Extend your season with great action on Long Island Sound.
Years ago, November was winter flounder time. Filling a 5-gallon bucket of fat flatties meant many great pan-fried fish dinners for the winter months ahead. Sadly, those days are gone—probably forever. Blackfish are a popular option for late fall fishing, of course, but by November the keeper tog have either been fished out or are migrating to deeper water.
I love November fishing—launches are deserted, and marina boats are dry-docked and wrapped like loaves of bread on a supermarket shelf. With the onset of cold weather after Halloween, most anglers have stored their gear and turned to football and yardwork. But they’re missing explosive action because the schoolie bass bite is on, and it’s a simple and clean fishery. My buddies and I will release hundreds of fish between Halloween and Thanksgiving without baiting a hook. One day early last November was typical for us off Niantic in eastern Long Island Sound.
A high-pressure system had steamrolled through the day before, but the stiff northwesterly had let go by morning. The water was cobalt blue, and seas were duck-pond calm as I throttled up and out of the harbor, heading for Black Point. As we closed within a half-mile of the inner rips, the sight of a cloud of birds prompted me to push the rpms as if we might miss the all-day bite. The volume of small bass like that school has overtaken entire bays in recent years.
“Last year on Veteran’s Day,” said Connecticut Marine Fisheries Biologist Justin Davis, PhD, “I took a trip out of Niantic. Working birds and busting fish started about halfway out of the bay and continued east almost to the mouth of the Thames River in New London, which is about 3-1/2 miles. It was incredible. There were schools of hundreds of thousands of fish all over the place. A couple of times I just stopped casting and stood on the bow to watch the show.
“We’ve had a decline in larger fish since the mid-2000s, and we continue to have poor surveys for fish from that timeframe. But we’re optimistic for the future. The year 2011 had a bumper-crop spawn, and those fish are now reaching the legal length of 28 inches. The year 2015 was another bumper year, and those are the explosion of schoolies we’re seeing in the 12- to 18-inch range.”
The schoolie bite has been so large and mobile that some days, particularly in the early mornings and early evenings, massive schools—sometimes measurable in acres—move from outer Niantic Bay into the Niantic River, and many other estuaries experience the same phenomenon, where you can easily spot them slurping the surface anywhere up to Rte. 1.
“When the bite is on,” said Capt. Dixon Merkt (ret.), who guided out of Old Lyme, Connecticut for 40-plus years and now fishes for fun, “the number you can catch is almost unlimited. But you’re not casting to individual fish, you’re seeking schools where you get hits cast after cast after cast. These bass are cookie-cutter fish, usually 16 to 26 inches long, where volume is your objective, not size. Reports of two anglers releasing 75 to 100 fish on one tide aren’t uncommon.”
The schoolie boom isn’t isolated to eastern Long Island Sound. Similar astounding reports come from captains from western Long Island Sound to Block Island. Boats fishing the Long Island side of the Sound and mid-Sound areas have been experiencing the same great action. Last season saw loads of schoolie stripers off of Huntington and very few boats taking advantage of the action.
“There’s an absolute decline in the big bass numbers,” said Captain Chris Willi, who has guided for over 25 years. “However, this year’s great numbers of schoolie bass coincide with a 2015 big bass spawning cycle, as these young fish are between 3 and 5 years on a growth chart. This past season found us with an extraordinary number of small stripers from 20- to 26-inches.”
Conditions are a key factor for November success, and in this one instance climate change may be beneficial by extending our schoolie season. When we experience warm fall weather the run of stripers is long and good. Dedicated anglers can catch them through Thanksgiving and even into December. How late the fish stay, according to biologists, depends on how warm the autumn is because their numbers drop fast when the water temperature falls below 48 degrees. That magic number is when bait schools move out and the bass either push south or migrate into our major rivers to over-winter.
“I’ve been doing amazingly well on small stripers at first light,” said Capt. Chris Elser (www.ct-fishing.com), a longtime guide out of the Milford/Stratford area. “I’ve never seen that many peanut bunker in western Long Island Sound. Every harbor on both sides of the Sound was loaded, and the Housatonic River had several miles of peanuts. I hear it was this way around most of the region, and the schoolie bass have been on them.”
Marauding packs of schoolies usually aren’t fussy. They’re in such a feeding mode that they attack any swimming or surface lure like bluefish, often missing a topwater on successive strikes until they nail it, which provides tremendous visual excitement. This trait creates great sport with light spinning gear.
A perfect outfit is a 7-foot Shimano Talavera inshore, medium-heavy, fast-action rod or a 7-foot G-Loomis EX6 inshore, heavy, fast-action rated for 10- to 17-pound line and 1/4- to 1-ounce lures. Rods like these are light enough to cast small tins and provide plenty of tussle with schoolie bass, yet they have enough stiffness to keep a suitable topwater chugging across the surface. A well-matched reel is a Shimano C3000 NASCI or Stradic, which have plenty of capacity and drag but are balanced to those rods for optimum casting performance.
Captain Elser likes a 7-foot Lamiglas TFX 7020 spinning rod matched with a Shimano Stradic 3000 series, holding about 120 to 150 yards of 15- to-20- pound smooth, braided line. “For fishing stripers when they move into the shallows,” he said, “I like the hi-vis line options to assist my anglers in tracking their lure on a windy day.”
If you’re not a fan of braid for spincasting, load your reel with supple 12- to 15-pound mono for a balance of maximum casting distance and abrasion resistance for dense schools. For the line-to-leader connection, use a dependable knot like a double uni to tie on 18 inches of 20- to 30- pound fluorocarbon or mono leader.
Any lightweight 4- to 5-inch surface plug works. But only fish them with the trailing hook by first removing the forward treble hook, which makes catch-and-release easier and safer for you and the fish. I carry a few plugs with the barbs bent down on the rear treble for when the action is white hot, and the added challenge becomes part of the sport.
Another productive option is metal lures. Try wide-bodied tins in the 1- to 2-ounce range that imitate baby butterfish and peanut bunker. Kastmasters and Hopkins Shorty lures are excellent choices. Shimano’s lifelike Coltsniper casting jigs, like the 28g model, imitate most baitfish and carry a great distance in the wind. A Deadly Dick #1 long is another excellent schoolie choice.
With your rod tip held down low to the surface, retrieve tins at a normal rate, punctuated with a stop-and-go action to imitate a wounded baitfish, but be ready to set the hook because schoolies will often grab it on the sink. If you have no surface plugs aboard but want topwater excitement, speed up your retrieve and hold your rod tip up high. When fished correctly, flat lures like Kastmasters and Hopkins can skitter across the surface and draw heart-stopping strikes from these ravenous predators. Unlike fly fishing, setting the hook hard isn’t as critical because fish normally hook themselves on the trailing treble, which resembles a baitfish’s beating tail.
“When they’re up and frothing the surface,” said Captain Merkt, “the one mistake almost every novice angler makes is casting right into the middle of the mess. What you should do is cast to the edge of the school. In the middle of the blitz, you can accidentally snag fish or your line can be severed by other predators. Sometimes the fish are feeding so aggressively, and there’s so much bait and turmoil, that your lure is just missed. It’s great late-autumn sport!”