During the fall run, the waters of the New Jersey surf undergo a change. As water temperatures begin cooling in the second half of September, mullet, anchovies, spearing, and juvenile bunker leave the bays, rivers, and estuaries, while sand eels and adult bunker move in from north and offshore, flooding the coastal waters with a rich buffet of bait. This attracts migrating striped bass working their way south from Long Island, Block Island, Cape Cod, and other summering grounds to the north. While anglers cannot predict what the most abundant baitfish will be, it’s an advantage to know what the most common baitfish are during the fall run so you can match the baitfish with your lure selection.
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Over the past few fall seasons, we saw a dramatic improvement in the quantity of baitfish along the shore and the fall of 2022 was the best one I’ve ever experienced. From early October into January, adult and peanut bunker were the most abundant baitfish. These schools were present day after day along the Monmouth and Ocean County surf, with feeding stripers right on their tails.
Know the Fall Run Bait and How to Match It
It is very important to learn how to identify the common baitfish that inhabit our shores. Determining the stripers’ food source will enable an angler to decide what artificial lure to use during the selective feeding patterns. There are not too many things more frustrating than casting into a school of feeding striped bass in a frenzy, only to come up short, cast after cast, simply because you didn’t have the correct lure tied on. Stripers, at times, will eat whatever they can get their mouth around; however, when they are being ultra selective, being able to identify the prey they are feeding on is vital. This will help in choosing the proper lure, increase your effectiveness, and make your fishing experience much more satisfying.
These amber-colored baitfish range from 1 to 3 inches and form dense schools during the fall run. Patches of them will turn the water reddish brown. At times, stripers will swim through schools of anchovies, mouths agape, inhaling multiple baitfish at once. They can be a difficult baitfish to imitate, but some anglers find success using a teaser above a plug or metal jig to present a small, anchovy-matching fly or soft plastic.
The mullet run was once an important part of the fall striper run in New York and New Jersey, but in recent seasons, the mullet make their exodus before the bass migrate down from New England. However, parts of Rhode Island and Connecticut have experienced excellent fishing around the mullet run the last few years. Mullet are a cigar-shaped baitfish, usually 3- to 5-inches long, with a blunt head and a black back over a silver body. They form tight schools and swim near the surface, regularly jumping. Mullet are easily imitated with poppers, large minnow plugs, and smaller metal-lip swimmers.
Sand eels are long, slender baitfish that can grow up to 10 inches in length, but in the fall surf, they usually range from 3 to 7 inches. It has an olive back and golden-silver sides over a white belly. While stripers occasionally drive sand eels to the surface, they most often feed on them close to the bottom, which should inform lure selection. Anglers imitate sand eels with needlefish, soft-plastic stickbaits, or metal diamond jigs fitted with a tube tail, but slim minnow plugs are another excellent option.
Bunker (Peanuts and Otherwise)
The driving force behind last year’s incredible fall run was the vast abundance of bunker. Early in the fall, adult bunker attracted a wave of big bass and, by Halloween, a flood of peanut bunker held stripers off the coast of Monmouth and Ocean counties for weeks on end. Early indications suggest we’re in for another peanut bunker boom this fall in New Jersey and New York.
In the fall, bunker range from 3- to 6-inch peanuts, growing in size throughout the fall, to the 10- to 14-inch adults. The peanuts are the surfcaster’s favorite because they tend to hug the shoreline and can be easily pushed against the beach by hungry stripers.
Bunker tend to swim in the upper half of the water column, making topwaters like pencils, walking plugs, and traditional poppers effective. Large plastic-minnow plugs, paddletails, and metal-lip swimmers are also deadly during bunker runs. Whenever the bunker are around, however, don’t be afraid to go big.
A Bunker’s First Year
A bunker begins its life adrift in the ocean, produced at some point during the adults’ nearly year-round spawning season. Currents bring the larval menhaden into estuaries and bays, where they spend the next 6 to 10 months growing and filter feeding. By late summer, these “peanut bunker” (the affectionate name given to young-of-year menhaden) are large enough that fishermen begin noticing them schooling in the backwaters, occasionally under attack from schoolie stripers or snapper bluefish. Longer nights send peanut bunker out of the backwaters in early September, with the peak of this exodus happening in October. They hug the coast as they move south, joining groups from other estuaries, forming massive schools noticeable from a distance as dark, purple blotches on the water’s surface. All the while, these peanuts are feeding and growing rapidly, and the 2-inch peanut bunker of late August is 5 inches or more by mid-October, presenting a substantial meal to migratory striped bass. Any juvenile bunker that survive fall join the schools of adult bunker, outgrowing their “peanut” moniker and reaching maturity in their second year, contributing to the population and future fall-striper runs.
You’ve heard it a million times: “Big plugs mean big fish.” It is proven every fall by striper fanatics all along the Northeast coast. These plugs may be unfamiliar to surf fishermen used to casting smaller minnow plugs. Don’t get me wrong. The smaller swimmers have a valued place in every surfcaster’s arsenal, but when big baitfish such as adult bunker are along the beach, tie on one of these large, slow-moving swimmers and you might hook up with a fish to remember.
In the early days, large swimming plugs were produced primarily by Creek Chub Bait Company, Pfleuger, Paw Paw Bait Co. and a few others. The Creek Chub Company was the most popular on the saltwater scene. They had an extensive line of quality wood swimming plugs. The improved musky Pikie minnow was introduced in 1936 and had a reinforced ribbed metal lip and two screws in the head to hold the lip in place. Although these plugs were designed for freshwater northern pike and muskies, they became extremely effective for catching trophy-sized striped bass.
My favorite Creek Chub plug is the Surfster, which was introduced in 1953. Although I collect antique fishing tackle, I still fish with some of the Surfsters and Pikies because of their knack for catching big bass.
Today, custom plug makers imitate these plugs and take them to the next level. Bob Hahn was one of the first plug makers to imitate the Creek Chub Surfster, with an epoxy finish. Then came Lefty and Wade Carr, who made one of the first large, sealed swimmers. Lefty was a member of the Asbury Park Fishing Club, and he sold his treasured plugs at the Asbury Park Club Flea Market. They were the main attraction and fishermen would line up for hours before the flea market opened for a chance of getting one of the most sought-after metal-lip swimmers.
There are many proven plugs on the market today, but year after year, new lures become the latest and greatest, all to give the striper fanatic that extra edge. One of the first in recent years was the Musky Mania Doc, available in 7- and 9-inch models. It not only has a classic walk-the-dog topwater action, but also exceptional triggering capabilities with its side-to-side darting motion. Another top producer this past fall run was the Madd Mantis Quake. I fish this slow-sinking stickbait with a slow retrieve and subtle twitches.
Paddletail shads, from the classic swim-shad style offered by Tsunami and Storm are effective, as are newer models like the ones made by Big Bait Fishing and No Live Bait Needed.
Plug Bag Packing List for Fall Run Peanut Bunker Blitzes
When seeking southbound stripers with bunker on the brain, use this packing list as a starting point, and add from here.
1) Two 5- to 6-inch Bottle-Style Poppers in White and Yellow
These long-casting topwaters can be worked with a slow and splashy retrieve across the surface. They are great at calling up bass even when they aren’t actively feeding on the surface.
2) Two 6- to 7-inch Pencil Poppers in White or Yellow
Pencils cast well and imitate the frantic tail-kick of a panicked bunker. They will catch in the middle of blitzes or when prospecting for schools of bass.
3) Two 5- to 6-inch Peanut-Style Metal-Lip Swimmers in White, Chartreuse, or Yellow
The wide-bodied profile and seductive wiggle of this small metal lip makes it a great imitation of a wounded peanut bunker struggling to keep up with the school.
4) Four 5- to 6-inch Paddletails on ½- to 1-ounce Jigheads in White, Olive/White, or Yellow
The lifelike tail-kick and profile of a paddletail swimming through a trough or below a school of peanuts makes it an automatic lure choice for fall-run stripers.
5) Four 6- to 7-inch Minnow Plugs in White, Silver, Chicken Scratch, Sand Eel, or Bone
My Go-To Fall Run Tackle
During the fall, my main setup is a VS 200 Van Staal matched with a 10-foot, 6-inch St. Croix Legend Surf rod. This setup means I can use 1- to 3-ounce plugs and lures. I also use a Tsunami SaltX 6000 with my 8- and 9-foot rods. Whatever rod and reel you choose, a 9- or 10-footer capable of throwing ¾- to 3-ounce lures and a reel packed with 30-pound-test braid will keep you in the game this fall.
The surf has become an extremely important part of my life, as it has to many others. Every year, it attracts thousands of anglers young and old who come to enjoy the beauty of the shores. We must all work to preserve what nature has given us, for now and future generations. So, hit the beach and perhaps you will have your best fall ever.