Late fall striper jigging is the season’s last hurrah for many Long Island anglers.
The striped bass season for Northeast anglers is an eight month pursuit that starts in mid-April and runs through mid-December. During that time, striper fans rely on a wide range of techniques to score their favorite gamefish, but few methods in their arsenal can be more productive than jigging them along the beach the last six weeks of the season during their annual late fall migration. If chasing stripers is your thing, this is your time of the season to make it happen, with one more shot at rod-bending action before the winter doldrums finally set in before the holidays.
The “Good Old Days”
My name has never been associated with being a striped bass sharpie and I have been accused on more than one occasion of snobbishly zipping through the bays and near coastal waters at 25 knots, ignoring the opportunities that lurk below as I’m heading southeast to 50 fathoms and beyond. Like everything else in life, things change as we age and about 12 years ago I started “paying more attention” to those inshore waters. While I love jigging bluefin tuna, I was able to replicate the same intensity levels in the jigging game a lot closer to home, with shorter runs to the action, more fishing time and typically more benign sea conditions. Downsizing the tackle and intercepting massive schools of migrating stripers has been the ticket to enjoying an entire new level of success, with a lot less stress on the body, the boat and the equipment.
The action during the migration can be off the charts at times. Last year, two intense (and extremely cold) four-hour trips the Friday and Saturday after Thanksgiving produced a total of over 450 bass for a two-man crew (125+ on Friday) and a three-man crew (325+ on Saturday). To say that we left them biting would be a total understatement. I was dressed up like the Michelin Tire Man in an effort to thwart the cold weather (15 to 25 degrees) and still was totally chilled to the bone after only four hours of fishing each day. We were sticking our hands into the 49-degree water just to get some feeling back into our digits. I probably hadn’t caught as many as 450 stripers in the past 10 years compared to those two wild days. For 2019, I am going to be totally ready for it this time around – the good old days of striper fishing are back!
Where and When
The striper migration will start to generate some activity somewhere in the mid-to-end of October, depending on local water temps and coastal storms. The fish will move out of New England coastal waters and begin to migrate south and east, with 50-degree water temps kick-starting the process. Areas like Cape Cod, the Islands (Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket, Noman’s Land and Block) Fischer’s Island, Plum Island, Big Gull and Little Gull, Plum Gut, the Race, the Sluiceway and Montauk Point are some of the prime focal areas of attention for the initial weeks of the migration process. Sometimes the larger fish will lead the migration charge into early November, to be followed by swarms of juvenile fish in the following weeks through the end of the month – and sometimes they don’t. Each year is different and you have to read the signs to determine where and when this is going to happen. Local charter boat captain reports and scuttlebutt from the tackle shops are good places to start, but it’s nothing like having a reliable network of fellow striper aficionados to call you on the cell phone with an up-to-the minute report.
The north shore of Long Island/south shore of Connecticut starts to get hot in early November as the striper schools split up near Montauk Point, with some making a right turn and heading down the Sound and others making a left turn and cruising west along Long Island’s south shore beaches. The remnants of the striper schools that don’t turn up north into the Hudson will scoot south down the Jersey shore, making them available to Garden State anglers for most of November. Whatever fish that don’t turn northwest into the Delaware Bay estuary system will continue down DelMarVa’s eastern shore and will usually find their final wintering destination in the Chesapeake area.
Find Them and Hook ‘em
Once you have established that you are in the zone, confirmed by the activity on your echo sounder; diving gannets and gulls; surface feeding frenzies; and competitive anglers flipping fish over the rails; it’s time to get to work. There will be moments when you might think that your sounder has totally freaked out, with a bright red display screen from end to end. Don’t fret; you have probably just drifted over 100,000-plus stripers making their way down the beach.
After you establish the depth that the fish are traveling at, drop your jig down to that level or just below it and start a slow and steady retrieve, with minimal pause. If you are in the zone and are dragging something that looks appetizing to the striped horde, you should hook up right away. Don’t be stubborn and use the jig that worked last week, while other boats are bailing them in your vicinity. Keep on rotating the jigs from your arsenal until you find the one that gets it done. Sometimes tube tails are the only things that elicit strikes, especially when sand eels are in the area. Other times, it’s the plain or gold-hammered jig that is singing the best tune, while the others are playing second fiddle. My favorite jig is the one that works at that moment in time and I will have my anglers experiment with both retrieve and the offerings until we start to get a consistent flow of steady action.
Yet another technique in lieu of the slow squidding method described above is to get your jig into the zone and then yo-yo it within a certain depth range. This could be anywhere from right on the bottom to halfway up the water column. It allows you to experiment with different levels of the schools of stripers that are visible on the echo sounder’s display, to find out which ones in the herd are the most susceptible to your offering. Other anglers prefer to cast popping or swimming plugs to surface feeding schools and that will also work, depending on the moment. Double headers are common, especially if you employ a teaser. I try to keep hardware to a minimum and over the past few years have gravitated to using the simple stainless steel quick clips to attach my jigs to the mono leader. They are simple and they work.
One of the “secrets” to catching fish last season was to employ a teaser of some sort, situated anywhere from 12 to 20 inches above the jig of the day using a simple dropper loop setup. I would tie a 6-inch long dropper loop ahead of the jig and then loop the double line through the eye of the teaser and around the hook and pull it tight. These teasers represent a small fish (your jig) chasing down a smaller-sized baitfish (your teaser), stimulating a predator-response from any nearby striper, who will either zone in on the “unsuspecting attacker (your jig)” or will race the jig to get to the teaser and be the first to the party. Having dedicated a half-dozen trips last season to jigging fall stripers, the difference between using a plain jig, versus going with the teaser/jig combination was dramatic. The combo offering was consistently the clear winner.
Teasers can be as simple as a few blue or white feathers tied to a hook, or can come in the form of a small 1/2- to 3/4-ounce bucktail jig like the SPRO Prime jigs or similarly styled artificials. Yet another favorite for the teaser role are those epoxy flies, that can feature larger 7/0 hooks and a hard epoxy finish over the eyes and head area, that adds a degree of durability to the offering. Still even with that epoxy hard coat finish on the fly teaser, these would typically be the worse for wear and lose their appeal after about a dozen or so striper hits. I buy these epoxy flies from a local Long Island tackle shop (Bob’s Bait & Tackle in Amity Harbor, NY) and they are reasonably priced at 3 for $10 for the larger (6/0 and 7/0 hooks) specimens and 4 for $10 for the smaller versions with 3/0 hooks. The SPRO jigs have a similar shelf life that will survive just over a dozen fish before losing their mojo, after the bucktail gets its fluffy hairs unceremoniously undressed by the hungry swarms of bass or bluefish. I have experimented using some of the smallish 1/2- and 3/4-ounce epoxy jigs offered by various manufacturers in the teaser role, but these can be prohibitively expensive and suffer a similar fate to the others mentioned here, becoming virtually unrecognizable and unusable after about 20 fish. Keep it simple and keep your operating costs down.
Tackle for the Task
Because of the rapid fire cast and retrieve techniques required by this style of fishery, conventional jigging reels seem to produce the best results. I typically bring along an Okuma Azores Blue and/or Penn Pursuit II 4000-series spinning reel loaded with 30-pound TUF-Line or PowerPro and a 40-pound mono topshot attached to a 6-foot 3-inch Tsunami medium-heavy spin rod on all of my striper jigging charters. My primary arsenal consists of an Avet G2 SX5.3 single speed lever drag reel spooled with Western Filament’s 8-carrier Dominat8 super braid, attached to a 6-1/2-foot Seeker Inshore jigging rod; a Maxel Hybrid 25 star drag reel, spooled with the same load of 30-pound superbraid with a 20-foot 40-pound mono top shot on a 6-foot Slow Pitch Jigging rod; a Maxel Rage 25 series lever drag reel with loaded with 30-pound superbraid, attached to a Maxel OceanMax 6-1/4-foot jigging rod; and finally my “old reliable” Penn 975 star drag reel, once again spooled with 30-pound superbraid, but with a shorter 6-foot topshot of mono required to avoid jamming the transition knot (a Bristol knot or an up/down reverse Albright) into the baitcaster’s level wind frame and compromising the connection. The 975 is attached to a 6-1/2-foot long Penn Torque jigging rod with an M/H action that’s rated to handle 50- to 100-pound braid. The auto level wind function on the Penn 975 is a real plus, since you don’t have to guide the line back and forth on the retrieve to avoid jamming the line into the side of the reel. The miniscule 1- to 1.25-inch spool width on the aforementioned micro-sized Avet and Maxel reels also keeps the manual level wind task down to a minimum and it’s usually no problem for most anglers to control their casts and to retrieve the line with minimum hiccups.
Some Final Thoughts
Late fall jigging for stripers is primarily a 99% catch and release fishery. The majority of the stripers that you are likely to encounter in the massed migratory schools will be between 18 to 26 inches long. Sure, there will be some keeper sized fish in the 28- to 40-inch range and you will know that they are hooked up to your jig or teaser when the rod bends in a slightly different parabolic arc from the added heft of these 15- to 20-pounders. Using a T-handled hook disgorger can get the smaller juvenile stripers back into the water with a minimum of stress, but you might occasionally have to bring them aboard to extricate the hook(s).
It’s a good idea to know where your state’s three-mile limit is located relative to where you are fishing. Currently, it’s against the law to possess striped bass in federal waters, which are defined as running just south of the three-mile limit and out to 12 nautical miles offshore. If you catch your bass inside of your state’s waters and then somehow stray outside of this invisible line into the federal zone, you will be in violation of the federal law. This oversight will definitely ruin your day, so be advised.
As a final caution, you might see the dreaded gill net boats drifting among the jigging fleet, really doing a number on these young bass. I was sick to my stomach last November, observing a local gill netter indiscriminately murdering many dozens of small and unmarketable stripers that were caught in his net, and he was simply tossing them back over the side for crab forage. There’s got to be a law against this practice somewhere – how can these guys sleep at night?
Late fall striper jigging is the season’s last hurrah for many coastal anglers, myself included. Be sure to dress for the occasion and downsize your jigging gear to the task. You might just find that you have saved the best for last, with non-stop rod bending action.