WHEN CHUNKIN’S THE METHOD, CHUM’S THE WORD
By Captain Sal Tardella with Bonnie Tardella
Blues and stripers can’t resist the allure of Atlantic menhaden-also called pogy or mossbunker, and just plain bunker in these parts. Fortunately for us, human beings don’t choose to put bunker on their family menu, so there’s always plenty of these shiny-scaled fish to be found in Long Island Sound. They’re fairly easy to snag when they’re tightly schooled up-especially in the early mornings close to shore.
To catch fresh bunker for chunking, get out on the water before dawn, if possible. Be ready with a well-honed treble hook, 25-pound test line and a fairly rigid rod. If bluefish are among the bunker, use wire leader, too-for obvious reasons. When you see a bunker school, ease up to it as quietly as possible. Turn off your engine, cast in the treble hook and let it sink several feet. Then start snagging and reeling as long as you’re still on top of the school. You may have to move a few times to keep up with the fast-swimming and very nervous fish. We try to boat about three bunker per angler for a half day’s trip. Store the bait on ice and out of the sunlight; a one-gallon zipper-type plastic bag can hold four whole fish and keeps them from breaking down too soon. Keep the bunker intact; don’t cut them up until you’re ready to start fishing.
Along with the baitfish you snag, you’ll need to make some chum for your excursion. To prepare a heady fish cocktail start with some frozen ground-up bunker. This product is sold at tackle shops; it looks like a brown ice log. While on your way to the fishing grounds, place one of the logs in a 5-gallon bucket with some water. As the frozen bunker is thawing add a few ounces of concentrated bunker oil-available in one-gallon containers at the same retailers where you purchase the frozen bunker logs. Add enough water to fill your bucket about two-thirds to the top, and you have an irresistible concoction that no hungry bluefish or striped bass (or any other Sound denizen) can pass up. This bucketful of chum should be all you need for the span of one tide. Be sure to have a large ladle for the scooping (maybe two, just in case you drop one overboard.)
When you get to your chosen fishing spot (look for a nice ledge in about 60 feet of water) drop your anchor along the topmost part of the ledge, and allow your boat to drift to about the 45-foot level. Now’s the time to start cutting your fresh bunker into chunks-about 2½” x 1½”. (It’s a personal decision as to what part of the fish and what size of a chunk you like. My wife prefers to use the whole head; she thinks the eyes help attract lunker stripers, and she’s been right lots of times.) As you slice up the bunker, use any unsuitable-sized bits to add to your chum bucket. Select a sinker from your tackle box, and I suggest you use one that’s just heavy enough to hold bottom. In a normal tide movement a 3-4 ounce sinker should do the trick, but sometimes-with a new moon or full moon-you might have to use more weight, e.g. 5-6 ounces, to adjust for the stronger tidal pull. Add a strong snap swivel, and a hollow-point, long-shank special bend 6.0 hook threaded through a juicy piece of the freshly-cut bunker. You’ll also need a leader. (When fishing only for striped bass, I utilize a high-quality 25-pound-test fluorocarbon leader, tied directly to 20-pound test line with a uni knot; if bluefish are mixed in with the bass, then wire will probably be necessary.) You’re now ready for the battle, and so the chumming begins.
Ladle out a cup or two of the scintillating stew. Watch the movement of the slick; when it disappears repeat the process. Within 10-15 minutes the blues and/or striped bass should be under your boat and hitting your bait. (Note: When the action gets heavy, slow down on the chumming. You don’t want to keep the fish satisfied with bits and pieces of your chum when they should be hitting the big chunks at the end of your line.)
Drop the bait to the bottom, and set your reel bales and adjust your drag. (Hint: Every few minutes gently lift the line; this action serves to shake off a mooching crab–and the glint of moving bunker scales might help catch the eye of a nearsighted fish.) When a fish hits your bait and the reel begins to sing, don’t strike him immediately; wait a few moments until he runs with some line and slows down a bit, then hit him hard and keep his head up until he’s tired out and ready to be netted or gaffed.
Most readers of The New England Fisherman know Long Island Sound pretty well and already have their favorite spots for chunking. Speaking for “My Bonnie,” we’ve had a lot of success at Buoy 28C–which is about 2 miles due south of Green’s Ledge Light (180º)-fishing about 300 feet south of the buoy in water 40-48 feet. Another fruitful spot can be reached by continuing 100-200 feet due south from that point-to water depths of 50-60 feet. Buoy 11B (a green bell buoy that’s visible from 28C in a southeasterly direction of about a mile) has also been productive, especially when sitting at the south side of the reef in about 30-35 feet of water. When these haunts aren’t holding fish I move further down the reef (which runs in a southerly direction) looking for other areas located over a sloping ledge (e.g. from 35 down to 70 feet or more.)
Sometimes I find fish right away; sometimes it takes several moves and lots of drops. But whatever the conditions and wherever and whenever I take out my charters for a day of chunking, I always do so with a goodly supply of chum as insurance. Like that much-advertised credit card, I don’t leave home without it.You can try chunking without chum, of course; but it’s not the best choice if you’re looking for optimal results. We’ve done it both ways and know from personal experience that we can be anchored in the middle of Long Island Sound-maybe 30 yards from other boats-with all of us sitting over the same body of fish-and if we’re chumming and the other anglers aren’t, we’ll outcatch them at a ratio of about 5 to 1. An oily chum slick is a time-tested magnet for gamefish; it’s the nectar of the gods to those large blues and stripers. Although I always use a bunker formula, many local fishermen have been equally successful with clam or mackerel-based mixtures. Whichever type of chum you prefer, I guarantee you’ll increase your catch significantly by planning ahead-with the right bait, the right tackle, the right techniques, and plenty of that godawful slop to spread upon the waters to improve your odds.