It was early December of last year when Ginger Tatem and I pulled out of Manasquan Inlet, New Jersey, and headed south toward Island Beach State Park. I knew striped bass had been feeding on the sand eels that moved inshore with the falling water temperatures, a promising setup for Ginger’s first-ever striper trip. We soon marked schools of the long, thin baitfish in 45 to 55 feet of water, with clusters of bass right behind them.
I handed her a light spinning outfit with a sand-eel imitation, a 2-ounce jig head with a 6-inch silver plastic tail, along with some basic instructions. When she saw a bass swirl on the surface, she fired a cast that landed in the middle of the disturbance. The line came tight, she set the hook like a veteran and it was fish on. The fish put up a great fight on the 12-pound line and in a short while I leaned over the gunwale to lip a healthy 18-pounder. Over the next few hours, Ginger caught several more stripers on plastics and three trolled stretch plugs after the surface bite died, and she was all smiles despite the cold, gray day.
Solve the Puzzle
What I like most about fall fishing is the diversity and the challenge. In autumn, stripers of all sizes run the beaches, feeding on a host of baitfish. You have to use your head and adapt accordingly, and many of the tactics lend themselves to the use of light tackle and artificials.
Hudson, Delaware and Chesapeake Bay stripers returning from summering grounds farther north ebb and flow along the mid-Atlantic from October through December. Mature menhaden push south along our shores in October, and later, sand eels and herring move inshore to become the prevalent baitfish. The tail end of the season is punctuated by roving bands of small- to medium-size resident bass feeding on baitfish along the beaches until the water temperatures dip into the low 40s. When that happens, it is over until next year. Late in the season, the challenge on any given day is to find the fish, figure out what they are feeding on and match your tactics accordingly. Putting it all together is like solving a fishy puzzle.
Up and Down
My lure bag includes a selection of sand-eel imitations and paddle tail type plastics in different sizes, weights and colors; a variety of pencil poppers, chuggers and wood swimmers is also included. In addition, I keep diamond jigs and jigging spoons on the boat along with Mann and Rapala deep-diving plugs for trolling. Ditto Tony Maja bunker spoons in several sizes; the small ones can be extremely productive when peanut bunker, spot or butterfish are around. The larger models imitate late-season sea herring.
Seek and Find
Finding bass can be as simple as going where they were yesterday, but remember that yesterday’s fish could be miles away. If bait schools are holding in the same area, chances are bass will not be far. With that as a starting point, it’s time to use your eyes above and below the surface.
Birds frequently point you in the right direction, especially when gannets bunch up, hitting the water where bass have pushed baitfish to the surface. Even a few gannets give away baitfish concentrations, but don’t spend the entire day aimlessly chasing birds when there are other ways to locate stripers.
You will consistently find the most bass with sonar, when you use it to locate and identify bait. Side-scan sonar covers even more water, locates your targets out away from the boat and does a better job of identifying them.
It also pays to keep a sharp eye on the water around you. As Ginger found out, even when you mark bass in mid-water or near the bottom, there might be some feeding at the surface, and they make great targets for plastics or pencil poppers.
Top to Bottom
On a typical late fall day, I go where the bass were the prior day. I get there early and start hunting with my depth finder and my eyes. Feeding activity can start early with bass working closer to the surface, making sight-casting viable.
Swimmers and sand-eel imitations produce, but I grab the pencil popper first. There’s something about it that shallow-feeding bass find irresistible, and watching a striper climb all over one is great fun. Sometimes it takes two or three shots to hook up, but that only fuels the anticipation.
If the bass are on bigger baitfish, opt for swimming plugs. When the bait is holding deep in the water column, try vertical jigging with diamond jigs with tube tails or Run-Off Lure’s lifelike sand-eel jigs. If the baitfish holding deep are larger, flat-bodied peanut bunker or herring, try a jigging spoon instead.
When the light tackle fails or I can’t find bait, it’s time to troll stretch plugs that run 20 to 25 feet down. These deep swimmers also work around the outside of bait concentrations after the bite on plugs, jigs or plastics comes to a stop. Last resort is to break out the wire line and spoons to coax a bite.
You cover more water by trolling, but I always watch the depth finder, and if I come across good marks, I might pull in the trolling gear and go back to the light tackle.
When the bass are blasting bait in the upper third of the water column, out comes the fly rod armed with a big white Deceiver or bunker pattern. Bass on a fly are great fun when the bite is on.
While November and December might be striper fishing’s last gasp for the year, it provides some of the best action and opportunity to hone your skills with something other than bait. So get on the fish before it’s time to button up the boat for winter. You might still be at it come Christmas if you can handle the weather, and last year, we were chasing stripers into early January.
SWS Planner: Late-Season Mid-Atlantic Stripers
What: Striped Bass
Where: New Jersey, Mid-Atlantic
When: November, December
Who: This is a relatively simple do-it-yourself fishery, as all striper fishing is from the shoreline out 3 miles. In this zone, striper fishing is open year-round; beyond 3 miles, fishing for stripers is prohibited. For some help learning the routine, book one of these guides:
Jersey Devil Charters
Capt. Brian Rice: 732-996-6372
Shore Catch Guide Service
Capts. Gene Quigley, Jim Freda, Dave Goldman and Tom O’Loughlin
Reel Fantasea Charters
Capt. Steve Purul: 609-290-1217
SWS Tackle Box: Late-Season Mid-Atlantic Stripers
When it comes to gear, your options are many, but you only need one or two types to get in on the action. You can carry a light -spinning outfit for bucktails and plastics, plus a heavier, longer spinner for throwing poppers and swimming plugs. A pair of medium-action conventional outfits loaded with braid make a great double-duty option, equally suited for vertical jigging or trolling deep-diving plugs. You could also bring along wire-line outfits and spoons for bass feeding on lingering menhaden and even a 10-weight fly rod with a 250-grain sinking line, just in case.
Rods: Light 12-pound class spinners for jigs and soft plastics; medium spinners for poppers and plugs; conventional rods for jigging and trolling plugs; 10-weight fly
Reels: Spinning, conventional and fly to match rods
Lines: mono or braid, 12- to 30-pound matched to outfits; 6-foot fluoro leaders; 10-weight 250-grain sinking fly line.
Lures: Sand-eel imitations in various sizes, weights and colors; pencil poppers and chuggers; wooden swimming plugs; diamond jigs; jigging spoons; flutter jigs; deep-diving plugs, such as Mann or Rapala or equivalent; Tony Maja bunker spoons in several sizes; Deceiver-style flies.