July 25, 2015
A blueprint for catching striped bass in New Hampshire's Great Bay Estuary
Saying that the 18 miles of New Hampshire's ocean shoreline is the extent of the state's striper fishing is like saying that the entire iceberg is on the surface. Most of New Hampshire's striper fishery is away from the beach—hidden in the estuaries—and it is some of the best and most accessible striper fishing on the East Coast. All you need to know is when and where to find it.
Great Bay Estuary
The Great Bay Estuary is the dominant geological feature of southeastern New Hampshire's coastline. It consists of Great Bay, Little Bay, and the Piscataqua River. Six other major rivers contribute to the estuary. Combined, these rivers drain approximately 927 square miles (2,400 square kilometers) of land in New Hampshire and Maine.
Great Bay and Little Bay cover an area of more than 5,000 acres of tidal water and mud flats, with more than 48 miles of shoreline. With 9-foot tides, the water moves from place to place in a hurry. The good news is that the moving water propels large numbers of baitfish back and forth, tumbling them about for the waiting stripers. The bad news is that a boat on a flat can be left high and dry on a rapidly falling tide.
The Squamscott River begins as the freshwater Exeter River, tumbles over the dam in downtown Exeter, and becomes a tidal river for the next 4 miles before entering Little Bay at the west end of Great Bay, between Stratham and Newfields. In May, huge schools of herring enter the Squamscott on their upstream spawning migration to Exeter, where they collect below the low dam.
The herring run attracts both anglers and lobstermen. The lobstermen throw modified wire baskets from the downtown String Bridge to capture the herring and fill 55-gallon drums with salt herring for lobster bait. Striper fishers throw 7- to 10-inch herring imitations to big, hungry striped bass.
Two ramps for small boats, one in Exeter and one on Route 108 in Stratham, provide access to the river. Several fixed bridges, including a railroad bridge at the entrance to Little Bay, limit the height of passing boats. The railroad bridge has only a 4-foot clearance at high tide, and even less during some of the spring tides. From Exeter to Little Bay, the river channel is marked, and boaters should stay within the bouys. Wading anglers can also access the Squamscott and nearby good fishing at the boat ramps.
While the Lamprey River doesn't have as large a herring run as the Squamscott, it does have salmon smolts. New Hampshire Fish and Game stocks the smolts in the spring as part of its Atlantic salmon stocking program. The smolts run the gauntlet below the dam in Newmarket, dodging the stripers stacked up like cordwood. There is a ramp suitable for car-toppers in the town of Newmarket. Wading fly fishers can also use the ramp for access.
The other significant fishing area is the river mouth, where the Lamprey enters Little Bay. Stripers and blues chase baitfish in and out of the river during the change of tides. This is an ideal spot for a kayak. Kayak fishers can put in at either the ramp in Newmarket or the ramp on the Squamscott, and then paddle to the sod banks that line the Lamprey River outlet. Quietly walking and casting along the sod banks can yield big stripers nosing along the banks looking for crabs, worms, and shrimp.
The Oyster, Bellamy, and Winnicut rivers have their own small runs of upriver stripers, but their real contribution to the New Hampshire striper fishery is at their outlets. On the outgoing tide, stripers collect to ambush bait exiting these rivers.
The flats on the east side of the Oyster River attract big stripers on high tides. The bass root for crabs on the fertile tidal flats, and the deep water near the marsh grass provides stripers with a sense of security.
Wading fishers can access the river from Wagon Hill Farm off Route 4, east of Durham. Small boaters can use a high-tide-only ramp at Jackson's Landing in Durham.
The most significant fishery in the Great Bay estuary is the Piscataqua River. It drains a large area and provides two outlets to the sea, deep water, flats, salt marshes, and several small creeks. There is plenty of access for boaters and wading fly fishers.
Odiorne State Park
Odiorne State Park is on Route 1A just south of Portsmouth. There are two entrances to the park, one into the Seacoast Science Center, and the other about a mile north, where there is a boat ramp. I use the term "boat ramp" loosely, as there isn't much ramp available at low tide. At mid to high tide, the ramp works for boats up to 20 feet. There is a state park fee for vehicles at both entrances (see nhstateparks.org for details).
From the parking lot adjacent to the boat ramp, fly fishers can access the Berry Brook/Witch Creek outlet, as well as a large tidal flat where stripers cruise during high tide. When the wind is calm, and with a good pair of polarized sunglasses, you can watch large bass feeding on the abundant crabs and baitfish on the flat.
These big cruisers—some are 30 to 40 inches—in skinny water are spooky and difficult to catch. I have seen bass rooting out crabs and tailing like bonefish on the edges of the channels, but if your Merkin lands too closely or splashes loudly, they disappear. And if the fly lands too far away, they won't see it.
You need to cast well ahead of a slowly moving fish and time your retrieve to intercept the striper. When the fish approaches, give your crab imitation a few short twitches to bring it to life, then let it drop to the bottom like the real thing.
The most consistently productive way to catch stripers in this area is to blind-cast along the channel edges, where many bass cruise in the deeper water, especially during the outgoing tides. Crab and shrimp imitations, as well as standard baitfish patterns, all draw strikes.
Pierce Island is in Portsmouth, across the channel from the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard (Maine). On Pierce Island Road there is a large public swimming pool with ample parking, and just north of the pool there is a large, wadable flat which often holds cruising fish. [This flat and the swimming pool are clearly visible at maps.google.com using the satellite view of Pierce Island. Many other geographical features discussed in this article are also easy to identify using the Google tool. The Editor.]
East of this flat is a large rock shelf that forms a monster rip when the tide is running. This rip holds large bass, but the deep water makes it hard to get a fly down to them. Use fast-sinking 30-foot shooting heads, short leaders, and Clouser Minnows to get deep.
Sometimes the stripers force baitfish to the surface, and a topwater feeding frenzy occurs close to shore. In this situation, you often see diving birds, and floating lines become more appropriate.
The fee-based public ramp on Pierce Island provides access to great fishing opportunities in the Piscataqua River system. From Pierce Island, boat east to the first New Castle Bridge. The bridge abutments offer great striper fishing, especially in low light. At midday, the fish congregate near the structure and in the channel between New Castle and Little Harbor.
The most productive flats in the Piscataqua River system are past the bridge, near Shapleigh Island. Big fish feed on these flats during the higher stages of the tide.
Several channels, navigable at low tide, zigzag through the flats, but they can be hard to find and navigate if you are not familiar with the area. My advice to boaters is to leave the flats before the water drops. With a kayak, however, you can navigate the flats at any tide. Look for fish leaving the flats along the edges and through the channels.
South of Leachs Island, you find Sagamore Creek and its outlet and, farther south, Wentworth Marina. Directly across from the marina is the combined outlet of Witch Creek and Berry Brook. Stripers hang at the deep edge of this outlet on the outgoing tide, waiting for the abundant baitfish that inhabit the creeks and surrounding salt marshes. A large flat to the north also holds fish during higher tides.
If the tide is dropping, or your boat draws more than two feet of water, the flats and small river mouths may not be your best bet. In this case, leave the launch ramp on Pierce Island, head northeast, and follow the marked, deep channel downriver to the Portsmouth Harbor inlet. The north shore, by Fort McClary
Historic Site (Maine) holds stripers among the lobster pots. Pollack and mackerel inhabit this area too, especially in the spring. Spruce Creek also joins from the north. Stripers travel up Spruce Creek and into Barters Creek, and feed at the outflow.
On the opposite (south) New Hampshire shore is the Fort Constitution Historic Site, situated on a rocky point that frequently holds bass when the tide is moving. The cove to the east is a good place to drift through as well.
Upriver from Pierce Island, strong riptides form around the Route 1 bridge. The currents toss small underpowered boats around, but the rewards for traveling past the bridge up into the Piscataqua River system are great. Stripers push through this area past the General Sullivan Bridge to the entrance to Great Bay. Both sides of the river hold bass, but I've had the most luck around the Eliot (Maine) boat ramp.
Several bridges cross between Portsmouth and New Castle. There is limited parking along the road, but great fishing around the bridge abutments and shoreline. Several conservation groups, including the Coastal Conservation Association, purchased land adjacent to the second bridge on the south side of Route 1B, providing access for wading fly fishers, and a handy kayak or canoe launch site. Stripers prowl this area of the river from May to November, and the water offers protected, inshore paddling.
Fishing the New Hampshire coastline is not for the faint of heart. In some cases, long hikes from the road are necessary. However, there is plenty of fishable water and few anglers.
Wading this rocky shore can be like walking on greased cannonballs. My advice is to make sure both your feet are planted solidly before taking each step. Take short steps. Don't turn your back on the ocean. Don't step on the seaweed. And keep your weight directly over your studded, rubber- or felt-soled boots.
Because of the huge tidal differences, large areas of shoreline are dewatered at low tide, but seemingly dry rocks remain slippery, often covered with algae or seaweed. You'll have to remain on guard for rogue waves, drop-offs, slippery rocks, or anything else that can cause you to lose your balance. Wade with a wading belt, use a wading staff if necessary, and always fish with a buddy.
When I wade-fish the oceanfront, I start at Route 1A in Hampton Beach and drive north, looking for bird activity. I stop from time to time at the numerous pull-offs to "glass" the area with binoculars. Cormorants and gulls are the keys to finding stripers. When stripers are present, the cormorants sit on the water and feed. They occasionally dive, but large numbers of birds sitting on the water is a dead giveaway. Sometimes the water is so black with them that the gulls have no place to sit.
Lack of birds does not necessarily mean no fish. Sometimes bass give themselves away with swirls and bulges when they chase baitfish, crabs, and lobsters in the shallow water around the rocks. Look on the leeward sides of the rock piles for these telltale signs. During late summer and fall, there is a prevailing north-northwest wind, but the leeward sides of the rock piles, especially close to the rocks, remains calm enough to spot the bass.
Most of the rocky points along Route 1A hold fish. I prefer wade fishing the oceanfront on a falling tide. A falling tide means fewer surprises from waves, and it is easier to fish the structure, as it is uncovered. Most of the offshore rocks have tight spots with water moving between them, and the stripers use these spots as ambush places. When you hook a bass, the trick is keeping it out of the rocks and seaweed. Even the smaller oceanfront bass seem to have the shoulders to pull out line and snag you on weeds or rocks.
Rye Ledge is clearly visible offshore just north of the intersection of Route 1A and Route 111. At low tide, it is fully exposed. It is a long walk to the end of the ledge, and you can't spend a lot of time there, but it does allow shorebound anglers a shot at fish quite a ways offshore. The water on the south side is deeper and holds more stripers than the north side.
Several state parks offer parking and good oceanfront fishing. From south to north are Hampton Beach State Park, North Hampton Beach State Park, Rye Harbor State Park, Wallis Sands State Park, and Odiorne State Park along Route 1A. Unless birds are showing, I just pick a state park for my car and walk the sidewalk until I reach a spot that looks good. More often than not, when I swim a fly between some likely-looking rocks, the fish are there.
Hampton Harbor drain the Taylor and Blackwater rivers. Both hold bass, but neither river is easy to access on foot. There is some park-and-wade access to the Taylor along Route 1A, but most of the fishing in this estuary is from a boat.
Hampton Harbor and Rye Harbor can both be good at certain tides, and especially at night. The lights around the harbor attract baitfish, which in turn attract the stripers. Try the pool just upstream from the bridge at Rye Harbor.
Flies & Tackle
A 9-foot 9-weight with a large-arbor reel loaded with a weight-forward intermediate line is adequate most of the time. Even though the stripers are not known for long, blistering runs, big bass can run 100 yards into the backing without too much trouble. For that reason, I use reels with 250 yards of 20-pound-test Dacron backing. For fishing the deep rips and rocky drop-offs, I use a 9-weight with a 350-grain integrated shooting head, or a 10-weight rod with 450-grain line.
Chartreuse is everyone's favorite color for striper flies—including the stripers'. I tie chartreuse Snake Flies in sizes 1, 1/0, and 2/0, and white Snake Flies in size 2/0. I don't compact the deer-hair heads too tightly. I tie the heads loose so that they absorb some water and run just under the surface. The stripers will bulge behind the fly. Chartreuse-and-white Clouser Minnows (#2/0-3/0) with a little gold tinsel sandwiched within the deer hair seems to add attraction.
A wide variety of other flies work, including some of the bigger "grocery" flies, but for the most part, New Hampshire's seacoast stripers prefer smaller baits, especially when millions of sand eels and peanut bunker pour out of the bays and rivers in the fall. At times, dead immature menhaden litter the rocks on the falling tide.
Best Time to Go
There is a resident population of stripers in the Great Bay estuary all year, but the big influx of bass doesn't start until late May. June, July, August, and September are good months for both wading and boat fishing on the oceanfront. Estuary fishing is hottest in June and July. Toward the end of September, the bass move out of the rivers and estuaries to join the fish along the beach. Fish can still be caught around the inlets, but the best action in late summer and fall is along the beachfront as the bulk of the fish move south.
Although some say there are "doldrums" in August—particularly in the striper fisheries south of New Hampshire—I have found that the fishing in this area remains consistent throughout the summer. As long as storms don't kick up too much dirt in the water, and you can find enough clean water to swim the fly, that's usually all it takes to hook a Granite State striper. Even though the shoreline of New Hampshire is small, the opportunity to tie into a striper looms large.
David Shirley is an educator, project management consultant, and freelance writer. He lives in Cape Neddick, Maine, a short distance from the Piscataqua River and the New Hampshire coast.