FRESH BUNKER FOR BAIT; FROZEN BUNKER FOR CHUM
Captain Sal Tardella with Bonnie Tardella
Menhaden, a/k/a “bunker” in this neck of the woods, is the quintessential bait for catching larger bluefish and striped bass in Long Island Sound. If you’re truly serious about catching fish, I suggest you set your alarm clock for 4:00am, get to bed early, and be out the door no later than 4:30. Then rev up the engine, and aim your boat toward a harbor where you’ve heard that bunker are in residence. It’s important to get an early start, since once the sun comes up, it’s much more difficult to spot bunker schools.
For snagging, use a fairly rigid rod that’s been rigged with a strong treble hook and 25-lb. test line. (If bluefish are in the area, you should also use a wire leader for fairly obvious reasons.) As soon as you spot signs of an active school, quietly sidle up to it-as close as possible; turn off the engine and cast into the body of fish, letting your hook sink to the bottom before beginning to snag and reel. (Make sure your hooks are super sharp or you’ll lose half of what you manage to snag.) AND BE VERY CAREFUL WITH THAT TREBLE HOOK! A lot of anglers have been injured when a bunker snaps off the hook and that wayward hook lodges itself in someone’s face or another body part.
How many bunker should you keep? Waste not, want not. You can stop snagging when you have about three whole bunker for each angler who’ll be aboard for the day’s trip. (I usually get about 4-6 bait chunks from one fish, depending on its size.) For the bait to remain fresh and firm it must be kept dry and stored on ice in your cooler. A tightly-sealed one-gallon plastic bag will hold four whole fish. Note: Leave the bunker intact until you’re ready to bait your hooks; then cut up only as much as you’ll need.
Now go find the scaly slammers.
Chum’s the word for a successful day of bottom fishing. To increase your odds, you might want to try using frozen ground bunker “logs”. They’re quite potent and very easy to work with. We take one aboard right out of the freezer. On the way to the fishing grounds we place the log into a 5-gallon bucket, along with some sea water, to start the thawing process. We’re not finished yet. After we reach our destination we add to the bucket a few ounces of concentrated bunker oil (available in one-gallon containers that don’t require refrigeration.) We then fill the bucket about three-fourths to the top with more water, and this delectable cocktail should last for the span of one tide.
When we’re ready to drop our lines we begin to ladle out the bunker brew. (Warning: Avoid getting any of the stuff into your shoes! A few drops of that mix will produce a smell that you’ll never get rid of; I know because it’s happened to me, and no combination of deodorizers, scented powders or Odor-Eater inserts will eliminate the foul smell of death residing inside your shoes for the rest of their lives.)
Now keep an eye on the movement of the slick, and when it disappears from view, ladle out some more of the concoction, maintaining a steady stream. Within 10-15 minutes it should begin to do its job. You’ll know it’s working when you get your first few hits. Then, if the action gets heavy, chum more sparingly. One more hint: Don’t “over-chum”. If you do, the fish will simply lay back, sampling the floating hors d’oeuvre buffet with no need to advance toward the main course dangling from your hook.
Although it’s not a pure science, years of experience have shown that chumming works. We’ve often shared a mid-Sound reef with several other boats anchored within 50 to 60 yards of our location. If the other guys aren’t chumming, we out-fish them at a ratio of about 5:1. They can be in the right spot at the right time-using the right tackle and the right bait-but it’s our chum slick that entices the fish, and those big blues and stripers will hit our lines after following the alluring scent of a well-placed chum trail which is simply irresistible.