The back marshes provide a nice change of pace in October and sometime produce some hefty stripers.
Backwater locations, many of them associated with springtime fishing, will see another charge of stripers in the fall. And it’s funny, after talking with our New England editor, Dave Anderson, it sounds like best month for this fall action – from Boston Harbor to Barnegat Inlet – is October.
In central New Jersey, where I fish, last year’s first explosion came on October 8 when winds laid down from the west after a pattern of heavy nor’easterlies. Adult bunker, or menhaden, nosed up into the wind and onto the Central Jersey beaches with jumbo bass hot on their tales. For all intents and purposes, it was pure bedlam.
I remember the day pretty vividly, only because I wasn’t there; I was in my truck around 6 a.m. heading up to the Pocono’s to a buddy’s lake house when the texts began whistling away on my cellphone. “Do you want to turn back,” my wife asked (god, what a lucky guy I am). Suffice to say, I ended up with a mess of perch and a chunky 3-pound Pocono largemouth.
By Monday morning, back on the Ocean County beaches, the buffalo were no longer roaming and the second battalion of migrating stripers was still weeks out. But with a pattern of westerly winds entering the forecast, I was just as happy to get back to my boat and those glorious sedges and sod banks in the backwater estuaries.
Times & Tides
As we enter the month of October, the first waves of finger mullet should be found vee-waking their way out of our local inlets and down along the beaches, while thick schools of peanut bunker flow from creeks and ponds. October is the month that I get the most out of my little bay boat, especially when the start of the ebb tide coincides with times of dawn and dusk. From my personal perspective, when the flooded marshes begin emptying out on the tidal change, it’s an ideal feeding scenario for stripers to find peanut bunker, silversides and finger mullet tumbling from the creeks.
On the higher side of the outgoing tide, in addition to bait movement you also have additional water for pushing your center console or skiff up tighter into the shallows. The addition of a Minn Kota Terrova to my 204 Angler a few years back has opened up a world of opportunities in that environment, especially when fishing solo. Just as important was getting rid of my noisy old two-stroke in exchange for repowering with the Suzuki DF140 on the transom. A whisper quiet and dependable motor, I can now motor more stealthily, closer to a creek mouth or sod bank before deploying the Minn Kota to take me in the rest of the way in.
Quiet is certainly the name of the game to finding success along the shallow backwaters where stripers from schoolies to the occasional 40-incher ply these skinner inside waters. But that game is still the same wherever you may be hunting these outback stripers quiet means soft stepping on the console floor, no loud music, and speaking in muted voices. That of course becomes harder when a beefy backwater striper explodes on your popper (yeah, I’m a screamer).
Looking ahead into the month of October, I’ve already circled a few key times and tides in the days ahead for my home waters. But picking prime dawn or, especially, dusk tides anywhere from 1-1/2 to 2 hours after high tide, anglers fishing the waters of Nauset Inlet on Cape Cod, Lake Tashmoo on The Vineyard, the Weweantic River in mainland Massachusetts, any of the breachway ponds in Rhode Island or the tributaries of the Connecticut River are likely to find fall striper success in relative solitude. A slight offshore wind (or no wind at all) makes it even better in terms of truly appreciating the quiet and stillness out back, interrupted periodically by surface explosions.
The Outack Arsenal
While more than a few “overs” (stripers over 31 inches) can be found prowling these placid waters, most of the estuary stripers are “unders” (less than 28 inches) or the “tweener” slot fish, which means scaling back. This year’s primary weapon for my sod bank striper hunts is The Weapon Jr. Mag by Century taping out at 7 feet, 3 inches with fast action and rated for quarter- to 2-ounce lures. A 3000-series reel is ideal, although I’ve got a PENN Battle III 4000 attached with 20-pound braid tied to 20-pound fluoro finished off with a duolock or Tactical Angler clip.
Years ago my go to back bay popper was the Stillwater Smack It, Jr., a 3-3/4-inch, 3/4-ounce Pennsylvania-made floating popper with rattles inside (favorite colors being white, yellow, chartreuse and Smokey Joe). The company doesn’t produce as many of these plugs anymore, so I’ll grab them off the rack whenever I can find one. However, there are plenty of other selections on the market that fit the bill, including Cape May’s Intent Tackle and their Bay Series Popper, the new Tsunami Tidal Prop IPOP, and Yo-Zuri’s incredible 3D Inshore series which casts a mile and is just as effective on a slow retrieve with the occasional twitch and pop.
In many instances, I’ll beef up the split rings and trebles; you’ll know which plugs require it after just a couple of fish. I also tamp down the barbs on every one of the trebles to aid in safer release, though Intent Tackle’s Bay Series comes with VMC inline singles right out of the box. A soft bag with fluorocarbon leader, a package of Tactical Anglers 50-pound clips, and a Plano tray filled with an assortment of poppers is about all that you need. I would advise however taking a few smaller glide baits, and a few of your favorite soft and hard plastic baits with appropriate jigheads as well (I always have a few NLBN or Kettle Creek Swing Shads with me as well).
Slow & Steady
Finding a productive stretch can come from friends or simply a little prospecting; for the latter, the Navionics phone app or updated charts on your plotter is a great way to start. The ideal scenario is a creek coming out of the marshes in quiet waters where bait is tumbling out on the dropping tide. Obviously, the closer this area is to an inlet the better, but quiet waters less traveled get the nod. The deeper the creek the better, but I have watched bass pounding on baits in just a foot of water, their dorsal fins clearly out of the water.
With the Minn Kota fired up, I’ll “spot lock” myself at casting distance of the creek mouth, laying the popper as close to either edge as possible. Many times a miscast that comes up short or too far from the bank can spook the fish; keep in mind that smaller baits will try to use the sod banks for protection as stripers hang outside a bit and make charges toward the land for ambush. I believe that’s where these stripers are looking to strike, and that’s where I want my cast.
In many instances I’m not “popping” my way back to the boat, but doing a combination of popping, light twitching and slow reeling. Most of the aforementioned poppers are just as enticing on a simple slow retrieve, pushing water while being reeled in, with an occasional pop helping draw attention. Just as exciting as the hookup is a tail-swipe, a couple of takes, and a follow. With winds laid down and glassy conditions, seeing the fish streak towards your lure and boil behind it can often be as memorable as the bent rod.
I’ll use the 5-foot “shift” feature of the Minn Kota to work both sides of a creek mouth or point, until putting the motor on to slowly work my way down the sod bank, casting the entire time. If you do find where the fish are feeding, one hooked and fought fish could spook the rest, in which case I’ll move away to another nearby location before coming back to give that previous spot another shot. Especially fun, is firing a plug straight down one of the dug-out, narrow mosquito ditches off a creek; you’d be surprised how many fish are lurking up there in that super shallow water.
Don’t think of course this is all tide and time dependent; any time you can fish is a great time to fish. I do prefer dusk this time of year, and even in low water you can find a score somewhere. But check the wind, and if she’s laying down there’s no better place to be than out back on the sod.