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WATCH THOSE FINGERS & PEANUTS

Post Labor Day festivities for most anglers means sorting bags and boxes for the start of the fall run which typically commences with telltale v-wake of finger mullet schools.
By Jim Hutchinson, Jr.

Every year once Labor Day has passed, I start to think about September 21. That was the day, 34 years ago that Al McReynolds and buddies were fishing heavy surf following a September nor’easter at the Vermont Avenue Jetty in Atlantic City.

As the story goes, McReynolds’ longstanding world record striper, a 53-inch, 78-pound, 8-ounce monster with the 34-1/2-inch girth was taken on a 5-1/2-inch long Rebel black-back silver minnow plug on 20-pound test line and fought for one hour and 40 minutes. The key to the bite was said to be the stiff onshore winds pushing pockets of finger mullet in tight to the jetty pocket.

While many surfcasters particularly along that South Jersey stretch of coast look at September as mostly a time for smaller stripers, the height of the mullet run typically gets underway in the middle of the month; depending on if, when and for how long, the annual migration of mullet and peanut bunker typically signifies the start of the fall run and whether or not it’s a good one.

MULLET MADNESS
Adult striped mullet migrate offshore to spawn, with juveniles migrating inshore at about an inch in length. The juveniles find their way into tidal creeks and up into brackish water where they’ll feed on zooplankton and bottom-dwelling organisms throughout the summer, before staging for their southern migration at about 4 to 6 inches in length. This is quite the gauntlet for these finger mullet, as they stay packed in tight schools close to shore where stripers, bluefish and weakfish are hot on their tales.

Following the Labor Day storm of 2016, many eyes will be trained to the backside beaches and inlets in search of mullet masses. Every season is essentially a roll of the dice when it comes to the presence of mullet; one year could be hit or miss for the better part of a week, where sometimes mullet were in the surf mix for casters from New England to the Maryland coast for weeks at a time. I prefer to start every season erring on the side of optimism, staring intently for the first signs of that tell-tale v-wake of a school of finger mullet in the wash.

Cast-netting mullet is a surefire way to get plenty of bait in the well; they’re pretty hearty baits to use by boat or aerated bucket. Dropping a castnet over a school of finger mullet tight to a jetty on an outgoing tide, and then transferring a livey to a flatlined circle hook to float down the rocks has put a few stripers to my feet over the years. At this point, I prefer loading the plug bag with good mullet imitations, Daiwa SP Minnows, smallish metal-lips for a slow and steady retrieve, Tsunami’s ‘Silver Mullet’ pattern Talkin’ Pencil, and of course old standards like a 5-inch Redfin or Atom popper.

My personal favorite when mullet are plentiful was recommended to me years ago by The Fisherman’s Fred Golofaro in article form, the Little Neck Popper by Super Strike Lures. Available in 4-1/4- to 6-inch lengths, the Little Neck Popper is great for casting into onshore winds, is productive for popping and also in the sinking version can swim like a metal-lip making it an extremely versatile plug to slip in the bag this month.

PEANUT PARADE
While there’s certainly no telling whether or not we’re looking at mayhem or monotony this month with mullet, early signs are the peanut bunker run could be a mad one. In recent years with coastwide cutbacks in the overall harvest of menhaden, some areas in New Jersey and New York in particular have had so many juvenile bunker stacked in bays and canals that massive fish kills occurred due to low oxygen levels (ie, not enough oxygen to support the massive amounts of bait!)

As peanut bunker are getting ravaged by bass and blues, the same small popping plugs and pencils will score, though be ready to up the size to match bigger adult menhaden to entice trophy bass. When stripers are corralling bunker in tight to the beach, small Tsunami swim shads in bunker pattern and white can often distract a bass long enough for a hook-up; when not hooking up on a slow and steady retrieve, I’ll try to slow up and even pause around the schools to mimic a crippled bait.

It’s sometimes helpful to watch what others around you are doing to mimic success; I once had a school of bunker blitzing bass all to myself with no one around to copy. After several unsuccessful casts my phone rang, and as I propped my rod under my arm to turn the thing off I got whacked. I hooked up on multiple casts after by jigging the swim shad as stripers were bullrushing the bait schools and picking up the wounded baits behind.

Shorty Hopkins, bunker patterned plugs and of course bucktails are all effective as well by boat or by beach when schools of peanut bunker are being harassed – it’s often surprising actually how a plain white bucktail in the right hands can outfish just about any of the most realistic imitations.

The SP Minnow by Daiwa has become a go to lure in recent years worth the investment for surfcasters, while be sure to keep some Deadly Dicks or Tsunami Slim Waves in the bag as well if you happen into a shot at false albacore or for when stripers are turned on to thin, white baits (be sure to swap out the trebles, not just for health of the released fish but you’ll need stronger rings and hooks to handle multiple fish.)

Pay close attention to the weather this month; a few cooler nights and a few steady doses of NW winds should put a noticeable chill in the air and kickstart the fall run along the front. Don’t wait for the reports though – especially with the mullet, it’s sometimes a quick hit, and those who wait are usually the ones who should’ve been here yesterday!

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