Some of the hottest fishing of the season begins after Labor Day -- and may continue through Thanksgiving or later. Here are likely places to try this fall!
By J.B. Kasper
The Labor Day holiday, for most folks, signals the end of the summer season. For dedicated saltwater fishermen, however, it's the start of the best angling of the season as the annual fall migration of striped bass and bluefish begins along the Jersey coast. Gone are the summer crowds of tourists, which are replaced by serious fishermen and feeding bass and blues chasing schools of bunker, rainfish, mullet and other baitfish.
This is the time that real fishermen take their vacations, the time of the year when the heart starts thumping and the blood starts pumping, when bent rods are the rule, not the exception. So here's a look at what you can expect from the fall run.
WATER TEMPERATURES One of the key triggers for the fall migration is the water temperature in both the bays and ocean. The sooner the water temperatures in the bays and coastal rivers begin to drop, the sooner the fish begin their migrations. Once the baitfish begin moving out of the bays and coastal rivers, the bass and blues will not be far behind. Mullet are the first baitfish to move out, followed by rainfish and bunker.
On the flip side of the coin, ocean temperatures will determine how fast stripers and blues will move down the coast. On years when warm water temperatures stay that way into December, the fishing will be good, unless other external factors such as storms and winds affect the fishing.
WEATHER PATTERNS One of the biggest factors in fall fishing for bass and blues is the weather patterns that befall us each year. Wind, in particular, has a direct effect on how good or how poor the fall fishing will be. In most cases, the wind direction will determine how close schools of baitfish come to the beaches or how far they will move away from shore. This, in turn, will determine how good the beach fishing will be or how far off the beaches boat fishermen will find the fish. Likewise, the number of storms that pop up during the fall has a direct effect on how good the fishing will be.
Surf-fishermen often experience the best surf action of the season for big blues and stripers. Best of all, the water is still warm! Photo by Tom Evans
NORTH COAST Some of the best early-season fishing takes place in Raritan Bay and surrounding waters. The Hudson River is one of the biggest bass-producing waters found along the East Coast. The Hudson is one of the first places to heat up in the spring and one of the first places to produce good numbers of bass and blues feeding on the baitfish in the fall. Not only does Raritan Bay and the surrounding waters have its own native bass population, this area also gets a healthy number of migrating bass that come down the Atlantic Coast via Long Island Sound.
Captain Pete Wagner, who skippers the charter boat Hyper Striper out of the Highlands, a popular Raritan Bay port, told me the last few years have provided large numbers of bluefish in the bay most of the summer and early fall. Likewise, a decent weakfish population also provides some good fishing well into early October. The big schools of bluefish raise the devil with fishermen who are targeting striped bass; however, the bluefish will move out of the area earlier than the bass that will often stay well into December.
One of the reasons the bass fishing holds up well into the late fall is that the bass in Raritan Bay are more or less taken in stages. The first bass to move in at the beginning of fall are the resident fish that stay in the bay; by the middle of fall, bass coming out of the Hudson River system make their presence felt. Finally, the bass moving down the coast come into play.
The joker in this deck of fish is the migrating bass that are moving down the coast. Some years produce large numbers of striped bass, while other years don't see as many stripers from this last group. The number of the migrating fish we see in this area is determined by the previously mentioned weather and sea conditions.
The bulk of the fishing in the Raritan Bay area is done by trolling spoons, tubes and shad tails, or by fishing live and cut bunker. Some of the better fishing for these lures and baits takes place on Flynn's Knoll, the Sandy Hook Channel and in the Rips off Sandy Hook. In particular, the Rips off Sandy Hook serve up some excellent catches of bass on live eel baits.
INSHORE WATERS The next part of the fall bass and bluefish fishing takes place within a couple miles of the beach. This is perhaps the most steady fall bass and bluefishing that is found along the Jersey shore. A good number of the bigger bluefish (some in the 14- to 18-pound class) will hold a few miles off the beaches in the northern and central portion of the state during the summer months. Once water temperatures start to cool in the fall, the baitfish start to move down the coast and head for the beaches. That's when the fall frenzy begins.
Since stripers will follow the baitfish, while bluefish home in on the same migrating forage species, it's inevitable that these two game fish will join forces to fatten up for the winter ahead.
One look at a map and it's easy to see why the inshore waters along the northern part of the state, from Sandy Hook through Barnegat Inlet, are so consistently productive year after year. Migrating bass from northern waters and the Hudson River merge with bluefish from Raritan Bay at such well-known summer bluefish grounds like the Mud Hole, the Farms and 17 Fathoms. Even during years when winds and weather conditions keep bass and blues from moving close to the shoreline, this merging of fish from one to five miles off the beaches keeps boat fishermen in the fish right into December.
Trolling takes it share of stripers and bluefish, especially at the Shrewsbury Rocks and other areas from 100 yards to a mile or more off the beach. There are, however, some definite preferences when it comes to the baits that bait fishermen use. Fishing live bunker and mullet when these fish are moving down the coast catches a lot of fish; however, when it comes to the bass fishing in recent years, clams have become the premier bait. In particular, clam boats that dredge up surf clams for bait heavily work the portion of the inshore waters that lie between Manasquan and Barnegat inlets. This creates a chum slick that the bass home in on, and as a result, boat fishermen have found that drifting whole clams can be very effective. Because the clam boats work this area, very often in the fall the slick that is turned up by the dredging can drift for several miles and is at the mercy of the currents and winds.
CENTRAL STATE BEACHES Some of the most productive beaches during the fall season are those that are found along the coastlines of Island Beach and Long Beach Island. The sands of these two areas are some of the most heavily fished beaches along the Jersey coast for a couple of reasons. Access, in particular, is at the top of the list of assets. Island Beach is a state-run park that allows limited beach buggy access year 'round, and between Oct. 1 and the end of the year, four-wheel-drive vehicles are allowed from the first beach buggy road down to Barnegat Inlet, some 12 miles of sand. Long Beach Island, likewise, has plenty of beach buggy access.
One of the things that the two stretches of beach have in common is that they have numerous and long sandbars. These bars create troughs between the bars and the beach. These troughs act like funnels for migrating baitfish. It's not uncommon to see large schools of mullet, rainfish and bunker packed into these areas, and when the winds are right, the bass and blues can really pin these baitfish to the beach. This is often the setting for the knockdown, drag-out blitzes that surf-fishermen crave in the fall. Fishing from the beaches, as any serious surf-fisherman will tell you, is a hit-or-miss proposition. With the right wind conditions, the odds of seeing one of these all-out blitzes are pretty good. In the central part of the state, the beaches at Island Beach and Long Beach Island in particular, are prime for this type action, especially in the fall when good-sized schools of baitfish are being pushed up on the beaches. Long Beach Island is the home of one of the longest running surf-fishing tournaments held along the East Coast, which takes place for some six weeks with many prizes for anglers catching both striped bass and bluefish.
Catching bass and blues on lures, especially surface baits, is the ultimate goal of most surf-fishing buffs; however, bait-fishermen enjoy some of the most consistent fishing. Live-lining is a favorite tool. Snagging bunker and mullet from the schools of baitfish that move in close to the beaches and live-lining them is one way to hook up. Clam-dunking anglers enjoy the most consistent fishing. As mentioned previously, clam boats working off the beaches put a lot of clams in the water in this area. Easterly winds will often blow the clams toward the beaches where they get caught in the undertow between the beaches and sandbars.
LOWER STATE BEACHES Some good fall fishing is also found on beaches along the southern end of the state, in particular the beaches from Atlantic City to Cape May. The coastline in this southern portion of the state is made up of barrier islands, which are studded with inlets and jetties. One of the many things that this section of coast has in its favor is the good number of inlets that connect the backwater bays and rivers with the Atlantic Ocean.
These backwater areas are full of baitfish such as mullet, bunker and rainfish, which come pouring out of bays via the inlets. This huge amount of forage means bluefish and stripers will never be too far off. This leads to some heavy-duty feeding that provides anglers with excellent fishing.
Jetty fishermen will find some fine fishing off the rockpiles in Atlantic City. The world-record striper was taken from the Vermont Avenue jetty in Atlantic City back in 1982. Al McReynolds caught the 78-pound, 8-ounce cow during the throes of a hard nor'easter. Don't forget the legendary Long Port Jetty and the jetties along the Cape May oceanfront and at Cape May Point. The rockpiles off the beaches just inside Delaware Bay are also a good bet for anglers right now.
In addition to the jetties in the area, Townsends, Corson, Absecon, Great Harbor, Hereford and Cape May inlets all are well known among the surf-fishing clan as top spots to fish in the fall. Fine angling can be found, not only in the waters at the mouths of the inlets, but the beaches up from and down from the inlets, as well as the waters just inside the inlets.
As with other inlets along the coast, bass and blues often move in and out when the baitfish are moving through. This makes them easy targets for surf-casters using plugs, metals and other lures. The fact that the inlets jut into the ocean, along with the sheer number of inlets on this portion of the Jersey coast, help to change the contour of the beaches in this area. Beaches in the southern reaches of the state are more irregular; and it's this irregular nature of the barrier islands in this area that make them so productive in the late season.
CAPE MAY RIPS There is one last spot that should not be overlooked, one that often holds good fishing much longer into the season than the areas we mentioned in the northern portion of the state. This section is known as the Cape May Rips. Traditionally, some of the best bass fishing in New Jersey is found in the lower Delaware Bay during November, December and on some years right into the first couple of weeks of January.
The Cape May Rips are the turbulent waters and bars that are located at the mouth of Delaware Bay where the currents of the bay come in contact with the currents of the Atlantic Ocean. If you look at a map of the area, it becomes obvious that the bars and shoals are actually an extension of the Cape May Peninsula. The heart of the rips are bordered on the north by Prissy Wicks Shoal, to the east by Somer Shoal, to the south by Overfalls Shoal and to the west by Middle Shoal. Depths range from 5 to 30 feet and the makeup of the bars, shoals and currents can change with the tides, moon phases and wind directions. A bar, shoal or dropoff can be productive one day and slow the next.
Besides the obvious one of seeing birds working over a school of baitfish, one of the best methods of finding fish in the Rips is through trolling. This year trolling has paid off in good numbers of bass, with umbrella rigs tipped with pearl white or chartreuse crankbaits being the main tool used by boat fishermen.
The Rips go through stages during the fall with the baitfish holding there, which the bass feed on, changing as the season progresses. As a result, the bait used to take bass in the Rips will also change. During the early fall when schools of mullet are moving down the coast, live-lining mullet is the method of choice. The early fall usually sees plenty of big bluefish in the rips along with the bass, and they often give bass fishermen fits as they chop up the bait.
Later in the fall when schools of bunker begin moving though the Rips, much of the fishing shifts to live-lining bunker and drifting cut bunker and bunker heads. Bunker coming out of Delaware Bay and down the Jersey coast often make up a large portion of the forage in this area.
Even though forage fish are present in the Rips and lower bay throughout the year, the late and early portion of the season will usually find eels, clams and bloodworms being used for bait. Live and rigged eels and bloodworms are the time-tested baits commonly used in the Rips; however, in the last several years, drifting whole clams has caught on as a popular way of taking bass, especially in the late season.
There you have it - a look at the fall bass and bluefish action along the Jersey Coast and some o
f the sport that will put you into the action, whether you fish from a boat or the surf. The one thing about the fall fishing is that it is at the mercy of the elements and the current weather patterns that prevail each year. The good thing about the Jersey Coast is that there are so many different options when it comes to the fall fishing that no matter what the conditions are, you can usually get in on some type of bass and blue fishing well into the month of December on most years.
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