It’s not enough that the useless Norway maple looks as if it’s going to fold with the next 55-knot gust and climb aboard the second floor of the house. There’s also the whole matter of, you know, the boat — the boat every molecule of soft tissue inside your skull told you to haul before this weather went south — swinging and creaking and flexing wildly under two sets of dock lines some 30 miles deeper into the wind field, along the coast.
This is October in the Northeast — 31 days the fishing magazines agree you’d be insane to miss out on. And yet somehow the only insanity you’ve found, 12 days into this “autumn bonanza of explosive angling action,” is that the calendar has granted you one real, live fishable day. You pace three of the five coats of polyurethane off your living room and dining room floors lamenting your prior courage and considering the merits of a less gear-intensive sport. Is there an AARP soccer league?
Six hours later the wind drops right out, and the flag in your neighbor’s front yard — the one that looked as if it had been starched flat as a sheet of marine plywood — lies in a motionless heap against its pole. Shortly after that the phone rings, and the guy three slips down, who lives a mile from the marina, confirms that all is well, that your pride and joy is still intact and afloat.
The top-heavy maple is still 100 percent outdoors, and the shingles are still arranged neatly on the roof. You start to wonder, inexplicably, how long it might take for the water to clean up off Fishers Island, N.Y.
Back at it
Five days later you knock the diesel out of gear, goose the stern around to port, bow to the wind, and head back into the cockpit to survey your morning prospects. The first flare of color to the east reveals the superstructure of a lone dragger steaming south out of Watch Hill Passage and a pair of gleaming white skiffs headed your way.
To the west — the east end of Long Island Sound — a half-dozen more targets twinkle in sharp contrast to the gray-blue sky. It’s going to get busy here shortly. And judging by the rate at which the invasion of skiffs is closing the distance, it’s not looking like a good day to be a striped bass on the south side of Fishers.
That, you decide as you check the drag setting and plant your plugging stick into a rod holder in the port stern, is a problem for later. You might squeeze in a solid half-hour before the boys with binoculars swarm your personal striper stash. It’s amazing what you can get done in 30 minutes.
In the meantime, what were three distinct shots of bait, birds and finned predators of some sort have converged in tighter to the beach to form a single quarter-acre patch of water that looks like a dislocated run of Class 5 rapids. Bait — something resembling 4-inch anchovies or possibly even mullet — skitter and slash into the brightening air, scattering before a bulge of water. A dozen gulls alternately hover, dive and veer off just before splashdown, wings flapping madly from a momentary stall back into a 90-degree climb.
The dueling shrieks and splashes crowd the dawn air, drowning out the distant whine of approaching outboards. On the far side of the school, a broad tail — what must belong to a bass that’s 25, maybe 28 pounds — arcs from 9 o’clock to 12, then over, walloping the surface in a mighty shower of droplets. A few cormorants you’d overlooked patrol outside the immediate fray in the slick-calm water.
This is October, you mutter, moving to your helm, checking your GPS and then the sounder, the latter screen pretty much clean with the exception of bait in loose formation, safe, it seems, for the moment. You jog 20 yards north at idle speed, mindful that plowing right into the melee would blow this whole thing apart in a split second, every self-respecting striper bolting to relative safety in deep water. You’ll deal with that — the repercussions of moronic boat handling — soon enough, you note, surfing your own small wake a few feet closer. Then you back her down for a second to halt any remaining headway and hopefully set up a nice, easy drift a respectful distance from the blitz. You kill the engine, hurry aft and fire the first cast toward the leading edge of the wandering commotion.
October is a month of severe contrasts in New England fishing. It’s also a stretch of prime season that serves up an array of options, some of which are unique to month 10. For striper specialists, October provides a much-needed break from fishing in deep water where broken bottom and powerful tides create ideal housing for heavyweight fish. For better or worse, the fishing in such places — slow trolling with wire or drifting live bait are strategic staples — demands near obsessive monitoring of your electronics and constant throttle work to maintain ideal boat positioning.
By August, after nearly two straight months of it, a number of my friends experience symptoms that suggest whiplash, the result of untold hundreds of hours spent using their necks to toggle between fishfinder/sounder and chart plotter, plotter and radar, back and forth, over and over and over again. Except when they’re down on deck, stretching their legs or gathering additional bottom clues by feel, they experience summer stripers primarily as little red scratch marks hanging tight to the yellow-red sea floor that rolls forward in perpetuity, bracketing the virtual water column. Bait isn’t necessarily scaly and silver; it’s yellow or red blotches up off the bottom or blobs rising up from the stones like animated haystacks. Their electronics put big fish in their boats day after day. Ironically, bass fishing as the full-timers live it plays out more like a two- or three-screen video game than an ongoing exercise in reading water or running through memorized sequences of shore ranges.
With the tenth-month transition, the fish are now driven by hard-wired migratory behaviors, traveling on the moons with fair tides or taking long detours to binge-feed when they cross paths with a reliable source of high-calorie forage. Eat, move, spawn.
In October, whole food chains spend much more time in the top third of the water column. Accordingly, when conditions align, October gives us a season’s most visually spectacular fishing. Targeting migrant fish — stripers, blues, false albacore, even weakfish or a pod of shivering bonito — you still need your electronics for reference. But unless you’re chartering and need to produce fish while the hourglass drains, you can forgo some of the percentage tactics and chase fish with five senses, the sum of your fishing experience and hard-won wisdom, and an intense focus on the ecosystem operating in three dimensions right before your eyes.
Here today, gone tomorrow
At the risk of stating the obvious, the migratory nature of autumn angling changes the rules considerably. After a summer working on “resident” fish with semipredictable responses to changing weather, and tidal and feeding conditions, October’s streaky, boom-then-bust fishery warrants a few tweaks to your M.O. As autumn wears on, the only semidependable way to catch fish more or less on command is to do what all striper sharpies strive to do all the time: stay “on the meat” until a body of fish gets mopped up or moves along. The search time between slugs of westbound fish is inevitable. You keep a close ear to the ground and an eye on the horizon, and eventually you get back in the game.
Better still, consider increasing the frequency of your outings, keeping an open mind about what constitutes a fishable day. You can expand your opportunities dramatically by learning to play the lees, fishing unscathed through gale warnings by putting the mainland between your boat and the wind. Around Fishers Island, for example, you can often fish through a smoking sou’wester along the north shore, then catch right through the second day of a nor’easter tucked up behind the mainland or, if you can make the crossing safely, find some lights-out blitzes under relative mill-pond conditions while the guys four or five miles down are taking green water over their bows.
The bottom line is that July’s endless daylight, relatively stable fronts and concentrations of resident bass support marathon outings, but October will treat you much better if you fish daily for an hour at a time. Fish pull in for a tide or three, then evaporate with a flood at their backs just as a big low comes ashore. When they’re gone, you’ll need to find a way to live with the lulls and find the dedication to get out anyway, just to keep the next arrivals honest.
Zach Harvey is fishing editor for Soundings.
October 2013 issue