Bunkers also called Menhadden are one of the most prolific baitfish in the NJ area. Since the reduction boats have been pushed out of our near coastal waters and bays they are a lot more plentiful. They are typically found in bays, tidal rivers and along the entire NJ shore. They are a very important part of the marine Eco system since many of NJs fish feed on them. Their presence or absence will make or break a season. Be assured, where you find schools of Bunker you’ll find Bluefish and Stripers under them like hobos on a muffinJ
The reason they are such effective bait is because they are very oily and versatile. They can be used ground up for chumming bluefish and sharks. Chunked in 2 inch pieces for chunking Tuna, Bluefish and Stripers. They can be fillet and cut in strips for Fluke or thrown in whole on a drop line or trap for crabs.
There are a few basic ways you can catch your own Bunker to use for bait, the trick is to find them first.
On nice calms days when the water is flat you can often spot them rolling on top of the water. You’ll either see an area of confused or rippled water or see them splashing on top of the water. Sometimes but not always you will see birds chasing them. When it’s windy and choppy looking for birds is your best bet since it’s difficult to spot them in choppy water. The birds will usually be hovering over them and every so often dipping down in the water to work the school. A pair of binoculars really helps spotting them. I’ve also been out more then once during calm nights and although I never saw them I did hear them…. They make a distinctive clicking sound you can pick up if you listen intently.
Once you find them it’s important to be careful on how you set up you boat to catch them. Your best bet is to motor up to the outskirts of the school, turn off the engine and allow the wind and current to drift your boat into the school. If you motor into the school the fish will sound and the school will disperse, form back up and surface somewhere else. Many people frustrate themselves by doing this any all they manage to do is run from place to place and scare the fish away..
Once you spot them there are 2 ways to catch them….Either using a cast net or a bunker snag. Bunker snagging is the easiest. You can buy a snag at any tackle store, cast it out into the school of bunker and sweep the rod back and forth as you reel it in. Cast nets prove to be a bit more difficult since you need to get practically right on top of the school and you have to know how to throw a cast net which can be challenging and takes some practice….
Funny thing happened to me when I bought my first cast net…. My wife and I were vacationing down in Avon and the house we rented was right down by the Shark River inlet. The inlet is loaded with bait fish and I saw several people with nets so I figured I could do this and went and got a net…I read the directions a few times and went down to the inlet to catch some bait. Problem was I couldn’t get the net to open.
I was getting frustrated so I had Ruth come to the inlet with me and read the instructions step by step but I still couldn’t get the darn thing to open. This younger kid about 10 years old saw what we were up to and says " Hey Mister, you need some help" I’m not proud sure…. This kid takes the net, throws it and it opens up perfectly right over a school of Mullet. My wife just shook her head and smiled… He showed me how he did it and from that day on I use this kids method and so do several other people I have taught.
How to live line…..Take a 5/0 hook and pass it through one of the Bunkers nostrils and out the other. I’m not big on circle hooks since I find it hard to resist the temptation to set the hook but many people swear by them. If you are fishing circles you need to resist the temptation to set the hook like you normally would. All you need to do is put some tension on the line and in theory the fish will hook itself. I usually tie the hook to a 30 pound leader with sinker slide and use a fairly heavy weight since I like to try and keep the Bunker on or close to the bottom and near the boat so I can feel pick ups better. I adjust the line tension of the reel just enough to allow some line to come off the reel in free spool while the bunker swims around so if a Striper picks it up she’s got some room to run and engulf the entire Bunker. To each his own but I prefer to drift rather then anchor since I think it gives the bait a more natural presentation and you’re covering more ground adrift. If you get a pick up you need to resist the temptation to immediately set the hook. It ‘s best to give the Striper a ten second count before setting the hook. It will be the longest ten seconds of your life but if you try and set the hook too fast you run the risk of pulling the Bunker out of the fishes mouth before it’s had an opportunity to engulf it and you might not get a good hook set. If you’re going to live line your going to need a recalculating live well to keep the bait alive. It should be round not square because the bunker have very sensitive noses which get banged in the corners while they attempt to swim in circles in the bait well.
If you can’t get live bunker then the next best thing is fresh not frozen Bunker. Many local tackle stores have fresh Bunker in season. I like to use the head and fish it on the bottom. When you fish the head it’s important to hook the bait through the lower and upper jaws so it’s mouth is hooked shut. If not the Bunkers mouth will likely swing open and the force of the current can make your bait spin. You will likely get a lot more pick ups using other parts of the Bunker but heads will usually get the larger fish. Lots of times Stripers will screw with your bait before engulfing it and heads are so tough they will stay on your hook even as the Striper toys around with it.
Good luck Bunker dunking this season. It’s probably one of the best methods to get a trophy Striper.
The picture below is Mark Kincade's Striper that feel to a live Bunker in June of 09. Funny thing is there were no Bunker present in the area and no fish visably feeding. We snagged the bunker in the Bay and drifted them them with heavy sinkers over some lumps I saw on the chart plotter about a mile off of Sandy Hook on the ocean side.
Gerry Zagorski <><
Proud Supporter of SSFFF and RFA
28 Carolina Classic
Sandy Hook Area
Last edited by Gerry Zagorski : 05-28-2010 at 08:03 AM.