By Josh Lantz
The fall season delivers a varied bonanza of baitfish up and down the East Coast. That’s good news for hungry gamefish prowling the sudsy beaches and inlets from Cape Cod to Miami, and even better news for the surf-casting anglers hot on their tails.
“This is the beginning of the transition phase where various gamefish start to chase the mullet run along our beaches in close vicinity to major inlets,” says sultan of the surf and St. Croix pro, “Crazy” Alberto Knie, who invests much of his time in late September and throughout October chasing large snook, redfish and tarpon along the Florida’s northeast coast from Daytona to Fort Pierce. “The best opportunities to fish are during the late-night tides and the first-light periods coinciding with the first two hours of a tide change,” he advises. “Also pay close attention to the ebb tides when baitfish are flushing out of the inner bays and marshes in big numbers. Predatory gamefish will be staged in key, structural ambush spots to take advantage of the easy feeding.”
Knie says the importance of understanding the baitfish migration and how it impacts the specific areas you fish cannot be overstated. “Right here right now in Northeast Florida it’s mullet. You’ve got active fish chasing the migrating schools, but other large, mature individual fish are saving their energy, laying up in every likely ambush spot,” Knie says. “Tide and current stages play a huge role in dictating these baitfish movements. A good fisherman knows where the ambush spots are and understands what baits work best; they know how to select a lure that matches the forage and swims at the proper depth on a favorable ambush point on a favorable tide phase. That’s why having an assortment of lures that work at different depths is crucial to success.”
Farther north, surf-fishing editor and St. Croix pro, Matt Broderick, agrees that daily – even hourly – bait migrations dictate fall surf strategies, but says weather patterns also play a key role. “Opportunities arise all over during the fall months here on Long Island, and it’s storms, pressure systems and temperature drops that create or destroy these fishing opportunities,” says Broderick. “But it’s all bait related. Since this is an island, I can usually find a favorable place to fish with each wind direction. For example, during the month of October, Montauk Point is the place to be on a northeast wind. Between the pressure drop and the wind pushing intense amounts of bait into the point, it makes for a perfect situation and some memorable fishing.
“The south shore sand beach is another worthy spot to try throughout the month. The last few years it’s primarily been a sand eel run along the beaches there, and under the right weather conditions they can fuel bass fishing for weeks on end. A south wind will push this bait up on the shore making it the ideal scenario for a surfcaster. Sustained winds of around 10 knots will provide the beach with enough white water and turbulence to get the fish into a feeding mode without making the water too dirty. The special thing about sand eels is that bass will gorge themselves on them, and they stick around longer compared to bunker.”
St. Croix pro, Rich Swisstack, most often plies the suds just south of Broderick along the New Jersey Coast. He attests to September and October being a big transition period. “As the water begins to cool the resident bass tend to move around in search of the bait schools that were hatched last spring and are moving into shallow, warmer water for the winter,” he says. “Mullet, peanut bunker, snapper blues, spike weakfish, spearing, rainfish, and sand eels all head toward the beaches after spending many months offshore. This provides a buffet for our resident coastal gamefish, and others follow them in from out deep. The fishing only gets better later into October and November when the larger bass from up north and out east swing by on their fall migration south, eating herring, bunker, shad, and sand eels along the way.”
Swisstack agrees with Broderick and Knie; the best way to stay on the bite is to match the hatch, taking methodical note of the size and type of bait that’s in the water where you’re fishing. “This time of year my beach rig is packed with all types of rods, reels, baits, and line and leader sizes because to get bit I need to be prepared for whatever is out there on any given tide.”
Swisstack most often targets striped bass, but will also chase false albacore, bluefish, weakfish, and fluke as they all crowd the beaches to feed on the season’s bounty. “The variable is the water temperature,” Swisstack says. “With the right wind the water will cool and you may get bass to pop up, but on calmer days the albies and fluke are a better bet. The blues could show up at any time; they eat when they want to eat and nothing much stops them.”
Fall Gear and Presentations
Given the variability in available baitfish species, our three pros employ a variety of presentations to make the most of fall’s fast fishing. All cast a variety of hardware, but Knie says being prepared to chunk bait as well will allow surf anglers to maximize their opportunities across all tide phases.
“I use an assortment of tackle determined by the types of locations and structures I want to fish,” Knie says. “Weather also plays an important factor, which can easily influence water clarity and change my strategies and methods. Therefore, it is important to have an array of tackle that will perform to its task. For optimal distance, I like a longer, more-powerful spinning rod with a moderate-fast action. St. Croix makes 12’ heavy power spinning models in several of its series, including Mojo Surf and Legend Surf. I’ll pair this rod with a fast-retrieve Van Staal 275 reel filled with 50-pound braid connected to 10 to 15 feet of 80-pound fluorocarbon shock leader knotted to a 125-pound Tactical Anglers Power Clip for quick and dependable lure changes.” When conditions change and chunking or bait fishing becomes warranted, Knie looks to the same long, heavy power rods, but in a conventional casting configuration. “The 12’ Mojo Surf and Avid Surf casting models excel in heaving six-to-16-ounce bait rigs beyond the bar,” he says. “I pair them up with a Penn Fathom II Star Drag Conventional reel filled with 80-pound braid and a 16-foot section of 80-to-100 pound shock leader.”
When big fish lay-up to ambush prey in the inner coves and inlets, Knie feeds them with a St. Croix Triumph Surf 10’6”, medium-heavy power, moderate-fast action spinning rod matched to a Penn Slammer IV reel. “I fill it up with 30-pound braid and a 6-foot section of 50-pound fluorocarbon leader, and then terminate the business end with a 75-pound Tactical Anglers Power Clip,” he says.
Broderick also subscribes to the beefy approach. “When heading to Montauk, you need power on your side,” he advises. “The terrain is unforgiving and a fish of any size will leave you wishing you had gone with stouter tackle. The 10’6” Mojo Surf model rated from 2 to 6 ounces (MSS106MHMF2) has plenty of backbone to wrestle a cow-sized striper from the rocks. I pair that rod with a Van Staal VS 250, which is has plenty of stopping power and balances the rod out well. Darters, bucktails, needlefish and bottle plugs make up my arsenal for the Montauk surf,” continues Broderick, who employs 40-pound braid to complete the setup. “When fishing the sand (south) beach, I’m often mimicking sand eels with lures like needlefish and tins. The Mojo Surf 3/4-to-4 ounce model (MSS106MM2) with a 200-sized Van Staal and 30-pound braid is the tool of choice here. And when fishing on the north shore I get out the 9-foot stick rated for 3/4 to 4 ounces (MSS90MM2) paired with a VS 150 loaded up with 20-pound braid. Usually I’m trying to match the rainbait that litters this area, so casting small tins and epoxy jigs is the ticket.”
For albies, stripers, and blues, Swisstack makes no bones about his favorite rod. “I’m usually fishing St. Croix’s 10”6” medium power, moderate action Mojo Surf (MSS106MM2),” he says. “This rod casts a mile, won’t overpower smaller fish, but has the guts to handle the larger ones. We don’t have many rocks left in New Jersey, so I usually fish 20 or 30-pound braid on a 4500 Penn Slammer III reel with a 20-to-40-pound fluorocarbon leader.”
Swisstack says this rig is perfect for albies and Spanish mackerel. “I’m fishing a lot of small, thin-metal tins,” he reports. “Cast them a mile and then just burn them back. In an instant that tin will stop dead in its tracks and the line just starts screaming out the other direction. You want a very good drag and a moderate action rod like the MSS106MM for this so you don’t tear the hooks out of the fish’s mouth.”
For bass and blues, Swisstack often uses the same rod, but slows things down. “I’m throwing pencil poppers, surface swimming plugs, or metal jigs with a teaser if the sand eels are present,” he says. “Look for bird play and signs of life in the water, fish high percentage areas where the bass can ambush bait fish like current rips, sand bars, and cuts. Read the beach and learn to fish the right areas and your catch rate will go through the roof. Remember, the best fishing is not always where all the masses have gathered. When fish aren’t showing, do your searching with a five-inch swim bait.”
Swisstack also targets fluke at this time of year. “If I’m fluking, I’m using one of the 8’ or 9’ Mojo Surf spinning rods with a Penn Conquer 4000 reel, 20-pound braided line and a 20-pound fluoro leader – usually with a bucktail and Gulp swimming mullet high/low combo,” he says. “Just fish the deeper pockets around the sand bars and bounce it along the bottom as you slowly retrieve the baits back to you, paying particular attention right at the surf line lip. Fluke will often follow your baits right to the surf line before they attack it, so stand back off the surf a little. If you are wading out into the water, you’re standing on the fish!”
Knie says surf anglers who want to fully exploit the fall bait migration need to understand what’s going on in the areas they fish. “Do everything you can to observe and understand how different available bait species are moving, then follow those migration paths and intercept them,” he says. “Be prepared to fish the right lures that mimic the predominant baitfish and present them at the proper depths in the key areas where predators are holding in ambush mode. Finally, if you are only fishing lures or only fishing bait you are limiting your effectiveness. Learn when, where, and how to fish both; give them what they want and don’t be a one-dimensional angler.”
Broderick advises always presenting your lures with the current when possible. “Fish any sort of rip or drop-off you can find for the most success,” he says. “Match your bait with what’s actually in the water and always incorporate some sort of twitch when gamefish seem to get picky. Sometimes, all they need is a simple trigger.” Finally, he encourages surf anglers to simply get out there. “There’s no substitute for experience. Read all you want and definitely talk with other anglers, but trial and error will lead to the most success.”
Swisstack emphasizes being prepared with the right gear and tackle. “Things will go from 0 to 100 mph in a single tide change and you would never have expected it, so be prepared, move around, and look for signs of life,” he says. “Be friendly and talk to the locals,” he adds. “I never really understood the whole don’t talk to me concept of striper fishing. If you come say hello and ask me some questions, I may not give up the farm, but I will definitely help clue you in on what’s happing on any given tide… if I have a clue on any given tide.”