Join us for our Holiday Fly-Fishing Breakfast and Sale event on Saturday, December 16th from 9 AM to 1 PM! Featuring fly-tying demonstrations from Fred Monahan, Paul Dinice, Bill Goebeng, Chris Parisi, and Ray Ramos, as well as casting clinics,...
Birds, Blitzes, and Bunker: Navigating the Fall Run
Too often, we hear folks express skepticism about the fishing in the months after Labor Day. Labor Day has sort of become a denotation of when the fishing “ends” or “gets bad”. Well, we are here to tell you that those who fish through to Thanksgiving not only end up catching plenty of fish, and sometimes giants, but those anglers are also often witness to some of the most incredible, mind-bending, chaotic blitz feeds all year. When you learn the ecological reasons behind this statement, it begins to make more sense, and a few days out on the Sound in September and October will quickly reveal what you’ve been missing if you’ve been packing it in once the calendar flips past Labor Day.
One of the fuels poured on the fall run fire is menhaden, known locally as bunker. These filter feeders migrate inshore early in the summer, kicking off our spring run and providing some of the best big striper fishing we get all year. And while they reproduce in the open ocean in the winter months, the juvenile bunker migrate towards tidal estuaries and inland waters using tides and currents. Once there, they grow quickly, filtering various types of plankton and growing throughout the summer. In the Long Island Sound, you’ve probably seen massive schools of quarter-sized “peanut bunker” in tidal creeks in late summer. Well, once they’re big enough, they leave those tidal creeks, usually in the months of…you guessed it- September and October. Those massive schools of peanuts ride the current out into the inshore waters of the Sound, and that’s the ecological equivalent of dropping a match into a 50 gallon drum of gasoline.
This incredible footage was provided by @thereal_samuelrose on Instagram
In parallel and similarly calendar-related move, schools of stripers and bluefish are feeling the looming cold coming, and for them it’s time to put on the feedbags and bulk up. When you combine massive schools of striped bass with oily, popcorn-sized bunker, you get the fall run and the blitzes associated with it. You’ll see terns and gulls diving on schools of silvery bait which is being balled tightly and pushed to the surface by hungry bass and blues below. The wild part is that peanut bunker aren’t even the only fuel in this stewpot of fall run madness: silversides and bay anchovies are similarly sized bait which also arrives plentifully in the fall. The ingredients are potent, and the fishing equally as explosive. And just like we’ve got multiple species of baitfish in the mix, we’ve also got a variety of hungry predators chasing them, including the aforementioned striped bass and bluefish. But how about hungry seabass? If you’ve never seen a seabass blitz on the surface, you might in the fall. And what’s more, New England’s favorite fake tuna come into the mix as well- false albacore! Now we’ve got a party.
On the right days, an angler looking for good fall action will need only their eyes. Launch at sunrise and start scanning for birds and looking for surface action. If the conditions are good, you might spend the next few hours experiencing epic blitz fishing, reeling in fish until your shoulders are sore. Typically, cloudy days with a bit of a breeze are best. Many anglers say a north wind is best, as it ruffles the water without creating swell and also helps push those smaller baitfish away from our shores and into more vulnerable waters. Blitzes often set up in coves, on points, and at the mouths of tidal creeks and rivers. The fish will occasionally push schools of bait onto the beaches, and you can quite literally see peanut bunker flopping around in the sand as they feverishly attempt to escape death. It’s the lifecycle of the Long Island Sound on full display, and you’ve got to fish it if you haven’t.
The reason baitfish and feeding habits were discussed prior to talking about lures is that the lure choice is now quite clear: use literally anything that mimics a small baitfish. We’re talking epoxy jigs, metal jigs, small poppers, small spooks, soft plastics, small needlefish, small tubes. Most of these baitfish are silvery, but some present in green and gold hues as well, so those colors are great starters. Many anglers tend to downsize their rods and reels in the fall to take full advantage of the fight provided by these often slot or under-slot fish. A 3000 or 4000 size reel along with a 7' 6" rod is a perfect combo for fall run fun. An ideal setup would be a 4000 size Shimano Vanford and a 7' 6" medium action Tsunami Carbon Shield II rod. If you need a new combo but don't want to go through the headache of spec'ing one out for yourself, our "Hard-Tail Slammer" combo is the way to go!
As mentioned before, fall is also “funny fish” time. The term funny fish refers to a few species we don’t get in the Sound at any other time during the year: Spanish mackerel, bonito, and the colloquial favorite, false albacore, known as “albies.” Catching these fish can and does happen using the gear mentioned above, but oftentimes anglers will keep a particular rod and reel combo on board which is meant specifically for catching funny fish. A common combo for this is a 3000 or 4000 rod and reel and the same 7’ 6” rod mentioned above, but with braided line in the 15-20lb range, and a long leader of 15lb fluorocarbon, tied with no swivels or clips. Albies and bonito in particular have excellent eyesight, and any hardware you put in there in the form of swivels or clips will deter them from biting.
Distinguishing an albie blitz from a striper and bluefish blitz becomes easier over time and after seeing their distinct splashes. But a good way to think about it is that albie splashes look like someone hitting the water with a sword or a machete. Stripers and blues tend to create more “pops” in the water, whereas funny fish tend to present as more of a “slash.” Sometimes blues and seabass are mixed in with albies. If you see that you’ve got some Nat Geo magic on your hands. For lures, albies will hit Albie Snax, epoxy jigs, and small metals, reeled near or on the surface of the water at about double the speed you’d normally retrieve a lure. They’re fast, and they have no problem ripping through the water at 40mph to destroy your epoxy and send that drag peeling.
Hopefully, this provides some insight into why September and October (and even into November with the tog season) are some of the most insane and magical months to be on the water. Grab a hoodie and a flannel, throw on some bibs, and get out there in the crisp fall air to enjoy some of the best fishing we have all year. It’s a long winter, and in January you’re going to be kicking yourself if you passed up these opportunities back when the weather was 50, sunny, and crisp, accented with the scent of wet leaves and chimney smoke. It’s New England fishing at its best, and you’d be crazy to miss out on it!
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