my "Bill's Redfish Clouser," a bright fly loaded with Krystal Flash that had been so successful on Louisiana redfish, while Alan was catching stripers with a nondescript natural-colored fly. When I switched to the more natural-colored Bruce's Crab-colored Clouser, I began taking fish every other cast.

Alan switched to a similar pattern that day and we began catching stripers at the same rate. As he skillfully wove his boat through the rocky structure, we took fish at this rate for several hours and were still hitting when we finally went in.

So I dug through my tackle bag and came across a pack of Tsunami Swim Shads, a fish-shaped soft plastic with a paddle tail molded over a single weighted hook. The package described the lures as "Holographic Swim Baits with true to life colors and actions." I had taken a 50-inch redfish fishing this lure last spring at Fisherman's Island in Virginia. At 5 inches in length, it seemed a bit too large, but it did resemble the menhaden we'd seen amongst the boulders.

The swim shads, a lure popular with Kevin Josenhans and several other Chesapeake guides I know, were the ticket. So I with my swim shads and Alan with his X-Rap began taking strips regularly, most were in the 16- to 20-inch range with my 22 ½-inch striper taken on the swim shad the top fish.

I theorized that the key to fishing that day was a muted, natural-colored lure that didn't run too deep on a fast retrieve, gave off fish-attracting vibrations and/or had a natural swimming action.

Alan soon put this theory to the test when he grabbed a rod rigged with a jighead and bright plastic with a tapered tail. I said, "I bet that doesn't work." I was right. Likewise when he tried a larger, brighter, deeper-running X-Rap he struck out. When he returned to the shallower-running, muted-color X-Rap, he resumed taking fish. We had to go in early but still caught about 20 stripers each.

Was my lure theory correct? It's hard to say. I've seen days when a variety of lures worked, days when stripers climb all over 2-inch flies and ignore 3-inch flies, days when only fast-retrieved poppers worked and a day when only a slow-retrieved popper worked, and one day when stripers feeding on 2-inch redworms took 5-inch Half-and-Half streamer flies. I could go on.


The moral of the story?

Keep trying different things until you find something that works. That's fishing.