Working the migration path of inshore gamesters heading to their wintering grounds can provide tons of rod bending action and a great ending to the season.
Come October, with the north winds blowing and the days getting shorter, the usual inshore staples like fluke, sea bass, porgies, bluefish and weakfish have packed it up, abandoning the bays, inlet and inshore reef areas and are heading to their wintering grounds near the edge of the continental shelf. The good news is that you can still get in on a solid month of action, if you know where they’ll be as these inshore gamesters head out on their usual migration paths to deeper water.
Looking back at my decades of autumn wreck fishing logs, the fall migration south or east to the continental shelf will depend on where you and your intended catch of the day call home port along the Jersey Coast (east), Long Island’s South Shore (south), or New England waters (southeast). The path south or east will be influenced by the number and severity of the passing alphabet storms, along with the timing of when the prevailing winds shift to a north/northwest focus. Air temps and surface water temps also have something to do with the chronology of events, and this process usually starts revving up somewhere between the third and fourth weeks of September and is normally at full speed once the calendar turns the page to October.
Timing And Position
Looking at the first week or two of October, my focus to intersect with these migrating groundfish will typically be in the 20-fathom wreck areas, located anywhere from 15 to 22 miles offshore. The largest and strongest fish will usually lead the charge, followed by swarms of younger year fish that follow in the coming weeks. Once my crew’s baits are dominated by sub-legal throw-backs, I’ll head to deeper waters to follow the larger migrating fish. Around the middle of October, the wrecks in 140 to 150-foot depths will be the subject of our attention. This translates to submarine structure that is 20 to 25 miles distant from most inlets and breachways.
By the end of October with Halloween approaching, we’ve shifted our focus to wrecks that are in 165 to 180 feet of water. I was wreck fishing last season through the second week of November and we were catching fish on wrecks from 185 to 210 feet on those calmer weather days when we could get out and fish 30 to 40 miles offshore. Some of the fish that we iced in late October through the first two weeks of November last year were truly amazing, with weakfish up to 10 pounds, the proverbial hubcap sized porgies and triple header 4 to 6-pound sea bass. Of course, all of the doormat fluke that came up from these deepwater wrecks were safely released unharmed to continue their journey to the edge of the shelf, since the season for them was already closed.
One of the most interesting aspects of the wreck fishing game come October and later is that you don’t need to be right on the structure to catch fish. There are those days when you might start reading life on the bottom when you are a few hundred yards away from the waypoint. There is nothing wrong with your echo sounder, the schools of migrating fish might be that thick where they number in the thousands. When you see those blue and green clouds on your sounder, stop the boat, drop down your baits and catch ‘em up.
The Usual Suspects
The big five of the inshore species that make this annual migration to the deep are black sea bass, porgies, fluke, weakfish and bluefish. But there can also be some other interesting catches in the mix that might include little tunny, Spanish mackerel, Atlantic bonito, Boston mackerel, bluefin tuna, blackfish, cod, pollock and some other species that might be making their migrations inshore to spend the winter here in shallow shelf waters. I’d include red hake/ling somewhere in this movement mix, but in recent years, these fish suddenly “disappear” from 15 to 20-fathom waters around the middle of September and become virtual ghosts – here one day and totally gone the next with no announcements – as if someone hit a switch and they all vaporized overnight. In my experience, this is a sure sign that the migration of the aforementioned primary inshore bottom dwellers will be making their move offshore in the coming days.
Some other fish that are coming back into 20 to 25-fathom waters for a brief stint during this migration process are different species of pelagic sharks. Makos, threshers and blues dominate this mix and you will know that they are around when either you come up with half a fish or the fishing suddenly shuts off after running hot and heavy. When that occurs, I’ll throw out a shark bait and hold on tight. The sharks you are likely to run into during October and early November are typically the “king sized” variety and most of my 300 to 400-pound class makos and threshers, along with giant blue sharks that resemble 747 jets were caught in the fall months, while braving stiff northeast, east and northwest winds and choppy seas.
Last year was a perfect case in point where I had my son Marc out with some of his business buds and we were wrecking over structure in 142-feet of water. After catching at least a dozen nice sea bass, bluefish and other migrating denizens of the deep, the bite suddenly shut down. Taking the queue that there was probably a really good reason for this in the form of an unseen predator, we headed about ½ mile upwind of the wreck, dropped in a can of bunker chum and set out the baits (mahi, bluefish and bunker). We hadn’t drifted more than ¼ mile past the structure when the mahi bait went off like it was attached to a runaway truck. One hour and 13-minutes later, my son Marc brought a hefty male thresher shark to boatside on a lightweight Penn 20 VISX outfit. After whipping the cowling of my brand new Mercury 250 V8 outboard with that nasty tail, we finally secured our prize and returned to the marina where weighed an impressive 388 pounds. The 200 pounds of steaks soothed the scratched engine cowling wounds a bit and over a dozen of my friends and fishing buddies enjoyed delicious thresher steaks over the winter months. Incidentally, when we cut open that fish back at the marina, it had a trio of 18-to-20 inch sea bass in its stomach, so those fish were wise to take shelter when the big boy came calling unannounced into their habitat.
Tackle, Baits And Technique
Conventional revolving spool reels are usually the go-to gear when plying wrecks that can range from 120 to 210 feet, but not always. Last year, I was trying to pioneer a deepwater snap-jigging technique with lightweight spinning gear that turned out to be relatively successful in wrecks out to 210 feet. You really have to watch your days when practicing this black art, but if you can get a smallish jig of 2 to 3 ounces down to the bottom in a relatively straight up-and-down vertical format, hold on tight to that spinner! The strikes can be amazingly aggressive and it’s usually from the largest of the species that you are seeking.
My favorite conventional outfits include a Maxel 25-series star drag hybrid and the Avet G2 SX5.3 for personal use. I also bring along Penn Rival 15 LW and International 975 outfits for my charter customers, both of which have a convenient level wind capability that makes things easy. I have a number of rods that will do the job that include the Maxel Ocean Max, Tsunami Air Wave and Sapphire XT and the rugged, reliable and affordable Penn Rampage jigging series. All are between 6.2 to 6.5 feet in length, have a moderate/heavy action with a fast taper and are rated to handle jigs in the 4 to 8-ounce range and braided line from 30 to 65 pounds. When bottom-fishing with bait, these rods have no problem handling 10 to 12 ounces of lead and still offer excellent sensitivity to feel timid and tentative bites from down deep.
On the spinning side of things, I had been using both a Penn 3000 Battle II and an Okuma 4000 series Azores the past few seasons, that is until the Penn had an unfortunate mishap and ended up going over the side earlier this year at a deepwater reef in 130-feet of water. I recently ordered a replacement, but until that arrives, my only game in town is that Okuma Azores 4000, which has taken twice my weight in sea bass over the past two seasons. This outfit is a stone cold “killa” and if I can get just a few vertical snaps anywhere near our wreck of choice, it’s game on and usually with the biggest fish. I have this spinner married to a six-foot, three-inch Tsunami Sapphire XT fast action stick that’s rated for 30 to 65-pound braid and 4 to 8-ounce jigs. Rigged with 275 yards of 30-pound PowerPro Maxquatro and a 20-foot topshot of 40-pound Berkley ProSpec clear blue mono, this outfit gets the job done, even on the deepwater wrecks in 180 to 200 feet of water, if conditions permit. I have had zero success with lighter 15-pound braid, since one nick from the wreck and it’s usually toast and goodbye big fish and jig.
There is no mistaking when a big sea bass or cod inhales the jig when snap-jigging a light spinner and the arc of the rod tells the real story. There was a trip early last November when on a totally bluebird weather day, we limited out on big 4 to 6-pound sea bass in about an hour, with this Tsunami Sapphire XT/Azores 4000 outfit taking 13 of the 14 fish my buddy and I were allowed to keep. On one drop, I had three sea bass on at once, with one on the teaser two-feet above the jig, one on the jig’s upper assist hook and the last sea bass on the jig’s lower hook. That was 15 pounds of angry black sea bass coming up at once, going in three different directions as we tried to stuff them all in the net…crazy!
For bait fans, fresh salted clams and squid strips usually put you right in the thick of things, but you might get pestered by smaller fish. The best baits to use are those that the fish are spitting up when they hit the deck and can include butterfish, whole baby squid, crabs, peanut bunker, baby lobsters, smaller baitfish or whatever. My best advice is if they are eating it, put it on a hook and send it back down to the bottom, since you will be matching the actual “real time” hatch. Be sure to bring along an assortment of 10 and 12-ounce sinkers and if you tie up your own bottom rigs using tag end spools of 30 or 40-pound mono, this should work and is a very economical solution when things get sticky. A simple rig is to tie a single overhand loop at the bottom, a 6-inch dropper loop about 15 inches above that, a second 6-inch dropper loop 15 inches above the first and finish it off with a perfection loop at the top to attach to a snap or snap swivel. I’ve had a lot of luck the past few season’s using Gamakatsu 2/0 and 4/0 baitholder hooks which are very sharp and will snare even those wary, pesky bait-stealers.
When fishing a wreck in October, I hardly ever anchor over it since we are looking to hit a bunch in a homogeneous area. Time is of the essence, especially when fishing offshore with days of waning sunlight and we stick to a tight schedule. If we catch up to the fish we are looking for, we stay. If they are too small, not there, or not in sufficient numbers, we’ll move on to the next wreck on the list. If you have twins engines, it is possible to hold over a wreck for many minutes at a time, keeping the lines as vertical as possible. With single engines it is a bit more difficult.
Three ways of getting in on this fast-paced action are using your own boat, going out with a few of your buds on a charter boat, or driving out and back in comfort on a party boat that specializes in deepwater wreck fishing. Unfortunately, when working wrecks in 120 to 210 feet of water in October, we usually leave in the dark and come back in the dark and then spend two additional hours filleting our catch and cleaning the boat. When the weather is dicey, options two and three typically work best – bigger is better and bigger is definitely more comfortable – with someone else doing all of the hard work. If you follow the migration path of these inshore gamesters heading to their wintering grounds, you are practically guaranteed constant rod bending action and a great way to end the season. Be safe out there.