By Toby Lapinski
From those first August trickles of a blitz here, followed by a push of mullet there, the fall run ebbs and floods like the movement of the tide; at some points it runs hard and others it’s just a trickle before finally slacking out. Trying to predict where the best bite is going to take place is a fool’s undertaking, but nonetheless, here I go…
Late fall fishing often feels like a surf fisherman’s game, likely due to anglers wanting to get their boat out of the water before it’s too late or getting shut down for days on end due to unsettled weather. That said, each fall sees some large bass boated well into the 10th and 11th months by those who trailer their boats. If bunker hang deep into the fall, then it’s a no-brainer to target your efforts around where the bait can be found. Places that hold late-season bunker include upper Narragansett Bay, the Pawcatuck River, the Thames River, the Connecticut River and the Housatonic River. Working inside the lower confines as well as any reefs situated just outside the rivers themselves with a live bait is sure to produce on any lingering big bass. Each year the October and November fishing reports are dotted with word of some exceptional catches in these areas, often included in the report is word of just a boat or two working a school of hefty bass without anyone else in sight. A few years back this happened on a mid-Long Island Sound reef, and a handful of 50s and even a 60-plus-pounder were landed over several days by a small group of anglers still in the water with the means to capitalize on the bounty.
One spot that is synonymous with late-fall and surfcasting for striped bass is Block Island, and no foray to the ‘Porkchop’ is complete without a visit to Southwest Point! Many huge striped bass have been landed in the surf here, with the majority of them being caught in the final three months of the calendar year. It’s difficult to say exactly what brings the fish into shore. It could be the close proximity to the fertile offshore reefs; the simple geographic positioning as the last corner of the island for bass to stop at before scooting out into open water; the turmoil of the rip that forms here on certain stages of the tide; or a combination of all these factors and more.
If you happen to have a boat capable of the run over from the mainland, the same spots just a bit offshore from the point that have been producing since early July are worth some effort into the fall. Anywhere from the Wind Mills to Southwest Ledge (staying inside the 3-mile line) can hold large bass late into the season. I’ve long believed that boats leave this area before the bass do, so give it a shot if the weatherman predicts a couple of rare mild days late in the season; odds are that you will not be disappointed! And if the bass don’t bite, you can always save the day by targeting cod and black sea bass, both of which load into this area with the onset of winter.
Back on the mainland, the breachways and outflows of South County, Rhode Island—the Narrow River, Galilee, Charlestown, Quonochontaug and Weekapaug—are always worth a shot in the fall. The later into the season we get, the more likely the bite is to take place on the ebb as opposed to the flood, but don’t rule out either tide when conditions look promising as big bass capitalize on any and every opportunity to feed before making that final exodus, whenever it might be. Inside the channels it is tough to beat a jig or paddle-tail shad, while the current dumping out into the open ocean is best fished with artificials such as darters, bottle plugs, metal-lip swimmers and Finnish swimmers. A large, lively eel drifted out towards the horizon is always a good bet for a late cow, too. Keep these spots in mind when a storm kicks up as they have a way of attracting and grouping up those last few stragglers as they take shelter from the big surf out front before finally moving on once conditions return to normal.
Long Island, Metro New York
By Fred Golofaro
Trying to predict where the best fishing for striped bass will occur at any given point during the season is a crap shoot at best. Basing it on recent fishing activity, the current presence and availability of baitfish, the health of the fishery and traditional patterns that seem to occur with less frequency than in the past, I’ll give it my best shot.
It is always tempting to look east to Montauk whenever you’re looking for a sure bet where striped bass are concerned. That certainly has held true for the past few summers, including this year when a staggering number of big bass were tallied by boatmen, especially on the summer moons. Unfortunately, that has not been the case for a number of years when it comes to the fall. Gone is the fabled late season herring run (Even when the herring show, the bass do not.) and gone are the September blitzes when acres of stripers turned the Point’s waters to a froth as they gorged on shoals of rain bait, drawing anglers from every state in the Northeast. So I’m going to eliminate Montauk Point and look west, especially given that I am optimistic we are going to see some semblance of a sand eel run this fall, based simply on the volume of sand eels already present in our waters. Whether that run extends to the surf is anyone’s guess, but I’m hopeful.
For boaters, I’m looking for a repeat of the wild jigging action that took place last November along the South Shore. The waters between Moriches and Fire Island inlets, and west of Fire Island, saw excellent action in November and right up to the end of the season in mid-December when the first snowfall pulled the curtain on the season for most anglers. At various times, some quality stripers made up the action for boatmen, especially when adult bunker were present, but much of it, especially later in the run, was made up of school-size fish gorging on sand eels, with some days seeing far more shorts than keepers.
Jigging will be the way to go for most anglers on private and open boats, but some anglers last season racked up big scores by casting soft plastics or bucktails and working them deep in 30 to 40 feet of water, so be prepared to shift gears if the jigs are not producing. While I’m gambling on a repeat of last fall’s action, I also expect some big stripers to fall to trolled bunker spoons and Mojo rigs along the South Shore, and extending to New York Bight as the fall progresses. For those willing to work night tides, there are always a few decent fish to be found by casting or drifting live baits around Long Island’s bridges and back bays, areas where the edge definitely goes to local sharpies. The Sound could be a sleeper pick, especially its western reaches.
For surfcasters, again, I’m hoping for a solid sand eel run but it’s more than likely if it does occur, the action will be made up of mostly small stripers, with those fish that were so abundant last fall having added a few inches between their heads and tails. If you want to get the most out of these small fish, be sure to pack a light spinning rod spooled with 10- to 15-pound test braid. Three-quarter- to 1-ounce bucktails or lead heads tipped with soft plastics, 4- to 5-inch swim shads, 6-inch swim eels and small tins should all help you connect with schoolies.
Picking a specific location when sand eels are the prime forage, or bunker too for that matter, is purely a guessing game. In the case of both baitfish, action can be widespread or isolated to a few widely scattered beaches. The Island’s entire South Shore has the potential to produce good fishing, but once you discover an area where fish are feeding on sand eels, stick to it since fishing on these baitfish tends to remain consistent over a lengthy period of time. Some sand eel runs see good action spread along much of the South Shore. Other years, such as the last good run, saw Fire Island become the epicenter of activity that fall. I’ll never forget a Sunday morning when the sun broke and revealed a nearly shoulder to shoulder line of casters stretching from Democrat Point to the Fire Island Lighthouse, and parking lots that looked like the height of the summer bathing season. If you pushed me for specifics I would still have to generalize in saying the South Fork beaches like Napeague and Amagansett and then through Southampton. Smith Point, FINS, Robert Moses/Democrat Point, Tobay, Jones Beach, Atlantic Beach and Breezy Point all have the potential to shine, but like I said, it’s a crap shoot.
I’m always hopeful that some better quality stripers will show in the fall, despite the lack of those bigger fish in recent years. Once again, our waters are rich in bunker – peanuts and adult – which could draw some better fish into the wash. Wherever you ply the surf over the next few months, I would make sure you have a bunker snag stowed in your bag just in case you wind up within casting distance of bass crashing a school of bunker. My sleeper pick for the surf – the North Fork. It has the bait, there has been a decent pick of school bass with an occasional better fish over the summer, and the stretch from Orient to Hortons Point was one of the more productive areas last fall. And by all means, don’t leave your “big” rod home. You never know when those little schoolies might be replaced by 30-pound stripers or teen size blues.
The Jersey Shore
By Jim Hutchinson, Jr.
As baitfish funnel out of local estuaries towards their final coastal path down along the Jersey Shore, striped bass present quite the obstacle as they stage in waiting. Essentially, it’s the beginning to the end of many migratory runs for peanut bunker and finger mullet there along the open expanses of Raritan Bay, as the young forage encounters its first major obstacle on the way towards Sandy Hook and the coastal run.
While much of the fleet is most confident setting out the mojos for trolling the channel edges, the run and gun action can start as far west as Keyport, east towards Sandy Hook Bay and off the Earle Naval Pier near Leonardo (Stay outside the perimeter; the Navy patrol boat with the gun mounted to the bow will let you know if you’ve gone too far.). Look for birds, whales and miscellaneous surface action the entire length of the Reach Channel while armed with pencils, poppers and swim shads.
The entire complex is worthy of attention from October into November, but tide will often play an important part here in terms of triggering the stripers to feed. “The last part of flood and the start of ebb usually triggers them,” said Capt. Erwin Heinrich who runs his Scales N’ Tales out of Twin Lights Marina in Highlands, NJ, but he reminded folks that bigger fish seem to really like the slack.
At the opposite end of the Garden State, one would expect much the same action on Delaware Bay, but that bite has typically been slower to materialize. While mullet and bunker are making similar seasonal adjustments here, it’s historically been the arrival of adult menhaden later in the season that prompts solid action. Ten years ago, an epic chunk bite could be found on the hook at spots like the Punk Grounds, Tussy’s and both the 20- and 60-Foot Slough, which offered epic opportunities for giant stripers into early November. Captains running along the Delaware Bayshore on both sides would anchor in the fast-moving water chunking big pieces of bunker on large 10/0 hooks. “The key to get the fish biting is to chum heavily and hard,” said Capt. Don Stein from the Fortescue Captains Association along the Delaware Bayshore, adding “and be sure to use enough weight on the slide rigs to hold bottom, usually 6 to 10 ounces can hold well, but you may need to bump up to 12 or 16 ounces when the tide is really ripping.”
While the public battles over “global warming” versus “climate change,” coastal fishermen have learned to adapt as seasons change; the bucktail and eeling action at the Cape May Rips hasn’t offered much in recent years, or perhaps until well after boats have been winterized around the traditional Thanksgiving timeframe. For the most part, South Jersey and Delaware fishermen have found most action on the troll with mojos and plugs from inside the three-mile line down across the mouth of the bay well into the earliest part of the New Year.
Between the points however, from Sandy Hook to Cape May, the months of October and November shine for stripers from the beach on out to the federal line. As adult bunker arrive soon after the final push of finger mullet disappear, the beach and boat bite often turns hottest between Bay Head and Island Beach State Park (IBSP). More beach replenishment work in the vicinity of Ortley Beach and Lavallette this season is causing concern among Ocean County surfcasters, but plugging in areas like Deal in Monmouth County could prove more effective now that much of the previous replenishment work is done and gone (quite literally as deeper water and some re-exposed structure could push the striper run in tight again in 2018 as in days gone by).
South of the Mecca at IBSP and across to the other side of Barnegat Inlet, the 64th Annual Long Beach Island Surf Fishing Classic (www.lbift.com) runs from October 6 through December 9 along the entire 18-mile stretch from Barnegat Light to the tip of Holgate. This stretch has been mostly cool in recent years post-Sandy, but the ongoing work to the north could prove interesting along the beaches of LBI this year. The Classic’s top bass in 2017 was a 48-pounder chunked up mid-Island on November 1. Most casters chunk pockets along the beach, but swim shads, topwaters and swimmers should prove more successful after the full moon on October 24; just outside the boat guys are livelining bunker just off the beach or dragging Maja spoons, plugs and mojos just west of the three-mile line. Cape May County anglers who keep boats on trailers or open marinas will continue with the action all the way into January.