Fall is Striper Time. Are you ready for the action?
If you live in New England, it’s already started. If you live in the MidAtlantic you know that fall is in the air and millions of striped bass are heading your way. The southward migration of these highly-prized gamefish is a months-long fishing extravaganza that gets any fisherman’s adrenalin pumping.
Striped bass are without question the most sought after inshore gamefish from Maine to North Carolina. They grow to prodigious size, fight hard and can be caught using a variety of techniques. They spend a good deal of their time close to the beach feasting on schools of mullet and menhaden, which means they are within range of anglers in almost any size boat for at least part of the run. They will even make forays into coastal estuaries and rivers chasing baitfish. The icing on the cake for those who enjoy a good fight is a sumptuous fish dinner, as stripers are great on the plate. If all those attributes make them the perfect gamefish for you, then be prepared for a little company on the water over the next few months because you’re certainly not alone.
The fall striper run is a special time of the year and to understand this phenomenon, you need to know a little about the life cycle and migratory habits of the fish. Stripers spawn in the spring in fresh water and, unlike some species of salmon, can keep returning to spawn year after year. If they beat the odds of a precarious life in the sea avoiding larger predators and anglers and commercial fishermen, they can live 30 years or more. Millions spawn in the rivers that feed the Chesapeake Bay, and millions more spawn in the Hudson River. Smaller contingents spawn in places like the Delaware and Connecticut Rivers, and even some smaller tidal flows that provide the right habitat for the eggs to develop and hatch. During the first few years of life, young stripers stick close to home inhabiting estuarine waters near their birth rivers where they feed on smaller prey and grow. When they reach about seven years of age, they join what fishery managers call the spawning stock biomass, sexually mature stripers capable of adding to the coast-wide stocks.
This selection of plastic baits covers the gamut of available baitfish- adult menhaden (center); varying sizes of menhaden (left); sand eels (bottom left); silversides and rainfish (bottom center and right); herring and mackerel (top center and right).
After the spawning migration into freshwater in the spring, they make their way to the ocean and begin a second mass migration. This one takes them north, up the eastern seaboard to distant waters where they spend the summer feeding on abundant forage species. The greatest numbers of them spend their time off New England, while others spread out along the coast from New Jersey through Connecticut. As the waters off the New England coast begin to cool in September and October, they begin the migration south to the areas where they spend the winter, many settling offshore of Virginia and North Carolina. As they make their way there, they spend a great deal of time feeding on the massive congregations of small baitfish that pour out of major coastal estuaries. They also track down schools of mullet, menhaden and herring that are in migration mode. Basically, there are millions of striped bass moving along the coastline along with billions of forage fish. It’s a sustained feeding event that can last for two months or more depending on the migratory path.
Fall offers fly fishermen the best opportunities of the year to catch stripers. With the Montauk Lighthouse in the background, this angler is fighting a schoolie on a 10-weight outfit that hit a large white Clouser minnow fly.
What’s your favorite way to fish? Do you like trolling or maybe fishing with live bait? How about jigging, bucktailing, casting plugs, throwing soft plastics or fly fishing? All of these techniques can work during the fall striper run. You will find varying conditions, including the presence of different forage species and almost daily movements of stripers from shallow water along the beach to deeper water up to three miles offshore (the legal limit allowed to fish for stripers due to federal regulations), which can determine which techniques have the best odds of catching fish. The best path to success is to be prepared with whatever tackle you need so that you can switch techniques to meet the conditions you encounter.
If you’re organized and plan ahead, you don’t need to have a dozen different outfits and a large tackle box on the boat every time you leave the dock. You can do it all with a handful of rods and reels and a well-thought out selection of terminal tackle. With the tackle storage available on most fishing boats, there is plenty of room to stock the boat with the basics and leave them aboard. Then you can get away with just a modest tackle box or bag of things from home to replenish supplies as new opportunities arise during the run.
Let’s start off with rods and reels. You can cover several bases with a single conventional outfit comprised of a seven-foot medium or medium/heavy rod matched with a saltwater-size baitcasting reel loaded with 30-pound braided line. It can be used for trolling deep-diving plugs, vertical jigging with metal lures, chunking and live lining - and it can do all of them effectively. For fishing plugs, bucktails, soft plastic baits, and anything that requires cast and retrieve techniques, all you need is a pair of spinning outfits. One light outfit consisting of a 7-foot rod matched with a reel loaded with 12- or 15-pound line to handle smaller lures, and a heavier 7- to 7.5-foot rod with a reel loaded with 30- or 50-pound braid for snagging live menhaden, or casting larger, heavier poppers, swimming plugs and soft paddle tail baits should do it.
Most fall bass will be in the teens to mid-twenty pound range like this fish - great fun on light tackle.
In just three outfits you’ve covered the majority of possible situations, but there is a specialty outfit or two to consider for two of fall’s most deadly striper techniques: trolling with bunker spoons and Mojos. Both techniques are aimed at imitating large baitfish like menhaden, herring or shad, the favorite forage of big stripers. There will be a lot of days during the run when the only thing that works is trolling with spoons and sometimes the Mojo rigs can be deadly, too. A lot of days start with a great bite on the beach at first light, with bass smashing poppers and gobbling live bait. But as the sun gets higher in the sky, the action often slows and the bass move off into deeper water. You can call it a day early, or break out the trolling gear and follow them into the deep, where you have a good chance of catching more.
There will be other days when the fish are simply moving past your area well off the beach, paying little attention to the bait schools closer to shore. Trolling can still put a few fish on the deck on days like that. The speed at which the water temperatures drop affects how quickly large bodies of stripers will move through your area and even when they are not actively feeding, trolling can be effective.
The traditional way to fish bunker spoons and Mojo lures is with wire line outfits, which require specialized rods and reels loaded with 300 feet of trolling wire over a spool filled with braid or monofilament line backing. The wire allows you to control the depth of the lures, but you can also rig a heavy trolling outfit with straight braided line and use weights or downriggers to get the lures down. The go-to guy for trolling spoons is New Jersey’s Tony Arcabascio, a.k.a. Tony Maja. He has designed a full line of tackle for trolling stripers, and his products can be found in tackle shops from New England to North Carolina. His website also contains explanations of the reels, lines, lures used and has tutorials on how to use them. He can even show you how to troll bunker spoons effectively using downriggers. Check out www.tonymajaproducts.com for more on the subject and to see some of the monster stripers that have been caught using these techniques.
Fishing with live menhaden frequently produces larger fish like this 30-pound bass.
For terminal tackle you’ll need a selection of fluorocarbon leader material from 20- to 50-pound test, and a selection of hooks and terminal gear for throwing together the simple rigs and leader systems needed for fall bass fishing. For lures you’ll want to carry a variety of metal jigs, especially diamond jigs; bucktails from 1 to 5 ounces in white and yellow; weighted plastic shad lures from 3 to 6 inches; straight plastic tail lures on jig heads from 1 to 4 ounces and 4 to 7 ounces in length; a selection of swimming plugs, poppers and sliders; weighted bunker snag hooks; and if you’re into fly fishing, a 10-weight outfit and a selection of flies to match the variety of bait on which the bass might feed. For trolling, you’ll want a selection of bunker spoons in large and small sizes and a few Mojo rigs fitted with large paddle tail shad bodies. The most productive colors are white and chartreuse. With the right tackle on board, you’ll be ready for whatever conditions you encounter.
Preparation and diversification are the keys to success during the fall run, so get your gear together and your boat dialed in, because the next few months will provide some of the best inshore fishing of the year. Y