From bass and blues to albies and weakfish, the aim small miss small concept offers a solid seasonal surf strategy.
When you fish the surf with bait, you are liable to catch just about anything. The possibilities are endless. Many surf anglers go for the gusto, targeting the big guys: striped bass, bluefish, and seasonal southern exotics like false albacore and Spanish mackerel. Others, more novices than veterans, keep their expectations modest in pursuing smaller species. Why not try for both big and smaller species from late spring through early fall, on the same day? Doing so doubles your odds of hooking up with something.
Setting your sights on striped bass and bluefish is understandable. Their size and fighting ability have earned them celebrity status. As such, you need to upsize your gear accordingly – hefty rods and reels up to the task, rigs armed with bigger hooks, heavier sinkers, and larger baits. Bigger baits like fresh bunker chunks, juicy clam balls, and even shrimp chunks that give off scent trails work best.
Early and late in the day are the optimum times to dunk your baits for these elite species although circumstances sometimes call for the use of plugs, soft plastic lures, and metal jigs to make your catches. The effort needed to hook up with them, either on bait or lures, is significant but the rewards justify the time and effort. Hopefully, those big-headed racer blues invade our inlets and back bays sometime during the month of April to offer up those options.
Later in the summer and into the fall, southern speedsters like Spanish mackerel and false albacore arrive and pose terrific challenges to the New Jersey, Delaware coastal surfcaster. They disdain bait rigs and prefer small lures presented to them in the speediest fashion possible; their strikes are explosive and electrifying. Often they pop-up unexpectedly so you almost have to be in the right place at the right time to have a shot at them. This is when having a combo rigged to present lures while bait fishing provides a second option for catching something perhaps extraordinary on any given day.
Often overlooked are the many smaller species that help to spice up bait surf fishing during the late spring through early fall run, like fluke, kingfish, blowfish, trigger fish, sea robins, porgies, snapper blues, sheepshead, and possibly a few blackfish around the groins and jetties. This is a more casual, simplifier type of fishing often with more rewards in numbers of fish caught than in their individual size. Lighter rods and reels, rigs with smaller hooks, and lighter sinkers are recommended; the lighter the gear the more fun it is to catch these smaller but energetic species.
Small morsels of cut bait, shrimp, squid, worms, and even sand fleas on hooks compatible with the targeted species produce the best results; artificial baits like those from Berkley Gulp and Fishbites work equally well, having no need to be kept cool or fresh like real baits. This is passive bait presentation – baiting your rig, casting it offshore, and waiting for smaller targeted fish to take the bait.
Surf fluke range in size between large and small fish. Most summertime catches are on the smaller size but there are big keeper fluke pulled out of the surf every season. Bait catches more surf fluke than lures do, with a caveat – although dead-sticking will catch an occasional fluke, live-sticking with rigged bait – live, dead, or artificial – produces the best results. Live killies in addition to squid, sea robin, bluefish, and bunker strips worked along a sandy bottom get lots of attention from fluke looking for their next meal. Artificial baits like those from Fishbites and Gulp also catch fish, with daytime hours giving you plenty of time to stalk fluke in the surf.
Even though they are not considered terrific gamefish, fluke are exciting to catch on light gear and are an absolute delight on the plate. When fluke are active along the surf line, there are countless other species – big and small – in the vicinity. Some larger gamefish pop-up unexpectedly and can be hooked on lures; smaller species are always nearby, hitting downsized bait rigs. It is an understatement to say that there are many more species options available to anglers during the summer and fall months than they realize.
Look, there will be dedicated pluggers working the Raritan Bayshore this month, generating plenty of social media buzz with jumbo striped bass before heading up the Hudson to spawn. Same can be said for much of the Delaware River banks, while some may be hitting the front beaches at night, creeping along with larger plugs for jumbo striped bass. But for the surfcaster by the light of day, don’t limit yourself to one option when you can multi-task; fishing for the big guys early or late in the day, while downsizing for smaller species during most of the daylight hours. Anything can happen between dawn and dusk, and having one combo rigged with a lure and ready should the big guys show up unexpectedly during the daylight hours is smart while bait fishing for smaller fare. Two combos double your chances of catching something either big or small, or both big and small during a single outing.
Going home after catching something is always better than going home with nothing to show for your time and effort. Explore all options when you invest time on a beach. Think big, aim small!