November is a fantastic, and overlooked, time to target fish and bait close to shore.
Sand Eels in November
I pause at the crest of a large, bulbous dune to absorb the scene that lies in front of me. My breath comes in small puffs of vapor that hang like fog around my face, clouding my vision. It is cold tonight. The sand glistens like a million miniscule diamonds under a heavy dew and full moon. While the air is almost entirely still, the rolling surf breaks the silence with rhythmic pulsations of churning water. It is a weak surf, but the sound carries far in the crisp air. The stars are so bright and clear that they feel close … as if I could reach up and hold them in my hand. In a fleeting moment of childlike imagination, I must restrain myself from trying.
Movement to the right catches my eye. I turn, disturbing the stillness around me with the swish sound of my waders. A fox is working the tide line, his nose down, darting and swerving as waves break and roll toward it. It is a bit late for me to run into my season-long nocturnal companion, yet here she is. She pauses momentarily to inspect some potential meal. I think to myself, “I wonder if this will be the last night I see her this season?” I frown. The thought is yet another harbinger of a season coming to a close.
This thought brings with it some urgency and pushes me out of my reflective, passive observation of the beach and into an active hunting mode. I half walk, half slide down the narrow path cut in the dune grass. The fox looks up suddenly and turns quickly to flee. She bounds away, and then stops for a moment, glancing over her shoulder, appearing to reflect on my sudden and alien appearance. She may be wondering the same basic thought that many other fishermen would likely be thinking—what am I doing out here so late in the season?
As I reach the waterline, I give her a quick half-wave/half-salute and watch her dissolve into the night. I turn back toward the horizon and focus on the task at hand. The lure selection is automatic—an unloaded Redfin. My fingers are already a little cold, but anticipation pushes it out of my mind. I can see the sand eels sparkling in front of me, right at the surf line, as well as out into the trough. I snap on the lure and take a cast. Only 20 or so feet into the retrieve, I am tight to my first fish of the night.
For the remainder of this hard, vitreous night, I catch fish throughout the entire tide to about 12 pounds. Despite my late arrival and the consistent action, the night still feels long. The moon disappears, and I end up fishing through inky darkness and into the morning, unable to pull myself away. Twilight passes languidly, but as light starts to peek over the eastern horizon, I tally my nighttime catch at almost 40 fish.
Yet, it is not over. Suddenly, fish begin swirling everywhere in the wash. They are rolling on shimmering balls of sand eels thick enough to ripple and rile the flat surface. I’ve stopped catching, as the fish start to reject my plugs, but I can see fish cruising tight to the shore. I make the decision to endure the long walk back to the car and grab my fly rod. I note as I unlock the door that my vehicle is covered with frost.
Upon hustling back to the surf, my fly rod in hand, I find the fish aggressively breaking in the surf as the sun rises fully over the eastern horizon. I lay out a nicely placed cast, but it hardly matters. I do not even get a chance to strip my line before I’m tight to a fierce, keeper-sized fish. I grin ear to ear—it doesn’t get much better than this.
November is a lonely, desperate time for the New England surf fisherman. There seems to only be a handful of diehards left as everyone else has either given up fishing for the season or started making long drives south. This is not surprising, or even unjustified. Late-fall fishing in the New England surf can be tough. Vast expanses of shoreline are devoid of life, locations that, only weeks before, had been filled with blitzes of reckless, seemingly angry, migrating fish.
Reading the story above, you may surmise I’m talking about October in South County Rhode Island or November in New Jersey. However, this specific night took place on Cape Cod in mid-November. Over those 12 hours of fishing, I caught more than 60 fish, and during that November I caught more than 120 from that single spot. To those new to the sport, or those who have forgotten history, November in the Cape surf used to be a prime month for large fish, though I never saw those days. While things have changed significantly, I still find solid tides filled with schoolies to teen-size fish each season deep into November. Consistently catching these fish has come down to one simple tactic for me. I key in on one forage species, to the exclusion of all other factors. I focus on sand eels.
Sand Eels or Bust
Why sand eels? It’s simple, really—they stay put. Sand eels are different from many other forms of bait. If there isn’t a crazy onshore storm that comes late in the year and lasts for a very long time, the eels do not move around much. Once you find them, you can count on them being there for many weeks, and even months, late into the season. As such, they attract and hold the last remaining migrating fish as they head south or offshore. Cape Cod is probably the sand eel capital of New England, if not the Northeast and holds concentrations that can boggle the mind. The other great thing the Cape has going for it is beaches that face every direction the wind could possibly blow. As a result, if there is a predominant northeast wind pattern, Cape anglers can fish the greasy-calm conditions of the south-facing beaches—and vice-versa. This can be a real asset later in November.
Isolating Late-Season Sand Eel Action
Beyond finding the sand eels, during the tail end of the season, choosing, testing, and sticking with productive spots becomes paramount. You must start early. I don’t fish many of these late-season spots during the more productive periods of the fall run because there are better chances of bigger fish on larger forage. However, I usually force myself to fish a couple of night tides in October or even late September, testing my regular November spots, knowing I will be happy I did so later on. If I find bait and even just a few schoolies, I know I’m probably in luck.
While it’s November now, don’t worry – it’s not too late to get started. Go tonight or tomorrow, if you can. Don’t try to catch fish right away; instead, go out and hit as many likely spots as you can, looking for good sand eel concentrations—concentrations being the key word in this sentence. You don’t want just a few or scattered pockets; you want a solid, thick swath of bait. And, make sure you are looking at sand eels and not spearing or other minnow-sized baitfish. I sometimes find identifying sand eels easier at night using a headlamp. If you flip on your light and the bait darts away, appearing to disappear completely before your eyes, you know you’re on sand eels.
Once you’ve found the sand eels, start fishing. I suggest not wasting any time at spots with no fish this month no matter how much structure or bait there is. Unlike in the spring, summer, and early fall, I don’t “stick it out” at spots that “look good.” No fish during a night or two? I’m not coming back for a while, if at all. However, once I find some fish, I will sit on them for as long as I can. Even if they’re small, I try not to leave fish to find fish. The presence of smaller fish suggests there is something different about this spot, and larger fish may appear. This doesn’t necessarily mean I have to catch a dozen fish to deem a spot productive, but I’m looking for an area with more than just a single schoolie over a couple of nights. It takes time to get a feel for it, but once you get into the pattern and build some confidence, you’ll almost intuitively know when a spot makes sense.
As for the specific characteristics of the spot, I’m not fussy about nuance. I simply look for sandy areas close to well-known migration routes or near major holdover areas (i.e., rivers and estuaries). They don’t have to be directly adjacent, but the closer the better. That’s about it. While I obsess over water movement, structure, and other factors earlier in the season, I don’t worry too much about it in November. It’s all about the bait and intercepting the remaining fish as they either head south or hole up for the winter in our local backwaters. (Note that this doesn’t apply just to the Cape, but also to other areas in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut.)
Once you have a spot with sand eels and have caught a couple of fish, make sure you’re targeting the best tide. This may sound like an intuitive “duh” statement, but it can also prove critical. For me, fishing sandy beaches this time of year is all about the incoming tide. The water tends to be warmer, and an incoming tide increases water depth. Since I am often fishing shallow areas, this deeper water seems bring the fish within casting distance. However, this may not apply to your spot. I suggest trying as many tide stages as you can, and logging them in a fishing log. Every night out is data and an investment in your future success. Additionally, I urge you to fish only the night tides unless you have unlimited availability to fish around the clock. This time of year, many fishermen switch to fishing late afternoons and evenings, but I think this to be a mistake. The best fishing still remains after dark, just like all season long, and I still fish the very late “witching hour” tides well after midnight.
Finally, right now, I prefer to fish with the wind at my back, which is counter to what many tend to think. Certainly, during early periods of the fall, large waves, white water, and wind-in-your-face conditions can be dynamite. However, this time of year, I fish flat conditions almost exclusively. It’s really not about the fish, it’s more about my comfort level. When it’s only 40 (or even 30) degrees out and the water is only 50, with the wind blowing in my face at 25 mph, my hands don’t tend to function very well, even with gloves (and I hate gloves). So, I focus on calm conditions out of selfish comfort and adapt my angling to catch what I can. Luckily, calm conditions are more conducive to getting sand eels to come up and out of the sand, attracting more fish.
Keep Lures and Flies Simple in November
When it comes to plug choice, this is the one time of year that I heavily use plastic minnow-style lures. They mimic the bait size, they’re cheap, and they cast well. I love unloaded Cotton Cordell Redfins. With a wind at my back, I have no problem casting them, and the unloaded Redfin seems to be more productive for me in shallow, clear water than the loaded version. This lure has more dramatic action, which allows it to be fished very slowly while still having that seductive roll. I also like Yo-Zuri Mag Darters, Bomber Long A’s (or A-Salt), and Daiwa SP Minnows. However, Lunker City Slug-Gos can be the only thing that catches at times, so I always have them on hand. Needles of various sizes are also always in my bag, but they have to be very slow sinking. I cycle through all of these, every dozen casts or so, as I think the fish can be relatively fussy in these late-season, shallow-water situations. It sometimes takes some experimentation to lock into the best lure choice.
For my fellow fly-rodders, November is a fantastic, and overlooked, time to target fish and bait close to shore. I fish intermediate and floating lines on my 10-weight rod and typically use a straight, 15- to 20-pound leader of 7 to 9 feet long. It is simple and works great—I’m easily able to shoot the full line, blind-casting size 1/0 flies for hours on end without too much fatigue, and have no problem pulling teen-sized fish through the last wave.
The great thing about fishing at night is you don’t have to go crazy with light tippets. I almost exclusively use inexpensive Deceiver flies, or Clouser minnows if the water is a little deeper. Sizes between 1 and 1/0 work just fine, and by focusing in on one bait profile, things stay simple.
Catching the Last Fish of the Season Takes Commitment
I will confide in you something that not every fishing writer, guide, or even just “Joe Fisherman” is willing to admit. Some years can be lousy, and I catch very few fish—perhaps only a dozen or two in the entire month, despite substantial effort. Still others can be really rewarding and yield good numbers of fish every night for weeks. This comes down to several factors; however, the most important is luck of the weather. Weather can absolutely destroy any chance at catching anything. During September and October, fishing 4- to 6-foot waves is no problem; during November, it can be a disaster. It can disperse the sand eels and force them out of a spot or offshore, and sometimes, for whatever reason, they just never come back. It also tends to push the remaining migrating fish south. Since I insist on focusing on specific tides at night, if several storms come back to back with only a handful of days between them, it can ruin an entire tide cycle, or even the whole month. As such, when the window of opportunity opens, I treat these tides like I do those in May or June—I beg, borrow, or buy my way out of any obligations and fish like my life depends upon it. I stay utterly committed to the surf, right to the bitter end, because I never regret it in February.