Growing up on the central North Shore of Long Island made it easy to fall in love with the sport of fishing. I live a stone’s throw from local beaches on Smithtown and Huntington bays, which gave me access to some very productive waters where I’ve been able to learn and grow as a fisherman. I remember going down to the local beach as a young kid with my dad in the middle of the night. I was lugging around a 7-foot Ugly Stik with an old Penn 706 spinning reel, which felt like a huge surf pole at the time. I tossed primarily bucktails and swim shads, and whenever something decided to take a whack, I held on for the ride. The North Shore offers excellent fall fishing for a multitude of species, but for dedicated striped bass anglers, many sleepless nights are spent here on the hunt for a fall-run cow.
To me, the night shift is almost therapeutic. There are moments where it can be peaceful on a still, calm evening, but when there are bass in the area and your sight is compromised, all other senses are heightened. Surfcasting at night gives me a rush like no other. Today, my proximity to the North Shore makes it an easy choice for nighttime outings, but what truly brings me back is the lack of crowds, variety of structure, limited access, and big-fish potential.
Break from the Crowd
Each year, the start of the fall run brings out the crowds before cold weather and slowing reports cause angler participation to dwindle. The migration begins with mild evening temperatures and a large southbound push of migratory schoolies and bluefish. On the South Shore, spacious beaches and long jetties from Montauk to Breezy Point see a higher volume of anglers trying to get in on the action. As a result, the famous adage, “Nighttime is the right time” holds true for many surfcasters this time of year. Even so, the south-facing beaches and jetties can be bustling at night when conditions are favorable. Avoid these crowds to increase your likelihood of catching and to eliminate the likelihood of tangles or snags on account of reduced visibility.
To boost my chances at catching more, or bigger, fish, I intentionally choose the road less traveled. The beaches on Long Island Sound are perfectly situated to receive the first wave of migrators; the problem is that many towns allow resident access only, which leaves certain areas inaccessible to outsiders. This poses a slight inconvenience to those who wish to find fishable water without trespassing or receiving a parking ticket.
If you are a resident on the North Shore, inquire at your town hall and take full advantage of local waters because you may be sitting on a honey hole right in your own backyard. It’s a great feeling when you put in the work and learn how to fish a spot nearby that consistently produces, even if it’s not the biggest fish. However, for those who are not local to the North Shore, there are plenty of state parks and county beaches that offer night fishing and parking permits.
Because much of the North Shore is residential, locating and exploring new waters can be difficult; with limited accessibility, a little extra research and determination to find spots that aren’t designated as parks will go a long way. Parking troubles aside, some of these locations are physically difficult to reach, which helps to further minimize the crowds and can leave you with a hot bite all to yourself. Spend some free time searching the shorelines using apps like Navionics and Google Earth, then drive around to scout potential spots. It’s a process of trial and error, but there are plenty of access points dotting the Sound side of the island.
As you plot potential access points, keep in mind the geographic features that attract striped bass. Rocks and boulders are plentiful along the North Shore and make a perfect habitat for baitfish to seek shelter. In the nighttime hours, bass carefully stalk these boulder fields in order to pick off a meal. They use the rocks as ambush points, patiently waiting for bait to get swept by with the current. Along the North Shore, there are many coves that create pockets where baitfish schools get trapped. The bait usually move in with the tide, and the bass stage in the deeper water. In these instances, the beach acts as a barrier to trap the bait and the bass can begin a full-blown feeding frenzy. When you see bait pushed up on the shore, don’t overlook the area—take a few casts.
There are also plenty of channels and river mouths on the North Shore that create pinch points, where fast-moving water turns into “fish highways.” The currents in these areas can be strong, but they make deeper water easily accessible. Much like the coves, bait are brought into the rivers and back bays with the incoming tide, and back out into the larger bays and Long Island Sound with the outgoing tide. Locate these schools of bait by scouting your spots before you take a cast, and you’ll find that striped bass are usually not far behind. Stripers like to hang around the ledges and drop-offs of these channels, so your strikes will usually occur as your lure is drifting up the ledges.
North Shore Beach Structure
With the exception of Montauk and the area’s bay side, the South Shore’s outer beaches are predominantly composed of sand and fine-grain sediment. There are also large inlets and long jetties, which provide access to deeper water within casting range. There’s often great fishing in these areas, but the impermanence of sandy structure may alter an otherwise consistent bite; a shift in wind direction or a strong tide can displace sand and sediment, which also displaces baitfish and the bass that prey on them.
The beaches along Long Island Sound, however, are mainly rocky and shallow. Unlike the sandy structure covering most of the Atlantic side, the rocks and boulders of the Sound are relatively permanent and provide consistent, dependable spots year after year. I’ve fished around many of the North Shore’s back bays, and in some cases, I can walk out a few hundred yards and still be only knee deep. I’ve come to learn that exploring these spots at low tide helped me fish them more effectively.
The back bays tend to be less rocky, and boat channels are complemented by shoaled-out sandbars. Some nights, the fish are up on the sandy flats, while other nights they are hunkered down in deeper water nearby. Out front though, large boulders and a rocky bottom provide reliable, solid structure when the bass in the bays won’t cooperate. By gaining an understanding of the submerged topography, I can draw conclusions as to where the fish are likely to be. Through my low-tide exploration, I’ve found drop-off points, shell beds, vegetation, rock beds, and other structure that would otherwise remain unexplored; these are some of the areas that hold fish throughout the fall migration.
Picture a crisp, fall night, with only the moonlight to illuminate the piles of bait that swim at your feet. There are brief blowups within casting distance, and the almost-glassy Long Island Sound is booming with life just beneath the surface. The surf here is very tame compared to the ocean-facing beaches to the south. These mild surf conditions make wading more manageable, so it’s easier to find a large rock or boulder to cast from, especially at low tide.
Occasionally, I find myself far from the shore, wading up to my waist when looking for a productive spot. A fierce north wind will turn a calm North Shore evening choppy, which can be a bit of an inconvenience at night. I’ve tried my luck fishing a north wind, and occasionally I connected on bucktails, but the majority of my luck on strong north wind nights comes from the back bays.
Most of the time, I fish a shallow bay that is fed by two main channels and opens right into the Sound, with Connecticut still visible in the distance. I enjoy fishing in these channels because they provide deep water in primarily shallow territory. The ledges and drop-offs have fish, and with fast-moving current, these areas become ambush points for stripers of all sizes. Like the South Shore, the inlets are like highways for bait and are not to be overlooked when searching for a bite. With the right tide, all the bait gets corralled in the back bay, and the stripers move in for the nighttime feed.
Tackle and Tactics
For a long time, my go-to setup on the North Shore has been an 8-foot rod paired with a Van Staal VS150, which I spooled with 20-pound-test braided line and a 20-pound fluorocarbon leader. During the early fall, when I’m finding tons of schoolies around my usual haunts, this is a perfect combination.
While the color of your lure can play a role in the success rate of catching, on the North Shore, I think size and profile matter a bit more. If the profile of the lure matches the bait in the area, your success rate will be much higher. I throw smaller lures to start. I like to fish a ½- to 1-ounce bucktail tipped with a trailer because they mimic such a wide variety of bait in the area. When I don’t have a bucktail tied on, I use a ½-ounce to 1-ounce jighead with a 3- to 5-inch soft plastic, or a small swimming plug like an SP minnow or Mag Darter. The schoolies stack in spots where the current is strong, which makes for a fun fight with this light tackle; however, when a larger fish takes the bait, it’s even more exhilarating. There’s an element of mystery when I’m unable to see in front of me but my drag is screaming, and like most surfcasters, that gets my blood pumping.
As I prepare my tackle bag for the night shift, I make sure to cover all my bases, color-wise, with blurple, chartreuse, yellow, bone, and white. Some surfcasters like to fish with dark colors during low-light conditions like the new moon or on nights with heavy cloud cover. Under a full moon or clear skies, lighter colors such as chartreuse or white are more favorable. I like to follow that strategy as a general rule of thumb, but I’ve noticed that water turbidity can sometimes have a greater impact on color choice. I primarily fish bucktails, soft-plastic paddletails, and minnow plugs. These lures mimic the wide variety of bait seen here and I’ve had some enormously successful nights with them over the years.
When targeting larger bass, I use an 11-foot Lamiglas Carbon Surf paired with a Van Staal VS200, spooled with 40-pound braided line and 40-pound fluorocarbon leader. I began using this setup on the North Shore to throw larger, heavier lures to weed out smaller fish. On nights when the adult bunker moved in, swimming plugs perfectly mimicked the profile of the larger bait. I throw 1- to 3-ounce plugs, which helps me connect to larger fish more consistently. The bays up here are usually stacked with smaller bait like spearing and bay anchovies, while peanut bunker cluster near the surf, but when the adult bunker or squid are in, fishing big plugs with confidence will attract the larger stripers lurking nearby.
In many North Shore spots, shallow swimming plugs are best to avoid snags. Floating minnow plugs, surface-swimming metal lips, and glidebaits are the most efficient way to fish these shallow, rocky waters.
I like to fish metal lips with a slow, steady retrieve, allowing the plug to leave a bit of a wake on the surface. Gliders or twitch baits also fish well using a slow retrieve, with an occasional twitch of the rod that causes the bait to move erratically, mimicking an injured fish. As for the floating minnow plugs, I fish them in a similar manner. I use a sweeping action with the rod, giving a good raise of the tip to feel the bait flutter, then lowering the rod while simultaneously reeling down to catch up on slack. While repeating this process, I’ve noticed most strikes come on the pause. I prefer this method because I believe it best resembles injured prey, which signifies an easy meal for bigger fish.
When fishing river mouth and inlets, I throw many of the same plugs mentioned earlier, along with switching to sinking SP minnows, heavier bucktails, and soft-plastic jigs. These lures still match the hatch while accessing deeper portions of the water column.
During the fall, the North Shore of Long Island is a unique fishery that hosts a variety of forage in different environments, from Manhasset to Mattituck. From the deep and sandy channels of the back bays to the shallow, rocky flats and boulder fields of the Sound, the North Shore is inundated with my favorite saltwater fish each autumn. It may require more work to find spots, but the Sound-side of Long Island has plenty of remote, fishable water that may hold your new personal best.