Whether you call them the dog days or the summer doldrums, they generally signal a drop-off in the action on many fishing fronts, including striped bass fishing along the East Coast. The exciting spring migrations of April, May and early June are past and the autumn blitzes waiting in the wings are just a distant promise. Fishing in summer is different from fishing spring or fall. The same fish that made us look like heroes a few months back can make the best of us eat humble pie in summer.
It isn’t just the hot weather that makes action seem slow; there are bona fide reasons for this annual phenomenon, and understanding them can lead to productive outings even during the hottest months. To catch bass at this time of year, rethink the requirements of your sport — where, when and how. You must consider things like fish and bait movements, the striper’s physiology and the effects of water temperature, light and even boat traffic.
Where to Go
The main stock of the East Coast stripers comes from the Chesapeake Bay. They winter close to the mouth of the bay and spawn in the bay in early spring before beginning their migration north. By late June, they are dispersed in their summer feeding grounds. The schools of sand eels, spearing, mullet and other baits which the bass pursued northward are now less concentrated, so your chances of encountering large concentrations of fish are smaller. Still, most of the larger fish will be feeding in the northern parts of their range, until the fall migration begins. If possible, target the waters around Cape Cod and Cape Ann of Massachusetts, the islands of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, and the Rhode Island coast.
If you can’t follow the fish, don’t be discouraged. Remember that many locations within the striper’s range have some year-round resident fish. Smaller populations winter over in estuaries all along the East Coast, not just the Chesapeake and the Hudson watersheds, and many of these don’t migrate far when summer comes. In addition, a certain percentage of stripers will break away from the main migration and become seasonal residents near coastal communities along the mid-Atlantic and New England coasts.
For example, in addition to some permanent residents, New Jersey has a small percentage of summer residents that detach from the northward movement and provide sporadic warm-weather sport. Though most of these are juvenile fish and the numbers not the greatest, they can provide satisfactory sport through the summer. And there are always a few larger specimens that stay behind. I recall one mid-July night, a number of years ago, when a well-known New Jersey “jetty jockey” took seven fish totaling 140 pounds from the south jetty of Barnegat Inlet.
The waters around New York, along the south shore of Long Island and in the Sound have mixed stocks of Chesapeake fish and Hudson River fish, which don’t migrate so far. This means that, generally speaking, from the Gotham area northward, summer bass fishing potential steadily improves. The waters around Montauk, Plum Island, Fishers Island, Gull Island and other locales east from Long Island may not offer the consistent action they do at other times, but possibilities certainly exist. In the brackish estuaries and freshwater southern rivers, fish generally drop back into the sounds after spring spawning. This holds true largely for the Carolinas, Virginia and Maryland coasts.
Where to Fish
Bass will abandon back-bay waters that stay warm and more likely inhabit areas closer to inlets. There may easily be 10- or 15-degree cooler temperatures in the waters that push in from the ocean, compared to those in the bays, so focus around inlets. Bass move readily to warmer or cooler spots so they don’t have to make adjustments in temperature. Also, look to structure, bridge abutments, rocky cliffs, jetties and the like during hot weather. Bass rely on ambush more now than during fall baitfish migrations, when sheer numbers of prey allow them to make attacks in more open water.
Bottom structure, like reefs and shoals, provide similar feeding situations. Some of my favorite spots include the rocky coast around Cape Ann, Chatham Inlet on Cape Cod, Napatree Point at Watch Hill, Rhode Island, inlets like Shinnecock and Moriches on Long Island, the jetties along the northern New Jersey beachfront and the bridge and pier structures in the Chesapeake. Ocean beachfronts usually provide slow fishing at this time of year, particularly during the day.
How to Fish
Bass usually don’t feed as aggressively during the warm months, but feed they do, albeit at different times and to different rhythms. In daylight, the name of the game (usually) is deep. This means sinking lines or heads fished over deep structure – rocks, reefs or shoals. Clouser Deep Minnows and Lefty’s Deceivers are hard to beat.
In the dark, floating or intermediate lines are your best bet. Wade fishing for stripers at night during this time of year is one of the few times I prefer a floating line. Even slow-sinking lines, like intermediates, will allow your flies to hang up when retrieved slowly, and I strongly advise you to reduce your retrieve to a maddeningly slow pace, even to an inch per second. Fish feed slowly now, so give them a chance at your fly. Sometimes the take is gentle, just a feeling of weight or a tic, but more often, my experience has been that strikes come very hard. Bass will often track a fly slowly, swim up and mouth it with a violent grab.
Two things will enhance your offerings presented in this manner. First, a two-hand, hand-over-hand retrieve allows your fly to swim steadily, without the intermittent stop-and-go action of a one-hand strip. Second, use bulky flies like the Popovics Siliclone, easily my first choice for slow nighttime probing. Flies like this wake just at the surface and push water, which seems to cause pressure waves or vibrations which attract bass. Some of the most popular lures used by generations of spin and plug casters work just this way. In any case, in the situations I’ve been describing, I’ve had more success with medium-size flies, perhaps 5 or 6 inches, rather than 2- to 4-inch imitations, or large versions, say upwards of 8 inches.
The key phrases to remember for summer fishing, then: Fish off-hours, particularly after dark, fish near structure, use bulky flies, and fish s-l-o-w-l-y. Spring and, even more so, fall are the hottest times, and we look forward to them, but applying a little observation and common sense can result in rewarding summer sport, too.
When to Fish
Just being in a favorable spot won’t ensure success, however; there is more to this game than just picking a locale. The when factor of the equation is equally or even more important. Bass feed differently now, in different ways, and at different times. Water temperatures are higher everywhere and once into the 70s, the fish get sluggish and larger fish especially can’t dissipate heat or make rapid body changes too readily. In addition to temperature, extended daylight will keep bass deep longer. They generally prefer to feed in low-light situations, more so at this time of year, when there are so many hours of daylight. They feed more slowly now, too.
All of that means that night fishing becomes the method of choice during summer. Second choices would be the “change of light bites” of dusk into dark, and immediate predawn. Heavily overcast or foggy days can also be productive. Once when fishing with Capt. Steve Bellefleur, Tom Gilmore and I had two days of exceptional summer bass fishing in dense fog over the Watch Hill reefs. You might be better off spending the brightest, warmest days on the beach with your family, earning points to go fishing after dark. The darkest time of the month is usually best too, around the time of the new moon.
This is also vacation time, meaning more daytime boat traffic in general, but obviously heavier on weekends than on weekdays. Bass avoid heavy-traffic areas more now than when they’re feeding more aggressively during the fall run. I said earlier that inlets represent ideal locations because of the water movement, cooler temperatures and structure. Ironically, they get disturbed most by daytime boat traffic, so I fish them exclusively at night, whether from the rocks or from a boat.
I have experienced some of my best nighttime summer fishing on the stillest, calmest nights, when waters just lapped the shores and waves gently rolled against the rocks. Actually, the best single night of summer bass fishing I ever had occurred during a freakish, all-night summer electrical storm. The water came alive with feeding bass around the jetties. Regardless, it was an uncommon experience and it was lunacy to be there. I don’t recommend it and would never do it again. Graphite rods make excellent lightning rods.
Arrange your fishing to coincide with coming tides. Stripers aren’t freely feeding on large schools of baits now. Their hunting is, for want of a better word, more calculated. Water that is rising after dark will flood oyster bars, rocks and weeds. The rich life they house, crustaceans and such, will get active, drawing baitfish and in turn bass, particularly large fish.
Summer fishing can be erratic, so if possible, once you have determined to fish a likely spot, hit it several days or nights in succession. I suppose it has something to do with their feeding rhythms or lunar cycles, but I’ve hit the same jetties or inlets over a two-week stretch and had some nights draw blanks, and nights in between produce wonderful action. Regular patterns are harder to establish in summer.