“If you don’t know where you are going, you’ll end up someplace else.”
Some years ago, we had an up-and-comer in our surfcasting club. Let’s call the young stud “Tom.” That year, the bone-chilling winds of winter arrived early, and most of the usual spots in our corner of the Striper Coast had shut down by Veteran’s Day. We gathered around a few bottles of Budweiser at the Knights of Columbus, where we held our meetings in those days, as Tom entertained us with animated gestures about some stripers he was still getting.
He got the attention of one of the club’s old salts, who we can call “George.” Don’t get me wrong, there was no reason to doubt Tom, but he still felt it necessary to pick a couple of photographs from his shirt pocket to validate the teen to low-20-pound bass that were still holding in the most unlikely of Long Island back-bay coves.
George was certainly impressed, but showed little interest in Tom’s open invitation to join him for a final shot at the fish.
“What made you go there?” was all George wanted to know.
Tom had a logical explanation for how he found those bass. That was a good thing. I’m sure George would have quickly lost interest if it had been just a case of a newbie wandering into the right place at the right time.
In many ways, George’s question cut right to the heart of the matter.
Was Tom able to organize the knowledge he was accumulating, was he “at the level yet” where he went out with a specific plan for working the water?
We can dedicate a year of ink to such a question and barely scratch the surface. What I can offer here are some of my own thoughts on developing a fishing plan.
Put simply, the concept of a “fishing plan” requires you to fully embrace the belief that conditions matter above all else. To be more direct, you must commit to following the facts and your instincts instead of chasing reports.
Please do not take this the wrong way.
Within each of us is the strong urge to follow reports. I will argue, however, that chronic report-chasing will not make you a better fisherman in the long run.
I’m not suggesting that you ignore the intel of others. However, you must shift the bulk of your attention away from “insta-reports” and to things like lunar phase, wind, tide, bait … all of which ultimately factor into the most likely sequence of locations that will make up your plan for finding action. Some conditions are obvious to most readers; others, maybe not as much. If you are going to commit time and gas money, and potentially lose a night of sleep, all the more reason for a solid advance plan for making the most of it.
What Conditions Matter?
By “conditions,” I generally think about a number of fixed and variable factors that are known to influence (among other things) water quality, oxygen levels, temperatures, and the presence of bait. Let’s review the most important factors here.
“Fixed” factors are those conditions that can be forecast down to a somewhat precise date and time.
Moon: It is perhaps the mother of all driving forces in water movement. In some ways, we can argue that lunar phase (and earth rotation) drive just about everything else. We all know how lunar phase determines tide, but let’s not forget about levels of nighttime illumination. Many more experienced night fishermen have argued to me that moonrise and moonset are separate factors.
Week: I call it “week,” but it’s really a numerical label for what we might otherwise think of as “seasonality.” We can get deep into this with references to solstice, but the main point is that seasonality by itself matters, even if we are having weather outside historical norms.
Tide: Most of us remember our Earth Science class and the gravitational effects of both the sun and moon. This creates a rotating bulge in sea levels, which conveniently happens at precise intervals that are strictly tied to the moon/sun phases mentioned above. Tide tables are still referred to as “forecasts,” since severe winds can influence the exact times of high and low and the strength of water flow.
It’s worth noting that fishermen often refer to “tides” and the resulting flood and ebb “currents” interchangeably, but these are completely different. Personally, I see more fishermen caring about the currents themselves, which can lag the tide tables significantly.
Example: At Jones Inlet on the South Shore of Long Island, one online source had high tide for June 30, 2019, predicted at 6:08 am, while slack high water was 8:00 am. You most definitely must understand the current change lag for your location based on published tides.
It’s very common to hear experienced fishermen referring to fixed factors like the “Full Moon of June,” which has a very specific meaning for captains along the Striper Coast. It can define when they expect to see migrating stripers moving through their area. The specific tide stage (the timing each day, based on moon) generally dictates specific sets of locations to work on a given day or night trip.
“Variable” factors are those that cannot be forecast with much precision until a day or two before a trip. Even then, what you see when you hit the water may differ quite a bit from the forecasts.
Here are the main variable factors.
Wind (Direction, Strength and Duration): Wind creates current and I’m sure most readers are aware of how this helps push bait around. Why does wind matter so much? What you don’t see is the significant mixing of water of different temperatures, different levels of oxygen, different levels of salinity, and different amounts of suspended sediment and nutrients.
Most folks logically associate a strong “in your face” onshore wind with driving surface waters and bait directly at them, but this is not entirely true. I’ll spare you the physics, but it helps to have a remote appreciation of something called the Coriolis Effect. This is the reason why storms rotate counterclockwise in the Northeast, and why wind-driven water tends to be deflected to the right.
I know what you may be thinking here. “C’mon, John, Coriolis what? Why should I care?”
Every summer at some point, I hear beachgoers complain about the sudden arrival of cold and murky ocean water temperatures. The classic example happens on an east-facing New Jersey beach after a couple of days of a strong southwest blow. The lifeguards posted surf temperatures in the 70s earlier in the week, but now temps are in the low 60s, or even the 50s. The culprit is the Coriolis Effect. Wind-driven surface water is deflected to the right, away from those east-facing beaches. Colder water then moves up (a process called upwelling). I recall a recent article in a South Jersey newspaper that enlisted the help of a local meteorologist to explain it all. The takeaway: In this example, a sustained 25 knot SW wind in the summer or fall can easily drive NJ surf temperatures down a good 15 degrees.
Barometric Pressure: For simplicity’s sake, I often lump barometric pressure in with the general movement of certain weather fronts. This means weather and wind direction often tell me a great deal about barometric pressure, though I’m sure a few of you might argue the need to track it separately. A “Bermuda High” tends to be associated with a multi-day southerly flow of warm and humid air. An extratropical low moving up from the Carolinas is generally associated with a strengthening nor’easter. I most certainly have a plan for a building northeaster, though I’m not always sure if it is the wind or the low pressure that put resident fish on the feed.
Time of Day and Cloud Cover: Every good striper fisherman knows the importance of fishing at night. Likewise, I’m sure many of you are familiar with types of locations, especially flats, where fish might be better targeted during low light or under heavy cloud cover. The tradeoff is the ability to sight-fish versus developing the confidence in knowing where the fish should be.
Bait: Most baitfish species are influenced by the factors above. The single most important one to be called out here is an understanding of which baits represent a “bumper crop” or a dominant year-class. Some of my spring striper runs live or die based on the abundance of sand eels. Most early fall action comes to life only if the mullet migrate in large enough numbers. Some late October action on Long Island gets ignited thanks to swarms of juvenile peanut bunker.
Location(s): Most fishermen start the conversation with a question about spots, but I’d suggest that spots only matter within the context of how the above conditions line up. Some fishermen talk about “flood spots” or “drop spots,” based on (for example) how the water can accelerate past points or bowls, or through a section of an inlet. Some beaches, like the central south shore of Long Island, are especially known as southwest wind spots based on bait being pushed closer to shore.
The critical part is taking note, and logging as much of these conditional factors as possible. If you do, I can assure you that some patterns will emerge, and you will be much more prone to check tide tables and wind forecasts before deciding what you will do. Over time, you will also figure out the factors that seem to matter most for the locations and type of fishing you like to do.
Putting It All Together – A Plan
I often like to squeeze in an hour of fishing before work. This means having a location suitable for the daily conditions, or better yet, having a spot in mind, but waiting (sometimes for days) for good conditions to line up. Bear in mind that locations line up only with the right tide, at a given time of day, roughly every two weeks. But there are still certain weeks of the season, combined with certain winds and tides, where I’ll drag myself out there no matter what.
A four-hour trip (which might be the most common timeframe for an inshore or surf guy) almost always requires a plan for two or more general locations in anticipation of changing wind and tide, and possibly sunrise or sunset. Emphasis here is usually on fishing through at least some part of a change in tide, especially if there is less certainty of what side of a tide is currently fishing better.
Some fishermen (especially boat guys), are prone to “follow a tide” as opposed to just fishing through the change. The game here requires mobility to move further into the bay or up a river to squeeze more out of a single tide before slack water.
For the surf guys, some of you are lucky enough to live in areas where you can fish the end of the drop at one inlet, and then quickly hop in the truck to catch the remainder of drop at another inlet.
Whatever the case, “The Plan” all comes together with a commitment to arrive for a certain tide stage, and to work the water systematically for a specific period before moving to spot number two, and so on.
To illustrate some of these points, I recall my first surf-caught striper over 30 pounds. This fish came many years ago when I first committed to a full plan. Up to then, I had gotten into a habit of selecting a single spot to start, but I had no firm idea for what to do from there. The forecast on this late afternoon was for a light southwest wind as the sun went down. This conveniently lined up with a dropping tide at Jones inlet on Long Island. There were still sand eels present, but it was getting late into June, and summer doldrums were kicking in. On this night, I resolved to invest no more than an hour, with a firm plan to hoof it over to Fire Island inlet for the remainder of the drop. The Fire Island Inlet currents lagged those of Jones and would still be dropping a good hour after Jones had slacked. That 32-pound bass on a 1-ounce bucktail came just as the tide began to slack, and it was about as satisfying a catch as any I can remember.
Calling an Audible
Often enough, a well-thought-out plan will come together, and you’ll catch fish just as expected. But for me, the icing on the cake is finding fish feeding (or seeing other fisherman hooking up), when my own plans suggested it was time to move. This is all part of the learning process, and an episode of finding fish—when you were not expecting it—most definitely needs to get logged with full details.
Each trip is an opportunity to build your level of knowledge. If you do take the time to log and organize your notes, you will certainly be “at the level” where you will can have a plan for almost every set of conditions.