A look at some fall surf classics, with a few wildcards to be found in the fall brawl mix.
October presents a major transition month in the surf where bait schools migrate extensively as existing warmer waters meet the start of cool water moving in. Warmwater species still stick around as cooler water species move in to take their place, creating a mish-mash of interesting characters that can come up on the line depending on what offerings you throw out.
Affectionately, it’s the time of year for a proper beach brawl. In 2019, I started the Barrier Island Beach Brawl surf fishing tournament to bring back a sense of camaraderie among surf anglers in an effort to explore the variety of surf species and mainly for families and friends to get together and make memories fishing the Jersey surf. The reason why I placed the tourney in early October is the fact that there is so much going on in the surf; it’s really anyone’s guess what can come up on the line, making for some exciting happenings.
A hit list of both familiar species and oddities are on tap in the October surf. I’ll break it down into the categories of my Beach Brawl; these are the Jersey surf species you can expect to catch on an October daily basis from the tip of Sandy Hook to Cape May and down along the DELMARVA beaches.
STRIPED BASS – It goes without saying the true local of the Jersey surf is the striper. You can bail bass on hi-lo rigs with 5/0 circle hooks baited with clams or bunker or throw plenty of plugs, poppers, and shads at the fish, from Sandy Hook through Cape May, with a lot of surf action around the Island Beach State Park area.
BLUEFISH – Historically, big gator blues of 10 to 20 pounds were commonplace in October and may show up again at any given time. Poppers and metal lures like Ava jigs are easy marks for marauding packs of blues cruising the surf. Of course, you can always toss out fresh mullet on fireball rigs or bunker chunks on 8/0 Octopus hooks.
WEAKFISH – Though they’ve been pretty ghost-like in recent years, chunky tiderunner weakies can sometimes still be found, especially down in Cape May or off the Sandy Hook beachfronts. Pink soft baits, pink Rat-L-Traps or sandworms, or bloodworm baits generally snatch a few spiketooths.
BLACKFISH – Look to any jetty or pier for the rocky structure to find tautog. Barnegat, Manasquan, and Shark River inlets are hot stuff, as well as the Longport Pier and Ocean City Bridges. Green crabs or Asian crabs will claim any tog hanging tight to the pilings and rocks.
While most of the dedicated surfcasters in New Jersey and Delaware are waiting for the arrival of the classics, there’s the category of fish I term the Wildcards. This a medley of exotic and lesser found species can often be found this month patrolling the October waters out along the front beaches and inlet jetties for the next several weeks.
SPANISH MACKEREL, BONITO & LITTLE TUNNY – The speedsters are back! Spanish mackerel can still be hanging around if waters are over 70 degrees, but more likely you will see bonito and definitely little tunny as they can tolerate cooler water in the 60’s. Quickly drawn thin metal lures like Deadly Dicks, Hogy Epoxy jigs, Joe Baggs resin jigs, and Williamson Gomoku jigs all will hit their mark.
SHEEPSHEAD – Found in the same relative spots as blackfish, around bridge pilings, piers, and rocky inlet areas, sheepshead will take the same tog baits too, like Asian crabs, green crabs, and sand fleas. Down south gives you a better shot at spots like the 8th Street jetty in Avalon and around the Cape May Inlet area. Good opportunities are available down at the Delaware beaches as well.
CROAKERS & KINGFISH – Both species feed in a similar way as you can use small hi-lo pill float rigs with #6 to #2 hooks tipped with bloodworms or Fishbites. Brigantine Beach is always a hot spot, as are the Delaware Bayside beaches and off of Cape May Point.
TRIGGERFISH – Inlet rockpiles and bridge abutments hold triggers, and the best shot at actually hooking them is to scale down your hook to a size #8 to #4 beak hook with a small gap so as to effectively plant past the beak of the trigger into the fleshy part of the mouth. Use tiny bits of clam or squid as triggers will relentlessly peck away at big baits until there is nothing left.
POMPANO – In recent years, tropical waters have stuck around into early October, and pompano schools have shown up, with a localization around the Sea Isle City area and up into Island Beach State Park, where pomps to 3 pounds are often checked in. A hi-lo rig using size #1 beak hooks with floats, and either shrimp or sand fleas used as baits can get whacked on the insides of sandbars during incoming tides.
BLACK DRUM – The Delaware Bayshore and Brigantine Beach are prime spots to find boomers gobbling up fresh clam baits on three-way swivel surf rigs and 10/0 Octopus circle hooks. Fish around the new and full moon tides to intercept their movements during the high tide hours.
RED DRUM – At the turn of the 20th century, red drum, aka channel bass, were nearly more abundant than striped bass in Jersey waters. Every October, there are more than a handful caught in the surf on mullet or clams, primarily south of Manasquan Inlet.
SPECKLED TROUT– Another southern visitor that has taken up some yearly residence is the speckled trout. Back in the days of the Oyster Creek Power Plant, specks could be caught throughout the fall and sometimes winter. Now, speckled trout are mainly found in the Hereford Inlet, Corson’s Inlet, Cape May Point, and even up into the Lavallette areas, or sometimes at Island Beach as in 2020 when they were hitting soft baits like Fin-S fish on light half-ounce jigheads.
You can also add to the October mix sharks, stingrays, fluke, cobia, sundials, and others, though regulations must be adhered to with season closures and such. Baitfish, including sand eels, peanut bunker, mullet, spearing, and bay anchovies are on the move all through the month, attracting some explosive blitzing conditions and even surprising action on surf species you may have never even thought possible in the Jersey suds.
Be sure to put the Barrier Island Beach Brawl on your hit list this year October 8th and 9th, 2021. Check out all the info at saltwaterunderground.com and I’ll see you there!