Striped bass are the most precious recreational fish species that inhabit the Eastern Coast. Its shear power, fishablilty and grace make it the most prized possession to catch. Anglers value the striper so much because they know what a true resource it is and spend most of the fall season in search of stripers. For those anglers who go for bass, nothing is better than the feeling you get when you catch one. But as we all know, itís called fishing and not catching. Sometimes cows will be all over a certain area one day and then gone with the tide the next. Trying to get them to bite at the end of the fall run is difficult to say the least. No matter what you do, at times, it seems like they just won't budge.
The fall run is the last time many anglers will see large bass in their waters for at least four to five months. Getting a big bass at the end of October and into November is an accomplishment for any angler but knowing what to do when the bass start to thin out is crucial. Everything you have learned about bass fishing will be tested again with a few extra tips and tricks of the trade. Using these tips can help you find a cow up until you carve the bird and hand out the pumpkin pie.
Using the right bait at the right time
Live bait is always the best choice when fishing in the dead of winter. Anglers will look for schools of bunker and mullet all throughout the day when fishing from either the land or a boat. The ability to entice bass to bite when they are slow and sluggish will determine who takes home a big cow for supper. No matter what type of bait you are using, it has to be alive and able to make a disturbance in the water. What you want to do is hook the bait in the proper location so the bait is able to swim freely and take in water through its gills. Anglers who hook mullet or bunker through the lips will have a less active fish in the water. If a bait can't move its lips, it will soon die and thus defeat the purpose of being live.
Trout anglers use a term when fishing that fits this case perfectly. They "Match the Hatch" depending on what's in the water at the time. It's a simple term that has mixed results during the fall run. On many occasions, I have fished with mullet during a big mullet run and had very little hits. Yet, at other times, I find that the bait in the water is about the only thing bass will hit. When the water temps drop, bass can be tough to figure out. The key is movement; active, distressed movement in the water to drive fish wild. By hooking bait in the back, the fish can swim freely and send a signal into the water that alerts any bass coasting by. Every living thing creates an electromagnetic pulse underwater. This signal is then picked up by the bass through its lateral line, a strip of nerves in the fish's body that detects these pulses. The greater the movement, the louder the dinner bell rings underwater. Bass will often come out of their slumber and feed on live bait even if the water is far too cold.
The best thing to do is think protein. Large bass especially need a great deal of protein to produce energy for their long trip. All anglers should be thinking meat: fresh clams, mullet, peanut bunker, etc. When a bass finds bait in the water during the fall run, they think before biting. A bass would rather find an easy meal than chase down a large school of herring or bunker. Swallowing whole clams out of a shell, taking the scraps from a bluefish blitz, etc. When you bait up always remember that bass are lazy during the fall run and usually take easy meals before hitting anything else.
Tease 'em a bit
When anglers are looking to entice a bass to strike, finding the right lure is always a tough decision. The possibilities are endless: plugs, swimmers, spoons, shad bodies, you name it! The average angler can spend up to 15 minutes choosing the right lure, tying it on and getting it ready to fish. Nine out of ten times a bass will not be intrigued by the lure when they are in forage mode. So much depends on the lure but what if it isn't the lure that's the problem? An old trick in the book of fishing has its roots deep in the fly tackle along the Eastern Seaboard.
Rigging up with a teaser on your line is a trick that drives bass wild no matter how cold the water gets. The act of putting a lure in front of your original lure may seem like overkill but it does wonders to entice a bass strike. A simple fly-like lure with a hook and a bit of hair can invoke a nice bass bite during the winter months. When a bass sees a lure in the water, it sees potential single bait swimming along in the water column. Most of the time it will not bother to chase it. But, when a bass sees a teaser lure being chased by another fish, (lure) its survival of the fittest kicks in and it darts after the bait. It will hit the teaser just to get to the bait before another fish does; it's a spiteful thing to do but somehow a bass will do this just because it can.
The single hook teaser can be placed about 18 to 24 inches above the lure and tied off with a simple clinch knot or dropper loop. The key is to get the lure just far enough away to give the appearance of two baits. Putting the lure too far ahead or too close to the lure will spook a bass indefinitely. To make the teaser, all you need is a 5/0 to 7/0 hook and the same materials needed to tie flies. A quick bucktail hair application tied off up by the eye will do the trick but some anglers use regular bunker flies or get extremely detailed when selecting a teaser. Basic colors like white, yellow, green and red have been effective in November and well into December and January for the smaller resident bass.
Using a teaser can drastically improve the appearance of your bait in the water. The effect of having a lighter colored teaser with a black Bomber or dark blue shad body attracts bass during the day or night. Using a simple teaser or even a bucktail can improve strikes when bass won't seem to budge for anything. Try to use a light hook when choosing a teaser because the heavier the teaser, the harder it would be to retrieve in a rip tide or near the jetties. It's also a good idea to tie a sturdy knot onto your line when adding a teaser. If a bass hits the teaser it will likely hook itself but a weak knot or even a lose knot can cause breakoffs or tangles with the second lure.
Teasers will also allow the original lure to swim smoother in the water, causing more motion and ripples in the water. The slight effect of having a small teaser push the water out of the way enables the larger lure to coast in the water, attracting bass to the scene and using Mother Nature to make them strike the bait. Most species of fish will always try to aim for the teaser first but be careful not to use a teaser if a bluefish school is working the area. If a blue hits the teaser, you will also lose the other lure if he cuts through the line.
Slow it down
During the spring run, bass come in from the offshore grounds and feed ferociously. They strike at almost anything and feed on a wide variety of baits. Towards the end of the fall run, when the water temperatures drop, bass change their attitudes dramatically. Most of the bass at the end of the run will be caught on bait, either fresh or dead. For those anglers who are using plugs, plastics, etc., the speed of the bait has to be slow to be effective. Using a slower retrieve will put more emphasis on the lure's action, causing the strike to come out of instinct and not hunger. Stripers will be feeding heavily as they move out of the area, so odds are they will be taking lures at some time during their journey.
It's a good idea to try and experiment with different lures to see how they look in the water. Try and cast your lures into a small, shallow area and try a slow retrieve. You will notice things about the lure that bass look for when choosing to hit or not. Look for how the tail acts when it falls to the bottom. Try to observe how poppers swim back to the surface once they drift back up. Each of these things can influence a bass to eat. Also remember that the cold water in the winter is clearer because all the algae has died. Your lures will look just as clear as they do on land.
Put on a little fish cologne
Whether you're using artificials or bait, the number one thing stripers use to find their food is scent. Since they travel a great number of distances, they often rely on their sense of smell to find food. In the months of November and December, most of the bass in the area are moving out or have moved so locating them is the tricky part. No matter where you fish, adding a fish attractant to your lure is a great move and can produce a lot of great catches. The addition of a fish attractant, either rubbed on or liquid, is scientifically proven to catch more fish hands down. Itís almost like putting gravy on mashed potatoes; it goes together and just tastes better!
The thing to remember is scents attract fish. If youíre fishing for stripers in a cold-water environment, drawing them in will take more than putting food in the water. Stripers use their olfactory glands to ďsniffĒ food in the water. This highly sensitive organ paints a vivid picture in the bass's brain. They can detect a scent from almost a mile away but studies have shown that with the right drift and conditions it could be almost double that! Under normal conditions, if youíre using fresh bait, the scent is more than likely to disappear after the first ten minutes. Most anglers donít want to reel in their lines that often but putting a scent attractant on a clam or mullet allows you to leave the bait in the water longer and doubles the area youíre trying to cover, therefore, your chances are increased.
Fish attractants are designed for either real or artificial baits but using them on lures will improve your bite ratio and quality dramatically. Most lures are made from either plastic, rubber or metal. None of these materials are found in a striperís diet but by adding a bunker scent or clam scent to it masks the scent of the lure. If you are using new lures out of the box you have to put an attractant on the lure or your chances of fishing bass is sure to decline. Lure manufacturers use several chemicals in their production that donít attract fish; in fact they can repel fish with their harsh taste. Applying a little bit of attractant to lures gives them the real taste that bass search for.
Several companies make fish attractants used by recreational anglers. Products like Smelly Jelly are rubbed onto lures and bait once every 15 minutes to give them a fresh bait scent. Liquid attractants like Powerbait and Baitmate are sprayed on or dripped on baits but have a tendency to wear off faster than gel attractants. Some anglers use artificial baits that have attractants already built into their design. Companies like Berkely have their Gulp! Series and Alive! Series that have bait attractants engineered into their lures. These baits can be added to your lure like a strip bait or fished on their own to improve your chances of catching a cow.
The right place at the right time
Fishing for stripers at the end of the run limits your chances of catching fish in certain areas. When bass migrate south for the winter, they hunt in specific areas and avoid others. Tactics used during the spring run differ from the ones you use for the wintertime. Stripers will be patrolling one of several areas in the ocean and you will often only catch them at specific places at specific times. Many anglers avoid fishing the rivers at all costs because they know bass wonít be there. Since they donít need to spawn like they did during the spring, fishing in the rivers is not recommended unless they are filled with baitfish. Fishing by boat a few miles out also isn't advised unless a massive school of bunker drives them out. Most of the action can be found along the beaches and jetties when the run is almost over.
Places like Island Beach State Park are a haven for migrating bass when the season ends. Stripers will be moving in a general south pattern but they stick to the surf in search of floating baits. Beaches are the best place to find big bass because of all the bait that congregates in the wash. Bass will scavenge up an easy meal before they hunt for food and the beach is a great place to look for stragglers. Jetties, sedge and other formations in the water are good places to cast lures or even drop bait off. When talking with a diver friend of mine, he said that large bass will sit and wait for scraps of bait to drift by jetties and along the sides of inlet walls. Large, lazy bass will take their time and wait for food to drift in front of them.
Things to avoidÖ
Some methods that have dynamite effects at other times will be useless when fishing at the end of a run. Avoid using multi-colored lures that work well in the summertime. Standard colors like blue, black, white and yellow work better in the wintertime. Also try to use what the Old Salts used for years. Bombers, wooden swimmers, poppers, etc. are perfect for bass when the run is ending. Donít try and reinvent the wheel. Fish areas like jetties and beaches day or night for improved bass catches. Avoid rivers and deep water for bass unless they are teeming with baitfish. Use baits that drive bass wild; rigged eels, clams, mullet, herring, etc. Try not to use baits like squid and sandworms that wonít entice bass to strike. Trolling has also had mixed results during the fall run because bass are more willing to take an easy meal than work for one. Keep your baits fresher than fresh by using fish attractants and changing them frequently. Look for bait fish in the water and try to match the hatch when bass get picky. Always remember that the cold water makes bass extremely lazy, so the easiest meals will be hit first.
A final note
No matter when you plan on fishing the run, make sure you follow a few short rules that have proven to catch big bass year after year. The fall run is a glorious thing but fishing the end of it can be hit or miss. The best thing to do is come prepared and not to get discouraged if things arenít working. Bass have the tendency to become stubborn after they have taken their fill for the season. It's almost the same feeling we get after Thanksgiving Dinner! Enjoy the end of the season and I'll see you out on the deep blue!