Though summerlike conditions still prevail, change is in the air (and water) that signals some of the best saltwater angling of the year for big blues and striped bass.
By Gary Caputi
Early fall might be just an extension of summer as far as the weather is concerned, but to baitfish and predators, it signals the beginning of the fall run. It's all about that innate sense of timing that is hardwired into the fiber of all migratory species of fish that frequent the Jersey coastline.
Call it their biological clock or maybe it's their response to the shorter daylight period as cooler evenings hint of fall in the air. Whatever you want to call it, baitfish and predators alike get the message loud and clear. And they begin to respond to it come September.
For young striper bass and bluefish, the response is predictable. They will begin to move out of the estuaries they have used as feeding stations and sanctuaries from even larger predators during the summer months. They will start to gather along the beaches knowing a bounty will be assembling there that will provide them the opportunity to gorge to an extent that will see them all fat and sassy by mid-October.
Larger resident striped bass also sense the change. Throughout the summer months, they were feeding almost exclusively at night, resting in deeper water during the day while the sun was high and light penetration proved bothersome to their sensitive eyes.
With the first hint of a change in season, these linesiders will begin to feed more frequently in early morning and late afternoon. They will venture right along the beaches after dark giving surf-fishermen renewed opportunities to catch trophy fish. These cow stripers will be there to take advantage of the parade of forage fish that will be migrating south along the Jersey oceanfront over the next three months, a happening that has been repeated for millennia.
And the big, mature bluefish that had abandoned nearshore waters during summer for deepwater haunts well offshore will also start moving back to the beach to get in on the increasing feeding opportunities. September will see many a bluefish blitz, the earliest ones composed of smaller fish, but as water temperatures drop and larger baitfish become more prevalent, huskier members of the clan will be available to small-boat and beach anglers plying the surf zone.
If you can obtain big live bait, you just might catch a cow striper like this one, especially off places like the Shrewsbury Rocks or the Cape May Rips. Photo by Gary Caputi
FOLLOW THE BAIT
Of all the migratory bait species that will move out of our bays and tidal rivers or will migrate through Jersey waters from points originating farther north, the earliest to make the move are the mullet. These fish are found in Jersey waters in summer and consist of smaller members of the species commonly called finger mullet. Mullet are the first to feel the affects of autumn, thus beginning their southward migration early. They pour out of the inlets and mass along our beaches, hugging the surf line for most of their journey. They are found in greatest numbers in South Jersey, but schools are encountered along the state's northern beaches as well, splashing across the surface as bluefish and striped bass chase them.
Next out of the migration are young-of-the-year menhaden, or peanut bunker, as New Jersey anglers commonly know them. The last couple of years these little fish have been so abundant that the run started in mid to late September, lasting through late November.
In early October, silversides and bay anchovies will move out of their estuary homes onto the beachfronts and bass and bluefish will be seen chasing them out of the water all along the coast. This offers exciting fishing for light tackle and fly rod enthusiasts. These small "white baits" are easily imitated with flies, small plugs and jigs.
In October and well into November, large menhaden will be migrating along the coast. This is prime time to catch a trophy fish. Trolling with bunker spoons and wire or tossing big wooden swimming plugs or the latest generation of soft-plastic shad lures can put you in touch with the bass of a lifetime. Snagging a big baitfish and swimming it live is also a very product alternative.
EARLY FALL HOTSPOTS FOR SURF-FISHERMEN
Sandy Hook Gateway National Recreation Area
The North Beach of Sandy Hook Gateway National Recreation Area is one top hotspot. Few areas are harder to get to, but account for more big striped bass and bluefish in the early fall run than the tip of Sandy Hook called North Beach.
To get to North Beach requires a solid one-mile trek through soft sand, carrying all your gear from the northernmost parking area in this famous park. Many anglers will bring enough provisions to make a day and a night of it. North Beach is particularly productive at night early in the fall, but daytime feeding action will become more prevalent as the days get shorter and the water temps dip.
North Beach is a unique spot for a number of reasons, not least of which is its bottom topography, the main reason so many big fish are caught there. Running very close to the beach, within easy casting distance, is False Hook Channel, a deep-water cut scoured out by the billions of gallons of water. This current rushes past the point of the Hook with each incoming and outgoing tide. It is as deep as 50 feet in areas, but within reach of the beach, especially when you fish the west side of the spit casting into Sandy Hook Bay.
Beyond False Hook Channel lie a series of very shallow sandbars that frequently have baitfish tumbling across them in a hard-running tide, and beyond those is the main ship channel that runs to the Earle Naval Weapons Station and serves as the main entry point into Raritan Reach Channel, the route used by ship traffic heading to Port Newark.
Several very significant rivers that are filled with an incredible volume of baitfish flow out around the point of Sandy Hook including the Navesink, Shrewsbury and some of the flowage from the much larger Raritan River. That makes North Beach the ideal ambush point for striped bass and bluefish to catch an easy meal. It also makes North Beach the ideal ambush point for surf-fishermen to catch blues and stripers that are there on patrol.
Island Beach State Park
Island Beach State Park is a beautiful area composed of 11 miles of white sand beaches that stretch from the southern border of the town of Seaside Park to the north side of Barnegat Inlet. The ocean is on the east and Barnegat Bay lies on the west side of this thin peninsula.
Island Beach is the jewel of the st
ate's park system offering bathing beaches, wildlife areas, nature trails and fishing that are enjoyed by thousands of visitors each year. It is also one of the few areas where four-wheel-drive buggies are welcome on the beach, but only for fishing. If you want to fish the beach by truck, you will need a permit, which will set you back $195 for the entire year, or you can get a three-day permit for $50. They are available at the gatehouse at the entrance to the park, or you can call (732) 793-0506 to purchase one by phone.
What makes Island Beach such a great place to fish? Besides the great scenery and the vast, open beaches, this area is a stopover for baitfish as well as lots of blues and bass. This is due to the buildup of large sandbars that run parallel to the beach. These sandbars provide superb structure for holding forage and predators alike and the fish will move in and out with the rise and fall of the tides. When I hear the term "blitz," I immediately think of Island Beach State Park! Be prepared with swimming plugs, poppers and metals when the action is hot; bring along clams and bunker chunks to fish on fish-finder rigs with your rods in a sand spike when things are slow.
Ocean City's Secret
A little known hotspot for early-fall surf-fishing is the extensive stretch of beach found from Great Egg Harbor Inlet south to Corson Inlet, which is just south of Ocean City.
After Labor Day, when the throngs of summer vacationers go back to the places from whence they came, a curious thing happens. The mullet that spent the summer in the extensive system of bays and tidal creeks (that stretch from Atlantic City to Cape May) leave the backwaters and start migrating down the beach. This stretch of beaches sees mullet pass by in numbers unrivaled in the rest of the state. That means the beach fishing here is among the very best in the early fall and it continues through October.
Friends of mine, who work for an advertising agency in Ocean City, keep their surf-fishing gear at the ready. When word comes the fish are on the beach, the office empties out quickly as they pile into their waders and hit the sand. The poor receptionist is left to tell clients and callers that the staff is out doing "field research," and I guess she is right.
While you can't run beach buggies on the sand in Ocean City, there is easy access on the town roads and parking isn't a problem after the tourists leave. You can follow the birds working over feeding fish from the main road and pull down the side street right to the edge of the beach nearest the action. Just don't tell anyone there that I told you about Ocean City, because I don't want the locals to come knocking at my door with tar and feathers.
EARLY FALL HOTSPOTS FOR BOAT FISHERMEN
Among my favorite spots to run to with my center console during the early fall is an area of great near- shore structure located off the towns of Sea Bright and Monmouth Beach. From the boat looking toward shore, the most prominent feature is the Monmouth wall, a massive stone structure built along the beach that keeps the ocean from flooding the towns at high tide.
Just south of the end of the wall are two massive high-rise condos. From the beach out to 2 1/2 miles, you will find an area that is filled with hard bottom, high spots, dips and valleys that hold baitfish and game fish most of the season. It is also an area that loads up with the baitfish pouring out of New York Harbor, Sandy Hook and Raritan bays. Bass and bluefish hang out here throughout the fall because there's so much to eat!
Bring your full arsenal when you come to this area because you never know what might be happening. Trolling bunker spoons at daybreak, even in early fall, can produce big blues and bass. Birds will gather and disperse with regularity, as roving schools of game fish will be chasing hapless baitfish whenever the mood strikes them. Being on the spot with poppers, bucktails, diamond jigs or fly rods can put you into fast action and great fun. The neat part about this area is it will remain a place to fish right though the end of the year in late December.
Ortley Beach To
Long Beach Island
This area from just north of the resort town of Seaside Heights and running south the full length of Island Beach State Park is an 18-mile stretch of the coast that gets a lot of attention from boat fishermen from as far north as Shark River and to Barnegat inlets.
When you give the area a glace on a nautical chart, it's pretty unassuming, but a closer inspection of the bottom terrain located off the beach provides another story altogether. There are sand ridges and areas of mussel beds that attract and hold baitfish well off the beach and the same sandbars that make the Island Beach such a great place for surf-fishermen also keep boat-fishermen who work close to shore very much in the action.
Some of the specific spots found throughout the area include the Seaside Lumps, where bluefish are prevalent, and later in the fall, large striped bass. The nearshore area located off the Seaside amusement piers is full of ridges, lumps and bumps that make it a bait magnet. Trollers frequently score big on bass in the stretch from the "piers" south through the "top of the park." The area off the governor's mansion and the bathing pavilion in Island Beach State Park proper are consistent producers for boat-fishermen trolling and jigging as well.
The mussel beds are found well off the beach, two to three miles out in 60-plus feet of water. Frequently, larger bass will move to these areas during the day because they hold schools of baitfish.
The Cape May Rips
At the southern tip of New Jersey, scattered across the northern half of the wide mouth of Delaware Bay, is an area of shoals collectively known as the Cape May Rips. This extensive area is composed of numerous shallow-water areas with names like Prissy Wicks Shoal, Middle Shoal, Overfalls Shoal, McCrie Shoal, Somer Shoal and North Shoal.
And these areas are, without doubt, striped bass magnets starting early in the run and lasting all the way into winter. The Delaware is a significant spawning river for striped bass that has enjoyed strict protection the past 15 years with restrictive seasons, size limits and bag limits. As a result, the spawning population has grown to unprecedented size and these fish will start moving back into the waters of Delaware Bay earlier than other migratory groups for some unknown reason.
It could very well be the extensive size of the mouth of the bay itself and the vast schools of bait of every conceivable species that gather there, which act as a magnet bringing the bass back and holding them. Whatever the reason, boat-fishermen have been enjoying this fishing bonanza for the past five years and it just keeps getting better and better.
The Rips proper usually hold large schools of medium-size bass in the 10- to 20-pound class and earlier in the run a significant number of small to midsize bluefish will be there, too. Since the Rips are so extensive, it pays to keep your eyes on bird activity and your
depthfinder to see what area is experiencing the most activity on a given day.
The top-producing techniques here are fishing with live eels on simple bottom rigs and jigging with bucktails with chartreuse and white with a long flag of squid being particularly effective. This is light-tackle heaven, too, so bring along the 12-pound spinning and plugging gear and enjoy yourself.
A word of caution is in order, though. The Rips are shallow areas that can rise to within a few feet of the surface in places. When the tide is running hard in either direction, the waves on top can build to significant sizes and be dangerous if you underestimate them. They demand that you pay close attention to the sea conditions around you and that you play it safe at all times. More than a couple boats are capsized or filled with water here in the fall months, so watch the weather. Even on nice days, watch how the waves on the Rips are forming and remain vigilant.
Early fall fishing for bass and blues signals the start of the fall run. As the water gets cooler, the days get shorter and the schools of forage fish become larger and larger. This fishing will grow more frenetic and in many of these areas will continue right though to Christmas. Don't become burned out early because there's plenty more great fishing beyond September.
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