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The 2017 Spring Migration

Blog post design by Ryan Collins

Dex Chadsey

In the spring, timing and location are key factors.  As the magic 50 to 55 degree water temperature reaches Cape Cod, so do the migratory fish.

Places along the Cape's southside and inside Buzzard's Bay usually see the first schoolies (and then the first bigger fish) before places like Race Point in Provincetown.

I've written this quick blog post to help you understand the factors which can affect the migration, and when striped bass arrive on Cape Cod. 


The 4 Places Cape Cod Bass Come From

As the water warms and baitfish become more present, the holdover fish on Cape Cod will leave the backwater areas where they spent most of the winter, to explore the open bays and coastlines.

This will give anglers an opportunity to catch holdover stripers before the main biomass of migratory fish return.

cape cod holdover striped bass april 8 jason mazzola ryan collins

This past weekend Ryan Collins and Jason Mazzola encountered some great holdover striper action (you can read about that trip by clicking here). These small stripers probably spent the winter somewhere on Cape Cod. 

However, the warming of local waters does not in itself mean that we will see migratory fish move in from the south.

As anglers we always seem to focus on water temperatures off Cape Cod when trying to predict the arrival of the first migratory stripers. That is important, but it is only part of the equation.

Most of the bass we see on Cape Cod come from four main sources:

  • Chesapeake Bay
  • Hudson River
  • Delaware River
  • Winter holdovers already on Cape Cod

When trying to predict the run of migratory fish, the first water temperatures to take note of are those in the ocean area just outside of the Chesapeake Bay. Keep in mind that the main biomass of bass spend the winter hanging out in the deeper water off shore of the Chesapeake.

As the inshore waters warm, the bass stage just outside the Chesapeake's south east end and wait for the the Bay's water to warm into the 50's. At this point the 4+ year old females and 3+ year old males start moving into the bay, towards the rivers of their birth to start the spawning process.

Chesapeake Bay Stripers

The younger fish which do not participate in the spawn, start their journey north right away, progressing as water temperature and food availability are to their liking. This is why we see the small bass first.

Small stripers like this one caught by Lauren of MFCC, usually start to arrive on Cape Cod during late April. This particular bass was caught after last year's MFCC Breakfast. Be sure to register online for this year's breakfast if you have not done so already.

I always thought that it was because they were faster swimmers, however the real reason is that while the larger fish are swimming into the bays and rivers to spawn, the smaller fish are swimming north.  These smaller bass have about a two week to a month head start on the larger fish, depending on where they start from.

So we also need to pay attention to water temperature and weather conditions in coastal Virginia, because colder than usual conditions could delay the movement of these small fish up the coast.

Hudson & Delaware River Stripers

Even if only Cape Cod holdovers and Chesapeake Bay fish were the ones that make up our summer population of Striped Bass, then explaining how the migration works would still be fairly complicated.

However, another, albeit smaller population of striped bass holds in the deeper waters in the upper mid Atlantic bight.

Some of these fish spawn in the Delaware River and other waterways such as the Thames, but most of these fish spawn in the tributaries of the Hudson. These fish undergo the same process as the Chesapeake Bay stripers, with the larger fish spawning and the smaller fish immediately moving north up the coast. 

The geographical location of the different holding and spawning areas impacts the timing and the distance these fish need to swim to reach our area. This all effects when we see fish, whether they are migratory or holdovers, as well as the size of the stripers we see.

So to summarize, the first bass reported this spring on Cape Cod will most likely be holdover fish. Holdovers are usually small in size, but as Ryan Collins has demonstrated, there are some 25+ pound holdover stripers around.

Ryan Collins with a big Cape Cod holdover striper he caught last March.

The Virginian migratory schoolies will head north first because the water that far south warms the quickest, but the schoolies coming from outside the Hudson have less distance to travel.

So if we have a warm Spring in the Northeast we may see larger fish from the Hudson, mixed in with schoolies arriving from the Chesapeake.

The Last Bass To Arrive

The last striped bass to arrive are the really big girls coming from Virginia, although there is anecdotal evidence that most don't come all the way to us on the Cape. Just about all of the 60+ pound fish caught in recent years have come from the triangle shaped area between Fisher Island, Block Island, and Montauk.

So it is not as simple as saying that schoolies arrive on Cape Cod in early May and the "keepers" arrive two weeks later. This is especially true with recent revelations that there are populations of striped bass in Nova Scotia and the rivers of Maine. Whether these bass migrate north or south (or just stay put) is still a bit of a mystery.

In conclusion, the stripers we catch on Cape Cod come from many different places, and this influences when they arrive on Cape Cod. I don't know about you, but I'm just hoping to put a bend in the rod as soon as possible!

What do you think?

Let me know by commenting below.

  1. Great info Dex! I love learning about this stuff!
    Question – if they come early, does that mean they will be gone sooner? I don’t get to the Cape until 6/20, so I selfishly root against you guys and the early fish…I know, I’m awful…

    1. No need to worry, the arrival of migrating fish are not related to when they leave in the Fall. Both are dependent on the conditions at the time.
      The fish have arrived! Ryan and Brian McCarty picked up some fresh schoolies yesterday on the Vineyard. The third week in June is a great time to fish anywhere on the Cape. Where will you be based?

      1. My boat is at Fiddlers Cove – so west end of the canal. But I take it just about everywhere. Spend a lot of time at the Vineyard and the Elizabeth’s. Started going to Race Point last summer. I would often steam past fish to “stick with my plan”….not going to make that mistake this summer! Can’t wait!!!

        1. It would probably be helpful to touch base with MFCC member Jim Murphy. Jim keeps his boat in that same area and is very successful fishing the West End of the Canal. I have fished with Jim several times. He is a great guy and an excellent fisherman.

  2. I once caught a 12″ schoolie at Race Point P-town that had been tagged in the Hudson River just 2 days before! Now that’s what I call migrating!

  3. The family all got saltwater fly rods for Christmas and we can’t wait to give them a try! We are south of you, near Stonybrook, so we’ll keep an eye on the water temps as you suggested.
    Thanks for the great advice and the insight!

    1. The migrating bass should be approaching your area right now Hayley.
      Check out “Saltwater Fly Fishing 101” on MFCC University.
      Great introduction in how to have success using your new fly rods.

  4. Great write up Dex!

    1. Thanks Brian,
      You saw the original post on the Forum.
      Holdovers in the Vineyard ponds must be getting more active with this warmer weather.

      1. I saw an osprey snatch up what I thought was a schoolie (holdover). I was out trolling Edgartown Pond on Sunday and didn’t get a bite. The pond i closed, and sitting around 1.5 or 2 feet above sea level.

        1. When the Ospreys are around the bass can’t be far behind. Good news!

  5. Good info and great read.
    Thank you.

    1. Thanks Steve,
      We are getting some reports of early activity this year. Time to start the scouting trips.

  6. 1st week of may use eels in taunton river

    1. I believe the Taunton River has a herring run as well.

  7. Great educational article, life long learning. Thanks Dex

    1. Thanks Jake,
      I find the whole migration fascinating. Rich Murphy has a great explanation in his fantastic book “Fly Fishing for Striped Bass”. Gracie says “Hi”


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