Pictured above: The author (right) and his brother Steve Pickering display two keeper bass that were caught along the Narragansett shoreline. These were both caught at the same time on Cocahoe Minnows mounted on small jigheads and fished under a school of bay anchovies.
Rhode Island’s fall bay anchovy run brings albies, blues and bass within reach of boat and shore anglers.
For Rhode Island fishermen, this could be one of the most exciting times of the year. September presents a rare window of opportunity in which fishermen can tangle with three of the state’s most sought after gamefish: striped bass, bluefish and false albacore. There’s no better time to take the challenge of trying to catch the “hat trick” of all three species in the same day.
Last year on a weekend day in late September, my brother Steve, my son Ben and I were out in Steve’s boat in the Point Judith outer Harbor of Refuge area. It was one of those bluebird days; the sky was clear, the ocean was fairly calm, and you could see a few miles in every direction. And in just about every direction we looked, there were concentrated flocks of birds diving, schools of bait raining on the surface, and groups of fish breaking here and there. The area was choked with schools of bay anchovies, and predators were in hot pursuit. As we drifted along, we could see millions of small baitfish sparkling in the clear water underneath us. In recent years, bay anchovies have become September’s main dish for stripers, blues, and albies. This bait, also known as rain bait, is small, about 1 to 3 inches in length, and can be quite difficult to imitate with a plug due to their tiny size and vast numbers.
We could also see groups of larger fish breaking within schools of this bait. To a trained eye, there was a distinct difference in how the predators attacked. In some places, mostly locations in deeper water, the fish would torpedo through the bait and move very fast, hit-and-run style. We knew these were albies, and you had to really cast ahead of a breaking fish to have any chance at a hit. In other schools of bait, mostly close to shore or jetty rocks, the predators would be passively whirling under the bait. These were stripers, and to have a good shot at success, you would need to work a small jig under the bait. Finally, you had the aggressive feeders that would often boil in one spot and just rip the bait apart in a feeding frenzy. Of course, these were the blues. They were an unpredictable bunch, with some aggressive fish hitting surface offerings on top while others preferred to feed under the baitfish, just like the stripers.
We came prepared for all three predators on this day, and we worked these schools of bait and breaking fish with several types of artificials loaded on spinning outfits. Within a couple of hours, we landed a half-dozen false albacore, lots of stripers and about 10 large bluefish. We achieved the hat trick, an event many of us have come to associate with September fishing in Rhode Island.
I know it is a far greater challenge to land all three fish from shore on the same day than it is from a boat, but I have done it a few times over the years. If you are a shore fisherman, my advice is to move around, especially when trying to find albies, the most difficult of the three fish to catch.
Albies tend to hang around deeper water. Locations where rock cliffs drop off to deep water, or along jetties that extend toward deep water, offer your best chances at finding them. In recent years, Rhode Island shore locations like the south shore breachways, the East Wall and West Wall, and the rocky drop-offs along Narragansett, Jamestown and Newport have all been good locations where a shore angler might tangle with an elusive albie. Be cautious in these areas, since rocky areas can be slippery when wet and the deep water adds an element of danger.
My strategy in September has been to look for albies and bluefish by day and to target striped bass in the evening and at night, though when there is a lot of bait, stripers will be around in the daytime. This strategy worked to perfection two years ago when I had a September hat-trick day from shore. My day began in the afternoon along one of our jetties. After an hour of casting and looking for fish, I had nothing. Then, all of a sudden, a pod of albies started breaking right in front of me. I wound up my 8-foot St. Croix Mojo Surf rod and launched a cast, landing my “float ‘n’ fluke” rig right in the middle of them. Bang, the rod arched and the drag on my Van Staal 150 reel started screaming. I was on! After a heart-pounding battle, I landed that albie, and shortly afterward I landed another one. As fast as the action began, it died, as so often happens with these fish.
While watching the ocean’s surface and hoping for more fish to appear, I got a call from my son Ben, who wanted to fish from shore that evening along some rocky bars just to the south of where I was. He mentioned that there had been a lot of bait and a few stripers there the previous evening, so I decided to leave my albie spot and go in search of stripers and blues.
We both arrived at the new location just before dark. As we waded out, we could see birds diving and fish breaking in very shallow water. All around us, bay anchovies were being driven onto the bar by predators. I began casting a small needlefish plug into the breaking fish. I would get a hit with this plug just about every cast as blues were on the rampage. Toward dark, there was a major shift to stripers. As full darkness set in, the fishing seemed to die out, as it often does when the fish have had their fill of bay anchovies. My day ended with two false albacore, five bluefish, and six stripers up to keeper size.
When looking for a September hat trick, my first word of advice is to find the bait. Look for diving birds that will give away the bait’s location. Obviously, it is much easier to do this from a boat. From shore, it becomes a matter of finding access spots and searching the surface of the water with binoculars, looking for birds, bait and breaking fish.
My other advice to fishermen who chase the big three in September is to be prepared. Carry a load of artificials geared toward imitating bay anchovies because you may be switching artificials often when trying to find what the fussy predators will hit. In addition, the big three may not all hit the same lures. Albies will be the most difficult to fool due to their keen eyesight and quick movements. Stripers can also be fussy. Boat fishermen should realize that this a casting game of working plugs, jigs and other artificials. Drifting quietly with the motor off along the edges of a school of bait and casting is the best approach. Trolling is completely ineffective when working schools of bay anchovies and will often break up the bait schools and send the predators packing.
There are some very specific artificials that are effective in September. When targeting albies from shore or boat, I love to use a float rig. The rig consists of a homemade wired wooden float (egg or broom handle type) to which either a light-colored Deceiver fly or a hooked soft-plastic lure is knotted onto the end of 3 feet of 30-pound-test monofilament or fluorocarbon that trails off the float. The advantage to this set up is that you can launch a booming cast with the float, making this rig an obvious choice when shore fishing, but it also works well from a boat. You’ll want to cast ahead of any breaking fish and work this rig slowly along the surface with an occasional pull of the rod tip. Albies will blast this offering with a spectacular hit, so hold on if you get one and be ready for the drag to smoke! Note that some boaters and even shore fishermen will also use fly-fishing outfits to try to beat these trophies. Yes, that does work if the fish are in close, and it is an incredible challenge, but realize that spinning gear offers an easier and far more efficient route to catching these fish. Stripers and blues will also hit these small offerings on the float rig at times, but other artificials are better suited to the blues and bass.
When stripers are swirling under the rain bait, go with some type of jig and work it below the schools of baitfish. Last year, a light colored, 3-inch Cocahoe Minnow attached to a 1/2-ounce jighead did the trick with fussy stripers. In other instances, I have done will using using small bucktail jigs (1/4- to 5/8-ounce flathead style) spiced with plastic curly tails. At times, paddle-tailed swimming shad jigs, like the ones by Storm and Tsunami with a jighead molded inside the body, also scored. In all these cases, the trick was to cast the lure and allow it to sink under the schools of feeding fish. Keep a slow, steady retrieve. Be prepared to switch jigs if one doesn’t work since what works one day may not work the next. Note that I also like to use that float rig described above with a jig at the end when fishing in shallow water from shore. It is a killer for stripers feeding on small bait in shallow, rocky areas.
Most topwater artificials will lure bluefish and an occasional striper, but topwater lures are generally less effective on albies. Small poppers, spook-style plugs, and needlefish are top choices. When selecting a popper, try to go small. Four-inch models that weigh around an ounce are good producers. I see topwater lures as the least productive when targeting September’s big three, although these lures will work well at times and produce exciting hits. They can be a good second choice to use in shallow, rocky areas from shore. Most of the time, though, the float and jig will far outfish a popper when small bait is around.
Metal lures can also be very productive when fish are feeding on rain bait. Lures like small Acme Kastmaster XLs, the elongated version of a Kastmaster, cast well and can fool all three species of fish. My advice is to fish metal lures by retrieving them at a quick pace near the surface when albies are around and letting them drop down deeper and retrieving them slowly when stripers and blues are around.
If I had to pick a time to fish, I would say the early morning far outfishes late afternoon and evening at this time of year, especially if you are fishing from a boat. However, most fishermen know this fact, and afternoons and evenings often see very little pressure with a shot at some decent fishing. Stormy and rough weather is also prime time at any time of the day. Albies are strictly daytime feeders. Blues and smaller stripers will also hit well in the daytime when they are feeding on bay anchovies. Fishing at night is by far the best time to snare a keeper bass.
Catching September’s big three is a major accomplishment for any fisherman, whether you fish from boat or shore. Prime time here in Rhode Island runs the whole month of September into early October. With dropping water temperatures, these fish are looking for food in anticipation of their fall migration. At the same time, massive schools of bay anchovies are moving along the shoreline. It sets up some of the wildest fishing of the year. Come prepared and you can experience the September hat trick.