If successful bait spawns do not occur, gamefish will not be attracted into estuaries and early spring migrants may swim to other locations.
The natural world is a complex realm in which outcomes are a result of the interactions of many factors: biological and physical. Not surprisingly, these factors, such as weather, influence both the availability and catchability of fish.
I suspect some astute anglers who fish in waters of both shores have noticed that sometimes there is a big difference between the quality of fishing on one shore versus the other. Most often, fishing is similar when you look at the entire season end-to-end. However, in the last 4 or 5 years that has not been the case. The North Shore has held far less baitfish and, since gamefish must eat, fishing quality has suffered, too.
Long Island angling success is dependent upon a series of bait spawning events that should begin in March or April and continue through the summer months. Before I get much deeper into this, and before you start writing letters, adult bunker schools have been very abundant on both shores and in Peconic Bay for years. These big baits do drive angling excitement at several specific times of the year and in specific locations; such as in late spring and early summer live lining in the harbors and the near ocean. Also, in previous decades when large schools of big blues roamed our waters attacking schools of bunker, bluefishing was widespread and entertained anglers on both shores from June through October.
However, large bunker schools do not promote good fishing for fluke, porgy, sea bass, smaller stripers and small blues since these species are dependent on smaller food. On the whole, good Long Island fishing is closely tied to great spawns of sand eels, anchovies, and an abundance of peanut bunker that supports action from spring into late fall.
What is the chain?
So, what chain of bait spawning and success is needed to promote consistent action? It begins with sand eels. When there are large successful spawns of sand eels, they begin to move into shallow waters sometime in late March or April depending upon water temperature and the availability of their plankton food. Abundant sand eels in turn attract squid that attracts stripers, blues, weakfish, and fluke. In early spring, under normal conditions, the first successful bunker spawns also occur on the full moons. In good years, there are five successful spawns of bunker so that by September there’s an abundance of one to 5-inch peanuts.
However, if early bait spawning events are disrupted, it negatively affects when and how fish migrate into our waters. Consider fluke. Poor fluke seasons in Long Island Sound during recent years have been more about the sparsity of sand eels and squid than a large decline in the fluke population. Think about it, why would any species flood into an area in large numbers if the food was sparse? Would you haunt a supermarket if the shelves were bare? Of course not!
How does it work?
If successful bait spawns do not occur, gamefish will not be attracted into estuaries and early spring migrants such as fluke and stripers will swim to other locations until they find plenty of food. For example, an abundance of sand eels, squid, herring, and sardines seem to be reliable off the Massachusetts coast. So, if Long Island Sound is short on sand eels in spring, Hudson stripers simply swim north where the buffet is already set up. Chesapeake stripers follow suit in May as they work north, spread west to about Eaton’s Neck if there’s lots of food, but keep moving if there’s not. In recent years, Chesapeake fish have mostly by-passed the Sound.
In years with abundant sand eels in the Sound, peanuts take over the catering chores by late June/early July when squid and sand eels move into deeper cooler water. In good years there is a gradual transition from sand eels to peanuts. However, what if sand eels are abundant but early bunker spawns are poor? Right, stripers, blues, and others will move out of the estuary in search of food. True, even when spring bunker spawns are inhibited by unfavorable weather, there are usually several good summer spawns, but by then it could be too late to hold the gamefish. In great years, on the other hand, abundant sand eels jump-start the season and hold the fish into summer until early peanuts are big enough to feed on. Then, by autumn gamefish will push peanuts into large schools and blitzes become numerous and long-lived.
Meanwhile, the South Shore has experienced solid sand eel abundance and more sizes of peanuts. Why? The answers lie ahead, so hang in there. Generally speaking, South Shore and east end angling has been more consistent because extreme weather events have had less effect on water temps. Therefore, relationships between the biological and physical worlds emerge and help to explain why there are poor angling seasons in some places but not others, even when fish populations are solid.
Okay, now we’re ready for the nitty-gritty of it all. We already know that the weather plays a big role, but we need to understand how unusual weather affects various bodies of water differently. In case your memory fails you, let me review the weather of the last few early springs. Last year was quite indicative, so let’s offer that as an example. Although the winter wasn’t a bad one, we entered March when things should begin to turn more spring-like, and WHAM! It was cold, windy, with coastal storms. In short, it was winter.
April arrived with a few early tantalizing nice days, but water temps were still decidedly below normal: very bad for spawning success. Then, four cold April nor’easters in quick succession churned up the coast with winds of 60 mph, dropped water temperatures, and interfered with the normal migration of bait and gamefish. Not good for spawning success. In a four-day period in the western Long Island Sound, water temps in the harbors dropped more than 5 degrees. Also, not good for spawning success.
Ah, finally the gentle breezes and rising temperatures of May-NOT! Lest you forget, it was winter in early May. Cold with relentless northwest winds and, in some spots, an early May storm covered lawns and roofs with up to an inch of snow. Also, not good for spawning success. I think you get the picture. That is, a prolonged bad weather pattern can mess up spawning success.
By the way, not just bait spawns are altered, but the spawning and migrations of gamefish, too. Beginning in early April, bluefish begin to spawn at the western edge of the Gulf Stream off the Carolinas. They spawn repeatedly as they move north and make the final spawn off New York Bight sometime in late April. Blues are dependent on the eddies off the western edge of the Gulf Stream for spawning success, and the young also need them. In a normal year the weather becomes calmer, the eggs hatch, larvae grow, and then when large enough (~3-inches in late June) the eddies throw them towards shore along with an array of tropical species. However, persistent strong west-northwest winds push against the eddies and disrupt them, plankton blooms (their food) are dissipated, many eggs don’t hatch, and the bluefish year class is poor. Cold, windy weather with numerous storms also messes with striper spawning in East Coast Rivers and that’s part of the reason why striper spawns have been sub-par recently. I’m sure all of us are wishing for a “normal” spring weather pattern in 2021; I know I’m begging for one.
The effects of extreme weather events are not uniform from place to place because of physical differences. There is much more water off the South Shore compared to the North Shore because the ocean is vast and deep and the Sound comparatively rather narrow and not so deep. Water heats and cools much slower than the air on the land, and the more water there is, the longer it takes to heat and cool. Also, the South Shore Bays have short open inlet access to the ocean so that warming and cooling in shallow bays are somewhat negated by ocean water on incoming tides. On the other hand, ocean water in Long Island Sound must travel from Orient Point all the way to the Throggs Neck Bridge, and since the Sound contains a lot less water than the ocean, water temps are more quickly changed by unusual weather. In short, water temps along the South Shore tend to be more stable than in the Sound.
Of course, few things in Nature can be understood completely based on a single factor, and bait disparity between the shores in recent years may also be affected by other influences such as pollution, habitat destruction, and/or a lack of the correct food at the right time beginning at the base of the food chain. If the water contains the wrong plankton at the wrong time so that hatching bait cannot eat it, they starve. If a lack of usable food is consistent across a wide area then that bait species may be sparse during that season.
There are also natural regional differences. For example, although there are occasions in the Western Sound when there are some anchovies, the North Fork boasts almost yearly abundance. On the other hand, most years in Western Harbors are noteworthy for wall-to-wall schools of adult bunker. Bunker schools were harassed by numerous large bluefish, providing good action Western Harbors, but not on the east end.
On the South Shore, bait abundance is also affected by the ability of bait species to move inshore and offshore with seasonal changes. So, large adult sand eels, herring, squid, and shad that spend summers and winters offshore will move inshore in spring and fall, resulting in outstanding runs of stripers and sometimes blues both for small boaters and surf anglers. In the Long Island Sound that isn’t true. The trend in the Sound leans toward migration rather than deep and shallow movements: sand eels being an exception.
In the Sound, there is another caveat. If the bait is incredibly abundant the migration exodus will be gradual since Nature staggers the process. If there is much less bait, it may leave in days not weeks, resulting in a quick end to the season.
Understanding the effects of weather events on bait spawns and migrations, as well as other natural factors can be useful to anglers if they adjust where and when they fish according to monthly and seasonal changes. In 2020, for example, many North Shore regulars spent a lot more time on the South Shore because the bait was so limited on the North Shore. Remember, some of the best anglers are students of Nature.