While others are pulling their boats out, savvy anglers are eyeing the best days of late summer
"Living large" is a great expression for this time of year - heading back to an uncrowded marina after an afternoon/early evening chasing bass, the boat cleaned in time to make it home for a hot bowl of chowder and Monday Night Football. The annual fall migration of stripers has started, great days ahead for those that don't pull their boats in September.
Each fall, striped bass that migrated up the coast to Northern New England in the spring begin their trek back to the winter grounds in the Hudson River and points south of Delaware Bay. Along the way, the fish stop off at various locations to feed and "gas up" on their watery road south or west.
What is great fun for Mr. Average Boater is that fish chase bait on top at times, their feeding habits given away by wheeling and diving terns and gulls. That scene is a magnet for savvy anglers just clearing inlets/ breachways from Shark River, N.J., up to Charlestown, R.I., and points to the north.
My advice to less-experienced anglers is to approach the feeding fish from the uptide or upwind side - never blast right into the middle of them as anxious as you are to get a line over the side.
Many people like to fish with poppers at this time, the crash of a bass on the surface gets the blood moving, sometimes too much for kids with their high energy. Kids will pull the plugs away from the fish, reeling far too fast. If you see that happening, tell your charges to slow down the lure and give the fish a chance to catch it.
Various colors of all brands of poppers dot the wall of most coastal shops. Keep in mind that the fish, looking up, see only the underside of the lure, most of which are white on the bottom. Always keep an eye on your child's back casts so they don't hook anything vulnerable if the action stays hot with fish boiling around the boat and in several other places within eyesight. This is the tempo kids enjoy best.
Eventually though, the surface breaks wane, but the fish often will still hit a lure presented deeper. A few years back, Capt. Al Anderson and I were catching school bass casting into birds working just off the Rhode Island shore. The schoolies were feisty, but not much more than 25 inches long.
However, a look over our shoulder revealed more birds working out in deeper water a mile or so offshore. Arriving at the scene only moments later, we found the fish had sounded, so we let our lures sink a bit, resulting in two blues around 12 pounds apiece and a 46-inch bass.
One of the favored lures to use for catching sounded stripers feeding deep is a diamond jig from 2 to 8 ounces depending on strength of tide and depth of water. Let those down in the area then begin a slow retrieve, usually with a conventional rod versus spinner for casting poppers. Stop the lure for a second about every third turn of the handle, imitating a crippled baitfish. Keep dropping the lure back down if you don't get any hits as the lure gets higher in the water column.
Some mornings the fish will pop up again, but other days they come up on top early and then feed deeper, resurfacing later in the afternoon when the sun is coming down. You can sometimes prowl around, keeping an eye on your fishfinder for blobs of bait fish. They are usually heading up into the tide, seeking the fish chasing the bait fish around - the reason they are there in the first place.
When you spy the bait fish, drop your jigs and begin the start-and-stop to retrieve bass. Use a steady fast cranking if you're trying to locate a school of blues. Bluefish do not like something swimming fast in their feeding zone; their usual reaction is to chase after the lure and strike it.
Besides having some poppers and diamond jigs aboard, you might also consider some weighted snag hooks. These are treble hooks with pieces of lead molded around the shank, great for tossing into schools of bunker that sometimes get pushed to the surface by migrating bass. The alert angler will then toss his snag hook into the school, usually with a spinning rod and then come back hard on the rod, trying to drive the barb of the snag hook into the side of a bait.
If you have a live well on your boat, you might choose to snag a few and then rehook one on a single hook already rigged and waiting on a conventional rod. Toss the rehooked bait back into the school; the crippled soon draws a strike from game fish waiting below the school of bunker for an easy prey.
Years back, I was fishing the front of a jetty in Deal, N.J., when a buddy came back in his small tin boat. He offered me a ride after running the boat up on shore, right into the light surf. Once aboard, we headed out to a large school of bunker milling around on the surface. The first snagged/rehooked bait I got in the water resulted in a 42-pound bass followed by three blues before we lost the school for the morning.
Versatility has its advantages
All good things must end. So it goes with chasing bass on top - no matter where you look or where you drop diamond jigs, the hits stop for the time being, at least in that general area.
If your guests want to keep fishing, you have the option of running over to some deepwater rip to keep fishing and catching. For instance, it's very common for boats chasing birds along the south shore of Rhode Island to run over to the north rip of Block Island during the day to diamond-jig in the deep water by the IB1 bell or chasing fish under birds on the south side of Fishers Island and going over to The Race to fish in the deepwater rips.
If the casting peters out, you might also consider bringing along green crabs to fish for blackfish if your state season is open, or maybe some squid for porgies or sea bass on a local wreck or rock pile. Porgies will bite right through the tide, sea bass often best on the end of one tide, the slack and the first hour of the next tide. During the time of month when tides are strongest, you often get great sea bass catches as the tide eases. The fish come out of their home in a local wreck to feed with abandon, often as fast as the baited hooks get in front of their noses.
As the sun gets lower in the fall sky, you might again shift gears, back to where you started, maybe looking along the beach for more birds as you work your way back home. Don't overlook some of the local rocky points, tossing your plugs into the structure with many fine bass caught by blind-casting just before sunset.
If you have a few bunkers left over and stamina for an even longer day, some folks anchor up outside that rocky area, dropping a cut piece of fresh bunker to the bottom with one rod and casting with the other until the sun is completely gone. It's a good way to top off a great day.
Be sure to drop off some fish at your neighbor's or send some smart-phone pics of the kids with a keeper bass, those going to the friend alongside your slip at the yacht club - the one whose boat is under wraps in his backyard.
Tim Coleman has been fishing New England waters for most of his life. He was managing editor of The Fisherman magazine's New England edition and is now a freelance writer based in Rhode Island.
This article originally appeared in the October 2010 issue.