Last winter was cold. Cold enough to put ice over waters where striped bass ride out the winter.
Initially, that ice was a hindrance. In mid-December, I took a trip with Captain Rob Taylor to one of his favorite holdover holes and found a skim of ice covering much of the area we wanted to fish.
“Don’t worry about that,” Rob said. “Yesterday, stripers were busting up the ice, trying to eat baitfish near the surface.”
It was hard not to write that off as classic fisherman’s hyperbole. I took it to mean that the previous day’s fishing had been particularly good. Surely the stripers hadn’t been bashing through the ice. But then I saw it.
A jagged piece of skim ice blasted skyward, landing and shattering with the sound of broken glass. Next to the fresh hole in the ice was a small baitfish, flipping around, having successfully escaped its pursuer, but failing to escape its doom.
Rob and I cast our lures along the edge of the skim ice and caught several beautiful bass, many of which were sporting that faint blue tint that stripers seem to take on in frigid waters.
Over the following month and a half, that skim ice turned into a full lid of 3 to 6 inches, not only where Rob was fishing, but at holdover hideouts throughout New England. I’d just about put the stripers out of my mind, except for shopping and swapping for plugs, until one afternoon, when Captain Joe Diorio called and said he was currently on the ice, catching striped bass.
Diorio caught his first striper through the ice more than a decade ago, but it’s been far from an annual occurrence. A myriad of conditions must come together to put good ice on the brackish, tidal waters where bass winter, Diorio said—primarily, an extended period of very cold yet calm weather. He said his waters hadn’t had fishable ice in four or five years, but in February 2021, the stars aligned, and ice fishing for stripers was back. With an opportunity that rare, how could I refuse?
When I arrived the following day, it was high tide, which had pulled the ice edge away from the shoreline.
My first experience with tidal ice was at the James Eddy Smelt Camp on the Eastern River in Maine. There, the ice rose 10 feet while we fished inside our smelt shack and there was a long metal ramp to account for the ice’s varying distance from shore. Joe Diorio had a plank. From the ice, he slid the plank over to the shoreline and invited me to cross. I was halfway there, with my camera case, rod, and backpack full of tackle, when I heard the crack of the plank breaking through the ice edge. I jumped, miraculously, onto solid ice, but the plank shot back onto the shore. “Looks like we’re here until low tide,” Diorio laughed.
30-Pounders Through the Ice
While almost all of the coastal-ice stripers fall into the “schoolie” category, fishermen heading inland in the winter might put a cow on the ice.
The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission stocks stripers in a number of landlocked waterways, some of which freeze over in the winter. With large alewife populations in these lakes, the sweetwater stripers live well. Fishermen hunting them through the ice can hook impressive specimens like the 31-pound striper caught through the ice at Lake Wallenpaupack by Joshua Kalin in 2020.
Naturally, I’d brought a box of downsized striper lures to fish—small bucktail jigs, soft plastics, even a swim shad. “You can use those, but they really seem to like these,” Diorio said, holding up a Rapala Jigging Rap, a classic ice-fishing lure but a wildly unorthodox striper lure.
Along with Christian Generalli, Diorio had Swiss-cheesed the ice in an area about the size of a football field. These stripers, like those in open water, move around a lot, so we needed to keep moving in order to catch them with jigs.
Tip-ups and bait also work for ice stripers, and in some places, that’s the preferred tactic. In fact, right around the time I was on the ice with Diorio, Captain Rob Taylor was chasing down a flag on the same waters where we’d fished for holdovers in December.
Generalli hooked up first; Diorio followed suit a few minutes later. I moved closer to them and swapped my soft plastic for a Jigging Rap, and I immediately had a hit of my own. I couldn’t help but laugh at the absurdity of catching a striper through the ice, and as I saw the striped sides swim by the hole, it dawned on me that I was looking at my first striper of the new year.
The stripers fought hard, taking line, and I enjoyed feeling their signature headshakes transmitted through a 24-inch ice-fishing rod. The fish ranged from 12 to about 26 inches, with fish over 24 inches giving us a real run for our money.
I tried a couple of the striper lures I’d brought, but the Jigging Rap outperformed everything else by a wide margin. The fish seemed to hit on long pauses following frantic twitches of the jig. Diorio also uses Kastmasters slowly retrieved through the water column.
We had a steady bite right until the tide bottomed out, losing count of how many stripers we’d caught. Perhaps most importantly, at low tide we were able to get off the ice without incident, even without the plank. “It’s not always like this,” Diorio warned as we returned to our trucks. Like most fish in the cold months, stripers restrict their feeding to narrow windows and may not even feed every day. As if to prove Diorio’s point, a few days later, a friend of his went to that same spot and didn’t catch a single fish.
Striped bass are a marvel when it comes to how many places and ways they can be caught. No matter if hooked through the ice, on the flats, in the bay, or from the surf, they are the greatest gamefish in our waters, and I can’t wait for the 2022 season to begin.