The school of striped bass blitzing down the beach had to be at least a quarter mile long and a hundred yards wide. Sometimes I saw their heads break the surface, other times their backs and dorsal fins sticking out. They frothed the ocean water white, trying to salvage the seven different types of baitfish swimming frantically about. The bait schools seemed to think getting close to shore was a good idea, as though salvation sat on the other side of the tideline. In some ways it did, until a crashing wave pitched them onto the sand and left them stranded and flopping. The question wasn’t if they were going to die, but how. Suffocate on the sand or get eaten in the water? It’s fall carnage, every animal preparing for the long winter ahead.
Tinker macs, peanut bunker, silversides, sandeels, butterfish, squid, and herring littered the beach. Then a gang of bluefish showed up among the stripers. The gator bluefish always chop off the tails first. After they render the baitfish immobile, they spin around and feast on the rest. The frenzy continued even after their bellies were full; they just puke up everything and start over. On and on it went for so long that I wondered if frenzied bluefish ever get a solid meal. I know the gulls did, because after going berserk for a bit they sat around lazily, squawking until dinner.
The fish oil slick also rang the dinner bell for the seals, and they came in as close as their blubber would let them. Call ‘em cute and adorable, but seals come by their rotund bodies honestly. They contributed to the chaos by waiting until I hooked up. If my bass or blue ran near the pinnipeds, they’d grab the hooked fish and strip it from my fly. The thieving seal would then resurface in the shallows to give me a show, holding my fish in their flippers, gnawing it like an ear of corn.
Nearly a third of the United States’ population lives along the East Coast, including population centers such as New York, Philadelphia, and Boston. That makes the striper and bluefish runs accessible to more people than almost any other fisheries in the country. Beach fishing is relatively simple and spots are usually easy to find and reach. If you live along the Eastern Seaboard, chances are you can be chasing these spectacularly exciting fish within an hour or two from home.
You’ve gotta have nerves of steel to fish the New England beaches in the fall. Sometimes it’s quiet, with only a fish or two showing here and there. But sooner or later it happens, and pods of traveling fish intersect balls of bait. It might be quiet on the dropping tide and dead at slack low. But then the water starts running, and fish get stirred up. If you can’t catch striped bass during a blitz, take up another sport.
It’s a heady concept to look out towards the horizon line and see virtually endless water. I used to get overwhelmed by the size and scope of the ocean, but once I figured out a few things, I realized that beach fishing isn’t that difficult. Start by figuring out which direction the current flows. On my beaches, the flood tide current runs from right to left. It flows back the other way on the ebb. Knowing the current direction is important for two reasons. First, fish need water running over their gills, so they’re almost always running into the current, that goes for both sport and baitfish. This should inform how you fish your plug or fly.
Reading the Water
Go to the beach at high tide and you’ll see nothing but water. Go to the same beach at low tide and you’ll find a very different scene, likely several types of sandbars that offer structure for gamefish to ambush their prey. They are more likely to be up in bays and in close to shore during high tide, but you can learn a lot about where they might go if you check out the area during the low.
Sometimes you see surfers paddling out beyond the parallel offshore bars. These sand ridges run parallel to the beach and are usually not connected to land. Some are 50 yards from shore while others might be a mile out. There is typically deeper water in front and behind the bars, and that’s where the fish hold. Parallel offshore bars don’t run for forever, from a few hundred yards to half a mile. Pay special attention where one bar ends and another begins. Rip currents form in gaps between the two bars, and that’s where bass gather to ambush bait.
Wide, rounded sandbars that connect to land, called bull-nosed bars, are also worthwhile features. These can range from tiny points to expanses the size of football fields. Striped bass and bluefish like room service, so they’ll wait in the deeper water next to the bar while baitfish wash over the sand right into their mouths.
Point bars are long spindles that stick out into the ocean. Deeper water troughs usually form on either side—my favorite water. I can wade far out and stand in water past the reach of my best cast. No boat or kayak necessary, just solid sandals or a good pair of waders.
Where and When
Stripers use the beaches heavily during their fall migrations. Once bass leave their summertime haunts—rocks, ledges, salt ponds, coves, rips, reefs, and flats throughout New England—they travel the shoreline south to their wintering grounds off Virginia, animating beach communities along the way. In the spring, these anadromous fish ascend rivers, mostly around the Chesapeake Bay, to spawn.
Dave DiBenedetto did what I’ve always wanted to do: follow the fish. His book, “On the Run,” follows the fall striper migration from Maine through New England and on down to the mid-Atlantic. The specific dates of this migration shift with fluctuations in water temperature, but it’s safe to say that striped bass leave Maine and New Hampshire between late September and early October. They’re out off Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut by late October through early November. All of those fish funnel down to New York and New Jersey and on to Delaware and Maryland in December and January. Shoot, if you keep moving, you can have four solid months of mayhem.
Warm summer water brings in bluefish. Under a foot, we call them “snappers”. Fish in the 3- to 5-pound range are “cocktail blues;” “slammers” are 8 to 12 pounds; and above that they’re called “choppers” or “gators.” Pound for pound, bluefish are some of the toughest fish in the ocean. Make sure you bring wire leader.
The Gulf Stream channels warm water from the elbow of Cape Cod west to Connecticut, New York and New Jersey. Those 72-plus-degree summer temperatures bring bonito and false albacore inshore. These hardtails run the edges along sharp drop offs and depth changes where baitfish concentrate on the edges. Bonito and albies don’t pound like bass and blues. They’re bullet shaped, so they race. If you see occasional blowups of water spread across some distance, they’re likely made by bonito and albacore. They don’t like cold water, so when it cools off in October, they’ll head south. Wussies.
Old timers have a saying about wind direction and how it affects fishing: Wind from east, fishing is least, wind from the west, fishing is best. Wind from the north, blows the fish forth, wind from the south blows the fly in their mouth. This adage is mostly true when fishing beaches, with these exceptions. Onshore winds that blow in your face and make for tough casting also put fish at your feet. Offshore winds that come from behind your back and sail flies and plugs into next week push fish out of reach. On an east wind in the fall, there’s one place you’ll find me, and that’s on an east-facing beach.
The beauty of the fall run is that anglers have a good chance to hang a corker of a fish. Thirty-pound stripers may not be as common as they used to, but they still happen, so you have to be ready. Fly rodders favor 9- to 11-weight rods, often on the longer side. Nine-foot rods are fine, but 10- or 10 ½-footer makes for easier casting. Surfcasting spinning rods run longer too, with 10- to 12-footers being ideal. When fly fishing, I add a Bimini Twist knot to the butt section of my leader and use tippets of 25- and 30-pound-test. If I know a pod of big fish is around, I’ll add a 40- or 50-pound-test shock tippet to keep a beast from raking and breaking my leader on the sand.
If I’m throwing plugs, I’ll twist up a double line with a five-turn Surgeon’s knot and run them to a swivel. Then I’ll add a double line of mono to the snap. If one line breaks, there is another as backup. Make sure you’ve got a few hundred yards of backing on a large arbor fly reel and 250 yards of 30-pound braid on a spin reel.
The fish don’t care what the weather is doing, but you should. On an Indian Summer day, I’ll be sweating in a T-shirt. But then the weather changes, and the next day finds me looking like the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. You never know when the blitz is coming, so you’ll need to be dressed appropriately to spend long hours out there looking for blow-ups during a nasty Nor’easter. The first cold snap has me trading sandals and shorts for layers, a wool sweater, and a rain jacket. I prefer boot-foot waders because they keep the sand out of my wading boots.
In the fall, crowds are thin. It’s a great time to have the best bull-nosed bars all to yourself with thousands of tasty, hard-fighting stripers nearly underfoot. You’ll see some lovers holding hands while going for a long walk on the beach, but for the most part you’ll see anglers—but fewer than you might expect with so many tens of millions of Americans living nearby. We’re all looking for the same thing: enough blitz fishing to sustain our dreams through the winter.
Feature image via Tosh Brown.