As we move through the month of December many longrodders have packed it in for the season and are already looking ahead to the winter outdoors show season. There are many different reasons why this is so, but the approaching holidays with their many family obligations is usually the one that takes top priority and rightly so. Some other reasons include much colder weather that can numb the hands rather quickly making it quite uncomfortable to be casting a line. Still others look at poor November catches that make hitting the suds seem no longer appealing. While all of these are valid reasons December still holds many prime opportunities for the longrodder to connect with both quality and quantity of fish.
There are two key factors that will determine whether or not striped bass will still be present off of our New Jersey beaches and in the surf at this time of year. The first is water temperature and the second is the presence of bait. If we have good water temperatures that would be temperatures in the upper forties to low fifties, and bait in the form of sandeels or sea herring than the bass will still be around.
However even with optimum water temperatures and bait present it is a matter of what I call luck as to whether the bait and subsequently the fish will be either on or off the beach. Best bet at this time of year is to be in a boat as this will make it much easier to locate the schools.
At this time of year if the bait is not on the beach in one location it will most likely not be found at another relatively close location either. Usually one will have to move along the beach for quite some distance often into another county. This can change however without much notice as shifting winds can move the bait back in that is just offshore.
Water temperatures in December will fall slowly if we do not have extended periods of hard northwest winds. Northwest winds at this time of year signal cold fronts dropping down from Canada with some rather brisk temperatures Three or more days of back to back fifteen to twenty mph winds can quickly chill the water down to much colder mid-forty degree water.
It is this quick temperature drop or thermal shock over a short period of time that will push the bait along their way and subsequently the bass along with them. If we don't see these strong northwest winds than the water temperatures will drop slowly and the bait and fish will have time to acclimate themselves to their surroundings and they will not have a tendency to move along so quickly.
This was the case two years ago as surf temperatures dropped slowly through December and were still in the upper forty-degree range when January rolled around. I remember catching bass consistently that year until the middle of the month. Whereas last year strong northwest winds plagued us right after Thanksgiving and just about shut everything down. The number of bass that I caught in December last year was the fewest ever in the last ten years.
Sandeels are the Ticket
When the water temperature drops slowly at this time of year we look for sandeels to be the prime forage that will hold the bass. By December the bulk of the peanut bunker that were responsible for November's good catches have already moved to our south so this bait is for the most part out of the picture. You can however still find some isolated pods along the beach particularly at the beginning part of the month.
Every savvy surfster knows that when sandeels are around that they will keep bass in residence over a long period of time. For this reason they are one of our favorite baits to see along the beach. When near the surface they can be easily spotted as terns, gannets, and gulls will dive for an easy meal giving away their location. When they are really thick along the beach you will see spin fishermen snagging them on their plugs or metal trebles as they retrieve these artificials.
The sand eel, also referred to as the sand launce, or lance, is an inshore species not related to the common eel. Its scientific name 'Ammodytes americanus' literally means sand burrower, a typical behavioral pattern of the sand eel when it is fleeing from a predator or resting.
Sand eels are recognized by their slender body with a pointed snout. They have a long dorsal and anal fin and are deep blue green to bronze on back with a white belly. They can grow as long as fifteen inches but are commonly found in the four to six inch ranges. The sand eel is found in shallow waters less than ninety meters with a sandy composition and comprises one of the most important staple foods for the striped bass and bluefish. At this time of year they can be found along the beach, inlets, and in the eastern most part of some bays.
Sand eels feed on copepods, which are zooplankton. During the day these copepods are found lower in the water column and not near the surface. This is in direct response to a toxin that is produced by surface phytoplankton during photosynthesis. Since the zooplankton migrate downward during the daylight feeding sand eels will do the same. As a result this is where the bass will be rooting through the bottom looking for them. In the evening when photosynthesis has ceased the zooplankton will move back up in the water column to feed on the microscopic phytoplankton. As a result the sandeels will follow. If you shine your flashlight around any jetty pocket at night you will usually see plenty of sandeels milling around.
Patterns to Use
For the salty flyrodder a variety of sand eel patterns are an essential part of your arsenal at this time of year. Fishing these patterns will result in hook-ups even though there may be literally thousands and thousands of sand eels in front of you. It is always good to have a variety of slender clousers, jiggies, and half and halfs with you, as these flies will do a nice job to emulate the sandeel's slender profile.
The weighted heads of these flies will also put the flies deeper in the water column, which will be important during the middle of the day. At first light, dusk, or in the evening the bass will be up top so getting deep is not as important. Different hues of green, olive, blue, or black over white will be the most effective color patterns that will initiate strikes. All black patterns are always very productive at night.
Other flies such as Bob Popovics' stick candies and other epoxies will also be effective patterns that emulate the bait. The epoxy is a very effective pattern to use at night when sand eels are on the surface. This fly is best used when sand eels are small and the water is shallow and calm. Patterns tied up to three to four inches will work best. The undulating action of the tail of this fly will entice strikes at pauses between your strips.
If you are on your boat look for pods of bait and fish either on the surface or below the boat down deeper. The sandeels and bass can be in either location on any given day. You may need however to run further offshore than you did in November to locate fish. If you start inside and nothing is happened keep this strategy open as a viable option. Move out to eighty to a hundred feet of water and check for signs of bait and fish. Additional Pointers
Two additional points that are worth mentioning to pay attention to at this time of year are the much colder water and air temperatures that will make your hands get cold rather quickly. You will need to find some type of glove that you feel comfortable fishing with and are able to still feel the line in your stripping hand. This is important so you don't lose the feel of what your fly is doing in the water. Look at some type of glove that can convert from fingerless to fingers by adjusting the fabric.
The second point is that if you are using intermediate line and not using one that is designed as a cold-water striper line, then your line will most likely coil. This will reduce the distance that you get on each cast and add to your frustration level. Trying to untangle knots with cold hands is not fun. Check with your pro shop for these lines, there are several good products out there.
So there you have it. A word to the wise however, when you fish these sandeel patterns make sure that you are holding your rod tightly under your arm and stay focused with each strip. At any instant that distinctive rip of a trophy fish can 'come a callin'. Good fishin!.........Flyfishing that is!
Jim Freda is a saltwater fly fishing guide and co-owns Shore Catch Guide Service out of Manasquan, NJ. Autographed copies of his new book. 'Fishing the New Jersey Coast', Burford Publishing Company, are available for $16.95 plus $2.50 S/H, check or money order, to Jim at 85 Cowart Ave., Manasquan, NJ 08736. On the web at www.shorecatch.com
More Articles by Jim Freda Flyrodding the Finale...Hit the Glass Just Go Nuts...With Peanuts Fall Primer Part II - Albies on the Fly...and More! Fall Primer - Part 1 New Jersey's Fall Blitzes It's Trophy Time C.P.R. For the Fly Fisher- Color, Profile, Retrieve Getting Started in the Salt Springtime Trophy Stripers New Jersey's Trophy Weakfish on the Fly! How to Beat Those Summertime Blues Summer Doldrums It's No Fluke
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