Fall Running

Racing the end of the striper season.

Fall run beach

Three a.m. and I haven’t touched a bass. I left the house at 10, bound for my fifth (and then sixth) different location in three nights of fishing. Leaning against my truck, back aching from bearing the uneven load of an overstuffed plug bag, I withdraw my phone and check the weather app for the wind direction. Northeast and building. I check the tide chart, again. Low tide is still at 6 a.m. I’d checked these conditions before leaving the house, but doing it again, after five fishless hours, is an exercise in motivation; a reminder that if I miss these conditions to get the sleep I sorely need, I’ll regret it. I get in the car, start the engine, and gulp down the now-cold coffee. I have one more spot to check.

The spring run is easy. I can look at the lunar calendar in January and know where I want to be on what date in June, with few exceptions. I ignore recent reports and weather conditions (except under extreme circumstances in either case) to stake out locations where I know, sooner or later, the fish will show. It’s an approach that leads to many fishless nights—but it’s also led to several of my largest stripers.
 
In the spring, I view fishless nights as an investment on cows to come—provided I keep making nightly, or almost nightly, payments. In June 2018, I endured three consecutive fishless (actually, hitless) nights before, on the fourth night, I caught a pair of 25-pounders. The night after that, I put a 51-pounder on the sand. On the sixth night, I was back to getting skunked.

That monster would have been easy to miss if I’d “taken the hint”—as one fishing buddy said after the sequential skunkings—and tried somewhere else or, worse, stayed in and slept. The point is, time put in at a proven spot will eventually pay dividends during the stripers’ spring migration. Not so in the fall.

anglers on beach
“I’ll find them tomorrow,” rings hollow when the tomorrows are running out.

In the fall, I bleakly view any fishless night as another missed opportunity to catch before the season’s quickly approaching end. The optimism behind statements like, “I’ll find them tomorrow,” rings hollow when the tomorrows are running out. I’m not much fun at parties in September.

The stripers’ southward movements are more difficult to predict, and are more subject to the vagaries of weather conditions and baitfish movement. Therefore, I’m more easily swayed by good reports and more likely to get blown around by the wind. The resulting surfcasting ends up feeling so hectic that I go false albacore fishing to relax.

When I arrive at the beach, there is another truck in the lot—Alan’s. When the wind is northeast and low tide is in the early hours, I sometimes see him here. Alan fishes hard, and seeing him at a location is often an indication I’ve made the right choice.

The waves are big and getting bigger, leaving large fleecy blankets of foam as they crash over the outer bar and spill into the trough. I expect to connect on my first cast, but I don’t. I change lures a few casts later and still nothing.

I work my way left, where a patch of dark water interrupts the otherwise unbroken line of white foam. There’s a cut in the bar that hadn’t been there the month before.

As if finding fish-holding locations in the fall isn’t tough enough, the locations themselves change more frequently in the stormy fall weather. After a tropical storm or nor’easter, you often need to re-learn your favorite stretch of sand. Bars form, shift or flatten, completely changing how a beach will fish.

Every sandy-beach surfcasting story ever written has suggested going to a beach at low tide to scout the structure. This is great, if work or family or laziness don’t interfere with your ability to hit the beach in daylight. If you can’t dedicate time to low-tide scouting, don’t worry. Being able to visualize the structure by the behavior of the water will serve you better in the long run, anyhow.

You can only “read” the water if it’s moving—being driven by the wind or tide. Still water is as unreadable as a blank page, and it provides no clues as to what lies beneath. Generally speaking, white water and breaking waves indicate bars or shallows, while dark, calmer waters mark holes, cuts, or troughs. The edges between these two are where stripers are most likely to lurk.

My needlefish lands in the middle of the cut. I begin a slow retrieve, and as the current sweeps my plug toward the edge of the bar, I make first contact. I see a small eruption where the striper’s tail beats the surface as it furiously tries to gain traction. When it does, the rod bends and the reel pays out line in short bursts. I land and release the bass, and two cranks into the following retrieve, I’m on again. Four casts into the cut produce four fish before the bite goes cold. I blame the light of false dawn, though filtered through a thick layer of clouds and barely perceptible to my eyes, for apparently pushing the fish from the shallows.

bait on the beach
Sunrise is the surfcaster’s version of last call.

Sunrise is the surfcaster’s version of last call. When the lights come on, the party ends. You don’t have to go home, but you can’t catch here.

If there’s one adjustment a new surfcaster can make in order to catch more fish, it’s to fish at night. Stripers swim closer to shore and feed more consistently after dark. Herein lies yet another reason that the spring run is easier than the fall.

In May and June, there are fewer hours of darkness, so the stripers’ peak activity is concentrated into as little as 6 to 7 hours. This makes predicting when they’ll feed that much easier. In mid-September, there are more than 10 hours of total darkness (by November, it will be close to 13), which means that you’ll either have to lose more sleep or hope you choose the right window.

Obviously, this isn’t always the case, and on a few wondrous occasions—usually during stormy conditions—I’ve seen the rising sun kick a bite into another gear.

I switch from a needlefish to a minnow plug, hoping a plug change will reignite the bite. Needlefish catch in the daytime, but I do better using plugs with more built-in action. This is one of those fishing theories that probably has more to do with the fisherman’s perceptions than the fish’s. Because I can see better when the sun is up, I theorize that a more realistic plug is required to keep catching.

I cast the minnow into the white water and my theory is supported by a 30-inch striper. By the time that fish swims away, it’s light enough that I can clearly see Alan leaning back in the fish-fighting position. I glance back at the beach and watch a pair of fishermen walk around the dune and quicken their pace at the sight of Alan’s bent rod.

I turn back to water in time to see a herring skip across a cresting wave. The seas have built enough that the herring is at eye-level when a striper climbs the wave and engulfs it. In the troughs between waves, I see the boils of feeding bass.

“Blitz” is a subjective term. The strictest definition, explained to me by an old-timer in Montauk, was that a blitz is when a large number of baitfish are being eaten by a large number of stripers, which are being caught by a large number of fishermen. Personally, I think duration plays a larger role in qualifying a blitz than the number of anglers present. There’s no set amount of time that differentiates a blitz from plain-old good fishing, but I’d like to think that if it lasts long enough for a fishermen at home to hear about it, gear up, get to the beach, and still catch, it’s a blitz.

So, when my friend, Dave, having received my text at his home 30 minutes away, rounded the dune, jumped into the surf, and hooked up on his first cast, I felt confident in calling the bite a blitz.

You may be rolling your eyes at my use of a cell phone, mid-blitz, to call another angler into the action, but that’s the reality of modern surfcasting. I could have waited to tell Dave about the fishing until after it was over (or not at all, if I wanted to go dark on my surfcasting partner of the past decade), but it’s the “do unto your neighbor…” adage that set my thumbs to texting. During the infrequent spurts of intense fishing that have defined the fall runs in recent years, I sure as hell want to know when Dave is into fish, and he’s more likely to tell me if I also keep him informed. Plus, the later-arriving fishermen were making calls before they were making casts, so it only felt right to make sure my buddy wasn’t left out.

The minnow plug is catching every three casts or so, provided I retrieve it a little faster than normal and break up the retrieve with the occasional sharp twitch. Slower retrieves subject the plug to the pounding surf, causing it to roll around in the waves rather than swim. The bass are a mix of sizes, the smallest around 18 inches, the largest pushing 30 pounds. The baitfish are also mixed. There are sand eels in the white water around my knees and sea herring out along the bar. I even see a full-size bunker chased down across the surface by what appears to be a very large bass.

A short time after seeing the bigger bass, I hook one that has a bit more weight. I fight him into the last wave when I make a classic mistake.

In other places where stripers are caught from shore—bays, inlets, even the Cape Cod Canal—once the bass is turned and you are gaining line, the fish is yours. In the high surf, however, the largest impediment to landing your cow is in the final 15 feet.

There, angler and striper fight each other while also fighting the last wave. The striper battles with every ounce of his remaining energy to stay on the seaward side of that wave, where, as it builds, the undertow will aid his escape to deeper water. The fisherman, meanwhile, works to pull the striper through the wave, because, when it breaks, it will finish off the fight by washing the bass onto the sand.

The best strategy is patience. Keep steady pressure, giving line when needed, and wait out the fish. Eventually, it will tire from fighting both angler and ocean, and it can be turned so that its head faces the beach. At that point, the breaking wave will “trip” the bass, and deposit it onto the sand.

broken plug

The worst thing you can do is lock down on a bass that you haven’t turned as the wave is receding. And, that’s exactly what I do. Desperate to land the fish and fearful the hooks will pull if the fight drags on much longer, I palm the spool and try to force him into a breaking wave before he’s ready. I feel a pop and reel in a disemboweled Yo-Zuri Mag Darter. Forced to change lures, I clip on a pencil popper, and two casts in, hook a 14-pound bluefish.

Different from the lean springtime “racers,” fall bluefish that have spent the summer fattening up on oily baitfish have shapes that are almost tunoid. They’re also darker, with black backs to purple flanks to gunmetal bellies. The yellow eye seems to glow in the blue-black head of the fish as I carefully reach toward it with my BogaGrip.

It’s my biggest bluefish of the year—by about 10 pounds—and it takes some of the sting off losing the big bass. Large blues have been somewhat rare during recent fall runs, and that absence has definitely made my heart grow fonder. These days, whenever I reel in the cigar-shaped stub of a bluefish-bitten eel, I greet it with a smile instead of an expletive, happy to sacrifice the $2-a-pop bait for the knowledge that the devilish blues are still out there somewhere.

A few more blues are taken by the other casters, but overall, the action has slowed considerably. The crowd has grown to 10 or so fishermen, and for the first time all morning, none are fighting fish. Without the fish to occupy my attention, I remember how tired I am. I shoulder my rod, wave to Dave and Alan, and head home a happy man.

The fall run is easy. There are conditions and reports to consider, sure, but ultimately, the best strategy is the simplest—go fishing as often as you can, for as long as you can. Eventually, your journey will intersect with the stripers’; and even if that’s just for one memorable outing, it can be enough.

Ten a.m. and I’ve just closed my eyes. My back is still aching, and my hands are covered in dozens of small cuts from unhooking fish. My phone buzzes insistently from the bedside table as a series of texts come in at once. It’s Dave. He’s followed a hunch to another beach for the top of the flood tide and has found good-sized bass, and bluefish too. In the time it takes to make a fresh cup of coffee, I’m back out the door, and 30 minutes after that, I’m casting into another blitz.

4 on “Fall Running

  1. John

    Fantastic read! New to surfcasting, so good to hear that even the experienced get skunked. Again, great piece.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *