Northerly autumn winds kept the south shore surf calm and deceitfully inviting that Saturday morning. It was in mid-November, but even under sunny blue skies, the morning chill made it feel like late December. With a frigid 8 to 10-knot wind at my back, it felt like my diamond jig could carry as far as the growing fleet, which was stationed about 300 yards from shore; but, inevitably, I kept coming up short. As the sun broke the horizon, foamy, white surface explosions appeared in the distance. Striped bass were feeding so violently, I could see bunker leaping from the water in droves with both feet planted in the sand. A surfcaster to my right pulled in a hickory shad on an Ava-style diamond jig with a green tube while the rest of us stood there, silently casting and willing the bass to push in shallow. It never happened. But for boat fishermen on the south shore, this was peak Long Island striper fishing.
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I spot-hopped across 20 miles of beach that day to no avail. In several cases I found the bait, but there were no bass on them. With the amount of bunker sitting in 30 feet of water just out of reach of surfcasters, it was easy to understand why there were no bass tight to the beach. I folded my waders into the truck bed and headed into downtown Long Beach for a consolation beer with some friends, where I’d begin to make a plan for Sunday. That’s when I received a text from Capt. Brandon Weitz at Causeway Bait and Tackle, inviting me to join him and his buddy, Tom, on the Lady Ashley II the next day. My Sunday surf plans quickly folded.
Weitz runs the Lady Ashley II—a 2012 Pursuit OS385 powered by triple Yamaha F350s—that has been in his family for years. But in the pristine condition it’s been kept, you’d think it’s a 2023 model (although Pursuit no longer makes these). He and I had briefly chatted at the shop on Saturday morning before I skunked all day long, so I accepted his generous offer and met him and Tom at the dock around 6:00 a.m. on Sunday.
The sunrise bite was slow, but unbeknownst to us, the action was going to take a total 180. We made a left out of Jones Inlet, heading east toward the area I had seen the fleet the day prior. We quickly discovered that a majority of the fish had moved overnight, and the ones that did stick around wanted nothing but live bunker. After sticking a couple on live bait, we headed back west to explore the opposite side of the inlet. In a matter of minutes, we were on top of a belt of bunker that spanned for at least 2 miles parallel to the shore.
Brandon and Tom were hopeful that we could get away with artificials, so I tied on a 75-pound Tactical Anglers Power Clip and clipped to it a 1-ounce, 5-inch No Live Bait Needed paddletail. Not even a bump. There appeared to be so much bait, and so much fishing pressure from the growing fleet, I felt we’d never dupe a bass into eating a lure here. Then Weitz pulled out three flutter spoons. I had read about flutter spoons and their efficiency around bunker schools, but the technique was entirely new to me.
Flutter spoons started as a largemouth bass fishing lure for bass that are keyed in on schools of alewives in deep, freshwater lakes. As it turns out, they make a fantastic striped bass lure as well. We opted for 8- and 9-inch Ben Parker Magnum Striper Spoons from Nichols Lures, the original developer of flutter spoons. Today, there are tons of options on the market—from local tackle manufacturers like Fat Cow flutter spoons, or big names like Tsunami Pro flutter spoons.
Each of our spoons weighed between 3.5 to 4.5 ounces. They generate an enticing flutter as they slide down through the water column like a mortally wounded bunker. Stripers take a liking to the spoon’s tantalizing flutter and spin, which is amplified by a heavy-duty barrel swivel that acts as the line tie.
With acres of bait and slightly roiled, choppy water, loud colors were needed for our spoons to get noticed in nearly 40 feet of water. I tied on a white one, while Brandon and Tom used chartreuse and natural chrome. Whether the stripers swiped at our spoons out of irritation, or because we closely matched the deep-bodied profile of their forage, it didn’t matter. From the first drop, it was on.
Flutter spoons cracked the code, and we weren’t the only ones to figure it out. Boats to our left and right, in front of and behind us, all started hooking up on flutter spoons. If one boat didn’t have any, they’d find a buddy in the fleet and borrow from them. The camaraderie between fishermen exchanging information and lures was a spectacle, and it was especially refreshing to see among such a crowded fleet, where cusses and middle fingers can be customary. That’s the beauty of everybody catching fish.
My 9-inch, matte-white flutter spoon disappeared into the depths as the line slightly scoped out in the current. When I felt it hit the sandy bottom, I locked down on the drag and took direction from Tom. “Instead of long, slow sweeps, try a sharp upward flick of the rod, keep a taut line, and let the spoon glide back down. They tend to hit it on the drop,” he said. I did just as Tom said, and after the second flick, a 33-inch striper whacked my spoon.
The fishing took off from there, and we had stripers on nearly every drop with the exception of the occasional spiny dogfish. Schools of bunker appeared to be growing more dense, or at least more tightly packed. Humpback whales cruised lazily around us, inhaling mouthfuls of menhaden within a surf-rods reach of the boat at times, which sent the escapees spraying into the Lady Ashley‘s hull.
The bunker were in so thick, our flutter spoons were even snagging them, rendering our lures useless. It was, as they say, “lights out” fishing.
After several double- and triple-ups between us, we grew spoiled and decided to search for a topwater bite—or at least a little breathing room from the fleet. The three of us were more than content with the hours of flutter spoon action we just had with bass up to 40 inches, but unanimously decided that there would be no better way to end the day than with some topwater. We chugged west through the fleet from Lido Beach toward Atlantic Beach, and after only 2 miles or so, Weitz nearly ran over a school of frantic bunker that were racing around on the surface. Hot on their tails were 30- to 40-inch-class stripers, tearing through the bunker from all different angles. And perhaps the most beautiful sight all day, there were only 2 other boats around to enjoy the carnage with us.
I picked up my go-to inshore a setup—a 7-foot Fenwick HMG Inshore with a Shimano Stradic 3000. It’s spooled with 20-pound-test of PowerPro Super 8 Slick braided line, to which I attached a 3-foot leader of 50-pound-test Seaguar Inshore fluorocarbon in case any bluefish were in the mix. I looked over at Brandon and Tom, who each had large, white spooks clipped on, ready to launch at a foaming feed. The school was moving fast. Weitz nosed the Lady Ashley II into position as I clipped on a 7-inch Lil’ Doc. On his go-ahead, Tom and I launched our walk-the-dog style plugs, and before I had a chance to walk the lure, it was inhaled by a frenzied striper. It was as if the lure had landed in this bass’ open mouth. Thankfully, I crushed all the barbs on the belly treble hook, and I had swapped the rear treble for a 5/0 VMC inline single hook. The bass was de-hooked and back in the water in a matter of 10 seconds.
On the next cast, my Lil’ Doc popped straight out of the water upon impact like it had landed on a springboard. Bass were wailing on it all the way back to the boat, until one 40 incher finally found the hook. It turned on a dime and took a run toward the bottom, followed by 6 of it’s buddies that had been swiping at my plug. At this point, Brandon and Tom were both hooked up for yet another triple up, and our first triple on topwater.
For the next hour we chased that body of fish, along with two young guys braving the cold, choppy conditions on a 19-foot Carolina Skiff out of Deb’s Inlet. Eventually, our arms grew sore, and our fingers numb and raw with bass thumb. We had received our fill of fish and adrenaline for the day, so Weitz aimed the bow toward Jones Inlet.
There’s no feeling quite like the ride to the dock after a banner day of striper fishing. Any feelings of worry or anxiety toward the stressors of daily life are washed away. Striped bass fishing is therapeutic in that way, especially during the fall run. More than any other fish I enjoy catching, stripers have a unique ability to uplift my spirits and boost the morale of those who shared the bite. From mid-October on, Long Island striper fishing was at its peak on the west end. And while the south shore surf left much to be desired that particular weekend, I’m thankful to have experienced the 2023 fall run from a different perspective, and to have a new technique up my sleeve for the spring run in 2024.
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