By the time Halloween arrives, the fall migration of striped bass is well underway. The fish are heading south, and on the way they’re stopping to feed on the mix of baitfish spilling out of harbors and estuaries. With a large portion of the striper population funneling through Long Island Sound on their way back toward the Hudson River, western Connecticut is positioned at a prime spot to intercept these late-season fish.
An oasis of sort for blues and bass at least, Fairfield County is graced with numerous estuaries and rivers that empty nutrient-rich water into western Long Island Sound. During the late season silversides, peanut bunker (juvenile menhaden) and mullet make their way out of these backwaters and school along the back bays, harbors and beaches. For the striped bass returning to the lower Hudson River, Connecticut is one last stop before they settle in for a long and grueling winter.
I love fishing in the fall; every outing is full of opportunity and everyday has the potential to surprise.
One reason fishing is so great in the late fall is that every fish seems to be big. In the early spring, local spots, like the Housatonic River, are loaded with skinny holdover bass and early southern arrivals that rarely reach past the 20-inch mark, while the fall often surrenders multiple 30-plus-inch linesiders and some hefty 10-pound blues – and they’re all fat and healthy.
Late in the fall, target areas where warm water pours out into the sound. Salt ponds and estuaries that warm fast on a sunny afternoon can be productive, but don’t overlook the warm water produced by power plants. Norwalk and Bridgeport both have outflows that can be conveniently fished by boat offer some accessibility for shore fishermen. These hotspots provide an extended season for the most hardcore fishermen.
In order to achieve late-season success, you might have to think and fish differently than in the spring and summer. Unlike the summer bite, when the fish behave predictably and can usually be found in the same location day after day, fall fish are on the move. You might have to put in a little time and target a number of different locations on different tides, but if you’re persistent, chances are that you will find some fish.
The key is finding an area that is holding bait. Baitfish will congregate near areas of structure on the high tide, and fishing off jetties and steep-sloped beaches can be the ticket.
In the fall, the tides that fish favor seem to be a bit different than in the summer. Perhaps it’s because of the cooler water or the heavier competition among the schooling fish, but I find that the fish will pursue baitfish more aggressively, swimming up into skinny areas on the incoming tide, as opposed to waiting for their meal to drift down to them on the dropping tide. I also marvel at the fact that these fish feed throughout the day for the most part, unlike our August residents, which only come close to shore to feed in the dark.
Last fall, I was fishing a special little creek that flows out of a huge marsh, and the incoming tide was loaded with bait. Bay anchovies, silversides, and peanut bunker were all caught up in a narrow channel that flowed over eelgrass in three feet of water. My brother and I caught and released fish for hours by tossing the same simple little bunker imitations. The fishing wasn’t as fast as it had been in April, but the average fish was bigger, and my brother and I enjoyed catching 30-inch bass on the long rods and having some monstrous bluefish blow-up on our flies.
Of course the outgoing tide can still be very effective, and must not be overlooked. In any case, whether it’s the incoming or outgoing tides, rest assured that there will be a new mystery the next day because fall bass are always on the move.
In November of 2008, the bass and blues cornered a large school of peanut bunker in the estuaries around the Stamford/ Greenwich area. At a popular salt pond in the area, I fished the outflow every day for almost a week straight, and like clockwork, the turn of the outgoing tide triggered a ravenous influx of large bluefish.
At high tide, when the current had not yet turned, there was plenty of bait around but the area was devoid of predators. Then, as that lunar gravitational pull started moving the tide, the blues came out to play. We were casting flies from a boat, but the fish were feeding no further than 100 feet from the jetty. We positioned our boat to make drifts over the submerged portion of the rocky outcropping and caught fish until the blues moved too shallow, pushing the bait into the oversized eddy just below where water poured over the concrete dam at the mouth of the salt pond. This is the point where an angler on foot could have hit the jackpot. In the distance, I could see baitfish spraying high into the air and onto the dry sand. The foam lines were disturbed by vicious swirls and swiping fins.
For about half an hour the action was far too shallow for our 26-foot boat to reach, and we were left out, save the one lone bass we got on a bunker chunk. Soon, however, the water began to drain over the sand with increasing speed and pour out over the jetty. Slowly, the swirls began to appear closer and closer to our mark. Then, in an instant, we were surrounded by pops and splashes. Apparently some bass had joined the bluefish party, their presence made evident by huge blow-ups just feet from the gunnels. Now we had an advantage, as slowly the action drifted away from the lonely fly-tossers on shore. I could see the vulnerable 3-inch peanuts swimming erratically on the surface, so I grabbed an imitation fly from the foam wallet. A synthetic of sorts, sporting pink and yellow Angel Hair, would do the trick. The minute the fly dimpled the surface, it was devoured by a huge bluefish; a perfect match, indeed.
While boaters occasionally have the advantage, surf fishing during the late fall can be spectacular, and has brought me some of the best days that I have ever experienced on the water.
My biggest fly-rod bass came from fishing the surf on a cold, late November morning. I was tossing flies in the surf off a well-known sand spit that extends out into the sound. For hours, a group of big stripers had bait trapped on the southern side of the peninsula and they were completely filling up on silversides. The fish would do most of the feeding on the incoming tide and push the silversides right up in the wash. We whacked them, and each fish was no less than keeper size. Most of the hook-ups came from within ten feet from the sand. The biggest fish came on a late grab right in the suds, as I was basically letting my fly just drift in the current. It fought like a beast on the fly rod and measured out a little short of 40 inches.
November also brings with it a sea herring run that becomes quite substantial in the Housatonic River. These fish arrive to invade the river, and the bass know it. Here in Connecticut we can have a pretty long season, never-ending actually, with the population of bass that winter over in the major rivers, such as the Housatonic. Fish will be rushing in and out of the Milford Estuary from late November through early December. Many of these fish will be schoolies, but a good amount of the bass that spend the winter are over 28 inches in length. The fish will get sluggish as the season freezes on, but still can be taken, even in the December blizzards.
Not all of the late season action is inside the rivers and estuaries. Outside Norwalk Harbor, the Norwalk Islands are a late-season hotspot for fly-rodders when the temperatures drop. The abundance of outcroppings, sandbars and flats makes the area appealing to bass and blues pursuing the last of the season’s baitfish. Later in November and even into December, fishermen should target the large number of silted mud flats that warm quickly when the sun is out. Stripers can find relatively easy meals on these flats well into the Christmas season.
A year ago, on the first weekend in December, I was looking to delay the onset of cabin fever by hitting a flat near Cockenoe Island on a cold, sunny day. When I arrived, the water was calm and it seemed that there were no bass about: no swirls, no pushes, not even a bird was stirring. Now given that this flat was not really even a flat at this point because of the high tide, I shouldn’t have been too surprised. I took a break for lunch and gave the tide a couple hours to do its work, and when I came back, the water was about 3 feet deep and I could see some terns moving in and out, searching for bait.
I waded out carefully onto the fragile flat. The water was much warmer than when I entered a couple hours ago, but the air was still unforgivably cold and gusty. Out into the quiet, glassy, surface, I gazed at some kind of swirl, and then another current push followed shortly after. I crept into casting distance and let loose a 60-footer that landed well off target but in the correct direction. I expected they were bass, and soon a fish was tight to my line. Following a performance of half-hearted runs and surface thrashes, I grabbed the fish by its lip. It was a striper, indeed, and a beauty at that, somewhere near 25 inches.
Even when the beaches seem deserted, as if all other aquatic life has migrated south, I will continue to head out armed with wool gloves and long johns to test how late I can extend the season. With any luck, I’ll catch that last elusive fish that makes the perfect end to a long season. The water may look barren, but I’ll know that at any moment, an explosion of silver and stripes provoked by my feathered hook could prove otherwise.