Pictured above: September is the season of the blitz. Predict the players, pack essential lures and you’ll fare better this fall. -photo by Eric Kulin
Score more stripers this fall by mastering the Boston Harbor blitz.
Welcome to fall, the season of the blitz! But, just because the calendar says “Go!” and the stripers and blues should be strapping on feed bags big enough to sate a couple of Holsteins, success is not inevitable. Tilt the odds in your favor this year by getting a better grasp of what’s really happening in that blitz and then change your approach to how you fish it.
There are few frustrations more vexing than when you feel that you “should” be catching fish, but you’re not. The most egregious timeframe for this is generally the period from September through October. But, discerning what is going on during a blitz—which species are the predators and which are likely the victims—will give you an advantage whether you fish by boat or by boot.
One question you should ask is, “What type of baitfish is most likely drawing fire? And, do the gamefish appear to be all bass, or are there blues mixed into the melee?” Also, you should honestly appraise your goal. Is it simply to catch fish, or are you resolute enough to forego numbers and action for that something-special striped bass that may be performing clean-up duty from below?
ID The Forage
Come the fall, blitz fodder for stripers and blues north of Cape Cod are sea herring, pogies, peanut bunker, river herring fry and mackerel, loosely in that order. Odds are good that if it’s a bird show in September and you are fishing open water, sea herring is the draw. Pogies are the undisputed champs for big bass, and in September they will usually remain fairly close to shore in estuaries, river mouths and bays. About the only birds that will point the way toward pogies are fluttering ospreys. While it has been a few years since any peanut bunker schools in these parts were described as plague-like, we always get some, and there will be bass and blues on them. A telltale sign that the peanut gang is in town is when the bite is right up close to the shoreline.
River herring fry will usually begin staging at the mouths of their natal watersheds in September, but will not migrate out to the sea until later in the fall. If there’s a blitz underway at a dam, or maybe near locks or a spillway, chances are that the source is “young of year” river herring. Stripers behave unusually with river herring fry, often cruising like trout just below the surface, mouths agape, scooping the fry up as they swim. The right topwater here can draw explosive strikes. And, lastly, the mackerel, which usually don’t reappear until well into October—but along with them is often your last chance at that killer cow!
Sea Herring: The Unofficial Baitfish of Boston Harbor
For the majority of the year, sea herring have been a source of much attention from stripers and blues—and of great frustration for many fishing Greater Boston. It appears to have been a simple case of “too much bait and not enough predators” as the stuffed stripers seemed content to zip from school to school, leaving most anglers gassed and miffed.
However, not all got skunked. If you have word of where the bite or the bait has been, then that should be your starting point. Often, these spectacles follow the same pattern for days. If you’re exploring, check out fishy highways such as Boston Harbor’s North and South channels, President Roads, Nantasket Roads and the shipping lane between Point Allerton and Boston Light. These channels provide ease of movement for migrating fish to shift between inshore and offshore areas, and blitzes are often not far from them. To zone in even further, consider that baitfish often swim into the current. On an incoming tide, expect to find the action offshore a bit, while the reverse often happens on the ebb, when all the fun takes place in close.
If surface displays are sparse, it’s time to rely on your eyes and maybe the eyes of “your friends.” Modern electronics offer side scanning, which can pinpoint starboard and portside aggregations of bait, and a bait source is often a tinder box just waiting to erupt into a blitz. Even if you don’t mark predators, make sure not to stray too far away from the bait. Many times, you’ll see gulls perched on structure after a blitz, having “decorated” said structure with the telltale signs of a feast. Don’t despair that you missed it—keep an eye on those birds and pay attention to what direction they are looking.
Even when stuffed like a Butterball turkey, gulls will scan the horizon for a bait source and the rest of the flock will pick up on those signals. My friend Dave Panarello has an uncanny sense of estimating where the next blowup will occur thanks to watching his gull pals.
For every blitz with stamina, there are probably ten that are fleeting. Knowing that you may only have a brief opportunity to shoot a few casts into the raucousness, make it matter by bringing the right stuff. I’ve had more than my share of blitz fun, and in recent years I’ve taken to experimenting and observing. I hope what I’ve learned will put you onto more fish.
The most realistic juvenile sea herring imitator that I have ever used is the 5-inch Soft Sebile Magic Swimmer. Want proof? Just look at that thing dance in the water. Casting one of them into a frenzy is as close to a sure thing as you can get. The Savage Sand Eel has been steady on the blitz circuit for me this season as well because of its knock-out coloration and fish-catching moves. It’s made of a more durable blend of nylon than most soft plastics – when torn, the tail can simply be replaced as opposed to replacing the whole thing (as is the case with most swim shads).
A dark horse that I didn’t see coming was the Shimano Waxwing. When the bite is on, soft plastics don’t last long and it can get exasperating and expensive to keep changing them. This “jig” is a hard-bodied lure and is like the fishing lure version of Usain Bolt. It is a speed demon, perfect for running and gunning, and for covering a lot of water when the fish won’t stay still – and stripers seem to crave it. My personal favorite is the bone-colored, 88 “Boy” model.
Pogies: For Cows, It’s What’s for Dinner
The beloved pogy could be the poster child for the “big bait, big fish” mantra. In early August, they start to filter into the Boston area. Anglers who have been plucking these choice baits from Wollaston Beach and taking them to rock piles in Broad Sound have already been extracting 35-pound bass from an area that has seemingly been devoid of such cows since June! Pogies have been permeating Duxbury Bay this summer, so there’s reason to hope that their numbers will continue to swell and with them will be big bass and blues.
There have been tomes written on live-lining pogies, some of it even contributed by yours truly, so instead I’d like to talk in terms of targeting stripers and blues with artificial alternatives. The rub with pogies has always been that when bass are chasing them, you can’t dupe them with lures. I was always under the impression that the only exception was at night, when a large-profile plug such as a Gibb’s Danny, Tsunami Round Nose Swimmer or BigWaterLures Pike can fool a bass in the dim light. That all changed once I became comfortable with the 7¼-inch 4-ounce Sebile Stick Shadd, which I’ve found to be a daytime cow crusher.
Last year I conducted three different “experiments” in drastically different environments: the backshore of Gloucester, the mouth of the Mystic River and the Cape Cod Canal. There were three constants: the bait was pogies, the predators were bass and blues, and the Stick Shadd was hot as a pistol. I prefer the floating model, which can best be described as a glider. For me, the magic takes place when the rod is snapped back and forth with long pauses under slack line. This results in an exaggerated, lazy, walk-the-dog motion that makes this lure look like a dead ringer for a dying pogy.
My friend Nicky Frasso, who runs the annual Help Hook the Cure striped bass derby, has the gift for finding big bass that gather just upcurrent from the pogy schools. I can’t begin to count how often we have seen a flotilla of boats on the bait, preoccupied with blues and “keepers”, while we would find cows staging yards away near structure.
It’s not that hard to replicate. For example, if you find the pogies in Hull Harbor and there appears to be nothing significant with them, cruise on over to Outer Seal Rocks or Sheep Island and either toss a live pogy up against the structure (with a balloon to keep it in check) or try one of the plugs I mentioned. A good drift line helps, letting the current sweep you and the bait as close to the structure as you can get. Some other spots where you’ll often find the combination of structure, pogies and bass are Wollaston Beach and Hangman Island, Winthrop Harbor and Snake Island, and Revere Beach and the breakwater.
The peanut bunker is a gift from Neptune to the surf fisherman. When this bait source is numerous, shore guys will often turn the tables on boaters. This is a critter that loves to hug the coast so they are a particular favorite for rock hoppers who frequent the crags from Red Rock in Lynn out through Cape Ann. They also draw bass and blues a short cast away from the shorelines of beaches. If the dynamic duo of bass and blues are present, where you’re positioned in relation to the blitz can affect what you catch.
I recall a surf scenario on the North Shore that illuminated this point. For a while on that day, I was a solo surfcaster and had a blitz of bass and blues all to myself until my two angling amigos, Dave Flaherty and Rick Holbrook, heeded the call. Nestled among a sandy cove, surrounded by craggy outcroppings, was a blitz the likes of which one dreams about. I took up position at the edge of the first outcropping and immediately began slamming teen-sized stripers. I wish I could say my decision to stand there was due to sound reasoning and perception, but the truth is I was so pumped from the surface spectacle that it was the first place I could plant my feet.
As my buddies moved in, I moved over to make room, and that’s when the dynamics changed and my bass bite morphed into a tryst with toothies. First one, then another and another bluefish interrupted that linesider love as my friend Rick began beaching bass. The stripers were sticking to the structure, and my buddy was taking advantage of that. I was standing in the middle of the beach blasting casts into open water where the faster choppers had the edge!
Owing to their propensity to hug the shoreline, the peanut bunker schools will often lure the biggest linesiders in areas where they get up close and personal with land lubbers. There have been numerous times when I’ve been standing on the shore at the edge of a whitewater-filled cove or chasm full of mid-40-inch fish while the boaters just outside of the melee settled for schoolies.
When peanuts rule, I usually pack chartreuse Storm or Tsunami shads, Spro Bucktails, and Kastmasters. This year, I’m toting Savage Real Herring soft plastics as well. Nights will often draw the action right up into the wash of beaches and I’ve found that the smaller black Yo-Zuri Mag Darter is a striper slayer under these conditions. Its shallow draft is a real advantage when fishing water measured in inches, not feet.
The Final Fall Fury
The last few years, we have seen a resurgence in river herring in these parts and in the fall it is the fry that matters. Baby bluebacks and alewives start tumbling toward the mouths of rivers in September and can last all the way through November. This is another fishery that is ideal for the shore angler because the fun takes place at the mouths of rivers and estuaries, where there is plenty of access for shore guys. A significant rainstorm is often a trigger and will flush some of the herring fry from their brackish nursery into the hungry sea.
Stripers and blues will be waiting. Look for aggregations of herring fry by World’s End, the parks along the Weymouth Back River, the Neponset River, the Charles River Locks, the Amelia Earhart Dam and the Saugus River. Striped bass often cruise just under the surface to feed on juvenile river herring, their tails and fins poking through the surface, giving amped-up anglers a case of the jitters. I love thin-profiled lures under these circumstances, including Zoom Flukes, Fin-S Fish, Gulp! Jerk Shads, Jumpin’ Minnows and Backshore Plugs Pencils.
Mackerel often reappear in October and usually aren’t tinkers but full-grown brutes that are as interested in peanut bunker and herring fry as the stripers are. Generally, by the time the macks appear, blues have departed, leaving striped bass as their only nemesis. It’s also last call for a cow. When you hear of a final-minute Moby taken in Greater Boston, it is often because that old fish was shadowing mackerel.
Look for a late-stage mack attack off Fisherman’s Beach in Swampscott, Nahant, the Five Sisters off Winthrop, Deer Island and Hull. Good mackerel imitators are the Daiwa Salt Pro Minnow, the Sebile Magic Swimmer, Yo-Zuri’s Crystal Minnow and the Savage Manic Prey. Should you find a surface show that appears to be mackerel belting baitfish and no stripers, don’t be fooled. Instead, shift gears and break out one of these mackerel imitators. It may be time to upgrade your expectations from a season-extending striper to a season-defining one!