Capt. Jim Freda holding a large Jersey striper caught late in the season.
The ocean waters off Ocean and Monmouth counties have been well known for the run of large striped bass in May and June, but over the last five seasons, these large bass have returned in the late fall. When the water temperature drops into the 58- to 48-degree range, the fall run frenzy begins. Off Manasquan Inlet, that usually happens around the first week of November and lasts until the second week in December.
This drop pushes adult and peanut bunker south, while at the same time drawing in sand eels and sea herring from offshore just as large schools of migrating stripers are returning to New Jersey waters from New England. This time of year is classic blitz time. I expect to see bass crashing through bait with Hitchcock-like bird action pinpointing their locations. The sights and sounds of a fall bass blitz are enough to keep me mesmerized, but only a moment, I hope.
Given the mix of baitfish, part of what makes the fall a fun time to catch stripers is the variety of tactics that can be successfully employed. With every charter, I am always ready to cast with light spinning gear, toss out a fly, or get up on the troll.
Getting a big fall bass on a topwater is probably my favorite. When the bass are hounding the bunker schools or pushing sea herring to the surface, they can be easily located, even from a distance. Both pencil poppers and spook-style topwaters will catch large fish. Pencils are a bit more user-friendly for my less-experienced clients since their tail-weighted designs make it easy to cast them far enough to reach the fish. I especially like pencils with flat bottoms, like Lex Lures, since these are easier to work across the surface.
Spook-style lures require a bit more feel to get them working properly, but a wide-walking spook often gets more bites than a pencil. The trade-off is the reduced casting distance.
Though not strictly a “topwater,” a metal-lipped swimmer like the Surfster can be very productive, especially in the chartreuse or bunker color. What makes this lure work so well is its wide-bodied profile with a compact design that produces a V-waking wiggle that bass can’t resist.
Paddle Tails and Stickbaits
When stripers are hanging deeper, the easiest artificial to use is a heavily weighted paddle tail, like the 6.5-inch Tsunami Heavy Deep Diving Swim Shad. This lure is great to use when the wind is up and there is a fast drift, as often happens in the fall. Simply cast it out, let it sink to the bottom, and retrieve it back, throwing in a few pauses here and there.
When sand eels are the main forage, there will be many days when the bass are schooled up by the thousands under the boat and each drop of a soft plastic or jig results in a hookup. Days like these are memorable for clients – as memorable as their sore arms by the end of the day.
To imitate sand eels, there are many artificials you can use. My top producers are 6- to 8-inch soft-plastic stickbaits and paddle tails. I cast them away from the boat and retrieve them with erratic up-and-down motions.
Slender metals are also effective. I drop these to the bottom and jig slowly, working the lowest five feet of the water column. Most of the time, bass hit them on the drop, so it is important to keep a tight line while dropping. If there is slack in the line, you will miss feeling the characteristic bump of a bass and miss the hookset.
Trolling is another effective tactic for late-fall stripers off New Jersey, though it works better when bass are around and the bait is thin. I troll white or green Bunker Spoons and tandem Mojo Rigs. On any given day, big bass will hit one or the other, so I always like to have both in the water. My trolling spread consists of two bunker spoons fished off my outrodders and two mojos off my transom (down the center).
Trolling Umbrella Rigs with colored tube tails fished on wireline or heavy braid with drails right near the bottom should result in constant hook-ups, with double- and even triple-headers possible. Most of these will be smaller fish that attack the tubes. Green, wine, and black tubes are the best producers during the fall run.