This time of year, the fishery in the northeast gets very visual, which is a fun exciting way to hunt. What I mean by that is there are a lot of visual cues as to where the fish are. Birds are diving down eating the same baitfish the predatory fish are, the fish are pushing bait to the surface, sometimes forcing them to jump clear out of the water. The surfaces feeds and ensuing chaos and splashing will direct even the most novice anglers to the fish. This tends to happen in the fall moreso than spring or summer because of the abundance of bait (particularly small bait birds like terns can feed on), and because of the increased energy and activity of fish like striped bass, false albacore, and bluefish. The energy comes from the cooling water temperatures and their primal instinct to feed before the long winter and also their migrations south.
Because this visual factor is so much more important in the fall, it’s a good time to discuss alternative strategies: chasing the visual cues (sight casting) vs. casting to the structures that hold fish all season hold at the right tidal stage.
Some fisherman in the fall will simply drive and drive their vessels or move from spot to spot until they find the surface feeds, and won’t stop and cast unless they see these conditions. This can serve to be very productive, and often anglers are rewarded for putting miles in to find all-out blitzes, no longer how long the search takes. Others fish structure that serves as ambush points for fish like striped bass and blues all season long. After all, it’s well known that fish are habitual and return to the same spots day after day and year after year because of those spots’ tendency to funnel bait and make them vulnerable to attack from larger fish.
My personal opinion is that you can’t simply choose one strategy or the other, but a combined approach is necessary. It’s foolish to ignore diving birds and bait on the surface, but it is by no means safe to say the fish aren’t in a spot if you can’t see them. In fact, particularly for striped bass, the best fall fishing days I’ve had were in spots with no visual action, or any signs of fish feeding to the human eye above the surface. This attests to the idea that the easiest days to entice a fish to bite a fly or lure are not the days when bait are plentiful, but instead when their scarce or elsewhere. It’s simple, the angler’s offering has less competition. When the bait is so thick you could walk on it, it’s really hard to get fish to choose the ‘fake’ option, and it’s nearly impossible to fish live bait with smaller more slender baitfish like sand eels, bay anchovies, or peanut bunker. These are precisely the forage that larger fish are after in the fall. These small fish leave their protected rivers or bays to make their own migration. The predators that have been out in deeper water to stave off the hot oxygen-deprived water of summer are right there waiting for them. These converging events are what trigger fall bites.
Now, that isn’t to say I don’t sight fish or see the importance of it. But my take on sight fishing a bit different. It’s extremely important to be aware of your surroundings and what’s going on. However, I believe sight fishing is the single best way to direct an angler to where fish are feeding now, but more importantly, where they return to. I recall a day in October 2015, I was cruising around the Norwalk Islands fishing my typical rips for bass. Out of the corner of my eye I spotted something that caught my eye and brought my heart rate up: a handful of adult bunker jumping clear of the water and frantically swimming on the surface. I knew there was something under these bunker hunting them, no doubt about it. This was a spot I had never been to before in my life. It’s a treacherous, rocky finger of underwater boulders where current moves swiftly on an outgoing tide. So I idled my little center console over to this rip, positioned my boat upcurrent of the area where I saw the action, and cut the engine. I drifted over the rip, and had an excellent afternoon with multiple bass to 40 inches on topwater lures. This was a spot I had cruised by countless times but never taken the time to fish, for whatever reason.
This event was not at all uncommon of my fishing experiences, time and time again I have been keyed in to ambush points by surface action. And the best days aren’t even when the surface action is happening, it’s when it ISNT. That spot has produced fish for me well into 30 pounds, and is extremely consistent at the certain stage of the tide. The funny thing is, since that date I have never seen surface action in that spot.
Searching for birds and bait is undoubtedly effective (if you can find it). It’s absolutely necessary for false albacore. But when it comes to stripers, don’t just skip the “usual spots” if you’re not seeing anything. And if you are seeing And catching, make a careful note of the tide stage.