MOST POPULAR BAIT AT A STRIPER BUFFET? SAND EELS!
If you spend a lot of time surf-casting the mid- Atlantic and Northeast beaches, you have seen sand eels, even though they work hard at not being seen by borrowing down into the sand. Sand eels are an important food source for seabirds, and they have commercial value in the production of fish meal. When they leave their hideouts, they create a feeding frenzy amongst saltwater predators, especially striped bass. A school of sand eels is like a McDonalds in the desert and the slithering school creates explosive action for surf, inshore and nearshore anglers.
Sand eels are not big- typically 3 to 5 inches long- but can grow up to 9 inches. They also are not eels at all but rather are a closer relative of spiny ray finned fishes. Their range extends from Northern Labrador down to Cape Hatteras, and they are as common in the back bays as they are in the ocean- even miles offshore. They can be found most commonly May through December.
Summer is when you are most likely to find them in the back-bay marshes. As the water temperatures drop, they will migrate, gradually heading offshore as winter sets in. Stormy weather and water temperatures influence the relative abundance of sand eels along the beaches, pushing the pods onto or away from the shore. Even though often pursued by the predators of the region, they are not easy prey. Their natural defenses include the ability to burrow into the sand within seconds with their pointed snouts, and conceal themselves.
Stripers aggressively feed on sand eels. When the word gets out that sand eels are around, anglers take note. Word spreads when they see dark masses in the water, or when they start reeling in fish that are puking up eels in quantity. When sand eels are present, the fishing is fast and furious, and when it happens, mimicking their profile is not that necessary. Even a big stickbait twitched on the surface through a mass of sand eels will elicit striper strikes. Striped bass will eat sand eels all day long if conditions are right, but early morning and the dusk of early evening can be especially productive. Striped bass pick the sand eels off in the surf and target them deeper out to 3-miles as the slender baitfish flutter along the bottom
Green, red or black 5-inch tubes on an umbrella rig is a popular tactic to mimic sand eels. Running the rig a few feet above the seafloor at dawn and dusk, will imitate their movement from borrows. Running a slow troll and stopping and starting occasionally to simulate the eels moving up and dropping back to the bottom will elicit strikes. Casting metal is a well-tested option for anglers. Jerking spoons with tube trailers from the bottom can be effective. Baits like the Deadly Dick allowed to wobble on a slow retrieve or Shimano Coltsniper flashy jigs fished similarly are sure to draw strikes. Tsunami Sand Eels have a realistic swimming action and a holographic finish that is often irresistible to a hungry striper.
Surf casters frequently pull Deadly Dicks and Needlefish lures across the surface, or drag jigs with green or black rubber tails along the sandy bottom. Others use lifelike soft plastics such as the Tsunami Sand Eel. Sand eel impostors include some classic plugs and various weighted soft plastics. The Boone Needlefish is an all-time wooden standard for catching
stripers, and it remains a top producer. A buck tail or Hogy jig head in tandem with a soft-plastic tail is lethal for stripers.
We can’t leave out the fly fishermen. The sand eel is one of their most productive patterns for saltwater action. A 9-foot rod is the weapon of choice for most fly casters. In quiet water, a floating line is a good choice and tracks well in small surf. Being able to get down a bit below the surface can be critical, and if the sand eels are along the bottom, using sinking line or heavy sink-tip lines will get your fly in the zone. Striped bass sure seemed to like a bottom
retrieve that imitates a grubbing or rooting eel.
Fly fishermen will always have a supply or skinny Deceivers in all-white or white and yellow. The Enticer is a great searching pattern that consistently attracts fish from a distance when waters are still. On a floating line, the Enticer runs at or near the surface because of its small head, and the strikes are sudden and exciting. It features a popper head to
give it a unique action. Popular colors include all-black, chartreuse-and-pearl and olive-and-pearl often with marabou tail. The EZ-Body Sand Eel Fly is a go-to sand-eel pattern in weighted and unweighted versions. The most popular color schemes are olive-and-white, black-and-purple, and yellow-and-white. Other effective sand-eel patterns include Farrar’s Flashblend, Surf Candies and Jiggies.