Migration Matters: Landing Surf Giants in October - The Fisherman

Migration Matters: Landing Surf Giants in October

surf spots
Those same surf spots we target in the spring for large striped bass—points and corners— produce once again in the fall.

Night tides and spring patterns often produce the biggest striped bass in the 10th month and beyond.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; a metaphor for the surf in October. Where I fish, the weather can be mild one day and savage the next. Fish are here for a moment in good numbers, and then gone for days on end, only to pop up again unexpectedly. When striped bass stocks were stronger, October was a reliable big-fish month and provided multiple shots at tides with big numbers of teen-sized fish. While every year seems to get more challenging, current daytime October surf action can still be fierce, driven by large bait schools. Schoolies and fish through the teen-pound-range can still be found gorging on peanuts, sand eels, silversides, and other large masses of forage. And I will admit, there is something really exciting about seeing schools of bait pushed in tight to shore, with splashes of stripers mixed throughout, as the sun rises over a frosted-beach.

However, that is not when my most memorable moments of the month are made. Instead, my heart beats faster thinking about 1 a.m. solo excursions into the surf. I wait in anxious anticipation of driving winds, pelting rain, and dark, swirling water.

And monster fish.

slammer blues
Expect some slammer blues to be mixed-in with the bass in the fall as both species gorge on baitfish to fuel the southern migration.

I believe if you want a truly big fish this October, you should be thinking migration and night tides, not chasing daytime blitzes. It is really that simple, and I could probably stop right there; if you want a monster striper this fall, you should be fishing migration spots at night and resist the temptation to chase bait schools. However, you may need a bit of convincing, so here’s a few of my big-fish tips for this roller-coaster month in the surf.

Migration Matters

In May and June, anglers are all about the migration of fish heading north (perhaps earlier or a bit later depending on where you are on the map). We fish large points and corners that predators have to go around on their way north, and we focus on warm-water outflows like estuaries, breachways, and rivers to attract fish moving through the area. This time of year is generally accepted as one of the best times to get reliable big-fish action, because the fish are on the move. However, in many ways, late September and the month of October are June and May in reverse. Fish often begin to move south in large numbers during this period, and they stop or pass by many of the same spots they passed in the spring.

Yet, so many surf fishermen forget or ignore this simple fact. Yes, it is very exciting to catch fish slashing through huge schools of bait, and I enjoy it at times as well. However, if you want to catch a surf giant this season, you must not forget that the biggest fish are almost always still taken at night during this time of year. They are also almost always taken from reliable locations that produce big fish during the spring (and often all year). While you may need to modify when you fish the spot a little to match the season (e.g. winds, tide direction, etc.), you may also be surprised that many of your reliable spring spots fish exactly the same, under exactly the same conditions, in October or November as they do in May and June.

high-teen-pounder
If you’re still finding bass like this high-teen-pounder then there is a legitimate shot that your next cast could produce a fish double its size or greater.

For example, I fish an area in Massachusetts that is a known producer of big fish in the spring. Every year, I fight for access to the best rocks with several other anglers who also know the secret to this lucrative area. I typically catch a fish or two into the 30-pound range in May and June, with a handful of 20-pound fish as well (That is, I used to, but it’s been tough the last few years with stocks being down.). However, by late June the action really dies off, and I move on to other areas—as do the other anglers who fish this spot. If I randomly come in July or August, no one is ever there, and this doesn’t surprise me. However, the thing that DOES surprise me is when I return in September to fish this spot, and again, I am always alone—almost without exception. In fact, in my logs I had to go back five years to find a night I saw even a single angler at this spot in the fall—which is shocking, considering I’ve pulled out several fish deep into the 30-pound range on darters, and in 2016 I had a 40-pound-plus fish on a Mike’s Custom Pikie on October 17.

The thing that might surprise you, however, is that I fish this spot in exactly the same way, under exactly the same tides and winds, as I do in May and June. This spot is right on the migration path of fish heading south, and has a prominent point. I believe this point does two things. First, the substantial point traps bait that is heading south and out to sea, dropping out of the estuaries, streams, rivers, and bays. This then naturally attracts the attention of predators. But perhaps more importantly, any fish that is cruising the shoreline heading south “bumps” into the point if it’s even remotely within casting distance from shore. They then either have to go way out and around into deeper water, or over the shallow point. As a result, they often come close to shore and within reach of a well-placed cast. With an onshore wind, it can be a very exciting place to fish, and I get just as excited about fishing it in October as I do in May; with the added bonus that I don’t have to get there early because I know I’ll be all alone. Finding your own versions of this same migration scenario throughout the Striper Coast will help ensure big-fish success this fall.

The Night Is Still Right

The other critical piece to remember in October is to not abandon night fishing. Again, yes, chasing bait schools is incredibly fun and the action can be intoxicating. However, if you want to catch a cow, you will likely have to remain focused on the night tides. Really big fish are quietly slipping south deep in the darkness while many fishermen are sleeping after an evening of schoolie action. Similar again to May and June when many folks are having fun with fish in the rivers and bays on sea herring, it takes discipline to remain vigilant and focused. You will, most likely, catch less fish. However, it only takes a single 30-pound fish to make it worth it when all your buddies haven’t had a fish over 30 inches. As such, I fish in my wetsuit much of the month, and sling large darters, metal lips, and soft plastics, just as I would any other time of year.

The great thing about October is you have lots of night to work with as days get shorter. Just like summer, you don’t want to rely on sunrise or sunset, but instead I suggest fishing full darkness. I’ve had some guys say to me, “but what about the cold water at night?” The thing is, during the majority of October, the water is plenty warm enough. South of the Cape Cod Canal, it is definitely not a real concern, and in fact, I generally catch good numbers of fish north of the Canal well into mid-November. As such, I still like the witching-hour tides between 11 p.m. and 3 a.m. in October. However, I’ve also found that this time of year those tides as early as 8 p.m. and as late as 5 a.m. can be very productive.

Be Prepared For “The One”

During the rest of the season, I believe that big fish and small fish are mutually exclusive—if you’re bailing schoolies, you’re likely to not catch any really large fish. However, during the months of October and even into mid-November, I’m always prepared for something special, no matter what I’m catching. I always fish gear capable of catching a personal best, which primarily stems from one incident in particular.

larger bass
While daytime action in the fall is dominated by schoolies, those same spots often produce much larger bass just a few hours later under the cover of darkness.

I was fishing a hot schoolie bite in mid-October. I had several fish to 12 pounds, and maybe one that was 15, but nothing worth bragging about. I’ll never forget what happened next: I was on fish number 38, and it was three minutes after high tide, which was roughly 1 a.m. I was about to lift my Red Fin from the water, and it just stopped dead. After a moment of confusion on my part, the fish took off so hard I took two steps forward on my large rock and almost went into the waiting maw of white-water head first! I just held on as the fish ran and ran against my medium-weight, 9-foot schoolie rod, and I just didn’t have the power to stop her. Eventually, without me ever even turning the handle on my Van Staal 150, the fish was gone. When I got the lure back in, the fish had somehow stretched the 80-pound split ring, bent two of the three tines on the treble hook (I only fish a front hook on Red Fins.) and cracked the body of the lure. While it’s possible it was just an especially powerful 20- or 30-pound fish, the tail pumps and head shakes suggested I had possibly just lost a personal best.

As such, it seems to me that during this time of year, larger migrating fish are more aggressive and are more apt to mix-in with smaller fish, but this has only happened for me at night. There are likely multiple reasons for this, one of which is simply their drive to secure the highest-possible fat stores to get them through the long winter. Due to this, I believe they are slightly more willing to compete with smaller fish. It’s still not overly-common, but I prepare for it. Therefore, until about mid-November, I make sure I am fishing gear capable of landing the largest surf stripers. After all, in these times of decreased quantities of big fish, it is especially painful to lose big fish, so why take the risk?

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