Fall Migration Offers Action

For a salt-water fisherman autumn conjures images of wader-clad anglers running along the shore toward wheeling birds splitting their own skulls on the ocean's surface to pluck bait from a foaming sea. Below that tension gamefish swarm and slash to store energy for travel, lean winter months and spawning. It is a picture that seasoned regulars have seen many times; and it is a part of our planet's richness where the renewal is completing itself. Like the land, the growing season is ending and the sea is loaded with food.

Action at dusk during the fall run


Why then is there more excitement over fall fishing than any other time of the year? Part is the visual cues where fishers can see the blitz: birds wheeling over splashy surfaces like a minefield gone berserk. Much of the excitement comes from a gamefish vulnerability that you might not see in the other seasons.

Summer fish will often laze offshore in deep water of otherwise exhibit a high level of selectivity. Marine species in summer often choose their feeding time cautiously, preferring the cover of darkness for inshore activity. Later, they'll take risks for travel preparations. This can provide daytime fishing for surfcasters that they haven't had since last autumn.

Availability of species depends upon latitude and place in history because ranges vary with the species and some sets of years a fish may be in short supply: stripers are back, weakfish are coming back and bluefish are in decline. At the northern end of coasts where surfcasting is done, say Maine, they never see croaker and weakfish. And it is only when blues were in superabundance -- say 10 or 15 years ago -- that they had them at all.

On balance, however, Mainers have caught cod from the beach when their New Jersey counterparts had never seen one. Nice thing about the geographical middle is that you are liable to find anything. I recall one early November night in Rhode Island when we beached weakfish, cod, bluefish and stripers -- all on plugs. But the species that carries fall fishing is the striped bass because they can be taken -- season depending -- from the Canadian Maritimes to the Carolinas. The dates change more as a result of falling temperatures, than because of the photo period. I believe this because years when the warm weather holds the fish stay around longer. Timing is the meat and potatoes of fall fishing.

Social considerations influence believed departure dates. Hunting season causes many to quit fishing too early and many fishers are just tired of chasing fish by autumn. While departures and outside date limits are highly variable, here are some average prime times for fall fishing:

  • Central Maine -- October 5
  • Outer Cape Cod -- October 20
  • Nantucket -- November 1
  • Marthas Vineyard -- November 5
  • South Cape, west of Monomoy -- November 5
  • Rhode Island -- November 20
  • Montauk -- November 25
  • Central New Jersey -- December 1

The order of departure, which can say something about how late the ocean believes it is, are usually weakfish, blues, then stripers in that order. Moreover, there are anomalies in behavior, in departure times. These are all interesting exceptions, but I've heard of Maine stripers trawled up in November, Cape Cod bluefish offshore in January and I have personally blitzed night stripers in a December snow storm more than once.

A nasty thing about fall fishing is that it is the season of linestorms. The early ones can relate to hurricanes and the later ones to nor'easters. You could never fish and east facing shore during one; and, depending upon intensity, can lose up to a week because of suspended silt and week that can stretch up to a quarter mile from the beach. Moreover, after such a tempest nobody knows where the fish are and what was around is usually gone.

Of course, date depending, there are some protected shores and many estuaries which are spared the full force of weather -- the Cape Cod Canal, Narragansett Bay, the mouth of the Connecticut River -- to name some from a zillion. Even though it is fall with daylight fishing, the night is still better, but it is a lot colder. Most cannot fly fish under 20 degrees and the others don't want to try. Bait fishing is more popular real late because you can run out, make a cast, then retreat to the buggy and watch your tip from inside.

On the other hand, fall migration fishing done late enough is lonely. Species can be variable. and whatever is caught is usually larger than it would ever be any other season. Most of all, when there is tension humming wind song through taut line, there is a gnawing sense that this one might be the last for a while.