Fall fishing: a grand day on the water

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As stripers migrate, Northeastern anglers can find themselves with a 40- or 50-pounder on the hook

As stripers migrate, Northeastern anglers can find themselves with a 40- or 50-pounder on the hook

Decisions, decisions, decisions; now is such a time. You don’t know whether to enjoy a pro football game, or the crisp fall air, the uncrowded gas dock, and the chance to pick up a rod and catch a striper or two as they migrate south or west to their winter grounds. This is a great time to live, boat and fish in the Northeast United States.

In the spring schools of stripers head up the coast from their winter quarters south of Delaware Bay. At the same time, other schools that spent the cold months in the Hudson River begin their seasonal march to the east, heading past New York up into Long Island Sound, pleasing any number of fishermen from both Long Island and Connecticut on their way through. In the fall this pattern is reversed: fish that spent the summer along the northern New England coast start south. Fish from the Hudson stock school up and they, too, begin their migration back to their winter home, the cycle completed once again.

As the fish move along in the cooler water of the fall, they must stop and feed, to gas up if you will, for their further travels. This need to feed plays right into the hands of anglers who want a striper for sport or supper.

Mother Nature must provide forage for this migration of thousands of fish, so she sets her table accordingly. All the baitfish you see around the boat at the marina in late summer will be out along the beaches very shortly, fulfilling their role as food for the predators up the food chain. Such is the way of life.

One of the most exciting ways to catch stripers is to head out early in the day, running along the beaches at first light, looking for gulls wheeling and diving over bass tearing into schools of baitfish. A plug or soft plastic lure tossed into those spots often produces strike after strike — some tiny fish under the legal limit but many of keeper size and above that can be brought home for a fine seafood dinner or tossed back in after pictures. This is ideal for kids as the action is fast — if you find the feeding schools. If it’s not your day, cut your losses and head to the Golden Arches or wherever, but don’t let them get bored if you want future company. Keep the day moving in one form or the other.

You don’t need the queen of the fleet in order to cast to bass along the shore at daybreak or late in the day into dusk (the two times bass are usually active). A good seaworthy skiff of humble origin is often the conveyance of a great, crisp time afloat. New England offers miles of rocky shoreline that bass prowl in their search for food. One or two good buddies often head out for two hours before supper, cast the hot lure of the moment into the rocks and prospect for feeding stripers. Be ready, though, for a huge bass, sometimes over 40 pounds and even beyond 50 pounds. It’s happened many times before and will again: Two old-timers out for a short duration land the fish of the year, often pictured in the sport pages of the local papers a few days later. The cool weather, light crowds and possibility of a trophy are all part of the draw of fall fishing.

Another “best bet” to look for bass are tide rips. From Maine through Long Island, numerous rips of various sizes dot our coast. These all provide feeding stations for hungry bass, their presence given away by diving, squawking gulls. Some of these locations sport boulders with strong tide pushing past. In those situations it’s often wise to anchor above the rip and toss lures into the white water. If that’s not feasible, come up from the rip on the down-tide side. Get close enough for all your party to toss lures in the rip face then drift back away, out of harm’s way, keeping hull, engine and prop intact. You may find blues competing for stripers in such areas. Many people like to eat them as well as bass; others snap pictures and release the fish for next season.

Casting to stripers requires only a couple spinning rods and a few lures. Trolling, however, is much more involved, but produces lots of fish. If that’s of interest, a stop at your local tackle shop will be in order. Purchase the best equipment you can, then be prepared to practice, practice. Though you will sometimes fail, you’ll always profit from trial and error (with the exception of lures snagging on the bottom).

Trolling is usually done with wire or lead core line. Each gets the lure down a certain depth, such knowledge gained more by talking with the salesmen in the shop than time on the water. Handling wire line is often the undoing of many novice anglers so they opt for the more easily managed lead core, color coded to let you know how much line you have out.

One of the premier lures to troll with lead line is the tube and worm. It’s a red, surgical tube anywhere from 14 to 24 inches long with single hook on the stern. You add to its appeal by stringing a whole sandworm on the back hook then slowly trolling this along the face of a jetty, just outside the surf line in somewhat deeper water. Then you cast on the reef offshore where bass and blues mill around during the middle of the day.

You probably won’t hit the jackpot on your first try with trolling but it’s a very effective way to catch stripers. Watch the charter boat pros (but don’t get in their way) and see just how many fish can be caught in a single tide by a proficient skipper. This is a point you can arrive at if you’re willing and able to put in the time to learn — after listening closely to what a competent tackle store salesman instructs you to do, especially with local variances and quirks. If that seems a bit much for the family man with limited budget, stick to casting and assess the results.

I can’t think of a better way to spend a Sunday morning or Monday evening than a couple bass in the box, cleaning up the boat before heading home to drop off your prize, arriving just in time for a great lunch or hot bowl of chowder after sunset, ready for kickoff. You’re alive, well and a boat owner — a grand time in the Northeast.

Tim Coleman has been fishing New England waters for more than 30 years. He was managing editor of The Fisherman magazine’s New England edition until 2001, and is now a freelance writer based in Rhode Island.