STRIPER HABITAT AND BEHAVIOR
IN THE CAPE MAY RIPS
by Captain Harvey Yenkinson
In the spring, changes in temperature of a few hundredths of a
degree have triggerred many of the stripers to leave the Chesapeake,
Delaware, and Hudson estuaries and begin their migration north.
In the summer, temperatures begin to cool to the north, and the
stripers start their southern migration back to their natal rivers,
the place of their birth. Stripers, many of which begin their
migration at age 2-3 travel in schools matched by size rather
than age. Tagging studies have demonstated that stripers can travel
at least 16 miles in a day. Many of the stripers that we catch in
the Cape May Rips are fish that have migrated from their feeding
grounds up north, possibly as far north as Canada. Most of the
striped bass in the rips are there temporarily, feeding as the
temperatures stay above 50 degrees. (This past season has been
the exception with a large number of stripers overwinterring in
the area of the rips.) From there stripers migrate three places.
Some continue their migration south. Some migrate up the bay and
through the C and D canal to enter the Chesapeake. Some will
overwinter in the Delaware Bay and River, to eventually spawn in
the fresh water reaches of the Delaware. Fishing for stripers in
the Delaware River and Bay has been going on since colonial times,
and was once a prolific breeding grounds before victorian period
industrial pollution made the river almost uninhabitable for the
striped bass, shad, and herring. Fortunately the pollution is
being controlled and the striped bass population that spawn in
the tributaries of the Delaware is once again on the increase.
The mouth of the Delaware Bay has been called one of the
greatest estuaries of the East coast, and one of the richest
shellfish and finfish regions of our nation. The area we call
the rips is an area rich in bottom structure, a perfect place
for fish to converge and hunt. The constant ebb and flow of
the tides in combination with the northeast storms and erosion
has molded the bay-ocean convergent area into an array of shoals,
channels, and depressions. The shape of the shoals coincides to
large degree to the direction of the current flow.
To understand the direction of current flow, and hence the
direction your boat will drift (on a windless day) one must
envision the mouth of the Delaware Bay from Cape May to Cape
Henlopen as a funnel through which the ocean floods in and out
with the tides. Ocean waters move on an east-west axis along the
coast of Cape May, gradually shifting to a north-south flow as
one nears the center of the mouth of the bay and along the coast
Knowledge of how to properly fish the structure nature created
in the area we call the Cape May rips, is partly based on
knowledge of fish behavior in areas of such structure and
partly based on understanding the ebb and flow of the ocean
around and over the shoals.
Everyone who fishes the Cape May rips knows that the fishing is
best when the tidal current starts to move and "rips" start to
make up. The reason that fishing is best at this time is related
to food harvesting skills essential for survival in nature. Nature
is a cruel but efficient teacher. Fish must have the skills to
eat more calories then they burn up chasing prey, or they die.
Hence, fish that have survived in our oceans, have learned how
to feed efficiently, without getting eaten themselves. Turbulent
water in general is an excitatory stimulus for many fish. Anyone
who has seen tuna grab a lure in the wake of a boat can surely
attest to this. Predators have learned that turbulent water means
two things, bait is likely to be present, and turbulence creates
confusion, ideal for ambushing prey.
The schooling behavior of fish means that stripers will not be
uniformly distributed over the entire rip line. The inborn and
learned behavior causes stripers to congregate in the best
"hunting" area of each individual rip. Once rockfish have
congregating in this way, their competitive and often synchronous
feeding behavior can cause multiple repeated hookups, drifting
through a small portion of a very long rip. It is also known
that migrating fish feed more voraciously then sedentary fish.
Striped bass are much easier to catch during the migration
season then in the summer when resident fish feed mostly in
dim light conditions, and are very particular about which bait
or lures they will attack.
Another interesting fact about striper fishing is that fishing
will always be better when drifting from a deep water spot onto
the shallow shoal then when drifting from on the shoal into the
deep. This is the opposite of what humans would think, as we
would think hiding in the deep, off the edge of the shoal, would
be ideal, waiting for bait to flush off the shoal,over the edge.
In fact the opposite is true. Most of the stripers will congregate
just in front of the shoal, in the deep or on the edge, as the
water rushes uphill onto the shoal.
Stripers also have a habit of migrating inshore during the
evening. This is one of the reasons surf fishermen do best at
night, dawn, or dusk. I will fish the inshore rips in the early
morning often within 50 yards of shore, but find these rips
unproductive once the sun is high in the sky. Noise from boats
also chase fish more readily from shallow water than from deep
I also use fish behavior to determine which shoals I will fish.
Basically I fish the inshore shoals on the high tide, and work
my way offshore as the tide moves out. My experience suggests
to me that these 7 striped fish do not like to hunt on the inshore
shoals when the tide is low. When the incoming (flood) tide begins
I might be at Overfalls or offshore of Overfalls at 27130/42655
or around 8A-B at 27141/42664. As the tide rushes in, I work my
way inshore towards Middle Shoal and then Somers or Prissy Wick.
As I am moving about, I am constantly on the lookout for any rip
in the water or productive looking bottom change that might yield
fish. Every year I find new uncharted rips, that although small,
can be very productive.
Another aspect of fish behavior is a process called conditioning.
This is a behavioral phenomenon present in most all animals and
is a response of the brain to a repeated stimulus. If stripers
have been feeding up north on the clam beds, they will prefer
clam baits in the rips. This is a common finding towards the end
of November into December. When stripers have been feeding on
herring, sand eels, peanut bunker, etc. bucktails (with a white
twister), ava jigs, gibbs minnows, hopkins lures, etc may be the
preferred means of fishing the rips. In the spring bucktails
with a strip of mackerel often will outfish eels.
The shoals of the Cape May rips are essentially underwater
islands left behind as the shoreline of Cape May has eroded
over the years. Although some of the shoals are constructed
from shale and rock, storms constantly change the shape of
the named shoals, hence charts of the area are not always
accurate. On days when the wind blows less then 15 knots,
your vision can guide you to the edges of the shoals. On rougher
days, the less obvious rips can be hard to see. The sharpest
edge of each shoal is the beginning edge of the shoal, less
abrupt bottom depth changes occur as one drifts across the shoal,
till another abrupt change occurs as you drift off the edge of
the shoal into the deeper water. Times of new or full moons
(spring tides) create the strongest currents, largest rip
visibility, and shortest slack tide interval. The most productive
spot on each shoal will be the edge or first rip of each shoal.
Stripers instincts tell them that this is the most bait rich
environment and the turbulence there is an ideal hunting
Striper fishing is mostly a sight fishing sport and many boats
fish the rips paying little attention to their gps/loran units.
Captains who fish the rips on a regular basis know each shoal
has a unique "fingerprint". By this I mean that each shoal has
shapes to its rips that are unique to each shoal. Every rip in
the Cape May Rips is as different as the retina of the eye or
the fingerprints of ones hands. Experience allows you to use
the shape and character of the rip to determine the characteristics
of the shoal beneath the turbulence. When approaching a rip
line, visual clues will tell you which part of that rip is
likely to be the most productive. The current allows you to
know the shape of the edge beneath in the same way that a
law enforcement officer can use fine powder to detect the
shape of unseen fingerprints. Finding the correct rips to
drift over and positioning your boat to drift over the intended
spot is the art of fishing for striped bass.
I observe that people fish the rips in two distinct ways. One
is what I call the flounder fishing technique which works well
for flounder but not so well for striper fishing. Some folks
see the large fleet, join the mass of floating boats and drift
the expanse of the shoal. Fish are caught this way but due to
fish behavior in the rips, this is not the most productive
To maximize your catch numbers, you have to spend your time in
the most productive areas. With a few exceptions, this means
making alot of small drifts over the edges of the shoals.
I liken striper fishing to stealth warfare. Stripers are easily
put off their feed or scared from their location by noise. Scuba
divers report that even their air bubbles frighten the stripers
away. The proper technique is to move about the rips slowly and
shut the engine(s) off as you drift over your intended edge.
After drifting the edge, start up your engine(s), make a
semicircle slowly across the rip line and hit the same edge
or an adjacent edge again. Try to keep your movements less
than 5 knots and do not change the rpm's of your engines as
you move about as stripers seem not so offended by consistent
Experience will teach you which edge of the rip will likely
hold the most fish. Look for the most turbulent water on the
edge, signalling the biggest bottom change. Eddies created
by uneven edges are always striper hideouts. Try to drift the
points as well as the u shaped areas of the rips. If you are
not too confident in your ability to spot these "sweet spots,"
you can watch the boats drifting the area and watch for bent
rods, and get on their drift. In your mind you must calculate
the current direction in combination with the wind speed and
direction to hit the spot of your choice. On windy days, the
wind may actually try to blow you away from the rip. You can
compensate for this by shutting down your engines closer to
the rip, maintaining a little momentum from your boat speed
to carry you over the rip.
The ideal way to fish the edges is to keep your boat bow into
the rips. Rips love to turn the boat beam to the rip or even
stern to the rip, which can create a dangerous situation.
This effect is greater on smaller boats. Be cautious when
fishing areas of intense rips, specifically those on Prissy
Wick Shoal and particularly on the outgoing tides. Mid
sections of this shoal have depth changes from 30 to 5
feet, and huge waves can form and break unexpectedly when
large volumes of water are moving up onto the shoal, exactly
like waves breaking on the beach. Small boats should avoid
this area altogether. Every year boats are capsized there.
Larger boats have wet their patrons or ruined their running
Try also to find good looking edges of shoals not too heavily
fished by novices. Novices tend to blast over the shoals and
put the fish off feed. If boats fish the area quietly, however,
many boats can drift over the same spot and catch fish.
Sometimes fish will congregate on the interior parts of the
shoals, particularly if the edges have been heavily fished,
in this case, long drifts pay off.
Another reason the first edge is the most productive is also
because the water is the cleanest there. Silt from storms and
high tides has settled onto the ocean floor in the rips and
underwater surge created by strong winds or ocean swells stir
up the silt on the ocean floor, making visibility poor at times.
One should be aware that there are hundreds of unnamed and
uncharted shoals in the areas of the rips. Some are only visible
as a very minor or no surface disturbance particularly in deeper
water. For example, an abrupt change from 30 to 25 feet may hold
quite a few big fish, but be all but invisible as a surface change
except under calm conditions with strong tides, so keep an eye
on your depth finder when searching for fish.
It is no wonder that striper fishing is so addictive. The
challenge of studying the characteristics of the many hundreds
of rips on the bay-ocean interface and mentally calculating
your drift profile to hit the intended spot is indeed a skill
to be honed. The pleasure of slipping out of your marina in
near dark conditions, fishing among the rips in a stealth
like fashion, landing stripers from the turbulent waters,
releasing some of these beautiful fish, and bringing a couple
back for dinner, is truly a day that rejuvenates the soul.