The fall run of striped bass out of the Northeast and south along the mid-Atlantic coast presents a wealth of opportunities that can change at a moment’s notice. One day you might be casting to schoolies feeding on mullet along the beach, and the next day, live-lining for trophy-size fish under a pod of menhaden a couple of miles out. The variety of bait migrating between October and January requires your constant attention and quick response to changing conditions. The key to catching bass this time of year depends on capitalizing on opportunities and having the right tackle aboard every time you leave the dock.
Flexibility Is Key
One example that comes to mind occurred in early November a few years back. Californian Bill Goodman, marketing manager of Sevenstrand Tackle, and I left the marina and headed for the inlet, but we got waylaid by a commuter train at the Manasquan River bridge. While waiting, I spied a school of peanut bunker pushed up onto a flat alongside a nearby sedge bank, so I handed Goodman a light spinning outfit armed with a 4-inch paddle-tail shad, and he connected with a 15-pound striper on the first cast. We were having so much fun with the bass that we almost missed the bridge opening. It’s hard to leave fish to go find fish, but I knew there were more and bigger bass along the beach.
About 10 miles south of the inlet, we were treated to the sight of gannets whirling and diving on massive schools of bait driven to the surface by bass and bluefish. Switching over to plugging outfits with baitcasting reels, 30-pound braid and flat-sided jigs, we started yo-yoing under the bait pods. We spent the next few hours getting sore arms fighting bass to 25 pounds and bluefish to more than 15 in some of the most frenetic hours of fishing that year. When the melee broke up, the bait scattered, and I added 10-foot leaders of 50-pound fluorocarbon to the same plugging rods, clipped on a couple of deep-diving swimming plugs and went on the troll, catching and releasing a few more quality bass before calling it a day. The key to the success that day, like on so many others during the fall run, was being prepared for the opportunities that came our way.
Fall bass fishing in the mid-Atlantic kicks off in late September or early October with the start of the mullet run. These summertime visitors form dense schools and migrate south along the beach, giving both surf fishermen and boat anglers plenty of shots at plugging stripers.
Following the mullet run, cooling waters start to push young-of-the-year menhaden and other small baitfish like silversides and bay anchovies out of the estuaries they inhabit during the summer. Mature menhaden push south along our shores in October and November, signaling it’s time for chunking, live-lining and trolling bunker spoons. When bass force them to the surf, you can score on big pencil poppers and wood swimmers too. Later still, sand eels and herring become the prevalent baitfish, and late-season jigging and trolling can account for plenty of action. Last year’s warm fall and winter temperatures kept this fishing going well into January.
The arrival and departure times of specific baitfish are not set in stone and usually overlap, and that’s why it is important to be able to adjust to the conditions you encounter. I have a specific selection of gear that goes on the boat every time I plan to chase bass during the fall run. Some of the outfits are suited to several techniques, while others are more specialized.
For bait-gathering, I keep two cast nets handy, one 6-foot fine-mesh for small baits and a 10-foot heavyweight for bunker. And there are always bunker snag hooks aboard for times when “snag and drop” is the only way to trigger a strike from overfed bass holding near menhaden schools, a situation that occurs more often than you might think.