Here’s to another November to remember at the Jersey Shore!
While surfcasting a vacant beach in Jersey last November, I peered down between casts on an otherwise quiet morning and found a sand eel washed up in the surfline. After I posted the simple picture on Instagram of the sand eel sitting on the sand, social media fishing sites went buck wild. The beaches were packed the next day with wanton surfcasters. It made the news.
That’s the draw sand eels get from anglers because they understand the power of such a small baitfish showing up in the waters to ignite a fall run blitz of bass and blues. Striped bass and bluefish patrolling the November surf literally choke themselves with eels as they can take down a dozen or more in a patch in one gulp, gorging themselves and puking them back up in greedy fashion.
The time has come to develop your sand eel strategy!
Ammodytes Americanus is the fancy label for the diminutive American sand lance or sand eel, a long and slender fellow that can grow to about 9 inches long but typically average 3 to 5 inches. Active temperature ranges of their comfortable habitat rest between 58 and 48 degrees, making November prime time for the little baits.
Sand eels aren’t the run-of-the-mill baitfish. They are quite an unusual species; covert burrowers that root down in the sand and ground pebble beaches. You barely ever see them unless they want to be seen. The secret they hide is in their concealment under the surfside sands, though once exposed, they ignite a vast array of striped bass, bluefish, and weakfish to feed in the November surf. The key to dialing in a sand eel bite is to effectively mimic them and their behaviors at the proper times of the day.
As the sun rises on November morns, sand eels poke their heads up and unearth themselves, exiting the sandy seafloor and climbing in the water column to feed and move about. A couple of strategies work for the early morning hours. First off, the best time to fish is about a half-hour before the actual sunrise when eels are poking their heads up as they start to feel the warmth, finally extracting themselves as the sun breaks the horizon. This is the time to go low with metals and soft baits.
Generally, I will tie up a teaser rig using 25-pound Seaguar fluorocarbon with a small TA clip on the end and a bucktail hair 3/0 teaser on the dropper. On the clip is usually an Ava jig size 007 to A17, with either a fluorescent green, black or yellow tail tube. Cast the presentation out and let it sink to the beach bottom. Then process to reel in slowly, dragging the entire rig across the seafloor sands. At sunrise, bass and plucking eels off as they exit the sands, and many times you can hook into doubleheader bass on the rig as stripers attack the lures and pin them to the bottom, where a prompt hookset follows.
For The Late-Riser
When the sun has settled into its mid-morning position, usually around 10 a.m. or so, is when I will switch up to the soft bait sand eel imitations like the Tsunami Sand Eel, Joe Baggs sand eel, or if you can still find them, the Vision eel. The soft baits can’t be cast as far as the metals, but usually you don’t need a mile-long marathon cast to reach bass as they tend to push the eels into the undertow and work inside the cuts.
Cast out your soft bait and reel in once again at a slow pace, enough to keep it off the bottom but effectively staying around mid-range of the water column. I will put a 3/0 surf candy or small 3-inch Felmlee sand eel soft bait on my teaser dropper. Sand eels will be actively flittering around the waters during the afternoons and schooling up in major packs where you can usually get visuals of the rippling water surface.
Later in the day, at dusk and just after sunset, sand eels begin to wind down and fin about randomly or burrow back into the seafloor. Slowly drawn thin plugs on the water surface mesmerize bass and incite massive strikes in the dark. The tried and true Boone or Super Strike Needlefish is the top lure of choice for night anglers, usually in black or dark olive green coloring. The key to making the Needlefish plug work best is relatively simple; there’s no need to twitch or work the plugs in any active fashion. Just keep it slowly creeping along the water’s surface in a steady, slow retrieve as it creates a tiny wake and comes in nearly straight back to you with no wobble. The simply gliding stick works all the magic you need under the starry skies.
Specific sand eel imitation lures work their magic better at different times of the day. Understand how sand eels act and react to the shifting times of day, then set your game plan. Be prepared with all respective selections of metals, soft baits, and plugs in your surf bag so as not to be undergunned when sand eels are the predominant bait in the November surf.