The reality is that the last couple of falls have been disappointing for most casters fishing the Island’s beaches, resulting in a reduction in effort, and some casters calling it quits sooner than they would have had there been some fish around. In fact, there were plenty of fish around during November and December last year. I probably caught 400 to 500 of them during a 6- to 7-week period, but not one quality fish and only a few that even threatened the keeper mark. Unlike many other casters who shunned the little stripers, I had a ball catching them on a light action 6-foot rod and 10-pound test braid, while most chose to stick to their 10- and 11-foot rods and lures or chunks that pretty much eliminated the small fish. But I understand the frustration many felt from the lack of any quality fish in the mix, and like everyone else, I’m hoping that changes. To some degree, it already has.
I actually had to make some last minute revisions to this article based on some very recent fishing that should provide some reasons to be more optimistic about this fall’s prospects as opposed to the last couple of seasons. From Friday night on October 12 through Sunday morning the 14th, a very good run of quality bass ranging from the teens to 40 pounds developed along our South Fork and East End sand beaches through Southampton and East Hampton. More importantly, the fishing was fueled by large sand eels from 6 to 8 or 9 inches settling into the surf zone, and the sand eels also drew bigger baitfish like shad into the beach. Paul at Paulie’s Tackle Shop and Ken at Tight Lines Tackle both raved about the weekend action, with the best of it coming in the dark, although Paulie’s son Nick did get into a good bite on pencil poppers early Sunday morning.
The week prior to the East End action, we began seeing a sprinkling of bass in the teens, 20s and a couple of 30-pounders culled from among the shorts and small bluefish that have dominated the surf scene this season and last, from Montauk through Fire Island, and to a lesser degree further west. If the sand eels settle in from now through November, and into December, it could be the game-changer casters have been hoping for.
There have been lots of reasons tossed around in an attempt to explain the lack of quality bass in the surf in recent years. Depleted stocks, near shore waters too warm, the huge increase in predators like sharks, seals and dolphin along the beach, too much bait in deeper water, changes in migratory patterns and range (more fish expanding their range northward), the after effects of Hurricane Sandy, and changes in the texture of the sand resulting from pumping sand from offshore onto our beaches, have all been debated as possible reasons for the lack of bigger stripers, and bluefish too for that matter, in the surf. I’ll save addressing these possible scenarios for another time, but one factor that has held true during these lean years has been the absence of sand eels in the surf. Maybe not so coincidently, the last good fall run we had along the South Shore was fueled by sand eels.
So assuming a good sand eel run develops, there are likely to be one or two, maybe more areas where the fishing is more consistent than others. Once a pattern develops, key into those areas for most of your efforts even if it means traveling a little further to do your fishing. If good fishing develops in your own backyard, so much the better but don’t get locked into just fishing close to home for convenience sake. Any of our sandy South shore beaches have the potential to host a good sand eel bite. The last good one encompassed most of Fire Island and stretched to Field Six at Jones Beach at one point during the run. Many casters zeroed in on the consistent action at Robert Moses and Democrat Point. I’ll never forget one weekend morning in November, it may have been Thanksgiving week, when casters were stretched shoulder to shoulder as far as you could see along this stretch of beach. Many other beaches were productive that year, but lacked the consistency and duration of Fire Island. Stretches of beach worth keeping an eye on are many but you can start with those closest to you until something else develops. Out east, Hither Hills and Napeague are always good bets, and Sagg Main and Georgica, Southampton beaches east and west of Mecox, Shinnecock East, Ponquogue Beach and the county beaches from there to Tiana Beach, Quogue, Westhampton, Cupsogue, Smith Point/FINS (may be impacted by current dredge project), Fire Island communities from Davis Park to Kismet, Robert Moses/Democrat Point, Gilgo (may be impacted by current dredge project), Tobay, Jones Beach, Lido, Long Beach, Atlantic Beach/Silver Point, Rockaways, and Breezy Point all have potential.
If sand eels are present, you’ll want to be sure to have some A17 and A27 diamond jigs or narrow bodied metals like those from West End Lures fitted with tubes in your bags. Everyone seems to focus on green tubes, but I’ve seen white and red tubes go neck and neck with green, and even out-fish green on occasion. While the jigs and most tins are considered daytime tools, they can also be effective at night, especially when wind and/or rough surf makes fishing plugs difficult. Soft plastic sand eel imitations are a given, and my favorites are the 7-inch Tsunami swim eel (also available in 6-, 8- and 9-inch sizes) and the Al Gags Whip-It Eel. Bucktails tipped with a strip of Fat Cow will take their share of fish, and swimming plugs like the SP Minnow and Yo-Zuri Hydro Minnow are favored by some casters, especially at night or first light. The no-brainer is the needlefish plug. Super Strike Needlefish cover every weight and length range and are available in most tackle shops.
Let’s hope the sand eel solution holds true, but in the meantime, I expect there will be lots of small school bass along the beach this fall, similar to last fall, with a few more fish falling into the keeper category, and less of those micro bass, some as small as 12 inches. All of these small fish bode well for the future and are the result of several good year classes from both the Hudson River and Chesapeake Bay. If they turn out to be the main attraction this fall, do yourself a favor and downsize your tackle to take advantage of some fun, light tackle fishing. It beats sulking over a lack of big fish and sitting around watching football games while waiting for some quality fish to possibly show up. I would make it a point to keep a 6- to 7-foot spinning rod with a 2500- to 3000-size reel filled with 10-pound braid in your truck or car along with some smaller jigs, bucktails and soft plastics to take advantage of this fishing when the big girls don’t want to play. Keep your arsenal to single hooks to make releasing these fish a quick and easy process.
If you are not able to tote that extra rod, or are uncomfortable fishing such a small rod in the surf (It does require calm conditions.) manufacturers like Tsunami are generating very light action 10-footers to fill the niche of catching schoolies with smaller, lighter payloads. Their Trophy Two series model #TSTSS-1002D is a 10-footer designed just for this purpose, easily handling 1/2- to 1-1/2-ounce lures, but with the length to give you more casting distance and the backbone to handle any big fish that crashes the party. It has the look and components of some custom rods but is priced at less than $75. That was not a misprint.
Of course, there is always the chance of finding fish feeding on adult or peanut bunker, given the vast numbers of these protein rich baitfish camped in our waters this season. For that reason, be sure to pack your standard big fish plugs like darters and bottles for nighttime work, and poppers, pencil poppers and metal lips for dawn to dusk. Swim shads are a must these days, smaller 4- and 5-inch models to match the peanuts and 6- to 9-inch versions for bigger bait and fish.
Trying to predict what the fishing is going to be like for the remainder of the fall is definitely a crap shoot, and the easiest way I know to make someone like me look foolish. But what the heck – I’ve been called worse things before. A firm believer in the glass half full, and after being firmly convinced that we were in for another “short” plagued season, I’m starting to believe that this fall is going to be different, with enough quality fish around to keep most casters happy and motivated. I just hope the sand eels don’t let me down.