A list of pitfalls that could make or break your fall run fishing in the surf.
The fall run is something we all look forward to, but often with some measure of trepidation. It’s such an exciting time; the number of fish moving inshore is going up, baitfish populations are exploding, and most of the tourists have gone home. However, we’re also often in a hurry, and afraid of missing “the” bite of the year. For this reason, a many surf anglers end up abandoning their patterns and normal behavior, and start “rolling the dice” and throwing proverbial “Hail Mary’s.”
Sometimes, this works out in epic fashion; I have a few great memories of forgoing reliable tides in favor of jumping from spot to spot hoping to stumble into bites. However, I have many more soul-crushing ones, where I ended up skunked after eight hours, exhausted, and kicking myself for not sticking to my game plan. What follows are a list of factors to avoid this fall; a rundown of of “don’ts,” that will help you be more productive and have more fun this fall.
Don’t: Chase Reports
Reports are important, especially in the fall, and especially if you don’t have seven days a week to fish. Everything changes so quickly during the fall run that it’s crucial to at least have a foundation for what is happening. That’s what makes the reports here in The Fisherman so powerful. They let you know generally what is going on all throughout the Northeast, so you can plan where and how to fish every time you head out. But, doesn’t the heading of this section say you should not chase reports? Indeed, and here’s why.
Reports by their very nature are always a step behind reality. That is, if someone is reporting a bite, it’s already happened; unless they’re on the phone with you as they’re reeling in the fish. If you hear that a certain bite is happening on a particular beach, it’s likely hours, days, or even a week old at that point. In the summer, this matters a whole lot less, as bodies of fish tend to stick around in the general area. However, in the fall things happen so fast, even reports from yesterday are often too late, but they are not useless if you know how to make the most of the information.
For this reason I suggest if you listen to, watch, or read a report, that you look beyond the basic details. For example, if you see or hear the mention of a beach, inlet, or town, don’t just go racing off to that specific place. First, there will likely be a bunch of other fishermen there doing the same thing. But more importantly, the fish are probably already gone. Instead, think about why the fish might have been there. What are the conditions that put them there? What bait could they have been chasing, and where else could you find it? What direction are they headed, as the migration unfolds? Where could they be headed next? What worked last year when you heard they were in these specific places? How will this all change with the current weather conditions? If you treat reports as a general clue to what is happening, you will be much better off than just running-and-gunning to any and every named beach and town in the most recent report.
Personally, I use reports of fish in certain areas to key me in to when I need to be other spots hundreds of miles away. For example, when I hear schoolies have hit certain places in Cape Cod Bay in force, I know it’s time to pour myself into a few spots in Rhode Island that will have large fish just ahead of the schoolies; the same can likely be said along the South Shore of Long Island, or from Sandy Hook to Cape May.
Don’t: Only Fish Daytime Blitzes
I can’t stress this point hard enough. Yes, it’s fun to catch fish during the daylight, and there are large fish to be had. Every September I get to tangle with some larger fish during the day during a very specific blitz that sets up with the right weather and tide. I’ve only missed it once in the last seven seasons, and that’s because the weather pattern never happened. It’s something I look forward to, but it’s a special spice to my season, not a main ingredient. If you want the largest and most fish you can catch, you need to be fishing at night, and this means skipping some young-of-the-year baitfish blitzes.
If you want to consistently catch fish larger than schoolies and slots, then you’re going to want to focus on the night tides around migration routes with large bait; and you’ll want to do this right up to the bitter end. I still fish all hours of the night, well into the witching hours of 2 and 3 a.m., even in November (which is the last consistent month, where I fish). Remember, most of the places where large fish passed during their migration north in the spring, will see those fish again on their way south – adjust the timing accordingly, depending on where you live and fish.
Don’t: Abandon The Basics
This is a bit of a pet-peeve of mine. In the fall, it seems the majority of fishermen forget everything they have learned or what has worked all season long. Case in point, there is a trend in the fall to stop using large plugs, and instead switch entirely to smaller swimmers. I believe this results in a lot more small fish being caught, and a lot of larger fish being missed. Even when small bait is plentiful, don’t forget that there are intermediate predators feeding on this small prey that the large stripers would love to eat. I typically fish my spots exactly the same way in the fall as I did all spring and summer: big plugs and soft-plastics, regardless of whatever small bait is around.
Another thing a lot of anglers do is suddenly give up on a “summer spot” because they deem the bite ‘over’, and it’s now time to focus somewhere else. This is often because there is a short lull when local summer fish move on, but fall fish have not yet filled in. Don’t fall into this trap. If there is good structure and reason for fish to be in it – a serious feeding advantage and/or lots of bait present – fish will find it, regardless of season. They don’t just run sand beaches, and they don’t just visit inlets. While things have changed a lot with the fall run, I always assume that a few nice fish will filter through my spots each fall, and I’ve never felt I’ve missed out by taking this point of view.
These two points being said, my message here is actually much more general: don’t get caught up in fickle trends, rumors, or abandon what you know in the fall. Instead, focus hard on what works for you, and stay the course. This can apply to just about everything about surfcasting; from when you fish, to your gear, to the plugs, to the tides, to the weather. Yes, you certainly have to be flexible and be willing to abandon something that isn’t working: but you should be that way all season long!
Don’t: Give Up Too Early
I almost removed this from my suggestions, because I actually really like that most of you have given up prior to, or right around, Halloween. Late-fall is a quiet, magical time where I can fish any spot I want without fear of being spotted, or giving up any secrets. Access also becomes so much easier after Labor Day, but especially after Columbus Day I have even less issues with parking. There is also a lot of fishing to be had in the three-weeks that follow November 1. True, your shot at big fish begins to evaporate quickly, but you’d be amazed by the size of the fish that are caught up here in New England as late as Thanksgiving, even north of the Canal. Don’t give up too early, some of the best fishing happens after most surfcasters have hung the gear up for the winter
Therefore, don’t listen to your buddies or rumors that it’s all over, even if it’s Veterans Day. If you are motivated and don’t mind the chilly weather, you can continue to be very productive. It’s funny to me when I hear it every year, starting in late October, that the fish are gone, while I’m still catching dozens of fish to 35 pounds from the very places they’ve allegedly left. Again, stay on the night tides, have faith in your spot, your plugs, and your skills and you will be rewarded with far more fish than any of those nay-sayers could believe.
Don’t: Waste A Minute Of It!
I’ll close saying that I am guilty of almost everything I’ve put on this list at one time or another. It’s hard to resist chasing solid reports, or the urge to fish a dawn peanut bunker blitz, or switch to a small Mag Darter to get a dozen smaller fish instead of throwing big wood for the potential of a single giant. I did all of those things last fall. However, one rule I now always stick to in the fall, without an exception, is doing exactly what I want, when I want, every single night.
During the spring and summer, I fish much more with data, logic, and the analytical part of my brain; at times it feels almost like an algorithm put together by a computer. In the spring and summer I force myself to be at certain places when it is essential, even if I don’t feel super excited about it. This is how trophy hunting works, and primarily how I have been successful with fish over 30 pounds, and certainly 40 pounds. You have to grind at times, and that’s just the nature of the game.
However, in the fall, I do exactly what I want. If I “know” a certain area is the most logical, most likely spot to hold a trophy fish, but I don’t feel like fishing it, I won’t. I’ll go where I want, because it makes me happy; I might feel a twinge of guilt, but I try to ignore that. In the fall, we are racing the clock, and I want to absorb every wonderful moment I can to help tide me over through the long, dark winter. If I grind right up to the end of the season – which I have done a few times – I just end up feeling burnt out, regretful, and empty.
For me, surfcasting (and fishing in general) is so much more than the inches a fish tapes-out to, and I want to experience as much of all the “other stuff” as I can before the snow and ice ends it all.
So this fall, don’t waste time doing anything because you feel you “have to.” Don’t fish bites you don’t enjoy, even if they’re more productive. Don’t be guilty thinking you “should” be somewhere else, or fishing a different way. You do you. If everything on this list makes you unhappy, just ignore it, and instead follow this last suggestion – if your heart and soul are being filled up by what you’re doing, then you are doing the right thing, no matter what any fishing author might be telling you in an article of “Don’ts”.