December 3, 2023

Hardcore Game Fishing

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10 Stops Along the Fall Run

Fall run in full swing: A school of stripers feasts on small baitfish off the south side of Montauk. Photo by Mike Demarco

It’s easy to romanticize the fall striper run. Changing leaves, crisp weather, empty seashore towns, and the striper season saving its best fishing for last. No matter where you fish in the Northeast, you’re undoubtedly close to one of the places where the great migration of baitfish and bass brushes by on their express lane south. I spoke with anglers from 10 of these locations between Maine and New Jersey to see just how the fall run evolves and changes as it moves down the coast, and to help plan some fall migrating of my own.

Katie Curran caught this striper in the Maine surf on October 20, 2020. Photo by Jeff Skillin

Peak Migration: September 26 to October 10
Key Baitfish: Mackerel

While stripers most definitely venture further north, it’s southern Maine that marks the starting line for the bass’ southbound marathon. It’s around the time that Maine surfcaster Katie Curran realizes she needs to put on a jacket in the late afternoons when she starts seeing baitfish stacking up around the shorelines and rivers from Yarmouth to York. The actual timing varies from year to year, but the end of August and beginning of September is a safe bet for the fall run starting gun.

It builds to a crescendo by early October, with some of the best fishing and biggest fish coming early in the tenth month. But Maine’s fall run seems especially susceptible to weather, Curran says. A big storm in September could send the stripers packing even if the bait sticks around. Perhaps with so far to go on their swim south, the stripers use the rough weather as the cue to get moving.

The main baitfish of Maine’s run varies from season to season, but more often than not, Curran believes mackerel are the driving force behind the best bass fishing. The macks move tight to shore to feed on small baitfish dropping out of the rivers and harbors, and the bass are hot on their tails.

Further south, large surface blitzes are synonymous with fall run fishing, but Curran notes that the Maine’s action is more subdued. While the bass clearly increase their feeding activity, most of that feeding happens below the surface as the bass seemingly move south in smaller groups. Topwater lures are still one of the most effective presentations, says Curran, as they cover water quickly to find active fish. After dark, minnow plugs and large soft plastics are top choices.

Curran kicks off her fall run fishing around Portland, but as the fishing dries up there, she follows the fish south to the New Hampshire border into mid-October. After that, larger bass become much fewer, though a few straggling schoolies keep the season alive almost until November.

Boston bass
Boston bass start leaving in late August, but big fish will continue to move through into October, attracted by dense schools of young-of-year baitfish.

Pit Stop 2: BOSTON
Peak Migration: September 5 to 20
Key Baitfish: Young-of-Year River Herring and Peanut Bunker

With the waters around Boston being the summer playground for big schools of large stripers the last few years, the beginning of the fall run feels a bit like an exodus. The fish begin trickling out in late August, according to kayak fisherman, Eric Harrison, and by mid-September, that trickle becomes a flood.

The main thing that changes as the fish get into their migration mode, Harrison says, is their willingness to eat. In summer, finding the fish can be relatively easy, especially with electronics like side-scanning sonar, but the key is being there when those fish decide to feed. Come fall, finding the fish is more difficult, but when you find them, they are almost always willing to bite.

While summer fishing around Boston is generally a quality-over-quantity endeavor, Harrison believes that switches after mid-September, when larger numbers of slot-size and smaller fish become the norm. He adjusts his tactics accordingly, switching to smaller soft-plastic stickbaits, though there are always some big fish hanging around in the fall.

Young-of-year baitfish, often river herring, make up the kindling for Boston Harbor’s fiery fall-run fishing. Harrison looks for areas where these baitfish stack up, such as along current edges and in eddies, and keeps a regular check on them, knowing that at some point during the fall, a school of migratory stripers will find them and feast. These bites can last from a few days to a couple weeks, depending on the weather. A big fall storm, Harrison says, seems to disrupt the feeding pattern that the bass have locked into, which causes them to move on.

In the outer harbor up to Gloucester, the menu is more varied, with peanut bunker, sea herring, spearing, and mackerel all ending up in the crosshairs of migrating stripers.

Though the biggest fish are mainly gone by early October, Harrison bucks the trend of fishermen quitting before the fish and keeps kayak fishing right through the new year. While many fish hold over around Boston, Harrison sees migratory fish moving through into November.

storm at the canal
Tropical storm systems can fire up the fishing in the Canal in September.

Peak Migration: September 12 to 26
Key Baitfish: TBD

With the Canal being known in recent years for its raucous daytime blitzes, often in the middle of hot summer days, many fishermen expect the fall run to crank those feeding frenzies up another notch, but that’s not usually the case. While fall brings some surface activity to the Canal, most of the bass heading west through the Big Ditch make their moves after dark.

Anglers begin noticing the bass exiting through the Canal as early as mid-August some years. Schools of stripers begin staging in Cape Cod Bay in early to mid-August, riding the strong tides brought on by the full and new moon phases.

These early runners are usually a trickle compared to what’s to come in September. Depending on the timing of the moon, the “Big Push” as local anglers call it, could happen anytime between the first and last week of September. It’s usually a “blink and you’ll miss it” ordeal, with the fish lingering around the Canal anywhere from a few days to less than 24 hours. But for the anglers who are there, the fishing can be intense, with fish from 15 to 40 pounds biting throughout an entire tide cycle.

While it’s usually strong tides that get the fish moving, a tropical storm system can also provide the spark that ignites the Canal’s explosive fall fishing. In 2017, the remnants of Hurricane Jose passing offshore of Cape Cod drove thousands of mackerel, and thousands of stripers, into the Canal for a 48-hour feeding frenzy that seemed to run around the clock.

Mackerel are often the bait that stripers are after in the Canal, but come September, there is a long list of baitfish that fuel the fall run. Year to year, peanut bunker are the most reliable bait from September into October, with adult bunker appearing sporadically from Labor Day to Halloween. Butterfish, squid, halfbeaks, and whiting all make appearances in the Canal in the fall. By late October, anglers holding out for one last push of fish hang their hopes on sea herring. The presence of these silvery baitfish could extend good Canal fishing to Veterans Day.

canal schoolie
While most large bass leave the Canal before Columbus Day, big numbers of schoolie stripers make for fun fishing into November.

For the most part, however, the Canal quiets after Columbus Day. Fishermen working the “breaking tides” around the full and new moon will see the stream of large stripers moving through the ditch slow down to a trickle, and by Halloween week, most have scaled down their tackle to enjoy the wave of pot-bellied schoolies that reliably move through the Ditch at the end of the season.

While fishing at sunrise with a mix of topwaters, swimming plugs, and soft-plastic swimbaits is a reliable way to catch fall stripers in the Canal, working the nighttime tides with jigs and live eels can be a far more rewarding tactic. Get your offering down to the bottom, which is where most of the bass will be, as they ride the west tide from Cape Cod Bay to Buzzards Bay on their way out of Massachusetts.

Narragansett Bay topwater stripers
Schoolie stripers will tear up the surface as they feed on the small peanut bunker and bay anchovies dropping out of Narragansett Bay in the early fall. Photo by Joe Manasala

Peak Migration: September 19 to October 3
Key Baitfish: Peanut Bunker

The fall run around Newport starts shifting into gear around the third or fourth week of August, according to Joey Manansala of Woozy Fishing. Once the peanut bunker start to drop out of Narragansett Bay, the resident bass take notice and blitzing fish become a regular occurrence.

Manansala says the best of the striper run around Newport coincides with the albie run. In 2020, he caught his first albie on September 4 and his last on October 15. Bass hang around later than albies, with fish lingering into November many years, but the action becomes less reliable in the second half of October.

Beginning in August and lasting into September, Manasala sees what local anglers call “bass rafts.” These are tight schools of stripers, swimming with their mouths open as they siphon tiny rainbait off the surface. Such breathtaking blitzes can be extremely frustrating to fish because the stripers often refuse anything thrown in their path, even tiny flies, says Manansala.

When the stripers are focused on peanut bunker, however, they are much easier to fool with lures.

Up until the bass start blitzing, Manasala notes that any of the structures around Newport have resident fish that can be reliably caught on fly or light tackle. However, as the baitfish start moving out of the bay, migratory fish arrive, and the fall feeding frenzy begins, those resident fish disappear from their structures, seemingly hanging around the baitfish schools.

Surfcasters in the area also enjoy fun daytime fishing with blitzing bass on peanut bunker, but fishing after dark with needlefish, darters, and live bait can yield some large bass that are closer to the shoreline, eating the mullet and peanut bunker that swim close to Newport’s rocky coastline.

Eastern CT striped bass
Casting live eels tight to shoreline structure is a deadly tactic for hooking big fall bass in Eastern Long Island Sound.

Peak Migration: September 26 to October 10
Key Baitfish: Peanut Bunker

It’s not long after Labor Day that Captain Joe Diorio sees schoolies start to group and move west from Rhode Island into Connecticut waters. Diorio, who spends the summer looking for giant stripers around Block Island, stays closer to home come fall, not wanting to miss big stripers and albies as they enter the sound.

According to Diorio, any time from the first week of September to the third week of October has the potential for unforgettable fishing for big stripers, but early October is reliably prime time. At that point, he notes that the Connecticut River is brimming with peanut bunker. Bass moving south and west from Rhode Island and Massachusetts hit the pause on their migration to mow down the schools of young-of-year baitfish. There are three main presentations Diorio relies on in the fall: eels, bunker, and the Doc.

Unlike Block Island in the summer, where Diorio drifts eels on three-way rigs over deeper structure, off Eastern Connecticut in the fall, he casts eels tight to shore—so close, he says, that surf fishermen would be surprised by how many fish they are wading past.

When he’s not guiding clients, Diorio often fishes from the shore himself. There, he likes a glidebait such as the one made by Fatty Lures, bottle plugs and darters, and long, soft-plastic stickbaits like the Gravity Tackle GT Eel.

The more stable the weather, the longer good fishing lasts, Diorio says. A hard, extended north wind in mid-October could send the big bass packing early, but steady conditions and an influx of sea herring could keep the bite alive well into November.

Montauk wetsuit fisherman
While mullet kick off the fall run fishing on eastern Long Island, it’s the small bay anchovy that attracts the biggest striper blitzes. Photo by Tom Lynch

Peak Migration: October 3 to 17
Key Baitfish: Mullet, Bay Anchovies

The arrival of mullet kicks off the fall run at the East End of Long Island, says Captain Craig Cantelmo of Van Staal Reels. The first cold fronts in late August or early September get the mullet moving, and the resident stripers school up to follow the moveable feast.

Few baitfish are as surf-fishermen-friendly as mullet. They school close to the surface and tight to shore, which means the stripers feeding on them are looking up, ready to pounce on swimming plugs and topwater lures, usually well within surfcasting range.

The prime mullet zone goes from Horton’s Point on the North Fork and wraps around past Montauk Point. The fishing lasts through the end of September, provided a nor’easter doesn’t send the bait packing early.

With mullet gone, bay anchovies take over as the baitfish du jour. These small, nearly translucent fish spark some of the most visually impressive blitzes of the season. Stripers, usually schoolie-sized, form tight schools, some large enough to cover the infield at Yankee stadium, and mow down the anchovies. The bass can also be terribly picky at this time.

Anchovy-fed stripers are a bit more accommodating after dark, Cantelmo says, when a darter swung through the sweeping currents at Montauk usually gets a bite.

By late October, massive numbers of big bunker begin spilling out of Peconic Bay, and when large, migrating stripers find them, the fishing can be outstanding. But the action is hit or miss, notes Cantelmo, who said some years find him watching huge numbers of menhaden stream by without any stripers on them.

The harbinger of the end of the fall run on eastern Long Island is the herring. While they once played a larger role in spurring on late-season action for large fish, Cantelmo believes that diehards working the waters of Montauk through Thanksgiving can still be rewarded for their efforts.

Cantelmo uses the arrival of seals and gannets to clue him in that herring are moving through. Trips are often limited by how long anglers can withstand the cold, but the sight of a pot-bellied bass at the end of your line will warm even the coldest night.

sand eel
When sand eels dig into the sandbars on the South Shore of Long Island, green-tube-tailed diamond jigs are a deadly lure from surf and boat. Photo by Tom Lynch

Peak Migration: October 24 to November 7
Key Baitfish: Sand Eels

Along the sand beaches from Montauk to Long Beach, fishermen hang their hopes on the sand eel each fall. Without too many storms to churn up the nearshore waters, sand eels will dig in, providing reliable action for both boat and shore fishermen along the South Shore of Long Island.

Unlike the mullet run, during which bass are watching the surface for their food, when the sand eels are in town, the bass are looking down, notes Cantelmo. From the beach, an Ava jig with a green tube tail dragged through the sand is a tough-to-beat presentation that fools several impressive stripers each fall.

From the boats, fishermen use the same lure, yo-yoing it along the bottom, making sure to hit it and send up a puff of sand, just like an escaping baitfish.

Some years, sand eels keep stripers along the Long Island South Shore into December, but most years, the action begins petering out by Thanksgiving.

Island Beach State Park
The days surrounding Thanksgiving are some of the busiest of the season at Island Beach State Park, as they often coincide with the peak of the fall run. Photo by Tom Lynch

Peak Migration: October 24 to November 14
Key Baitfish: Adult Bunker, Sand Eels

Around Raritan Bay and Monmouth County, New Jersey, Captain Rob Radlof of Waterman Charters says good fall fishing starts even before the migratory stripers arrive. A strong resident population of bass gets active in September when the mullet start running, with fish feeding on these baitfish in the Raritan Bay, along the ocean, and in the East River. This creates fun fishing with topwaters before the schools from up north arrive sometime before the end of October.

A decade ago, Radlof says, the fall run consisted primarily of smaller fish, but over the past five years, schools of adult menhaden lingering around New Jersey have created incredible fishing for large fish. In 2020, Radlof had two 50-plus-pounders come aboard his boat in the fall. It was reminiscent of big fish on bunker blitzes that used to happen in the springtime. Live bunker, big metal-lip swimmers, and topwater lures are all excellent choices during this part of the season.

Sand eels present another fishing opportunity because migrating stripers seek out structures with big schools of these slender baitfish. Metal jigs and soft-plastic paddletails are the most popular presentations for catching sand-eel-eating bass from the boats.

Radlof is optimistic about the coming fall run based on all the baitfish he’s seen this summer. Midshore humps were loaded with sand eels (and small tuna) all summer, which bodes well for a strong nearshore run come fall. Adult bunker also remained in the area, and large schools stacked up just north off Long Island into August. He’s hoping for the type of fall that brings good striper fishing at first light, followed by a short run a few miles offshore to look for tuna.

For some stripers, in particular the Hudson spawning stock, this marks the end of the road on their fall migration, Radlof comments, with some fish moving into the river, where he thinks they over-winter in deeper holes. This means anglers can find stripers right up to the close of the backwater striper season on December 31.

Peak Migration: November 21 to December 5
Key Baitfish: Sand Eels

It’s all about sand eels when the stripers approach the halfway point of their trip through the Garden State, says Ray Kerico of Grumpy’s Tackle in Seaside Park. That stretch of the Jersey coast has abundant sandy structure thanks to the unreplenished shoreline of Island Beach State Park. The sand eels, arriving from offshore, dig into the sand bars and shoals beginning in October. As Thanksgiving approaches, big schools of southbound bass hit the brakes to feast on the abundant, slender baitfish.

At that time, Kerico notes that you don’t want to be without a Tsunami Sand Eel, which is the best seller in his shop in the fall. Other favorites include the Bill Hurley Sand Eel, Super Striper Super “N” Fish, and the Ava jig with a tube tail. For needlefish and diamond jigs, Kerico recommends coupling them with a teaser to increase the odds of fooling sand-eel-obsessed stripers.

The bass will stay on the sand eels into December, but in years when sea herring swing close to the coast, good fishing extends well into the twelfth month. Topwater lures and metal lip-swimmers join the list of productive presentations.

Kerico says that fishermen usually wave the white flag before the fish, but some diehards, including the venerable Shell E. Caris, stalk the sand around Seaside Park into January, often notching their first stripers of the season within a few days of the new year.

Southern New Jersey bridge angler
The bridges and inlets of Southern New Jersey fill up with bait in the late fall, and stripers, both resident and migratory, fish will move in to feed.

Peak Migration: November 21 to Dec 5
Key Baitfish: Sand Eels, Peanut Bunker

Storms, or rather a lack thereof, are essential to a strong fall run in southern New Jersey, says surfcasting guide Steve George. Without any storms to disrupt the peanut bunker migration, fish hug the beaches of southern Ocean and Atlantic counties, bringing bass and blues tight to shore. Steve notes that the fishing can be fantastic in those years, with bass blitzing on the 4- to 6-inch baitfish and taking a variety of metal-lipped plugs and topwaters. But a big storm in late September or early October, when the peanut bunker are pouring out of the bays, will suck the baitfish offshore, and leave south Jersey surfcasters waiting until almost Thanksgiving for the fall run to begin.

In the latter half of November, sand eels migrate west from the offshore lumps to the beaches, creating a re-fueling stop for southbound stripers moving through at that time. George says that many of the larger fish have moved through by then, many beyond the three-mile limit, but that the late-season fish have been growing in size in recent seasons. These fish, likely members of the large 2015 year-class, are averaging 25 to 28 inches as of 2021. That creates a much more exciting fall fishery than in previous seasons, when the majority of fall fish in Southern New Jersey were 16 to 22 inches.

There have been a few outliers mixed in with the 2015 fish. In 2020, a fair number of 40-inch-plus fish swung tight to shore to eat sand eels. George knows several anglers who had scaled down their tackle for smaller fish and hooked into larger stripers they couldn’t turn on the lighter gear.

Sand eels were reported in many of the inlets south of LBI in 2020, which gave both boat and shore anglers chances at catching stripers all the way to Christmas.

There’s one truth about the fall run that holds true no matter where you fish along the migration—the fishermen usually give up before the fish. A lack of fishing reports later in the season is almost always the result of fewer fishermen, not fewer fish. The fall run, and the striper season, only ends when you stop fishing.

The post 10 Stops Along the Fall Run appeared first on On The Water.

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