Fall Bluefish & Striper Run In New Jersey

Fall Bluefish & Striper Run In New Jersey

The season is gradually changing, and stripers and blues are gearing up for their gluttonous feeding tour along Jersey's long shore. Here's where you're likely to intercept them, right now and in the coming months. (September 2007)

Photo by Ron Sinfelt.

It was early morning as I walked onto the dock overlooking Barnegat Bay to check my crab traps. The traps were loaded with big blue claws destined for crab cakes that evening.

The lagoon was also loaded with bait. A couple of schools of tightly knit 4-inch-long mullet circled as they reached the lagoon's end. Within a few days, these fish would be leaving for the ocean.

That afternoon, as I walked to the beach, there wasn't a car in sight. The beaches were deserted as far north and south as I could see. Usually, adults sunbathing and children building sandcastles surrounded the lifeguard stands, heretofore with a pair of lifeguards.

Off to the side, the surfboarders were delighted with the seas created by an onshore wind. Today the lifeguard stands were upside down, placed high on the dune line, to repose there until spring. It was Labor Day plus one.

Stepping into the surf was a pleasure, with the foaming white water sliding up my bare legs. Indeed, the surf temperature had been a delightful 72 degrees -- and would remain the same until a major weather front caused a change. I cast the Tsunami swim shad and Chris's Fly by Night Teaser seaward, then began the cast-and-retrieve trek that would take me a mile to the north, followed by a return along the same route.

During this delightful ramble, I saw numerous schools of bay anchovies working tight to the beach, their schools lifting and fluttering as each wave crested and headed towards the shore. They were nervous, and rightly so, since hungry stripers and blues were working the same stretch of sand. The anchovies -- popularly called rainfish or glass minnows -- erupted into the air by the thousands, with husky bluefish vaulting into the air like missiles heading skyward.

Bluefish had already destroyed a pair of Tsunami swim shad I was casting. Their sharp teeth had severed the soft-plastic baits. This prompted my changing to a Gibbs Danny metal-lip surface swimming plug. And by the time I returned to my starting point, the plug was nearly bare wood, thanks to the blues' razor-sharp teeth.

The Fly By Night teaser was equally decimated. But your correspondent was literally weary from having the most enjoyable afternoon of the season, landing and releasing four jumbo blues and a schoolie striper. It was a delightful way to celebrate the passing of Labor Day, and the beginning of an exciting autumn along the Jersey Shore.

Fishermen await the magic of September with bated breath, for New Jersey's bays, rivers and tributaries are loaded with mullet, spearing, peanut bunker, herring, shad and anchovies. As the days grow shorter and temperatures begin to drop, these forage species begin to vacate their summer quarters -- where most were hatched -- and head seaward. Let me share with you where surf- and boat anglers alike will enjoy superb fishing during this magical fall run.

RARITAN & SANDY HOOK BAYS

The broad expanse of Raritan and Sandy Hook bays are a nursery ground for forage as well as a summertime residence for both striped bass and bluefish. After Labor Day, these game fish go into a feeding frenzy as autumn arrives.

And baitfish are constantly on the move in these waterways, presenting a challenge to boaters who search for them. And fishing the bay is a lure-caster's light-tackle delight. The numerous schools of forage are usually quite visible on the surface, especially when flocks of gulls and terns descend on them to feed.

Most often, I'll employ a one-hand spinning outfit or a popping outfit with a levelwind-casting reel. This lets me easily handle 1/2- to 1 1/2- ounce plugs, leadhead jigs and swim shads.

My favorite bay fishing might well be called "chasing the birds." I'll break out the binoculars and scan the waterway to look for concentrations of gulls and terns. These birds are the best indicator that blues and/or stripers are present.

To this end, it's important to approach surface-feeding activity at slow speed. Take into account what direction the forage and birds are moving in, and as well as wind direction. When you get within casting distance, shut down your engines so you can drift with the current.

When encountering this kind of situation, my first-choice lure is a popping plug or a metal-lipped surface swimmer. Cast it into a school of nervous baitfish and just dance the popper across the surface with gentle action imparted by working your rod tip, causing it to pop and gurgle in an enticing action. With surface swimming metal-lips employ a very slow retrieve, so slow that the plug is barely moving, but enticingly swimming from side to side. Both techniques will often bring exciting surface strikes.

While bluefish are most often the ones causing a surface commotion, stripers are almost always lurking below, feeding on the chunks of mullet, bunker or other forage that the ravenous blues have chopped into pieces. It's wise to put on a leadhead bucktail jig and strip of pork rind, cast beyond the schooling forage and permit the jig to settle to the bottom.

Retrieve the lure with a whip retrieve, causing the jig to dart ahead, then falter and settle, much like a wounded baitfish. This usually will bring strikes from the deep-feeding striped bass.

There's also good fishing from the fleets of party boats heading out from Atlantic Highlands, Perth Amboy, Morgan, Leonardo and Keyport, with sailings to accommodate your schedule, including half-day, three-quarter-day, full-day and evening trips.

When the fish are showing on top, these boats generally drift while the anglers jig. If stormy weather causes murky bay waters, these boats often move out into the ocean to the Mud Buoy, 17 Fathoms or the Shrewsbury Rocks.

Fortunately, restricting the menhaden reduction netters from ocean and bay waters for the past several years of has resulted in an upsurge of this important baitfish. Only bait boats are permitted to net menhaden close to shore. As a result of the vast supply of forage, both striped bass and bluefish linger longer in coastal waters.

You'll find a fine fleet of party boats that sail from Belmar out of Shark River Inlet to fish the Farms and grounds north of their inlet.

Another group of party and charter boats

sails from Brielle and Point Pleasant Beach to fish out of Manasquan Inlet, concentrating their efforts on the Klondike, Manasquan Ridge and along edges of the Mud Hole. The Barnegat Inlet fleet hits both North and South Barnegat Ridge.

Initially, most of the packets will try chumming. If the wind is moderate to light, they're able to drift, chumming with ground-up bunker as they go. If the wind's brisk, they'll anchor on some choice bottom and chum.

The key to chumming, especially on these ocean waters, is to use a rod rated for 20- or 30-pound-test, since you'll often be encountering big blues in the 10- to 15-pound class. Using light tackle, especially spinning tackle, will cause you -- and neighboring anglers -- a lot of grief.

Another key is to keep your 6/0 or 7/0 beak-style butterfish-baited hook constantly drifting with the current. In that way, it drifts out in the same depth of the water column as the chum.

Immediately after Labor Day, these boats will concentrate on bluefish in deeper water. But as forage species vacate the bays and rivers, these boats will work the schools tight to the beach.

Small-boat anglers have the best of both worlds when they sail from Barnegat Inlet, since they can ply the waters off Island Beach State Park to the north, or Long Beach Island to the south. Should inclement weather develop, they can scoot back into the inlet, where there are fine casting opportunities along the two long rock jetties flanking the inlet.

There are also many fish along the sedge islands that border Oyster Creek Channel, where drifting live eels, spot or chunks of menhaden or herring often produce.

SANDY HOOK TO SHARK RIVER

Beautiful beaches and myriad rock jetties provide surfcasters with great opportunities from Sandy Hook to Shark River. As baitfish vacate the bays and rivers, beginning with the mullet in September, the bass will follow.

At times, this becomes an around-the-clock fishery. But in looking back over a lifetime of fishing this area, I've settled on a pattern, preferring to get on the beach an hour before first light. Often I experience superb fishing between then and shortly after the sun comes up.

You've got to put in the time. Simply select an area of the coast, study the beaches and rockpiles, and concentrate in one area -- such as from the Hook to Monmouth Beach, or the jetty country from Long Branch to Shark River. I've known many anglers who waste more time during the fall racing up and down the coastal roads looking for fish, or listening to cell-phone chatter. That results in lots of driving and little else.

I've been particularly successful by fishing to a pattern: When I score with a nice catch of bass or blues, and there's been no drastic change in the weather, I try to be at the same location the next day -- usually an hour later because of the tide difference.

Success usually continues until an offshore wind switches to the northeast with 25-knot winds, which just messes up everything.

I especially enjoy fishing from the jetties at night, when I find fewer other anglers.

For this kind of fishing, an excellent lure is a wooden surface-swimming metal-lipped plug. I've found color doesn't matter much, but a slow retrieve is extremely important. It's tough to discipline a slow retrieve, since you want the plug just wobbling along on the surface.

Cast directly east over the tumbled rocks on the jetties. Probe each corner and the pockets where rocks meet the sand.

This doesn't mean that wooden metal-lips are the only way to go. While night-fishing, I've scored very well with rigged eels, soft-plastic swim shads and deep-running swimming plugs. I don't change lures a lot, often carrying just what I need in a fishing vest.

I see far too many anglers wasting their time changing lures constantly. Instead, develop confidence in some good lures for surf and jetties -- and stick with them.

SHARK RIVER TO BARNEGAT INLET

Baitfish leaving the Shark and Manasquan inlets and Barnegat Bay supply this section of surf along the central Jersey coast. There are times when pods of bait will be dimpling the surface as far north and south as you can see. Most often, I'll select just a two-mile stretch and concentrate my time and effort walking and casting into the troughs and inside the bars and the breaks between them.

BARNEGAT SOUTH TO CAPE MAY

There are miles of beach and more than a half dozen inlets, all of which are a surfcaster's paradise. Labor Day signals the beginning of the fall run, but the fact that these spots lie more than 100 miles south of Sandy Hook results in stripers and blues arriving somewhat later on their migrational trek south.

I've always been impressed by the myriad inlets, no two of which are alike. These are the passageways between bay and ocean, where forage fish hatched months earlier are now vacating their nursery grounds and about to enter the real world -- where they could quickly become meals for a striper or a blue.

Inlets are a unique challenge. Some may think me presumptuous for saying so, but I doubt if even one of 100 anglers has mastered the techniques of fishing inlets in a manner that consistently catches fish.

I began fishing inlets more than six decades ago, and the techniques that produced then continue to produce today. Back then, a heavy lure -- most often, a 1- to 3-ounce bucktail jig and piece of pork rind -- that got to the bottom and stayed there on an ebbing tide was the lure that produced. And today, so do its modern fancy-painted counterparts.

It's simple: Look at a tide chart, plan your excursion on an ebbing tide, and be prepared to spend five or six hours of casting up into the current. Let your bucktail jig bounce the bottom and be swept seaward, finally sweeping off the bottom and getting retrieved.

Then move a few steps, repeat the same procedure and extend your casts, so that the bucktail jig bounces through every square yard of bottom. Somewhere down there will be a hungry striper, blue or weakfish, stemming the tide and waiting for crabs, grass shrimp, sand fleas, mullet, spearing, shad, herring, bunker and a host of other forage.

It's really that easy. But you've got to forget the Mickey Mouse-sized lures, the fancy small plugs, metal squids and soft baits that can't reach the bottom of an inlet 20 feet deep. In these southern inlets, you'll catch fish you never thought were there. But it takes perseverance during the day, and especially on a brisk autumn night.

With a moon bright enough to read a newspaper, a swiftly ebbing tide, noisy spearing packed tense against the rocks, and hungry stripers tight to the bottom, waiting for dinner to be swept their way, is a combination guaranteed to provide excitin

g action, now that Labor Day has passed.

DELAWARE BAY AND SOUTHERN INLETS

When thousands of stripers -- some of which spent the summer fully 100 miles from the sea -- begin to leave the Delaware River along with large schools of forage heading seaward, suddenly lots of stripers join the already numerous bluefish in the Delaware Bay. An ebbing tide is nature's chum line emptying from the upper reaches of the river.

What's unique about Delaware Bay is that many stripers will spend the winter in its waters. So from Labor Day until it just gets too cold to fish, bay stripers are present and feeding.

Drifting live eels, spot or chunk bait through the rips and eddies that form above the varied bottom configuration of the bay is a fun way to score with stripers and blues.

Just a glance at a navigation chart will show the many varied shoals that flank either side of Bay Shore and Cape May Channels. There's North Shoal, Middle Shoal and Round Shoal, where the depths are only a minimal 5 to 15 feet deep -- prime locations where baitfish and game fish congregate.

I've enjoyed fishing the rips with a casting rod, using a leadhead bucktail jig and pork rind, or a soft-plastic 5- to 8-inch-long swim shad. Just permit your lure to settle to the bottom, and then use a whip retrieve. That often results in exciting strikes from stripers waiting for a meal to be swept their way.

Ah, fall is in the air -- and stripers and bluefish are in the sea, just waiting for you to fool them with a well-placed lure or bait. This may just be the best time of year to be a saltwater fisherman!

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