When bait and bass meet, New York’s Long Island Sound is the place to be
Some of the most spectacular and iconic fall fishing along the entire East Coast of the United States takes place at the end of Long Island at Montauk Point and the surrounding beaches Yet, the Long Island Sound can also hold its own as a very productive late season fishery. There is a progression of events that begin in September which signal the start of the fall run. Anglers know this time well as the first hint of the autumn begins to cool the waters as changes to both air temperature and prevailing winds take place. While September can be a fabulous bass month, October – the month of the Harvest Moon – can truly be spectacular along the north shore of Long Island.
The drop in water temperature and the prevailing early fall winds work in tandem to stir up Long Island Sound. During the late season, the waters of the north shore are fertile and often rich in wide varieties of bait: sand eels, spearing, peanut bunker, bay anchovy, finger mullet… all preparing for the grand journey that is the fall run. As water temperature cools, baitfish become increasingly active and begin a mass migration that culminates in an arrival at their wintering grounds. Hot on the tails of this bait buffet are the often equally impressive masses of striped bass. Never is there more a time of concentrated abundance of fish than during this mass fall exodus, and some of the best fishing to be had is in the waters of the Long Island Sound.
Fundamentally, what occurs at this time of year is that a number of variables work together and act as triggers for bait and bass to amass: a drop in water temperature; reduced hours of sunlight; and shifts in wind direction. The bait respond first and then game fish home in on those situations and engage in periods of binge feeding. This activity results in incredible surface blitzes, often occurring right at water’s edge. It also takes place in many offshore areas. But one of the most compelling scenarios to unfold at this time of year is the phenomenon of both bait and bass stacking and staging around deep offshore waters of the Sound. This most often occurs near drop-offs, the deep edges along shoals, or around many forms of underwater structure. Baitfish gravitate to these areas prior to moving east or west to exit the Sound, and find these locations ideal for staging. It only follows that bass will also then key in on these deep-water bait magnets and at times can be found stacked up and awaiting the dinner bell. As a precursor to this stacking bait will typically empty from harbors, bays and creeks and move to deeper water. Bait will also stage near jetties and rock promontories. There is safety in numbers, or at least that is what they think! It is during this period that fish finders light up and bass can be caught in significant numbers. Last fall was no exception and this season should prove no different. Although bass stocks have been down, especially with school-size fish, those concentrated gatherings should still happen. A few outings from last season serve as an example of how this all comes together.
On one such occasion a friend of mine had gotten a new boat and wanted to chase some late-season false albacore and bonito. The season for those pelagics in the Sound had been sub-par, with some of the area’s best hot spots producing no fish. We scouted most of our favorite areas to no avail and decided to give the bass a try. The beaches were devoid of any life and we moved offshore to scout. Still no luck. At that point we opted to check out some of the deep “holes” we know to hold some bass. By this time we were smack dab in the middle of Smithtown Bay, using the depth/fish finder in a grid searching pattern. Bingo! Bass marks on the screen… and lots of them. When you find stripers at this time of year in deep water, the diamond jig is king. While most of the marks were close to the bottom, many fish were stacked and suspended throughout the entire lower level of the water column. At times the diamond jig could not reach the bottom without being molested. As the day progressed, we moved from one similar depth and configuration of bottom contour to the next and were greeted with the same results. Most often strikes came just a few reel cranks off the bottom. In addition to diamond jigs, bucktails and weighted plastics like swim shads will also work very well at this time of year. It was one of those days we counted fish just for fun and the final tally was well over 100 bass caught and released…most schoolies but a number of solid keeper-size fish as well.
While surface explosions of baitfish and game fish are the makings of very visual angling, those occasions are not the everyday nor the all-day norm. If you are on the Long Island Sound enough you can surely expect to encounter this kind of action throughout the fall season. But to be consistently successful at “catching,” even in the fall, the successful angler must learn to find fish when they aren’t visibly showing, which is usually about 95 percent of the time. This is where learning to read the characteristics of deep water, finding and understanding structure such as rock piles reefs and shoals, and studying the migration habits of bait and game fish pay handsomely. While this quality fishing is often available in the Sound through November – and that could be especially true this season with its somewhat late starts – bass can also be caught until the end of the season in December.
In most years by late fall, many saltwater fishermen have pulled their boats from the water, cleaned barnacles from the hulls and winterized engines. Yet some Long Island Sound diehards are just not ready to have the season end. What keeps them plugging away is the anticipation of a late fall herring run. Nothing warms the spirit and body of late fall and winter anglers