Finishing up strong in the December suds.
December is a month to remember, as invariably, some of the finest surf fishing in the Garden State occurs throughout the 12th month of the year. A variety of factors determine when and if December shines, and in the past decade, it’s truly harbored some of the most active surf striper fishing.
As of mid-November, the fall of 2021 has been a warm one, relatively speaking with 60-degree water temps, and that may just mean December could be blowing up with bass action as waters are taking a while longer to get into prime bass comfortability.
Shorties Or Forties?
So here’s the deal, without a doubt, history and pattern dictates that December usually brings in the end of the fall migratory run passing by New Jersey. That generally means smaller, shorty fish from rat size of 16 inches up to around 28 inches on average. Now, that’s not to say large linesiders still aren’t in the mix. Case in point – on December 28, 2015, seas were 5 to 6 feet with an east 25-knot wind, and both gannets and gulls were dive bombing sand eel schools just outside the breakers when I witnessed depth charge bomb crashes going off. I promptly tied on an Ava 47 jig with a Tsunami sand eel as a teaser and got walloped by a monster bass, the largest I’ve ever landed in the surf, with a weight of 51-1/2 pounds.
That same evening I put another dozen fish between 15 and 30 pounds on the sands. And in January 2017, huge 25- to 40-pound bass were still being caught on wooden swimmers well into the third week. Last December 2020, I put a fair share of 32- to 36-inch bass on the sands. Bringing it back around again, the general rule is that smaller fish make up the bulk of December surf stripers, but larger models most definitely can show up if sand eels, herring, mackerel, and rainfish schools stick inside.
Go Big Or Stay Small?
When it comes to choosing lure types to toss, it all depends on the baitfish in the surf and the general consensus of fish size being hooked. Let’s start off small – sand eels are usually the predominant bait in December and into the winter. Imitations, including the Tsunami sand eels, Joe Baggs sand eels, Ava jigs from 007 to A47 size, and Needlefish plugs all fit the bill for a sand eel doppelganger. When small baits are around, usually smaller fish in the caliber of 18 to 26 inches are the norm, and sand eel imitations are prime to toss out.
Some years, herring, mackerel, and hickory shad schools inundate the surf, which in turn attract larger fish to come inside. When that happens, an array of larger offerings can be used, including Bomber plugs, Daiwa SP Minnows, and any number of wooden metal-lipped swimmers that present a slow roll of an injured big bait. Usually, the reports in The Fisherman Magazine will get you a good grasp on the general size bracket of fish either being caught on boats or in the surf and can adjust your lure choice accordingly. If I even hear a few reports of 20-pound class fish and over being beached or boated, I will bring out the larger lures to target them; but if it’s all about schoolies and shorty bass around, I will stick with lighter offerings and rod/reel setup.
Slow It Down
As waters are generally entering their coldest phase of the year, stripers, though aggressive, do not want to speed up and chase a meal down if they don’t have to. A slow retrieve is recommended no matter what lure you throw out. Of course, sometimes you will see bass breaking the water’s surface, boiling, and even a tail slap here and there, but usually, you won’t see all out telltale blitzes of hundreds of fish feeding. That said, just because the waters seem silent does not mean there are no fish around feeding. A slow presentation tends to get more hits than a faster one at this time of year.
Along those same lines, many times, you’re going to feel tail taps or mouthing of the lure from the bass, felt as little bumps of the lure. When that happens, slow or even stop the retrieve, then start it up again slowly. That will usually get another committal strike. You may also want to try reeling a tiny bit quicker for a revolution or two, then slow it down again to present the lure as being chased away then slowing again.
Scaled Up Or Down
I err on the lighter side of things as I feel the fight is more fun, and transmission of subtle hits are easier to detect and set the hook on. As an all-around rod and reel combo in December, I go with a St. Croix Tidemaster TIS76MF rated for 8 to 17 pounds matched with a Shimano 5000 Stradic reel spooled with 30-pound Power Pro braid. There are times to pick up a bigger stick to counter with larger fish, and I don’t go overboard, but will amp up to a Savage Gear Costal series rod 9 feet, 2 inches in length, matched with a Shimano Saragosa 6000 reel spooled with 30-pound Power Pro braid again.
All my lurecasting rigs start with 25-pound Seaguar fluorocarbon for smaller fish, then up to 40-pound Seaguar fluoro for larger model linesiders. When fishing for shorty bass, I tie a 50-pound Spro swivel, then a 30-inch section of 25-pound fluoro leader with a dropper 16 inches down from the barrel swivel and tie a 75-pound duolock snap on the end. For larger fish, the same leader in 40-pound test, though I skip the dropper loop and tie on a 100-pound TA clip on the end to switch out big plugs.
There are definite advantages of fishing through December in the surf. Fishing can be hot and heavy with days of over 30 fish; in fact, one day in December 2018, I tallied up over 100 stripers from dusk until dawn and well into the night. As well, there aren’t many people out fishing so you will have your favorite holes and beaches relatively to yourself, so you will not have to compete for space. The obvious disadvantage (to you and not the bass) is that it can be bone-chilling cold out. Frozen fingers, locked up limbs, and ice block feet can make surf outings a literal pain so proper attire is required, including waterproof neoprene and fleece lined gloves, insulated underwear top and bottoms, layers of wool socks, and one or even two sock hats and hoodies.
Any surfcasting outing in December is well worth the effort. You’ll gain a real sense of pride pulling bass in when everyone else has packed it up for the year. The peace and solitude of winter surf fishing is like none other, especially if you are lucky enough to fish during a snowstorm which can be a truly magical event as you beach bass with puffy white flakes of snow falling all around.
Treat yourself to an early Christmas gift and hit the December surf.