Pictured above: Though the November surf is dominated by abundant smaller bass, when big bait moves in, big stripers are often hot on their tails.
Catch the last leg of the striped bass fall run as it passes through New Jersey.
Late fall is a great time to be a surf fisherman in New Jersey. Every year, large schools of striped bass migrate along the coast, heading south. The Monmouth County beaches light up in late September or early October, and the fish steadily move down into Ocean County by late October, with the best fishing usually taking place in November.
Fall-run stripers tend to be smaller than the northbound behemoths that pass New Jersey in the spring, but what the fish lack in size, they make up for in numbers. Surf anglers have a real opportunity to catch hundreds of stripers during November and December.
The fall run of 2011 may have been the best New Jersey fishermen have ever experienced, as stripers fed in the Ocean County surf for more than two and a half months. Everything fell into place to create epic fishing. A huge mass of sand eels settled into the surf zone in Ocean County just as migrating bass were moving through. The bass found the sand eels, pushed them into the suds and stayed there for weeks, as the unusually mild weather kept water temperatures right in the stripers’ comfort zone into the winter.
Sand eels are the most abundant late fall bait in New Jersey. These slender baitfish can be 3 to 6 inches or longer. Sand eels can be a fisherman’s best ally, as they often inhabit the same area for weeks or even months at a time, resulting in amazingly consistent fishing. Birds picking bait in the wash is a great indicator as to where sand eels are concentrated. Finding these concentrations of sand eels can lead to day after day of great fishing. Sand eels generally stay near the bottom and bury themselves head-first when threatened. Fish your lures deep, as bass on the hunt for sand eels will be looking down.
Rain bait (bay anchovies), spearing, and peanut and adult bunker can also heat things up. When stripers and bluefish find concentrations of these baits, it can result in some dramatic blitzes. Many times, the fish will push the baitfish right onto the sand. Small metal-lipped swimmers, such as those made by RV Lures and Big Rock Custom Lures, catch very well during these blitzes.
Most fall-run stripers in New Jersey fall into the 25- to 35-inch range, but bigger fish occasionally make an appearance. Last year, fish over 30 pounds were taken in late November and 25- to 35-pound fish blitzed in mid-December. These fish will often be feeding on bunker or herring. The presence of gannets is a telltale sign that herring are around.
Herring do not like to get trapped in tight to the beach and will work quickly to evade the predators and escape to deeper water, so move quickly when you see a herring blitz unfolding. You might only get one cast into it. Larger fall stripers can be scored on topwater plugs such as Polaris-style poppers.
Low tide offers anglers the opportunity to get out on the sandbar. Being on the bar allows anglers to cast into the deep water and work the structure around all sides of the sandbars, including the outer edges, which can be a big-time feeding zone for the bass. Metals, small minnow-style swimmers, leadheads and needlefish are effective when fishing off the sandbar. Let the conditions dictate which plug you pull out of your plug bag.
Fish often situate on the outside of the barrier sandbars. On these days, reaching deep water from the beach will catch fish consistently. Ava jigs will be the go-to lure. Many fishermen replace the surgical tube tail with a bucktail tail hook, cutting down on air resistance and resulting in longer casts. The color of the tail hook dressing can also be an important factor—last year, there were many days when black tails were most effective. Overall, green and black were the two hottest tail colors last fall.
Do not neglect the skinny water. Fish will sometimes storm the bar and feed directly on it. Soft baits, such as Bill Hurley Sand Eels, or small metals such as Ava 007‘s, A.O.K. T-Hexes and Jersey Tackle Jetty Ghost Sand Eels, coupled with teasers will score consistently when bass are feeding over the sandbar.
High water is productive, as bass will hunt the holes, rips and edges of sandbars. Look for obvious ambush points where bass can sit just out of the current and ambush baits moving past them.
Crowds can become a significant factor in the fall. Internet and cell chatter can quickly turn a hot stretch of beach into something resembling opening day of trout season. A great way to avoid the crowds is to fish at night. Needlefish and Daiwa SP Minnows are my go-to lures for fall run night fishing. Teasers fished above these plugs are also very effective in the dark.
On big surf nights, black metals are becoming one of the favorite lures for New Jersey surfcasters. The Point Jude Dark Knight Series, A.O.K. T-Hex Stealth Series and Ava jigs with black tails are all effective lures for fishing at night in a rough surf. Some shops are now carrying the black Avas which should also be deadly at night.
At daybreak, you can sometimes see feeding bass in the surf. Look for tail slaps and boils. They will often be well within casting distance of small minnow-style lures like the Daiwa SP Minnow.
As you prepare your plug bag, consider using lures with a single barbless hook. This will result in fast releases, which are safer for both fish and angler.
Nor’easters occasionally hit New Jersey during the fall. As the barometer drops, grab your gear and head to the beach. Just before the storm hits, the fishing can really turn on. During the early part of the storm, while the water is still clean, cast a 3-ounce A.O.K. T-Hex into the wind, let it sink to the bottom, and bounce it along the sand. Also, swim shads are a can’t-miss lure for New Jersey nor’easters. Jetties, jetty pockets, points and other structure can produce when Nor’easters hit. These ugly days make for some of the best fishing of the fall.
For bait fishermen, clams, bunker and mullet are the most common offerings during the fall run. These baits are widely available at local shops (unless the weather has been foul for a stretch of time and the bait boats have been unable to get out). When available, fresh clams are preferred over salted.
Big bluefish also show up in the surf this time of year. These gorilla blues can weigh up to 20 pounds and they fight like maniacs. You can target these brutes with bait by throwing mullet or bunker, or you can cast lures such as Polaris-style poppers, metals and a variety of other lures.
The fall run will typically wind down in late December or early January. At this time of year, smaller fish dominate the catch. Anglers can scale down their tackle and fish small swimmers and soft baits to catch the last schoolies of the season.
We are hoping that the action of New Jersey’s 2011 fall run will repeat itself. With the fall run of 2012 upon us, we’ll soon learn if this is the case.
Tom Lynch is a surf fisherman, photographer and videographer who lives in Seaside Park, New Jersey. His website is AngryFish.TV.