With the fall run rapidly approaching, beaches from Maine to New Jersey will begin to see an increase in activity, attracting every surfcaster and his brother to the water for a chance of hooking fish. But, if you want some fun and consistent action without the crowds, try looking in another direction.
As water temperatures drop, the bays and tidal rivers across New England come to life. Throughout the fall, large schools of baitfish like peanut bunker and silversides are chased in droves along the banks of big rivers such as the Connecticut and Housatonic, bringing striped bass and bluefish in hot pursuit. Because these fish are so riled up by both the abundance of food and the changing seasons, it is not unusual to see blitzes occur in the middle of the day, often within casting distance of the shore. During these frantic bursts of action, all you need is the right gear and good timing to connect, and before you know it, you won’t be able to keep them off your hook.
I was not always privy to the white-hot bite of fall river fishing, in fact, it took me four years of living next to a major tidal river before I knew what I was missing. I was lucky enough to attend school in New London, Connecticut, a charming little city on the coast of southeastern Connecticut. The local river is known as the Thames, and like most rivers leading into Long Island Sound, it is flanked on both shores by a combination of bustling industry and sleepy residential areas, meaning that the river has endured its fair share of abuse. Still, the Thames hosts a thriving fishery of both fresh and saltwater species. I first made this discovery during my senior year of college while walking a nature trail that snaked down from my campus and continued up the western bank of the river.
It was a cool day in mid-September, and a large cold front had just passed through, clearing out the prior week’s stagnant humidity. I had just sat down next to a bridge to catch my breath, when a loud splashing sound startled me. I looked around trying to identify the commotion, but was only met with the swiftly moving tide and the birds that circled gently above. I heard the splash again, this time much closer to my feet, and I quickly stood and looked out into the river. In a massive school about 10 feet from the shore, hundreds of frantic peanut bunker were being balled up and assaulted by a group of angry bluefish. With every pass, the hungry predators would rush through the ball of bait and slap their tails on the surface before looping back for another attempt. Suddenly, the water began to boil as another school of bluefish on peanut bunker merged with the one in front of me, and before I knew it, there was a full-on blitz. After that day, I never walked down by the water without a rod, and every time I went, I never failed to connect with a fish.
The reason that this kind of fishing is my favorite activity in the fall is due to its reliability, accessibility, and ease. While you may be hard pressed to catch a giant during the day, these schools of smaller fish are ferocious and always put up a good fight, so if you have the right kind of light tackle, you can fill an afternoon with consistent fun.
In addition, many of the rivers and bays in New England are rarely crowded, and have dozens of public boat launches and nature trails that permit recreational fishing.
Finally, targeting blues and stripers in the fall river run is perfect for beginners. You don’t need an expensive rod and reel set up, you don’t need countless boxes of specialty lures, and you only need to be aware of one or two structure and current patterns in order to be successful.
So, if you are looking for a great way to spend a Sunday afternoon this fall by yourself or with the family, take the time to head to a local tidal river and do the research to find out if it’s holding fish.
5 Things to keep in mind when spending a day on the river:
1. Try to time your trips after a cold front or before a significant weather system like thunderstorm or nor’easter. This will churn up bait and keep the fish edgy.
2. Large schools of blues and bass usually stack up along bridges, in small bays and harbors, or off points with quickly moving water.
3. Often, you can see schools of bait swimming beneath the surface, as they are given away by the occasional shimmer of their scales when changing directions. If you stay with the bait as they move along the shore, it won’t be long until the action starts.
4. Because bass and blues will usually be within stalking distance of any given baitfish school, making a precision cast on either side of the bait will most likely prompt a reaction strike from fish as they follow close behind.
5. If you find strong current at a bridge or point but there is no sign of bait on the surface, keep your eyes peeled for working birds. Common terns are always a good indicator of bait, but I prefer to watch the cormorants, as they tend to stick closer to shore and can show you the fish that the terns won’t.
If none of these patterns are available, start taking blind casts. The fish during this time of year are aggressive enough to attack a lure in open water, so don’t be afraid to find a spot and just start fishing.