Striper Swan Song: Schoolies In The Rips - The Fisherman

Striper Swan Song: Schoolies In The Rips

Schoolies
Schoolies in the November rips can provide fast action with mixed sizes of fish.

Extend your season with hot schoolie action on Long Island Sound rips.

For my buddy Vince Battista and me, November means the autumn season has peaked. The heat and humidity are gone, and so are the weekend crowds. Except for some dedicated toggers, the boat ramps, bays, and rips are empty. Schoolie stripers, now one of the few games in town, are on a voracious, migration-fueled feeding spree. With the recent boom in small bass numbers powering the action, we’ll release hundreds of fish before Thanksgiving without the mess of baiting a single hook. One day early last November was a perfect example of what we experience each fall.

A frosty northwesterly had kicked up a short chop as Vince and I pushed out in the eastern Long Island Sound. Despite some stinging bow spray, we were too excited about the prospect of finding a mass of wheeling gulls to worry about a little discomfort. As we closed the running distance to less than a mile, I was able to discern a cloud of birds working in front of a rip a couple hundred yards off the shore. I called over the center console to Vince, gave him an enthusiastic, “We found them!” thumbs-up, and throttled a few more horses to boost the RPMs. The sun had been up for a few hours, it was 45 degrees, and aside from birds and breaking fish we had the ocean to ourselves.

We soon arrived at the action, and I cut the motor just up-tide of the rip line and breaking fish. Pods of peanut bunker burst across the surface while schoolie stripers inhaled them from beneath. Gulls wheeled, screamed, and dove as they picked off the hapless baitfish. We snatched our rods from the rocket launchers and started casting to the melee. Moments later, we were both hooting as our small spools spun in harmony.

Massive Numbers

“A couple of years ago on Veteran’s Day,” said marine fisheries biologist Justin Davis, PhD, “I took a trip in November. Working birds and busting fish started about halfway out of the bay. It was incredible. There were schools of hundreds of thousands of fish all over the place. A couple of times I just stopped casting and stood on the bow to watch the show. We’ve had a decline in larger fish since the mid-2000s, and we continue to have poor surveys for fish from that timeframe. But we’re optimistic for the future—2011 had a bumper-crop spawn, and those fish are now exceeding the legal length of 28 inches. Then 2015 was another bumper year, and those are the explosion of schoolies we’re seeing in the 18- to 24-inch range [now].”

“When the bite is on,” said Capt. Dixon Merkt (retd.), who guided out of Old Lyme, CT for 40-plus years and now fishes for fun.   “The number you can catch is almost unlimited. But you’re not casting to individual fish, you’re seeking schools where you get hits cast after cast after cast,” Merkt said, adding “These bass are cookie-cutter fish, usually 16 to 26 inches long, where volume is your objective, not size. Reports of two anglers releasing 75 to 100 fish on one tide aren’t uncommon.”

The schoolie boom isn’t isolated to eastern Long Island Sound. Similar astounding reports come from diehard late-season anglers from western Long Island Sound east to Point Judith, RI and beyond.

tins
Tins that replicate peanut bunker, butterfish and silversides will draw lots of strikes.

Warm Conditions

Conditions are a key factor for November success, and in this instance climate change may be beneficial by extending our schoolie season. When we experience warm fall weather the run of stripers is long and good. Dedicated fishermen can catch them through Thanksgiving and even into early December. How late the fish stay, according to biologists, depends on how warm the autumn is because their numbers drop fast when the water temperature falls below 48 degrees. That magic number is when bait schools move out and the bass either push south or migrate north into major rivers like the Thames, Connecticut, Housatonic, and Hudson to over-winter. But one of the most consistent spots to locate fall action is along nearshore reefs and rips.

The Science Of Rips

When the faster water coursing over a reef collides with the slower water behind the structure a series of standing waves or “rip line” form. The rip is easy to spot because the water ahead (up current) of the rip line is calm, while the water behind (down current of) the rip line is choppy and roiled. Near the bottom, an up-surging motion and change in pressure causes a vacuum effect.

Immediately ahead of the reef is a pocket of calmer, slower water. This comparatively quiet area is called the “sweet spot.” Since it takes time and distance for the upwelling water to reach the surface, the sweet spot is located a short distance—depending on the depth and current speed—in front of the rip line, not directly beneath its leading edge.

Stripers stage in the sweet spot to conserve energy and ambush baitfish like peanut bunker that gather there to seek shelter and feed on organisms stirred off the ocean floor. Bass often chase prey up through the water column and grab it when trapped against the surface, usually just in front of the rip line, creating great surface action like Vince and I experienced.

Finding Rips

To locate likely rips in your area review a chart and pinpoint areas where the depth rises and falls abruptly, preferably perpendicular to the current flow. The best spots appear where relatively flat ground meets a bottom contour with significant vertical relief over which a strong current passes. Most shallow, nearshore reefs are easy to find because they’re marked with navigational aids. The size of the waves along the rip can range from a subtle few inches – requiring a keen eye to locate – to 2 feet or more depending on the current, depth-change ratio, and wind direction and speed. A stiff breeze opposing a strong current creates a larger rip line than when the current and wind coincide. That’s because the surface water collides with the wind and “heaps up” at the same spot where the fast water meets the slow water over the reef.

The size of a rip line has no correlation to the striper activity below or on top. Bigger isn’t necessarily better, and some nearshore rips showing only the slightest riffles and no bird activity may be stacked with predators along the bottom. On days when schoolies chase baitfish to the surface, anglers can spot working birds from a considerable distance, as we did, and these birds reveal the location of a productive reef. Once the tide slacks, however, rip lines and surface action vanish with no indication of what lies beneath. Unfortunately, when rips stop showing so does the fish action, so you must plan November trips to the tide and conditions.

exo-jig
The ‘shatter resistant’ Exo Jig is a great option because it’s tough and also closely resembles many species of late-fall forage.

Tackle Talk

Marauding packs of schoolies usually aren’t fussy in late fall. They’re in such a feeding mode that they attack any swimming or surface lure like bluefish do, often missing a topwater on successive strikes until they nail it, which provides tremendous visual excitement. This trait creates great sport with light spinning gear.

A good outfit is a 7-foot Shimano Talavera inshore, medium-heavy, fast-action rod or a 7-foot G-Loomis E6X inshore, heavy, fast-action rated for 10- to 17-pound line and 1/4- to 1-ounce lures. Rods like these are light enough to cast small-to-medium tins and provide plenty of tussle with schoolie bass, yet they have enough stiffness to keep a suitable topwater chugging across the surface in front of a rip. A well-matched reel is a Shimano C3000 NASCI or Stradic, which have plenty of capacity and drag but are balanced to those rods for optimum casting performance. A less expensive but suitable reel option for schoolies is a Penn Fierce III 3000.

If you’re not a fan of braid for spincasting, especially in autumn winds, load your reel with supple 12- to 17-pound mono for a balance of maximum casting distance and abrasion resistance for dense schools. For the line-to-leader connection, use a dependable knot like a double uni to tie on 18 inches of 20- to 30-pound fluorocarbon or mono leader.

Any lightweight 4- to 5-inch surface plug works well. But try fishing them with only the trailing hook by first removing the forward treble hook, which makes catch-and-release easier and safer for you and the fish. Or switch out the front treble with about a suitable single. I carry a few plugs with the barbs bent down on the rear treble for when the action is white hot, and the added challenge becomes part of the sport.

Another productive option to cast along rip lines is a metal lure. Try wide-bodied tins in the 1- to 2-ounce range that imitate baby butterfish and peanut bunker. Kastmasters and Hopkins Shorty lures are excellent choices. Shimano’s Coltsniper casting jigs, like the 28g model, imitate most baitfish and carry a great distance in the wind. A Deadly Dick #1 long is another productive choice.

Although fly fishing is the ultimate sporting challenge for schoolies, spin casting allows faster and farther casts, so it’s always good to have at least one guy in the boat slinging lures. I often use 2.5- or 3-inch EXO Jigs by Game On! Lures for schoolies, which closely resemble various small baitfish that are primary nearshore forage. EXO Jigs cast well in a stiff November breeze, and they hold up well when small bluefish are in the mix, which can often be the case in late fall. EXO jigs are also shatter resistant, which is helpful because schools of small bass will crash baitfish right into rocks, and an errant cast won’t break a lure when it accidently strikes unforgiving structure.

Fishing Them

FUSSY FISH?

“If the fish are on tiny feed and fussy, however, and you’re not having much success with a standard lure,” said Capt. Merkt, “I suggest tying a dropper fly off the main leader. It simulates a larger baitfish chasing a smaller prey, and sometimes increases productivity dramatically. The fly will often out-produce the lure. And sometimes you’ll get doubles on the same rig.” The advantage of a dropper is that you have a dense lure like an EXO Jig or Kastmaster for the distance casts, especially in the wind, yet you can still get a small offering (the fly) in front of fussy fish. For flies off droppers, Merkt likes chartreuse or olive/gray Clouser Minnows, which are weighted, or Deceivers. If you determine the fish are feeding on tiny bunker, you can tie on a bunny fly, peanut bunker, or similar wide-bodied butterfish-type imitation.

Cast these lures across or diagonally down current in front of a rip line. Then, with your rod tip held down low to the surface, retrieve tins at a normal rate, punctuated with a stop-and-go action to imitate a wounded baitfish, but be ready to set the hook because schoolies will often grab it on the sink. If you have no surface plugs aboard and but want topwater excitement, speed up your retrieve and hold your rod tip up high. When fished correctly, flat lures like Kastmasters and Hopkins can skitter across the surface and draw heart-stopping strikes from these ravenous schoolies. Unlike fly fishing, setting the hook hard isn’t as critical because fish normally hook themselves on the trailing treble, which resembles a baitfish’s beating tail. If the fish are marking deep, let your lure sink close to the bottom before slowly retrieving up through the water column.

“When they’re up and frothing the surface,” said Captain Merkt, adding “the one mistake almost every novice angler makes is casting right into the middle of the mess. What you should do is cast to the edge of the school. In the middle of the blitz, you can accidentally snag fish or your line can be severed by other predators. Sometimes the fish are feeding so aggressively, and there’s so much bait and turmoil, that your lure is just missed. It’s great late-autumn sport!”

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