Amidst the rainbow of colors of a picturesque autumn day one can truly appreciated Mother Nature in all her splendor and beauty. Our surroundings are peaked at this time of year and act to inundate our being with all sorts of invigorating sensations. Lollipop colored trees sway in the cool breezes as children cheerfully play in their fallen leaves. The air is blanketed with the aroma of wood burning stoves and pumpkin pies. A secluded flyfisher casting into a babbling brook paints a picture of solitude and tranquility. The angler delights in ten to fifteen-inch rainbow and brown trout coming to net. This is fall in New Jersey and this scene can be found in any of her many counties.
But visualize now not ten to fifteen inch fish but ten to fifteen pound fish on the flyrod. This is saltwater flyfishing in New Jersey in the fall. The opportunities abound for the flyfisher to do battle with striped bass, bluefish, weakfish, and our prized trophy, the false albacore. From Sandy Hook to Cape May the saltwater flyfisher can find rock jetties and long stretches of pristine beaches perfectly suited for shooting a line into the suds. The fall along the New Jersey Coast will offer a scenario quite different than what we find at other times of the year. It is at this time that our annual bait migrations begin along our beaches. These tasty morsels pour out of our back bays and rivers and provide the flyfisher with the opportunity to cash in on tremendous action usually right at his feet. There is an abundant array of baitfish that occur along the New Jersey Coast but in the fall the appearance of four of these baits really can put the fish in a frenzy. Mullet, peanut bunker, spearing, and bay anchovies will act as the stimulus to create all out blitzes as the fish pin them onto the beach and rockpiles.
The timing of these bait migrations are triggered by dropping water temperatures but more importantly the full moon’s that occur during the fall months. These lunar events act as the bait’s innate calendar or alarm clock and really set the wheels into motion. We will see the beginning of our mullet run with the approaching full moon in September. The spearing will also be driven by this moon but usually begin a little earlier with the approaching full moon in August. The October full moon is the driving force pushing the peanut bunker along the beaches. In between both of these moons bay anchovies will show their presence. Keep in mind however that all of these migrations will be staggered to some degree throughout the fall months. This is Mother Nature’s way to protect and perpetuate the species.
A weather event to look for during this time is any storm approaching that is associated with a northeast blow. Here is when conditions on the beach may get rough but these conditions will put some icing on the cake by really putting the fish in a feeding frenzy. This will particularly be true if your target is striped bass. The most important time for you to be out there is on the first day of a northeast blow. More often than not this will present the best fishing. These conditions however will drive the false albacore off the beach. These pelagics prefer clear, calm inshore waters. At all other times during the fall look for a northwest wind. This wind keeps the bait packed tightly against the beach.
For many fly fishers the beginning of the mullet run is the traditional beginning of our fall season and the blitzes that are ahead. It is at this time that the thoughts of hot summer days begin to fade away and a light jacket appears as part of our apparel. Striped bass quickly appear on the scene as waves of mullet etch a perfect sketch of our coastline. The bass that we will see at this time are local fish that have zeroed in on these baits. They are either coming from the backside from the deeper holes in our rivers or from our near offshore waters. They are not the migrating fish that drop down from our northerly New England waters much later in the fall.
It is very easy to tell whether or not if the bass are mixed in with the mullet. Early fall mornings are usually windless with glasslike seas. This will enable you to look out into the surf and see bass fining, porpoising, or pushing a wake as they mill through the baits. At other times they will make their presence quite obvious as they hammer the mullet busting through them sending water spraying in all directions. By the time dusk begins to roll around it may be much more difficult to recognize this activity as the winds usually turn to the southeast producing a nice chop on the water.
The mullet that move from the backwaters will range from four to six inches in length. They are commonly referred to as finger mullet or 'mushers' the latter name because of their soft bodies. Much larger sea run mullet eight to ten inches in length, commonly referred to as 'corn cobs', will also be mixed in.
For the flyfisher there are several patterns that are very effective to hook into a burly bass. These would be large bulky deceivers, deer hair mullet patterns, Bob Popovics siliclone mullet, or Tabory snake flies. Equally effective will be poppers and Bob’s Bangers. Sizes should range from 1/0 to 4/0. Your flies should be dressed with a lot of white so as to match the white underbelly of the mullet. As the bass looks up in the water column this is what it sees and will mistake this artificial for the real thing. If the water is tainted or turbid don’t overlook yellow, it can be deadly.
As the fall progresses a different bait begins to appear. In the last several seasons our bait migrations have been dominated by the incredible number of peanut bunker that have been present in our surf. Peanut bunker are the first year young of the adult mossbunker (menhaden) that entered our backwaters around the time of mid April to spawn. By the time the fall rolls around the 'babies' or 'peanuts' have matured to the point that they are ready to head on out.
Peanut bunker are silvery in appearance with white bellies and have a single black spot under the pectoral fin. Their profile has length and height but lacks width. Their length is two to four inches long (or longer) depending on the age, their flanks are about and inch or so high, and their width when viewed from below is minimal.
Matching the profile of the peanut bunker can be critical to your success when everything is going 'just nuts'. At times, I have seen bass and blues blitzing these baits that would literally cause the water to boil but no one hooking up. These predators can key in on these baits and become highly selective refusing everything but the real thing or a nearly perfect imitation. Here is where the fly fisher has the advantage to match the bait to a tee. And if he incorporates what I call a little 'CPR for the fly fisher' he will have tremendous success. That would be color, profile, and retrieve.
When the peanuts are on the beach slab flies or wide-bodied deceivers are good choices to fish on either intermediate or sinking lines. For floating lines once again Bob’s Bangers and other surface poppers will work well. One fly that was real effective last year that took the fly fishing scene by storm was Captain Gene Quigley’s Baby Angel. This peanut bunker imitation is tied with all angel hair and matches the baits profile to a tee. As the fly is stripped through the water the reflecting properties of the angel hair scatters light in all directions. This is really an eye-catcher for the bass. The other enticing property about this material is that it undulates when retrieved. This motion nicely imitates the fluttering tail of scattering bait.
Tying Instructions for Geno’s Baby Angel:
Hook: Tiemco 811S, 2/0 for two inch patterns, Tiemco 811S, 4/0 or Trey Combs Big Game 4/0 for four inch patterns.
Eyes: Adhesive 3-D epoxy eyes, silver and black.
Thread: Danvilleis Mono Ultra Fine
Body: Pearl green angel hair
Belly: Pearl green angel hair
Collar: Silver angel hair under rainbow angel hair under peacock angel hair.
Step One: Pull a clump of pearl angel hair and tie in the middle of the material toward the back portion of the hook. Allow material to land approximately three to five inches past the hook bend. Fold front portion back and secure on top of back portion. Top portion should be slightly shorter than bottom piece. Flip hook over and repeat the same step on the bottom back portion of the hook just before the bend.
Step Two: Now in a 'high tie' fashion repeat the same steps alternating from the top of the hook to the bottom of the hook. Note: No materials should be tied on the sides of the hook.
The bottom materials should be all pearl green angel hair. The top should be a mixture of silver, rainbow, and peacock angel hair. Once you have come to the front of the hook it is now time to trim the fly to shape. With a long scissors trim the fly under the belly and on top of the back to create a deep profile peanut bunker look. Attach stick on eyes and epoxy head. And don’t forget the prominent dark spot just behind the upper part of the gill plate.
Our last two baits that also generate some remarkable blitzes are spearing and bay anchovies. These are small slender baits that are almost translucent in appearance. Their colors can vary from olive or gray to blonde or tan, respectively. The bay spearing, also known as a silverside, has an iridescent silver stripe that runs along both sides of its body and is typically two to five inches long. Bay anchovies are commonly referred to as rainfish and typically range from one to four inches long. Both of these baits will ball up in the surf or along side jetties to form what appears to be a dark cloud. When bay anchovies are tightly balled up against a shallow shoreline a pale orange or tan cloud will result. The bay anchovy in particular is responsible for drawing in the flyfishers’ prized quarry, the false albacore.
The window of opportunity to hit into this southern speedster is usually short but well worth the wait. Albies also bring plenty of company when they arrive at the table. Bonito, Spanish mackerel, bullet mackerel, chub mackerel, and even skipjack tuna are commonly found sharing the dinner plate. The allure of catching any of these species on the long rod has replaced the desire for a burly linesider due to their electrifying bursts of speed when the hook hits home. Reel screeching, lightening fast runs that will test your drag for all its worth are the thrill of the catch. Add to this the visual component of being able to see these speedsters blister across the surface and you will be fully engrossed by the fighting ability of these fish.
It can be difficult however to catch these speedsters because they do not hang around in any one area for a long period of time like bass or weakfish do. Rarely if ever do you see albies cruising along slowly or just milling around. If you are trying to catch them in the surf on the long rod your best bet will be to stay put in one spot when the hard tails are in the area. They have a tendency to feed in a cyclic manner and will return to a spot after a short period of time if the bait is holding. If you try chasing the school you will end up with nothing more than a good workout. Your best bet is to begin casting when you can see the fish heading your way. For every fish that you see on the surface there will be many more that will be cruising at a subsurface level. Many of these will also be ahead of the visible school.
Albies have keen eyesight and this will work to the advantage of the fly fisher. The ability to match the bait much more closely with flies will be more productive than throwing hardware on spinning tackle that is usually to big. But even with a perfectly matched imitation there are no guarantees. For either baits your fly selection should be on the small side and dressed with white or translucent bellies and some flash. Include a good assortment of Bob Popovics’ surf candies and deep candies, and sparsely tied jiggies and clousers. Be sure to include prominent black eyes in both and a pearlescent side stripe in the spearing. Using synthetic ultra hair is also very effective.
When retrieving your fly many fly fishers will employ the technique of a super strip. This is a two-handed, hand over hand fast retrieve. But it can be very frustrating to have a voracious school of albies or bonito cruise by you without hooking up when you get a good opportunity to strip through them. For this reason don’t limit yourself to this type of retrieve. You should vary your retrieve to see what is most effective. Dead drifting your flies through a rip along side a jetty is also an effective method. When the water is clear use an eight to nine foot leader attached to a clear intermediate line. It will also be to your advantage to end your leader with a four to five foot length of fluorocarbon. Since fluorocarbon has nearly the same refractive index as water it becomes virtually invisible in the water. Twelve or fifteen pound test is all you will need. One final point to mention when fishing any of these blitzes is that many longrodders will prefer to fish behind the bait schools rather than following them along the beach and casting directly into them. Many big bass are taken this way as these large linesiders avoid the competition and remain behind to feed on the wounded or baits that are left behind. Here is where I would recommend fishing a fly that is much larger than the bait. During these blitz conditions these bass are on alert and really tuned into their surroundings. They will really hammer any life-like intruder that tends to crowd their space or steal their meal.
So there’s a little taste of what to expect in the fall along the Jersey Shore. Blitzes at your feet providing you with action that can sometimes last for hours and memories that can last a lifetime! Good fishin...………..Fly fishing that is!
Capt. Jim Freda is a saltwater fly fishing guide and one of the owners of the Shore Catch Guide Service located in Manasquan, NJ. He is a member of the Outdoor Writers Association of America and his book entitled 'Fishing the New Jersey Coast' is one of the most informative FF books written about the NJ fishing opportunities. Capt. Jim can be contacted at (732)528-1861 or at Shore Catch Guide Service, www.shorecatch.com
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