The Legend of the Late Season Cows
I’ve heard more stories than I can recall about schools of big stripers moving down the beach long after the vast majority of surfcasters have hung up their rods for the season. The witnesses of these late-season blitzes—whether hunting waterfowl, walking their dog, beachcombing or taking their lunch break—always seem to be too far away from their fishing equipment to take advantage of the striped bass bounty that’s fallen into their laps. In some tellings, the angler returns the following day, rod in hand, but of course, the fish have gone and no sign of life remains on the cold, windswept beach.
These stories are all so similar that I can’t help but be the least bit skeptical. Also, why hasn’t at least one of these storytellers had a rod tucked into the trunk of his car, or been close enough to home that he could get back in time? Why are the fish always said to be huge? And what could make a school of massive bass linger longer than the other members of the species?
There are just enough examples of late-season success to lend credence to some of these fish tales: Tony Stetzko’s November 73-pounder on Cape Cod, the late-November big fish blitzes on Block Island in the 1980s, Billy Legakis’ late-November and December 50-pounders from Long Island Bays, and the legendary Island Beach State Park Thanksgiving Day blitzes in New Jersey. So before we dismiss all of these accounts as “fish stories,” let’s consider why these big bass might move through so late, and how we might put ourselves in a place to intercept them.
There would be only one thing that would keep stripers around past the time the water dropped from their comfort zone—a tremendous source of food. But with the bunker large and small gone, the mullet history, the anchovies vanished and even the spearing thinned out, what’s left? The very same bait that entices giant bluefin tuna to travel into frigid Canadian waters to gorge. The Atlantic herring.
For most of the year, Atlantic herring are well beyond the reach of surfcasters. In fact, they’re well beyond the reach of most Northeast boat fishermen too. They hang in cool, nutrient-rich waters feeding on krill, copepods and small fish. But as winter takes hold, herring make a move south, and occasionally inshore. Anglers itching to wet a line will target these herring from lighted docks on winter nights long after the stripers have gone.
While certainly not an every year occurrence, some very large bass will linger long enough to meet these herring as they move down the coast. This is not the type of fishing you can set your watch to. It is very much at the whim of the herring as they move down the coast, whether they will wander close enough to shore to allow stripers to trap them against a beach or inside an inlet.
Along the beach, gannets are a good indicator of the presence of herring. These large seabirds are easily distinguished from gulls by their feeding behavior of dive-bombing the water like a kamikaze pilot. Gannets can be misleading, however. These birds are capable of diving deeper than 30 feet in search of prey, so unlike gulls, gannets do not rely on schools of predatory fish to drive baitfish to the surface. Gannets will also feed on smaller baits such as sand eels in the absence of herring.
The 2011 run of incredible November and December fishing along the Rhode Island shoreline was all thanks to big schools of herring hitting the beach. Bass heavier than 40 pounds were caught from the beach in early December—proof that not all the late season big bass stories are from the “good ol’ days.”
Sand eels, especially big ones, will hold big stripers late into the season. Just ask the surfcasters who fished Block Island in the 1980s when large sand eels attracted 40-, 50- and 60-pound bass into the surf. Last year, New Jersey surfcasters got a taste of how good the fishing can be when big sand eels are present, when 6- to 9-inch sand eels kept stripers into the 30-pound range close to the beach into December.
Onshore winds certainly help nudge the bait toward the beach. So will storms. Keep in mind, fishing a storm in September is a heck of a lot more tolerable than fishing one in mid-November. Dress for the elements. The more comfortable you are, the longer you’re likely to stay out, and the more likely you are to find fish.
The later you get into the season, the less likely it is you’ll catch fish on any given trip. After four or five outings without a hit, hanging it up for the year would certainly be the smart option. You could fish every night of November and December and not find a single fish — unlike the spring and fall, the odds of eventually finding fish are not in your favor late in the season. But you never know, a big southbound school might make a pit stop at one of the beaches, boulderfields or bays you fished all season. When the wind sends a chill through your bones and you consider swapping your surf rod for your TV remote, imagine what it’d be like to stumble across a school of late-season monsters on the beach by yourself, and make another cast.