Stretch your striped bass surfcasting season into December when the sea herring show along Rhode Island’s beaches.
Fall of 2011 was one of the best I’ve ever experienced for catching stripers and bluefish from shore along Rhode Island’s very accessible South County beaches. A massive migration of Atlantic herring lured in large blues and big stripers to feed along the south coast, and the result was almost daily blitzes for well over a month. The outstanding fishing began in late October and lasted well into December. Many of us are hoping for a repeat performance this year.
Almost every year, Atlantic herring (sea herring) migrate southward in huge numbers along the south shore of Rhode Island, appearing in late October or early November. Their presence is often given away by dive-bombing gannets, huge seagull-like birds that circle in flocks far above the water’s surface. Once they spot a school of herring, the gannets will dive straight down into the water in spectacular fashion. Sometimes you’ll spot flocks of gannets numbering in the hundreds. Usually, all of this is taking place well out of casting range. However, there are times when the herring and gannets will come within a cast-length from shore. And, when that happens, the wild mix of herring and gannets usually includes large stripers and big blues.
This happened to me last year in late November, just prior to Thanksgiving, on a deserted stretch of beach along the south shore. I simply walked into mayhem. Immediately, I knew I was into something rare and spectacular as gannets were pounding the water right in front of me, a flip-cast away from breaking waves. I could also make out the silvery flashes of schools of herring in the water, pinned up against the drop-off along the beach by predators below. Occasional large swirls indicated the presence of large predators. I snapped on a needlefish plug, cast it straight out, and with a couple of cranks of the reel the plug was savagely hit by a large bass. This fish, along with many more I would land that day, measured about 35 inches.
Right away, I got on my cell phone to call two of my sons who lived close by. I got in touch with both Jon and Ben, and they were at the water’s edge within a half-hour. The three of us pounded away all afternoon at these fish, which proved to be a mix of stripers and bluefish. We caught them on poppers, needlefish plugs, and large wooden swimming plugs. By the end of the afternoon, the three of us had beached a total of 30 stripers, with most going 28 to 40 inches, and 20 bluefish that ranged from 5 to 13 pounds. We also lost a number of fish to pulled hooks and broken lines. At times, it was a hit on every cast. This would prove to be our best fall outing of the year in terms of big fish, and there was not another fisherman anywhere in sight! I have to guess that many fishermen had hung up their rods by that late November date. Others may have been onto the fish somewhere else.
Where to Find Herring-Run Fish
That was just one of many great surf-fishing outings we had last fall. These memorable blitzes were all triggered by the presence of schools of herring. In general, late fall fishing is a matter of finding large numbers of feeding fish, and if you find the bait, you usually find the fish. However, the bait does not always show. Diving gannets usually signal the presence of herring near the surface. Realize that sometimes the bait is deep, never coming anywhere near the surface. You might not see any evidence of predators breaking water since they may be down deep also. My advice is to always try a number of spots in search of fish. In late fall, most south shore fishermen make the mistake of only looking for diving birds, never making a cast if no birds are found. You can’t imagine how many times we have found big numbers of fish with no surface activity. Often on these days, when you land a large striper or bluefish they are coughing up one herring after another, some of which are still alive!
Rhode Island’s south shore is one of the most accessible areas I have ever fished. This is especially true if you are planning to fish after the first of November. The south shore oceanfront runs from Galilee’s Harbor of Refuge in Narragansett to Napatree Point in Westerly, a stretch of over 15 miles. Route 1, the highway that runs just about parallel to the coast, offers numerous exits to get you into access points and public beach parking along the beachfront. There are public parking lots at East Matunuck State Beach, Deep Hole at Matunuck, South Kingstown Beach, Charlestown Beach and Breachway, East Beach, Weekapaug Beach and Breachway, and some of the Westerly beaches, to name just a few. There are also limited sections of the south shore beaches where 4-wheel-drive vehicles are allowed if you purchase a barrier beach permit from the Rhode Island DEM. (Information can be found at www.riparks.com/info.htm.) The fish could show anywhere along the south shore. I suggest being on the lookout for gannets, but if there are no birds, fish a number of locations and keep moving until you find the fish.
If you are looking to pinpoint some high-percentage spots, think holding water and structure. Most of the south shore appears to be featureless beaches, but there are places where the herring can get corralled or trapped by predators, and these are the spots where the fishing will hold up the longest. Breachway jetties located at Galilee, Charlestown, Quonny and Weekapaug are prime holding spots that tend to corral fish at their corners where the beach meets the jetty rocks. These places also offer moving water out front, flows that prey and predators are naturally drawn to both day and night. Prominent rocky points that are located at Green Hill, Weekapaug, Watch Hill and Napatree jut out into the ocean and offer a rocky landscape where herring might congregate for protection. Matunuck offers a unique set of rocky bars with troughs in between where herring might also seek shelter. Finally, there are many fishermen who simply ply the featureless beaches. These fishermen will find a school of fish on a stretch of beach and usually walk southward with the school, casting away and picking up one fish after another as they move with the schools of bait and predators. This is a great strategy to use on a deserted beach, but not so great when a picket fence of fishermen are casting along the beach.
Top Lures For Herring Blitzes
When trying to imitate herring with an artificial, think big. Herring are large, slender baitfish that measure anywhere from 5 to 10 inches. They have a silvery-white belly and sides and a dark-blue back. Light-colored plugs (silver or white) with a dark back in the 5- to 7-inch range would be your best sizes and colors. There are several good choices of artificials that work with varying effectiveness, and your plug bag should be stuffed with all of these.
Let’s start with poppers. They are very effective when herring are around. I make a 4-inch popper weighing a bit over an ounce that caught a lot of fish last year. My most effective ones are painted all white with a blue or dark-green back. You might also score well with larger 2-ounce poppers and pencil poppers in light colors. My advice is to work the popper slowly, making it pop and swim back and forth. Both stripers and blues usually slam topwater plugs when they are feeding on herring.
I also like needlefish plugs. They have a slender profile, much like a herring, and a subtle dipping as well as a back and forth swagger on the retrieve that many fish find irresistible. You want to use a sharp and quick pumping action on the rod tip while reeling slowly in order to give this plug its most effective movement. Sometimes it will outfish the popper if the fish are finicky, and I think the needlefish is far more effective on stripers than on bluefish. I make both a 4-inch model and a 5½-inch model that are both effective. Again, stick with light colors.
Plastic and wooden swimmers will also score big in herring madness. At times, I did well with a white Bomber in a 6-inch size. I also scored using Danny-style metal-lip swimmers. A white wooden swimmer with a blue back is about the best choice to use.
Finally, stock some metal. I watched a guy last year haul a large Kastmaster off a beach when the fish were working way out. He was able to cast that metal much farther into the onshore wind than any of us that were using wooden or plastic plugs. I watched him land several big stripers and big blues with the Kastmaster, a lure that has the right looks and movement to imitate herring darting through the water. You can also let the Kastmaster sink before retrieving it, and sometimes that works wonders when the fish are way out and deep.
Picking the right plug is often a case of trial and error. On some days, one will work better than another. On other days, everything will work. So, if there are fish and bait in front of me, I will often change plugs (size, color and type) if I am not catching. It is usually a matter of a short time until I find the plug that catches.
Most fishermen view this herring bite as a daytime game. For sure, many large stripers and blues are taken in the daytime when herring are present. And, as darkness arrives, the action seems to end and the herring disappear. However, many surfcasters will continue to fish after dark, and they will make some big catches. I’m guessing that the large fish that are drawn close to shore by day continue to search for food at night even though the herring seem to disappear. As darkness arrives, I will change strategies and plugs. The main plugs I use after dark are soft-plastic stickbaits, swimmers (wooden and plastic) and needlefish plugs.
Soft-plastic baits by Hogy or Slug-Go on weightless swimbait hooks will work well at night, especially if you have a wind at your back. If the wind is in your face, try using a needlefish plug. Both artificials should be retrieved slowly with lots or rod tip action. I find that when using these artificials, I will generally go with either a light colored one or a black one. It’s often a matter of trying each color to see what is best.
Slow-moving swimmers are also hot at night and work well along rocky points as well as in breachway currents. Wooden Danny-style plugs as well as plastic swimmers like Bombers are prime plugs to stock in your plug bag. Once again, light colors are your best bets. I catch a lot of big bass in breachway currents in late fall while using a 6-inch pearl Bomber or the 6-inch black back/silver body Bomber.
Realize, too, there may be lulls in the herring action. Have a Plan B. In late fall, we also have a migration of small bait along the shoreline, bay anchovies and peanut bunker, and they tend to attract a lot of schoolies, bluefish and occasional small keeper-sized bass. Try to stock some “small stuff” such as small bucktail jigs, Cocahoe Minnows on jigheads, and small swimmers to imitate this bait. Carrying those small artificials can save the day and provide a lot of action when the big bait is not present.
It happens every year to some degree, but I am hoping for an exact repeat this fall of the herring madness and fantastic fishing that occurred last year. Stock those big plugs, be on the lookout for gannets and hit a lot of spots along the Rhode Island south shore in late fall. If it goes anything like last year, be prepared for some of the wildest action for bass and big blues you have ever encountered from shore!