It’s often said that autumn is a time of plenty. Rightfully so, considering it’s a period when mature crops are bountiful and ready for harvest. Luckily for fishermen on Chesapeake Bay — as well as other areas up and down the East Coast — autumn is also a time of angling abundance.
The “fall blitz,” from late September to mid-November, is when massive schools of baitfish empty from Chesapeake tributaries into open water, put on the move by cooling water temperatures. Waiting patiently to ambush them are schools of predator fish. The resulting feeding frenzy provides light tackle and fly anglers with some of the most epic striped bass and bluefish action of the year on Chesapeake Bay. Lower Bay anglers can get in on some tremendous speckled trout and red drum action this time of year, as well.
The fall blitz looks something like this: a chaotic expanse of crashing fish and spray created by aggressive feeding on bait that has been worked up to the surface, making for easy pickings. Above this fly dozens of seabirds diving for wounded bait or scooping up leftovers from the frenzy. Cast a lure or fly into this melee, and a hookup is almost guaranteed. The best part is you often see the fish make the explosive take. If you’re fortunate, they will continue to feed, and you’ll keep catching them until your arms ache, the ultimate blitz bucket-list experience.
Hide and Seek
Of course, first you have to find those fish, and it isn’t always easy. Sometimes you can simply rely on working birds to tip you off to the location of a feeding school. Other days you can run for miles and miles and not see a thing. Binoculars and radar can help you find blitzes beyond your line of sight, but sometimes you must go on a hunt more tuned toward structure and habitat that’s pleasing to baitfish and predators alike.
During difficult times such as this, I like to use a formula my friend Shawn Kimbro writes about in his book Chesapeake Light Tackle. The formula is C + B/HB = BF, which translates to current plus bait over hard bottom equals breaking fish. On Chesapeake Bay, that hard bottom is almost always some sort of oyster bar, though it can mean any hard structure, such as rocks or artificial reefs. Find the bars or other structure, along with a moving tidal current and baitfish, and you up your chances of finding feeding stripers and blues.
Hooking up is easy enough once you find fish. Light-tackle anglers use everything from top-water plugs to spoons, or jig heads tipped with plastics. Fly anglers can toss top-water patterns such as gurglers, crease flies and poppers, or baitfish-imitating patterns such as Clouser deep minnows, Lefty’s deceivers and Bruce’s bay anchovy. Simply cast into the middle of the frenzy, retrieve and wait for the strike. Wash, rinse, repeat.
Most Chesapeake Bay anglers quickly find out that the fish feeding on top are generally smaller, schoolie-size striped bass. Though that type of action can provide an evening of fun, many fishermen yearn for bigger fish. There’s one key to enticing and landing these larger fish: getting your lure or fly deeper in the water column. For light-tackle anglers this means switching from surface plugs to jig heads tipped with soft plastic bodies. Fly fishermen will use patterns such as Clouser deep minnows with weighted eyes. Instead of immediately retrieving your offering, let it sink for a few seconds. More often than not you’ll find a better class of fish working beneath the top-water action.
Don’t Do This
Despite the likelihood of hooking up, even the most seasoned anglers make mistakes when it comes to working a breaking school of fish. Make the wrong move, and you can ruin a potentially remarkable day of fishing. Perhaps the biggest mistake is running fast too close to the school. There’s no better way to raise the ire of anglers working a school of fish than to plow right into the blitz. Consider approaching slowly up-current or upwind by a good distance, then drifting down on the school with the engine off.
Another no-no is creating too much noise — a careless mistake that can put fish off the feed. The most common offenders here are folks who roll up to the blitz with the stereo blasting; even shouting too loudly can put the fish down. Less-recognized ways to turn away the bite are letting locker lids bang closed or slamming stowage doors. You might be amazed at how efficiently loud noises travel through water — and at how the fish react to them. Consider a stealth approach when sneaking up on a school of breaking stripers.
That’s a Wrap
An additional benefit to fall fishing on the Chesapeake is that the hazy, hot and humid dog days of summer are a distant memory. Crisp, cool days often rule, making for pleasant and comfortable fishing conditions. Want to get in on the action? Set your sights on fall and your GPS for just about anywhere on the main stem of Chesapeake Bay.
This article originally appeared in the October 2016 issue.