The migration willnot be televised. To see it, to be a part of the great fall run of striped bassas they push southward along the east coast, you have to be there in person,with your boots on the sand. Boats work too, of course, but for many fishermennothing will do but a waist-high immersion in seething foam while hurling plugsor bait into combers kicked up by an autumn nor’easter.
It’s not supposedto be easy, particularly in the fall, when line storms, cold fronts, andhurricanes whip up the waves. But it’s precisely these conditions that makepursuing bass from beaches, jetties, and rocky points so rewarding. A true surfman wouldn’t have it any other way.
Those who bravethe elements get a chance at some of the fastest salt-water fishing on earth.There are plenty of 20-pounders to be caught off the beach. And pros say thepotential for hooking a record is the best it’s been in more than 20 years.
This guide,designed for the rank beginner, will get you started in the surf-casting game.It includes the gear you need, the best plugs and baits, and tips on where andwhen to go. And though we can’t really prepare you for what it’s like to gethit in the face with an icy wave at midnight, we can provide a little extraencouragement to keep you on the water: The largest striper ever taken on rodand reel–a 78-pound 8-ounce behemoth–was caught from a jetty 23 years agoduring a howling fall nor’easter.
1 Bucktail Jig
Hop this baby over the bottom when the fish are holding deep. Adorning the hookwith a strip of red or yellow pork rind can increase the jig’s effectiveness.Gulfstream 2-ounce Bucktail Jig (3-pack, $7)
**2 Needlefish or Darter **
This long, narrow lure is deadly on stripers along many parts of the coast,especially when big baitfish are around. It’s very similar to the pencil popper(see below) in action. Hab’s Custom Plugs 3½-ounce Needlefish ($24)
3 Pencil Popper
An old favorite among surf casters, this teardrop-shaped lure should be fishedso that it bobbles and skitters over the surface, with just the tail touchingthe water. Yo-Zuri Hydro Pencil ($12)
4 Swimming Plug
A black swimming plug is a must-have for night fishing in many areas. Pearl,bone, or white often works well during the day. Go with chartreuse or yellow inlow-light conditions or murky water. Rapala Saltwater Sliver ($9)
5 Slow Swimmer
These traditional surf lures, great in calm conditions, are designed to swimfrom side to side just below the surface. The best retrieve is slow and lazy.Gibbs Casting Swimmer ($18)
Bright, shiny metal spoons are great for daytime fishing. They cast a mile andflash and wobble like an injured baitfish. Smaller versions are great forimitating sand eels, peanut bunker, and silversides. When retrieving theselures, pause now and then to let them free-fall toward bottom. Deadly DickLong-Jigging Lure (2-ounce, $6)
7 Chugger-Style Popper
Try this in fairly calm conditions because it kicks up a lot of commotion thatdraws the attention of stripers. Creek Chub Striper Strike ($6)
How to Read theSurf
A rocky section of shoreline that extends offshore will hold baitfish andcrustaceans that attract big bass. Concentrate on any areas where the waterbreaks or boils over very large boulders.
Finger bars extend perpendicular to the shoreline and often create a mini rip(a line of choppy water) when longshore currents (parallel to shore) flow overthem. Expect bass to line up along the deep, down-tide edges of these bars,waiting for bait swept up in the flow.
Low-tide scouting will reveal these fish-holding hotspots. Deep holes (10-15feet at high tide) often form in the center of bowls due to wave action,creating a place for baitfish and predators to gather.
As the rising tide covers the inner bars, stripers often patrol the troughbetween these bars and the beach, often so close that you can touch them withyour rod tip. Shorten your casts or cast parallel to the shore to target thesefish.
Look for a line of whitewater or breaking waves over any big outer sandbarsthat run parallel to the beach. Big stripers will cruise the foamy wash justinside these bars, looking for vulnerable baitfish tumbled in the surf. Castbaits or lures along their inner slopes and in the deep troughs between innerand outer bars.
Broad tidal flats often feature shell beds or hard-bottom areas where thousandsof nooks and crannies hold crabs, baitfish, and other striper tidbits. Whenhigh water covers these areas, stripers move in to feast on the bounty.
Riptides form in heavy surf when water dumped over the bars by wave actionflows back offshore. The fast-flowing water digs a deep trough through thesandbars, an ideal location for feeding stripers. Cast baits and lures alongthe edges of the riptide current; bass will hold where the current is slowerand wait for prey to come to them. They also use these troughs as highways toget inside the bars.
Easy to obtain and keep alive, eels are the go-to natural bait in the surf,especially at night. You can fish them on a bottom rig and let them sit, butmost pros choose to cast them out and retrieve very, very slowly. When you feela pickup, quickly throw your reel in free spool and allow the fish to run withthe bait for a few seconds before you set the hook. Eels can be purchased atmost tackle stores and will stay alive for days in well-oxygenatedfreshwater.
Many surf veterans swear by chunks of menhaden (a. k. a. bunker or pogies)fished on the bottom, especially when schools of these big baitfish are closeto the beach. Head sections are preferred; tails should be avoided.
Macks ****are a great bait in northern waters. Fish them whole or in chunks, butthe most important thing is to use the freshest you can.
Whole or chunked herring can be deadly on very large stripers when thesebaitfish move tight to shore in late fall and early winter. Again, the fresherthey are, the better.
Shucked sea clams are a great surf striper bait. Hook a clam through its tough”foot” and fish it on the bottom. Fresh ones exude more scent and areeasier to keep on the hook.
When stripers arefeeding selectively on very small bait in the surf, try attaching a tiny fly,jig, or metal spoon to a dropper loop tied roughly 2 feet ahead of the mainlure. The latter gives you enough weight to deliver the smaller lure, andtogether, they look like a larger predator chasing after bait. This drawsattention to the dropper, which may trigger a reaction strike from competitivebass. Keep a box of flies with you in various sizes to imitate little sandeels, bay anchovies, peanut bunker, and silversides.
50- to80-pound-test, 3- to 5-foot fluorocarbon leader
7/0 Octopus, bait,or circle hook
EEL RIG [BEST BETFOR THE BEST BAIT]
5/0 to 7/0 Octopusor circle hook
2- to 6-ounce eggsinker
50- to80-pound-test, 3- to 5-foot fluorocarbon leader
80- to150-pound-test swivel
FISHFINDER RIG[THE IDEAL SETUP FOR CHUNKED MENHADEN, MACKEREL, HERRING, AND CLAMS ON THEBOTTOM]
50- to80-pound-test swivel
2- to 8-ounce bankor pyramid sinker
1 Popham Beach,Maine (Sept.) Located at the mouth of the Kennebec River, Popham offers access to both theriver and the open Atlantic. Abundant mackerel, harbor pollack, and peanutbunker draw stripers in the fall. More info: Saco Bay Tackle, 207-284-4453
2 Plum Island,Massachusetts (Sept.) Similar to Maine’s Popham Beach, Plum Island is a versatile spot that boastsaccess to the mouth of the Merrimack River as well as classic beach castingalong the oceanfront. The island’s southern end has been very productive in thelast few years. More info: Surfland, 978-462-3221
3 Outer Cape Cod(Provincetown to Chatham), Massachusetts (Oct.-early Nov.) You can take stripers all along this 47-mile stretch of beach, part of theNational Seashore system, although vehicular access is much more limited thanduring the sport’s heyday on Cape Cod. The Outer Cape offers classic beachcasting to bars, riptides, and holes. Some of the best action comes at night.More info: Goose Hummock Shop, 508-255-0455
4 Martha’sVineyard, Massachusetts (Oct.-early Nov.) The entire island offers excellent surf fishing, but be sure to check thefollowing famous spots: Squibnocket, Gay Head, Parkers, Wasque, and DogfishBar. Ask for directions when you visit a shop. More info: Larry’s Bait &Tackle, 508-627-5088
5 BeavertailPoint, Rhode Island (Oct.-mid Nov.) This prominent point on the southern tip of Conanicut Island juts into the openAtlantic and features excellent rocky structure with steep drop-offs close toshore. It’s a great spot to intercept stripers leaving Narragansett Bay, aswell as fish migrating through from northern waters. More info: SurfcastingRhode Island, 401-615-2636
6 Block Island,Rhode Island (Oct.-late Nov.) “The Block” features lots of boulder-studded waters that give up bigstripers throughout the fall. Many pros favor the island’s southwest corner fortrophy fish. More info: Oceans & Ponds, 401-466-5131
7 Montauk, NewYork (Oct.-early Dec.) Lots of rocky structure within casting distance of shore makes this aworld-class surf spot. Excellent shore access is another plus. And considerthat every striper that summers north of Montauk must pass by the eastern tipof Long Island on its way south. More info: Freddie’s Bait & Tackle,631-668-5520
8 New Jersey Shore(Sandy Hook to Cape May) (mid Oct.-mid Dec.) The Jersey Shore, with its long, sandy beaches and numerous jetties, has servedup some phenomenal late-season fishing in recent years, right up until the NewYear. The bass haven’t been huge on average, but lots of stripers in the20-pound range will keep you busy. More info: Betty & Nick’s (IslandBeach), 732-793-2708
9 Kiptopeke Beach,Virginia (mid Nov.-Dec.) Kiptopeke State Park offers excellent shore access to the prime striper watersat the mouth of the Chesapeake. You can fish from the long, well-lit pier orfrom the south beach. More info: Chris’ Bait & Tackle, 757-331-3000
10 Outer Banks,North Carolina (Oregon Inlet to Hatteras) (Dec.-early Jan.) Oregon Inlet is the place to fish live eels for stripers. The open beaches arefor chunk-bait fishermen and those who like to throw plugs. North Carolina canbe big-rod country; to reach the fish, you sometimes need long casts with bigplugs and heavy sinkers. More info: Red Drum Tackle, 252-995-5414
Dry tops, such as those used for kayaking, are great for fishing in cold,high-surf conditions and rain. Aquaskinz Hurricane dry top ($220). If you’re ona budget, layer up beneath a PVC jetty jacket. Cofish Pullover Jetty/BoatJacket ($40, not shown)
2 Plug Bag
Select a light, rugged bag with corrosion-proof hardware. Drainage holes areimportant. BW Sports medium surf bag ($35)
3 Gaff orGripper
A small hand gaff is a good idea if you plan on landing a fish for dinner. Ifyou’re going to release your catch, a lip-gripping device is better. RapalaProGuide Lock ‘n Weigh ($80)
Small, bright LED flashlights are handy for night fishing, but make sure theyare waterproof–and bring some extra batteries. Headlamps are okay, but somepros feel that they cast too much light and frighten the fish. Trekker 4-LEDlight ($15)
Corrosion-resistant titanium pliers are expensive but worth the investment.Attach them to your belt or bag via a retractable cord. Alutecnos Mako pliers($150)
(in pack) A good rule of thumb is 3 feet of 50-pound-test fluorocarbon whenyou’re fishing open bottom. Step up to 80-pound-test around rocks and jetties.Stren Fluorocarbon 25-yard leader (50-pound-test, $12)
Surf rods range from 9 to 12 feet long. A 9- or 10-footer is ideal for slinginglighter (2- to 3-ounce) lures to fish that are fairly close to shore. Forcasting heavy bait rigs and large (up to 6-ounce) plugs, a longer, heavierstick in the 11- to 12-foot range is preferable. Most pros favor one-piecegraphite blanks for lightness, strength, and sensitivity, but a two-piece rodis easier to transport. Cabela’s 11-foot 6-inch Salt Striker Cork Tape Handlesurf rod ($90)
The optimum strength and type of line to use depends on water conditions,bottom structure, lure type, and fish behavior, but here are a few basicguidelines. In areas with a sand or pebble bottom, you can go as light as10-pound-test when you need to cast small lures to match the bait, although20-pound-test is a safer bet. Rocky areas demand heavier line to guard againstcutoffs. Many anglers now go with braided line because it’s much thinner thanmono of the same pound-test, which means that they can use a heavier linewithout sacrificing spool capacity. The superthin braid also casts farther thanmono of the same strength. Ande Tournament monofilament (¼-pound spool of20-pound-test, $11.50)
**9 Reel **
Conventional (revolving-spool) reels were once considered de rigueur among thesurf crowd, but spinning reels are now more popular and easier for the noviceto use. They should hold at least 200 yards of 20-pound-test mono and featurerugged, corrosion-resistant components. You can spend some big bucks for ahigh-quality surf reel, though plenty of lower-priced models will do a finejob. Whatever reel you choose, always bring a backup in case of equipmentfailure. You don’t want to find yourself empty-handed when 40-pound stripersare rolling in the surf. Cabela’s Salt Striker SS-80 spinning reel ($70)
Breathable, boot-foot waders are best on open beaches. They keep you cool whenyou’re hoofing it between hotspots, and you won’t have to worry about sand androcks getting into your boots. Neoprene, stocking-foot waders are recommendedfor fishing rocks and jetties, as they offer some padding if you take a spilland won’t fill up with water. Also, wading boots offer more ankle support onthe uneven terrain. Korkers (or other rock-gripping footgear) are mandatory fornegotiating slippery boulders and ledges. Always wear a belt with both wadertypes. Waders: Ranger chest waders ($50). Boots: Korkers Wetlands wading boot($80). Outsoles: Korkers K-5000 ($75)
At the end of theday, it’s important to clean your gear with soapy water to remove any sand andsalt. Take a soft-bristle brush and work the soapy water into areas where saltdeposits can form, such as the guide feet and reel seat of your rod. Then giveeverything a freshwater rinse with a hose. If you’ve endured a particularlyrugged session in the surf, you might want to inspect your equipment fordamage. Pay close attention to rod guides for cracks or scratches that couldabrade your line.