Pictured above: This false albacore hit a 3-inch albino Zoom Fluke mounted on a half-ounce jighead. Cast ahead of breaking albies and retrieve quickly.
Thick schools of bay anchovies deliver fast fishing action to the Rhode Island coast in late summer.
It was late summer last year when I went down to the oceanfront with the intention of bottom-fishing for scup and fluke along the West Wall at East Matunuck, Rhode Island. Until then, the summer fishing for striper and bluefish had been poor inshore. An unusually warm winter, spring and summer had driven water temperatures up around 80 degrees. There had been few fish around the bay or the oceanfront for shore fishermen, and bait had also been scarce.
As I walked along the jetty rocks, diving terns caught my attention. They seemed to be dive-bombing into what I thought was a line of weeds running along the whole shoreline. However, closer examination showed it had some movement to it. Could it instead be bait? As I pondered that thought, there was a sudden eruption of activity as the water boiled with frenzied bluefish tearing through the “weeds.” The eruptions expanded, with schools of blues slamming the bait in various locations all along the mile-plus stretch of beach and even within casting distance of the wall. I couldn’t believe it. It was something you’d usually see in that area in the fall, but it was happening in the dead of summer, right in front of me.
I scrapped the idea of fishing the bottom and snapped on a popper, throwing it to a mass of fish. The blues started slamming it, and I began catching one fish after another. As I landed them and took out the hooks, these feisty 3- to 5-pound bluefish began spitting up small, translucent baitfish that measured about 1 to 2 inches long. I recognized these as bay anchovies, a baitfish that, in recent years, has exploded in abundance along the Rhode Island shoreline. It was early to see big numbers of them, since they usually began appearing in September. However, I suspect the warm weather and water delivered them way ahead of schedule.
Bay anchovies are the game changer in late summer and early fall in southern New England. These small baitfish that school by the millions are now the prevalent bait of fall, attracting a slew of predators. Their huge numbers attract fish of all sizes as well as varieties. When they come around, fish such as stripers, bluefish, fluke, false albacore, black sea bass and scup seem to awaken from their summer doldrums as they gorge themselves on this bait of plenty. In recent years, bay anchovies have replaced peanut bunker as the number one baitfish of fall. The baby bunkers are no longer around in big numbers, probably because spawning adults are at historically low numbers. As for other fall bait favorites, we still get that occasional shot of big bait like adult menhaden, mullet and ocean herring, but they tend to be here one day and gone the next.
A bay anchovy, Anchoa mitchilli, is a small, translucent baitfish with a silvery mid-lateral stripe. It has a single dorsal fin midway along its slender body. These fish can grow up to 4 inches in length, but are usually about 2 inches long. In late summer, they tend to be small, and then grow as the fall progresses. They school up in huge numbers that can often be measured by the acre and appear as large, dark areas right below the surface. Along a beachfront, they can look like a paved road that hugs the shoreline right below the surface.
From an ecological and biological perspective, here is what is known about bay anchovies. They range along the entire Atlantic seaboard from Florida to Maine, and are also found in the Gulf of Mexico. In winter, they school in deep water offshore and move into shallow water to spawn as the weather warms in summer months (earlier if the water is warm). They generally reach peak spawning in July in many of the bays and estuaries along the coast, and grow quickly. They feed on plankton and reach maturity just 2 to 3 months after hatching.
A 2001 study of bay anchovies in Narragansett Bay cites their rapid growth due to favorable water temperatures and food conditions. (That explains the big numbers of them we see along the Rhode Island oceanfront in early fall as they move away from the Bay and into deeper water.) This baitfish has no recreational or commercial value, but is very important as food for predators. While their numbers seem to have increased greatly along our southern New England waters in recent years, surprisingly, their numbers have shown a drastic decline in Chesapeake Bay, where they are monitored more closely. I could find no charts or studies done of them over the years in southern New England, but as an observer, they appear to have become the most prolific fall baitfish here in Rhode Island.
Bay anchovies seem to appear in big numbers in the daytime and disappear once it gets dark. Large numbers of them usually leads to days with wild blitzes and incredible amounts of fish. One day last year, I found massive amounts of this bait along the Narragansett shore in late September, and they were attracting a hit parade of predators – an all-day blitz of false albacore, bluefish and stripers. I have never seen as many albies as I did that day—three of us fishing on one rock landed over 60, and I lost count of the blues and stripers we landed. This went on from morning until nighttime.
While this bait seems to disappear at night, it does leave behind good numbers of keeper bass and large bluefish. These predators were feeding on the bay anchovies by day and then continuing to search the shore for food well after dark. Many fishermen make the mistake of not fishing at night when fall blitzes are occurring in the daytime, but nighttime is often the time that the largest fish are taken.
For the fall fisherman who fishes around these schools of bay anchovies in the daytime, their size presents a problem when trying to “match the hatch.” The key here is to think small. Remember that you are trying to mimic a baitfish that is about 2 to 3 inches long. There are a number of lures, most of them jig-type artificials made with bucktail or plastic, that will score well when imitating this small bait. Flies and small swimmers can also be very effective.
The strategy when fishing jigs is to get under the schools of bait where the predators lurk. These lures include bucktail jigs, Cocahoes, and plastic flukes mounted on jig heads. The bucktail has the advantage of being durable, and I usually put one on when bluefish are around. My favorite is a half-ounce white flathead jig, tied with red thread that I also happen to make. On the hook, I add a white, 3-inch, triple-ripple grub tail made by Bass Pro. I find this lure to be very effective for stripers and blues, but not as effective for the sharp-eyed false albacore. A 3- or 4-inch plastic Cocahoe in a glow or white color is also very effective when mounted on a half-ounce jighead. It just might be the best jig for stripers, but the blues will mercilessly cut them up and they don’t work well for false albacore. A plastic fluke (usually a 3-inch Zoom Fluke in an albino color) mounted on a jighead of a half-ounce or less, is only fair for stripers but works better for blues and false albacore. Durability is also an issue with the fluke, especially when blues are around.
The problem with all of these small jig-type lures is that they are very light and difficult to cast. Light tackle and a wind at your back is often needed to cast out these offerings, but distance is still compromised. It is far easier to fish these from a boat than from shore. However, there is a solution to delivering these lightweight lures way out with heavier tackle. The solution is a wooden egg float that weighs close to 2 ounces and casts like a bullet. When the wind is in your face or a long cast is needed to reach feeding fish, use a float. Tie three feet of mono to the end of the float and a small jig to the end of the mono. These floats, which most fishermen make themselves, can deliver booming casts. The float-and-artificial combo accounts for more false albacore catches along the Rhode Island shoreline than any other lure I use.
One other lure to carry is a fly, which can also be fished off the float. I especially like a blue Deceiver, and the one I tie has blue hackle for the tail, a chartreuse body and a white bucktail throat and wing. On top of the wing of bucktail, add a bit of blue or chartreuse bucktail. I tie mine on a Mustad 34007 size 1/0 hook. This fly is deadly for false albacore but it also catches decent numbers of stripers and bluefish when they are feeding on bay anchovies. Tie a lot of them since bluefish cut-offs are a real problem.
Small swimmers can also work well when small bait is present. I find that on bluebird days with calm water, the predators can get particularly fussy. At rare times, the small jigs will not catch, and that’s when to pull out a small swimmer. I’m talking swimmers in the 3- to 4-inch range, which include small Long-A Bombers, Rapala X-Raps and Yo-Zuri Crystal Minnows. Light colors with a translucent look are best, and consider beefing up their hooks before using them. There was one day last year when my son, Ben, was landing one keeper bass after another using small swimmers while all the frustrated fishermen around him went fishless using small jigs. So, I suggest stocking several of these in your surf bag.
When fish are chasing the anchovies to the surface, it’s tempting to throw topwater plugs. I find that of all the topwater plugs, a small needlefish (4 to 5 inches) or a Jumpin’ Minnow are the best choices. Poppers are effective for bluefish because the frenzied fish will tend to hit anything that moves. If you go with a popper, use a small one of about 4 inches. I know everyone loves the thrill of watching a fish blast a popper on the surface, but realize these are not the most effective lures to use when fish are feeding on bay anchovies.
I have landed some of my biggest stripers and huge bluefish by fishing on nights following daytime blitzes. I’m sure these are fish that have continued to prowl around the shoreline long after the blitzes subsided. Throw out the small-lure idea of daytime and go with larger and more traditional ones after dark. I like three lures at night in the fall—skinny soft-plastic baits (Hogys or Slug-Gos), needlefish plugs and swimmers.
Soft-plastic stickbaits and needlefish plugs look similar and move in much the same fashion, but soft-plastic baits have much more movement and natural appeal. However, they are tough to cast into a head wind, so in rough or windy conditions I usually opt for the heavier and more aerodynamic needlefish plug. In calm water with a wind at my back, I usually fish soft-plastic stickbaits. In recent years, I have gone with black colors at night, though I have also had decent luck with white or light-colored needlefish.
I generally opt for swimmers in moving water such as breachway flows or currents caused by reefs, channels or undertows along the beach. My favorite fall swimmer last year was a Daiwa Salt Pro Minnow, which I used in a variety of colors and they all seemed to work well for big fish after dark. Note that the hooks and split rings on these plugs are poor and a big fish will bend them. I change the hooks to VMC 4X (size 1/0) models and change the split rings to heavy-duty 5.5H sizes.
Change has been the operative word for the last several years along the oceanfront. Whether driven by climate change or the decline of big bait, bay anchovies are the new bait of plenty along the mainland Rhode Island coastline. They lure hungry stripers, bluefish and false albacore to our shores in big numbers. In my mind, this small but abundant baitfish will determine just how good and how consistent our fall fishing will be. Adjust your tactics for daytime fishing and think small when using artificials. And, continue to chase the big fish at night. When bay anchovies come around, expect the fishing to light up. They are the fall game-changers in Rhode Island!