New Jersey Striper & Bluefish Fall Frenzy

Now is the time when jumbo blues and cow stripers put on the feedbag in preparation for the long winter ahead. Here's where you'll find 'em right now along our long coast.

Big bluefish like this one will test your tackle to its limit when hooked while fishing the surf. So hang on and have fun!
Photo by Milt Rosko

I love to fish for stripers and blues anytime, but especially during the fall when these two great game fish begin feeding ravenously. This is the time of year when both species are adding bulk and fat to tide them over the long winter to come.

But there's only one dilemma I'm constantly confronted with: Where to go? There are so many ports of call and stretches of beach that provide superb fishing in New Jersey that I often wish I could be at several places at one time. This is especially true when conditions are right, with moderate sea conditions, huge concentrations of forage species, and weather that is absolutely delightful.

While sea conditions and weather play a role, what really turns me on during the fall is the exodus of forage species from coastal bays and rivers. Forage such as menhaden, herring, mullet, bay anchovies, hickory shad and spearing that were hatched early in summer in the protected estuaries now reach the ocean. There they are suddenly confronted with a quandary that didn't exist earlier: schools of hungry stripers and bluefish awaiting their migration.

Until you've experienced the mass migration of baitfish, it's difficult to comprehend its magnitude. There aren't hundreds or thousands of baitfish, but often literally millions of 3- to 8-inch-long fry swimming nervously in tightly packed schools. They appear like a black cloud in the water. What is certain to give any angler an adrenaline rush is to experience the conflict that occurs when schools of baitfish meet schools of stripers and blues.

Join me as we visit six great Jersey locations, three great areas for the surfcasting gentry, and three for boat-fishing enthusiasts.

RARITAN BAY

Raritan Bay is a broad expanse of water, an ideal nursery ground fed by the fresh water of the Raritan River. It is a nursery ground beyond comprehension, with miles of extremely shallow flats, and a major shipping channel crisscrossing the waterway.

What I like most about this waterway is the fact you can choose the tackle and technique that suit your fancy as you pursue stripers and blues. Unquestionably, the most exciting fishing occurs when hungry bass and blues are herding schools of forage, particularly peanut bunker. When this happens you've got Mother Nature on your side because gulls and terns will fill the air, screaming and diving, attacking the forage from the sky. The hapless fry are being attacked on the surface most often by blues, while the stripers hang deep, picking up the pieces mutilated by the sharp teeth of the blues. It's a lost cause for most of the peanut bunker!

But what a great opportunity to use a popping outfit or one-handed spinning rig and to toss popping plugs, surface-swimming plugs or plastic shad into the maelstrom of birds, feeding fish and hapless baitfish. The swim shad have been extremely effective the past couple of seasons, but you better bring a dozen of them with you, for by the end of a day the blues will have destroyed them all. It's the kind of fishing I wait all season for, and the beauty part of it all is that it takes place in the protected water of Raritan Bay (and the adjoining Sandy Hook Bay), where even in the severest northeaster you're still able to fish.

There are other options available, too. When the bait isn't on the surface, you can always break out a pair of medium-weight trolling outfits and troll bunker spoons or swimming plugs. I'll often fish the area with braided or wire line, sending the big lures into the depths, where they'll draw strikes from bigger fish. Work the edges of Raritan Bay West or East Reach, Chapel Hill, Sandy Hook or Swash channels. Constantly monitor your fish finder until you find both bait and the bigger marks denoting stripers and blues in the depths.

Spots like Flynns Knoll and Romer Shoal are good places to try chumming, especially when big blues are known to be in the area. You may anchor, but you may also experience good results while drifting and chumming with ground bunker, and baiting with a chunk of butterfish.

If you trailer your own boat, there's a great launch ramp in Atlantic Highlands, which is minutes from the action. There's also a fine fleet of party boats that sail from Atlantic Highlands Municipal Harbor, with most sailing on both daytime and evening schedules.

SHREWSBURY ROCKS

On a nautical chart, the Shrewsbury Rocks don't look like a very impressive spot. Extending outward from shore, the Rocks range from 18 to 24 feet for the most part, surrounded by water that is 35 to 50 feet deep. The seaward end of the rock formation has a black "1SR" marker. As the name implies, the Rocks are a mass of jumbled rocks, jutting up from the bottom where they regularly create havoc for anglers, especially those who fish too long a line or who aren't paying attention to what their line is doing.

The rocks attract a huge quantity of forage, which seek sanctuary among the many crevices created by these rocks. There's a huge population of bergalls, properly called cunner, that inhabit the rocky crevices, along with blackfish, porgies and black seabass. Bluefish often move into the area because they know an easy meal is usually readily available. It's risky for anglers to anchor, so most boatmen who fish this choice ground will just drift over it, using chum of ground bunker and chunks of butterfish bait to bring in the blues.

A fun technique is to just drift across the rocks, casting a leadhead jig tipped with pork rind. You'll score with both bass and blues using this technique. Often there's little surface activity, but as you drift along, you'll read both bait and fish in abundance. When the fish are on top, they're usually accompanied by gull activity, at which time tossing a popping plug provides exciting action.

Trolling can be especially effective with wire line. But you've got to be extremely careful, because if you stream too much line astern, you're going to get hung up on the rocky peaks that extend up from the bottom. I've found it especially effective to troll with 100 feet of 30-pound-test Monel or stainless steel wire, while using a parachute jig and pork rind that is constantly jigged as I troll along.

SANDY HOOK

The Sandy Hook peninsula extends northward toward lower New York Harbor and is a buffer separating Raritan and Sandy Hook bays from the ocean. This long spit of land is witness to a fall migration of stripers, blues and forage beyond comprehension. It

's accessible to the public as part of the Gateway National Recreation Area. Almost the entire beach has access for fishermen. These beaches are jammed with bathers throughout the summer months, but with the arrival of Labor Day, the surfcasters take over. Surf-fishermen will often enjoy superb action right through until the bitter cold results in cold hands, but even then the migrating stripers are still cooperative.

Immediately upon entering the park, you'll observe the Area B parking area. I make it a habit of stopping there, as it offers an excellent vantage northward along the beach. While it may sound like an exaggeration, there have often been occasions when I went no farther, as I'd see patches of bait schooled along the beach, birds picking and diving, and occasionally the water boiling white with feeding bass and blues.

Moving northward, just north of South Beach, Area E, is the Fishing Beach, with a long stretch northward; this stretch of beach is open and easily accessible for those who like to walk and cast. If you want to get away from the occasional crowds that develop during the height of the fall run and don't mind walking, proceed north to North Beach, Lot K, at the old Nine Gun Battery Field. It's a 20-minute walk to the area where the famous "Sandy Hook Rip" forms near the tip, but it often provides exciting action.

This is surfcasting at its finest, as you have five miles of gorgeous beaches, the majority of which are angler accessible during the fall. Toward this end, there are very few restricted areas, but I alert you to heed them, as some are tied to homeland security and U.S. Coast Guard concerns. If you want to fish at night, it is necessary to obtain an annual permit, which may be purchased at the ranger station.

Most of the beaches are what I'd term gently sloping, just mile after mile, with limited jetties or rock. As a result, as baitfish vacate Sandy Hook and Raritan bays, they'll round the point of the Hook and usually hug tight to the beach, seeking what little protection the thin water near the sand provides. Unlike areas where there are sandbars paralleling the beach and where stripers, blues and bait are outside the bars, at Sandy Hook you'll usually find most game fish and bait within easy casting range.

An exception to the gently sloping beaches occurs near the point of Sandy Hook, at a spot that's a 20-minute walk from the northernmost parking area, which is North Beach. Here the strong currents have cut away the sand severely, and the dropoff is nearly vertical just a few feet from the beach. Here, too, the bait is often tight to the beach, providing great angling.

I prefer a medium-weight graphite rod in the 7- to 8-foot range, as it's more than adequate for the majority of the fishing at hand, with the possible exception of fishing in a roaring northeaster. There's no fatigue factor with a rod and matching reel of this size, as I'll often just walk the beach for hours, often covering a mile or two in the process, just walking and casting, and often all by myself, far from the parking lots, experiencing everything from picking single fish to torrid blitz fishing.

Might I suggest carrying just a limited selection of lures that have proven successful for you, and concentrating your efforts on using them correctly. A surface plug, deep-diving plug, popper and rattle plugs, along with a selection of plastic swim shads from 3 to 7 inches in length, plus some Hopkins and Kastmasters are all you'll need. By all means, in all of the types of boat and beach fishing discussed in this article, use a Clouser or Chris' Fly By Night teaser ahead of your primary lure. It'll get you plenty of stripers and blues, and will also reward you with little tunny, fluke, croaker and a variety of other species that frequent the Sandy Hook surf.

MANASQUAN TO BARNEGAT INLETS

Immediately south of Manasquan Inlet and extending through Bay Head, the beaches have a deep dropoff, where seas build and tumble directly onto the sand. As a result, all baitfish exiting the inlet and heading south usually hug the beach very tightly, as there are no sandbars to act as a buffer.

As you enter Mantoloking and continue south to Barnegat Inlet, there are sandbars paralleling the coastline. Often the baitfish will travel just offshore of the bar formations, moving between the cuts or deep holes and bars to access the troughs inside the bars.

Quite often at low tide it's possible to wade out onto the bar formations and cast to breaking fish. But caution should prevail, as heavy surf can literally lift you off your feet and tumble you over. The ideal situation is fishing a flooding tide, with the baitfish moving into the troughs and the stripers and blues right behind. Often fish are breaking within a couple of rod lengths of where you're standing. Toward this end, when the fish move into the troughs, stay out of the water and up on the sand. All too often anglers make the mistake of wading into the water, which is where the fish are feeding in the 2- to 4-foot depths.

LONG BEACH ISLAND

From Barnegat to Beach Haven Inlet, there are miles of New Jersey's most beautiful beaches on a sliver of land called Long Beach Island. Many of the beaches are traversable by four-wheel-drive vehicles, and it's not uncommon to see convoys of SUVs riding the beach, stopping at a vantage and using binoculars to look for the signs of gulls working or the dark coloration that discloses a tightly packed school of forage.

The procession of stripers and blues migrating from New England waters join up with bass that are vacating summer quarters in the Shark and Manasquan rivers, Barnegat and Beach Haven inlets as they parade south. During the past couple of seasons, it has not been unusual to see mixed schools of blues and bass. So often the blues are the fish you see, gorging themselves on the surface, and literally turning the water red as they unmercifully chop baitfish in half. The remains of the carnage settle to the bottom, where stripers will leisurely feed on these discards.

The very same techniques discussed for the surf earlier apply to Long Beach Island. What I've found to be the case is that the regulars who fish these beautiful beaches use heavier tackle than their counterparts to the north. There are so many times that the schools of stripers and blues are well off the beach, as there are lots of sandbars, and very shallow surf and lots of foamy water, too. As a result, you'll see lots of 10-foot or longer rods put into play, with anglers spooling 20- or 30-pound-test braided line that enables them to toss a Hopkins, Kastmaster or bullet plug a country mile.

Many Long Beach islanders like to use a mullet on a float rig, or chunks of bunker or herring, suspended off the bottom with a float, and just patiently wait for a big striper to happen by. Each fall sees many big bass and blues landed on bait, including surf clams that are especially effective with rough surf conditions, particularly after a fall northeaster.

DELAWARE BAY

While to the north of Raritan Bay many stripers will head into the Hudson River to spend the winter, down on the broad expanse of Delaware Bay striped bass are congregating and feeding heavily prior to moving up into the Delaware River for the winter. Delaware Bay experiences

the last major surge of boat action for Garden State anglers, with the best of the fishing often being from November through December.

Among the most popular techniques is fishing the rips with live eels. On an ebbing tide, forage from the river is carried into the bays, and then runs the gamut from the typical forage species, including menhaden, mullet, herring and spearing, along with blue crabs and grass shrimp. Unlike Raritan Bay, where there are extensive shallows, in lower Delaware Bay, the water's deeper, and with the varying bottom configurations, there are rips galore where stripers and blues take up station to feed on the forage carried to them by the current.

My favorite rig for this fishing is little more than a three-way swivel, with a 36-inch-long piece of 30-pound-test fluorocarbon leader material snelled to a 7/0 claw- or beak-style hook or a 9/0 or 10/0 circle hook. To the remaining eye of the swivel, tie in a 12-inch-long piece of 20-pound-test monofilament, and then tie a surgeon's loop onto which you slip a bank-style sinker. Depending on the flow of the current, you'll usually get by with 1 to 3 ounces of sinker weight, although when the current's ripping, you may have to double that weight.

With live eels it's simply a matter of placing the hook through the eel's eye sockets or lips, and lowering it to the bottom, and drifting through the rips. If there's a hungry linesider waiting for dinner, it'll inhale the eel in an instant.

Ranging from Fortescue down through the Bay Shore Channel and then out into the open ocean, you'll find stripers on North, Middle and Round shoals, especially during the late fall migration. Here, too, as schools of forage migrate, you'll often be rewarded with exciting surface action. Keep an alert eye for working gulls and terns, and in late fall you'll often witness the exciting dive-bombing antics of gannets feeding, a sure sign that stripers and blues are below. Then it's time to break out the casting tackle, using poppers and swimming plugs if the fish are breaking on bait, or probe the depths with a leadhead jig and pork rind combo.

Trolling is an option, too, with many fine big bass landed on swimming plugs and bunker spoons sent into the depths with wire line.

There can, however, be dismal days or nights in the midst of the fall migrations of stripers and blues. Given the choice, I'll take the hour before first light until sunup as unquestionably the best time to catch fish. Most often you're the first on the scene, whether from shore or boat, and this in itself boosts your chances of catching fish, especially when coupled with the propensity of both species to feed heavily at this time.

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