"Take your time! I don't need anyone slipping into the water this morning,"I warned my clients. Our anticipation was high, the adrenaline was flowing, and neither the 28-degree temperature nor the ice on the deck could chill our enthusiasm. Our timing was perfect as we zeroed in on the large concentrations of striped bass during their final run along the central Jersey Shore.
In December the migration of stripers to their wintering grounds off the Carolinas reaches its peak in my New Jersey backyard. Fish arrive from as far away as New England, fish finders light up like Christmas trees, and massive all-day blitzes produce 100-fish days, with striped bass ranging from 24 inches to upwards of 30 pounds.
This grand finale of mega-fish days can be either a beach or boat event. If sand eels take up residence in the surf zone, surf-casters will have a blast. Last year we had a tremendous run of sand eels along the beach that lasted for much of November and into the early part of December. By boat, sand eels are easily visible on the fish finder, where they appear as tightly packed balls of bait on the screen. Most of the time they will be in the bottom third of the water column.
As for sea herring, these baits usually start to appear around the December new and full moons, especially when those fall at a time of the month that coincides with optimum water temperatures. Access to the run of big stripers is dependent on the route the herring take as they migrate. If they come in close, within three miles of the shoreline, it can be a December to remember.
The herring run is spectacular, as bass will push the baits to the surface and plow through them. It is an awesome sight to see 20- to 30-pound fish boil on the surface and take large swimming plugs and flies.
When the sea herring and big bass show up, tackle shops and Internet message boards are inundated with the news, and I can usually find fish on any given day. Coming out of Will's Hole Marina, in Point Pleasant Beach, I can run up to Sandy Hook or south to Island Beach State Park as required. In the surf, however, anglers hope these big fish move in close to the beach, but herring have a tendency to stay off the beach and generally don't move through the surf zone like the sand eels do.
Artificials to Use (See Gallery)
There are a multitude of lures that imitate sand eels. Surf-casters will want to focus on maximum distance with each cast. This means spooling up with braided line rather than monofilament. Many times, reaching the outer bar from the beach means the difference between hooking up and not.
To imitate sand eels, surf-casters should carry an assortment of artificials, do-nothing lures that are retrieved slowly, with a twitch every four or five turns of the reel handle. Metals and tin squids are the choices when distance is needed or a stiff wind is coming in. All can be fished with a teaser, such as a fly, Felmlee Eel, or Red Gill or Vision sand eel, tied on a dropper loop 18 to 24 inches above the artificial. Many times this will result in doubleheaders of striped bass on a cast. Soft-plastics and jerkbaits in conjunction with 1- to 3-ounce jig heads can't miss.