Leveraging September migration movements can translate to the ninth month potentially being the most productive of the year.
September is one of the most productive months on the recreational fishing calendar, as well as one of the most unpredictable, due to tropical “alphabet” storm season in Mid-Atlantic, Northeast and New England coastal areas. September signals us that the summer has come and gone, highlighted by the autumnal equinox, where planet earth rotates on its axis, changing the angle of light in the water, and shifting the prevailing wind patterns to the north/northwest. Combine these events with shorter days and longer nights with a distinctive chill in the air and anglers get the message that things are changing. These meteorological phenomena also send unmistakable signals to bottom/wreck fish and pelagics that it’s time to make a significant move from their current surroundings to more suitable and comfortable environs, where they are going to spend their winter months waiting for the reverse cycle to happen again in the spring.
The Usual Suspects
These mass migrations cause a wide selection of inshore species such as black sea bass, porgies, bluefish, fluke, weakfish, triggerfish, jacks, (drum and cobia if you’re lucky), mackerel and others to feed non-stop in preparation for their coming journey, creating numerous targets of opportunity along the usual migration routes. It’s incumbent that inshore anglers identify the where and when of the migration process for their favorites during the waning days of summer and the start of the fall season, and plan accordingly.
Pelagics on the move include (small) mako, dusky, brown, hammerhead, tiger and juvenile thresher sharks; Spanish mackerel, bonito and false albacore; yellowfin, albacore and bigeye tuna; plus exotics like dorado, wahoo and white/blue marlin. Some of the gamefish not included on this list like striped bass, bluefin tuna, blue sharks, etc. typically migrate later in the season, so they are not included on this list. For bluewater and near offshore aficionados, a similar process applies to their thought process, specifically trying to determine the best spots to intercept pelagic species that are ready to journey hundreds of miles or more to get to their next destination. The key question that should dominate your trip planning for all of these aforementioned species, both inshore and offshore, is “where’s the best spot to find them?”
Right Place At The Right Time
Some of the best places to start for your inshore September migration opportunities are the numerous wrecks, reefs, rock piles and fathom curve formations in the 15 to 20-fathom areas near your home port. The compelling reason to focus on wreck and reef hopping is simple – you are putting your baits and lures where the fish are usually concentrated in great numbers and you are not burning daylight trying to find your preferred catch. Instead, all of your time is spent trying to catch them! The next piece to the trip planning puzzle is to identify low traffic wrecks and bottom structure that are off the beaten path of recreational anglers and the party boat fleet. Based on my experience with September trips, I’d recommend selecting a half-dozen potential hotspots in a relatively homogeneous area for that day’s focus and hope that the wind and seas are favorable for such a foray. If there’s too much traffic at my initial selection spot, or if the fish are in an uncooperative mood or simply AWOL, I will then shift to the second choice on the menu and move on. Recent storm activity can cause seismic shifts to the availability of target species and their feeding mood. If your preferred catch of the day is not there at your first stop, move on to plan B. The key ingredient to September fishing is to keep to a managed timeline. You typically leave in the dark, come back in the dark and are at the whim of fickle weather patterns that will punish you for staying too long at places that are too far from home port. Be sure to give yourself enough time at the spots you’ve chosen to have the best chance for success.
The same multi-option thinking should dominate trip-planning for near-offshore and bluewater enthusiasts. Which offshore wreck of fathom curve is hot? Where are the latest warm core spinoff eddies from the Gulfstream? Who has the latest intel from yesterday’s catch reports? Where are the sea surface temperature breaks? Are the lobster pot buoys up today or not? Which canyon is hot and which is not? The key to September success is to get as many potential hotspots lined up in the same general area as possible and to hit them in a timed sequence. If one spot is not happening, go to the next. All it takes is time and fuel, presuming that sea conditions haven’t changed to alter your plans.
Yet another tip to staying on top of the September migration activity is to listen to the radio, and I’m not referring to hip-hop, pop, tech or classic oldies on your marine stereo! The VHF is an invaluable tool, not just for communicating the normal chatter between boats and for emergencies, but it’s also one of my prime sources of fish catching intel. Many a September trip has been salvaged for me by eavesdropping on the marine band frequencies and listening to the “code talk” of nearby anglers and how they are doing with their hunting and catching efforts. I know some charter boat captains that have a trio of working VHFs in their bridge or cockpit areas that are all tuned in to different channels listening to the local angling chatter. They are paid to perform on every trip and must find fish for their charter fares or risk tarnishing their reputations. If it’s not practical to own or operate VHFs with their multiple wiring harnesses, antennas and cost, you should make use of your current VHF’s dual-watch and/or tri-watch mode features. Many VHF manufacturers offer this useful tool that allows the owner to program the preferred watch channels to listen to local chatter. Be advised that many anglers do not follow the approved VHF norms when communicating stealth messages. Although certain channels are designated for commercial and non-commercial interest and should be adhered to as per your responsibilities as a VHF owner, not everyone follows the rules. Much of the code talk between successful boats is conducted on the commercial channels, so be advised when performing your eavesdropping activities.
Use All Your Skill Sets
There’s no one method that will consistently work better than another in the September fishery, whether working inshore or offshore. It’s time to use (or learn how to use) all of the tools in the toolbox, which include casting, trolling, jigging, live bait, drifting dead baits, snagging and dropping bunker, etc. Admittedly, one personal skill that I still need to hone to a sharper edge is my ability to use a cast net to consistently catch live bait when targeting bunker, mullet, spearing, tinker mackerel, glass minnows, etc. To some folks it comes naturally and to others it is an acquired skill that must be learned via continuous practice and I’m still working on it. Most modern boats have an ample livewell and it’s always a great idea to head offshore with multiple bait options, especially if you can bring along some livies. Bunker in their many size ranges, from peanuts to full-grown pogies, are rarely in short supply in most coastal areas and are a relatively hardy bait and easy to catch. If this is not on your menu, you can practice the art of snagging bunker and then either dragging them on the periphery of the school in hope of catching bigger game, or you can get them quickly into a livewell and head for spots further downrange. Some coastal tackle shops will sell spots (small croakers) at $5 each. While this might be an expensive option for many of us working folks, they are a fantastic option when targeting stripers, especially if you can avoid the bluefish. I used to be a big fan of using killies (aka killifish or mummichogs) for a variety of inshore and offshore species, ranging from fluke, to sea bass and even dorado (mahi mahi) offshore. But the local tackle shops in my area rarely carry them anymore and that is a major bummer. I it was a live bait that you could buy that was readily available and relatively inexpensive. When fishing on inshore wrecks and reefs, small cunners (aka bergalls) should not be wasted. Instead, consider putting them in your livewell and drift the edges of your fave wrecks and reefs and hold on for some action. Double digit sized doormats have been known to prefer this live bait and it is the “secret sauce” of many sharpies, so be advised. We have used also bergalls, snappers and small legal sized porgies on many a nighttime tuna trip, so there is no geographical limit on using inshore baitfish for offshore duties.
We’ve summarized the live bait angle in the skills section, so let’s focus on the other tools in the toolbox. Both inshore and offshore anglers will need to be versed in casting, drifting, trolling, jigging and drifting dead baits. The best way to deal with these angling challenges is to have the right gear for the right situation. When I approach this puzzle of matching the right tools for the job, I try to employ rods and reels that can perform more than one function – classic multi-taskers. None of us have unlimited resources to have six of everything and even if we did, where do you put them all on a space-challenged 21 to 25-foot center console, dual console or cuddy? I have been doing a number of combo charters these past few months leading into September, where we hit a quartet of venues from working the inlet and nearby artificial reefs, to sharking, to trolling or jigging for near offshore tuna. My boat, a 228 EdgeWater center console, features a total of seven flush-mount rodholders in the gunwales, a quartet in an overhead T-Top rocket launcher and a second quartet aft of the leaning post. That totals 15 secure mounting spots for rods/reels, not counting the two trios of under-gunnel racks that are practically useless for anything but small spinning rods and are typically reserved for gaffs, tagging sticks and boat brushes. But when you are fishing and need clear gunwales to work a larger gamefish around the perimeter of the cockpit, how many “up and out of the way” rodholders does your boat have? Mine has only eight, located in the two rocket launchers. Everything else is in harm’s way. I’ve lost count of how many of my rods and/or charter customers rods have been damaged because someone laid it down on the deck during a fishing frenzy and then someone else onboard unwittingly stepped on it and broke a guide or worse. I now employ the requisite mantra that you step on it or drop it overboard, then you own it. I’ve positioned my bow mounted rodholder to be in the perfect spot to insert a Taco Trident, which enables me to get an additional three rods out from underfoot when a trio of anglers are all hooked up to energetic gamefish going in different directions.
All of this space management reinforces my original premise that whatever rods come aboard my MarCeeJay, or when I venture off on an away charter, they be multi-mission outfits that can perform a multitude of tasks. As an example, my Maxel 10 lever drag reel spooled with 400-plus yards of hi-vis yellow TUF-Line or PowerPro superbraid is frequently used for trolling the short baits in a tuna spread, for jigging deepwater tuna, for wreck fishing inshore wrecks, for tile fishing in the canyons and for drifting for sharks in 20-fathom waters. Matched up to a Shimano Trevala XXH 5-foot, 8-inch jigging rod, this one is a keeper and follows me everywhere I go on the briny. There are many examples of these types of multi-duty outfits and this is just one of them. The bottom line is to gear up so that you can make the most with what you’ve got, keep it stored safely when heading to and from the fishing grounds and keep it out of the way when it’s not being used.
Some Final Thoughts
Leveraging the September migration movements, both inshore and offshore, can translate to this month potentially being the most productive of the year. Check the sea surface temp satellite updates as often as you can. If you don’t currently subscribe to one, it’s definitely worth the investment and will give you a good place to start, especially if you are fishing near offshore or blue waters further away from home port. I use Terrafin and it’s an indispensable tool in my trip planning arsenal. Keep a watchful eye on the weather during the alphabet storm season, since September is one of the peak months, and remember that no fishing experience is worth your life. Buddy up with another boat if you can and be safe out there.