Scale down for 12th month stripers in the surf.
Snow was falling hard late last December with stiff westerly winds producing a complete whiteout along the Central Jersey stretch from Manasquan to Barnegat where I do most of my winter surfcasting. Ice formed on the guides of my surf rod, Glacier Gloves only kept my hands warm enough to put a pointer finger on the line for a halfhearted cast into 2-foot gin clear surf with a stiff 20-knot west wind at my back.
The Tsunami sand eel plunked into the water and sank to the bottom. Five cranks later, the hit came hard. On the next push of the wave, a spirited 26-inch striper came to the undertow and flopped at my feet, released in a matter of seconds. First fish down, 34 more to come in the next three hours.
That, my friends, is December surf fishing in New Jersey, from Sandy Hook all the way to Cape May!
Lighten Up Francis
Generally speaking, December signals the end of the fall run, but the biomass of bass can be prolific with mixed sizes of fish, ranging from the “rats” of 14 to 20 inches on up to the sometimes more prevalent 25- to 34-inch class of stripers. Surely, a few lunkers still hang around that can push 40 inches or more, but the general rule is smaller fish, and that means lightening up the tackle. I employ a St. Croix Avid series 7-1/2-foot rod rated for medium power and fast action, matched with a Shimano Stradic 5000 class reel, spooled with 30-pound Power Pro braid to which a 4-foot section of 25-pound Seaguar fluorocarbon leader is tied via Albright knot. A small 40-pound class Duolock snap or TA Clip is tied via clinch knot. Don’t have your drag cinched down hard, but adjust it fairly, moderately loose to allow the small stature stripers to make a spirited run and put up a good fight.
Lure selection is light and varies depending on the baitfish present. Sand eels are the predominant late fall, early winter baitfish with hatch matchers in my arsenal including Tsunami sand eels, Ava 007 to A17 jigs. As sand eels unearth themselves at predawn and sunrise, toss any of the aforementioned offerings and reel them in slowly, sometimes dragging the bottom where bass hunker down to pick them off like finger foods out of the sand.
When peanut bunker stick around, paddletail shads are clutch. Latch on a RonZ Z-Fin paddletail on a half- to 3/4-ounce leadhead, 3- to 6-inch Storm or Tsunami paddletail, or the NLBN shads. White always seems to produce, but natural colors like silver/black and sometimes chartreuse also get attention. It doesn’t get any easier to work a shad as you simply cast and reel in at a moderate pace. A trick when using shads is that if you see bass blitzing frantically on top, cast the shad out and let it sink to the bottom below the bass blitzing on bait and let the lure flop around on the bottom, twitching it under the school. Bass wait underneath singling the “injured” bunker out and hit it with reckless abandon.
Atlantic herring, mackerel, round herring and tinker mackerel have a way of showing up in December and plugs still have their place in the surf bag. Long swimmers like Daiwa SP Minnows, Island X Sidewinders, Yo-Zuri Mag darters, and small, chunky metal lipped swimmers all are primo for sunrise to sunset, but without a doubt, night shift selection is number one a black or blurple Bomber A-Salt. Work plugs with a slow wobble and not too fast as bass tend to slow up a bit when water temps dip into the high 40s. Crush the barbs on treble hooks or even switch up the treble hooks out for Siwash single hooks to prevent unnecessary damage to the smaller stripers.
Teasers & Flies
The good thing about December, I suppose if you want to put it this way, is the water is too cold for bluefish to be hanging around, and that means you can get away with using a teaser without worrying about a chopper blue biting it off and taking both the teaser and your plug. Teasers also are perfect to use as they can mimic the smaller baitfish around this time of year which can include spearing, bay anchovies and rainfish, as well as small size sand eels. Offerings include a 3/0 white bucktail teaser, Felmlee eel, or even a Clouser Minnow fly.
Teasers should be tied on a dropper loop 18 inches above the main lure, as the distance between the two ignite an aggression strike for stripers as they want to hit the teaser “bait” before the competing “gamefish predator” lure gets to it first. I find that when used, the teaser accounts for nearly 70% of the hits from smaller caliber December bass.
Of course, probably the most gratuitous and pleasurable way to angle for surf stripers in the winter is via the long rod. Once you’ve had you fill reeling in plenty of bass on spinning tackle, bring out the 8 to 9 weight, 10-foot fly rod to whip out flies like the Pop’s Epoxy, Clouser Minnow, Lefty’s Deceiver. Shoot out a cast and strip back with long sweeping pulls back through the sloughs and cuts to find an awaiting bass eager to smoke the fly. When small baits are prevalent, you’ll find the fly rod will up your hit and thus catch rate exponentially.
Fishing in the bitter cold to tug on a surf striper or two is absolutely tops on my list for many reasons. The solitude of the beach is ever-present, as not many anglers brave the downright frigid conditions, so the peace of mind to explore and work spots alone or with a bud is unparalleled and welcomed. A warm swing of coffee is like drinking God’s nectar as it heats your body up to fuel your fire as bass start blitzing in front of you. If you’re lucky, the snow will fall, creating a magical scene as if you are in some far off arctic land, burning a lasting memory you can recollect to keep you warm throughout January and February when the bass have finally passed on through.
Focus your efforts during times of sunrise and sunset, though striper schools will feed throughout the entire day. Bundle up in warm apparel, especially a light windbreaker over your sweatshirt to insure you won’t be tempted to stop fishing. December will be yours to remember.