Hed: Fall’s Top 5 Fishing Hotspots
Dek: No matter what part of the country you’re in, when the weather cools down, the bite heats up.
by Nick Honachefsky
Autumn brings a medley of changes across the country — technicolored leaves in the northeast, cooler weather and more gray-haired residents in Florida, the end of noontime nighttime in Alaska — but coast to coast, one change is universal. Fishing goes into overdrive. Fall means fish are on the hunt, fattening up and getting ready for winter. From East Coast to Gulf Coast to West Coast, everything is alive and in a feeding frenzy. Here’s the Complete Angler take on five of the hottest fishing grounds you don’t want to miss.
NORTHEAST – Montauk Stripers
Defined by its bumpy, glacial boulder coastline, swirling rip currents and plentiful baitfish schools, striper anglers clamor to “The End” or Montauk, NY, to experience the best of striped bass fishing. Montauk holds the distinction of being the historical epicenter of the “fall run” of striped bass. It’s a must-do destination for any serious striper fisherman to visit at least once in their career. It’s also a surfcaster’s paradise at spots like Turtle Cove and North Bar, where anglers clip on corker boots to hop from rock to rock to reach out further with their casts, working three- to five-ounce wooden poppers across the surface. The fleeting poppers crash and splash to attract the attention of bass below, typically resulting in an intense visual strike. Submerged boulders and rocky shores under the lighthouse act as ambush points that attract schools of blitzing bass of eight to 35 pounds. Boaters implement a variety of tactics to trick up bass, including jigging with metal Ava and Crippled Herring jigs, trolling bunker spoons and shad bar rigs, and livelining bunker. Sunrises over the rock-lined coast or days surfcasting or trolling under Montauk Lighthouse make for memorable experiences. With nearly a century of recreational striper fishing on its side, this is still the promised land for world-class “stripahs.”
EAST COAST FLORIDA – Running of the Bulls
You’ll be seeing red in every channel and on every flat of Florida’s Mosquito Lagoon, Banana River, and Indian River waterways, as redfish get aggressive and feed in the cooling temperatures. In the Merritt Island sound of Mosquito Lagoon and Banana River, flat, shallow, expanse bays help betray the location of reds running in wolf packs as a V-wake ripples the surface when reds chase mullet schools along the edges and up onto the flats. Bulls to 40 lbs. are not uncommon, with 15- to 25-lb. redfish the norm.
Watch for their telltale black-bullseye tails breaking the waters on the flats and loft a cast with a shrimp lanced on a red 1⁄4-ounce leadhead, twitch snapping it back until the red inhales it. In the channels under the backdrop of a Cape Canaveral seashore sunrise, be prepared for explosive topwater strikes on Zara Spooks, as reds run the edges of channels, pushing baitfish schools up onto the flats. Launch swimming plugs, poppers and swimbaits ahead of the schools, but not too close to spook them in the glass-calm, daybreak waters. Further south near Sebastian Inlet, the action is equally intense. Captain Glyn Austin of Goin’ Coastal Charters says, “Sebastian Inlet and Indian River reds move in and out at the high slack, beating on pogy schools. Pier anglers and boaters drifting at the inlet cast topwater poppers and bucktails tipped with eight-inch grub worms. The south jetty is a hot spot, where you’ll also find tarpon, snook, sharks and jacks on the prowl.”
GULF COAST – Trophy Texas Trout
Without a doubt, come fall, it’s all about trout in the Texas Gulf bays and estuaries. The expansive stretch of barrier coastline starting from Galveston and wrapping around the Gulf of Mexico down through Laguna Madre holds a spectacular seatrout opportunity on trophy tiderunners of eight to 12 lbs. Popular destinations in Galveston Bay include Robinson Bayou, Spillway flats and Trinity River flats. Mid-coast claims Matagorda Bay as the prime speck real estate, while the southern points of Baffin Bay down to Laguna Madre are perennial trout haunts. Seatrout can be skittish, and wade fishing is the preferred method to truly stalk the fish and sneak up on your quarry, as it’s best to be in stealth mode when working over channels, flats, mud and sand holes, and pockets and potholes. Low light hours of dawn and dusk put the specks in ambush mode, as they pin mullet schools up on the flats and hide with shadow-like ninja skills in the seagrasses waiting to pounce on unsuspecting baitfish. Tactics are varied, but commotion on the surface will usually prompt a strike. Texas tactics include twitching DOA shrimp or five-inch bass assassins, bouncing Johnson spoons, working topwater popping corks with shrimp underneath and livelining large mullet on floats. Boaters must exercise extreme quietude. It’s best to shut off the engine and pole around the flats and through the grass beds to sneak up on spiketooth schools. This is the time of year when trophies are taken and gator-class specks of a lifetime are always a legitimate possibility.
SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA – Seeing Yellow
Everything comes up yellow in the fall waters of SoCal as top targets include both the torpedo-like California yellowtail and rocket-propelled yellowfin tuna. The epicenter of the SoCal fleet, Point Loma at the mouth of the San Diego Bay, is the jumping off point for saltwater action, though a formidable recreational charter boat fleet also stations at Marina Del Rey. Prime grounds for California yellowtail include the kelp-paddy bastioned offshore islands of Catalina and San Clemente. The stringy, leafy cover attracts yellowtail to feed on sardine and Pacific mackerel schools that stick around the paddies for protection and forage. Jim Hendricks, local SoCal expert and storied outdoor writer, recommends hunting yellowtail with “a good shot of 25- to 30-lb. mono and a 3/0 live bait hook, tipped with a live sardine, either flylined under the paddies or fished on a dropper loop near the bottom. Other tactics include yo-yo jigging heavy metal jigs under bird schools, along the coast or under paddies at the islands.” Yellowfin tuna are the other top dogs on the fall menu, as the lightning quick speedsters follow porpoise schools as they hound dog and corral sardine schools. “Run your boat out ahead of the porpoise to intercept the yellowfin, then cast flylined sardines while throwing in a few live ones for chum,” says Hendricks. Bonus action off the SoCal coastline, especially when an El Nino surge pushes low to mid-70 degree water inshore, includes mahi, striped marlin and even bigeye tuna. On the inshore scene, kelp paddies and rocky outcroppings often attract scores of calico bass, California halibut, lingcod and rockfish. Yellowtail can also show up closer inshore of the Channel Islands, turning the autumn months red hot…uh, yellow…for Southern California anglers.
PACIFIC NORTHWEST –
‘Buts and Beasties Alaska needs no introduction when it comes to its sheer beauty and magnificence, but the land of the Midnight Sun beckons anglers for what’s below its scenic waters. Come fall, relatively mild temperatures still blanket state, making for some doable fishing. September and October the 50th effectively ring in the final months to have at the largest flatfish on the planet – halibut. Knee-breaking flatties of 25 to 75 lbs. are common, but true “barn doors” up to and over the 300 lb. mark come up with some luck. The Cook Inlet, Kachemak Bay and Kodiak Island waters are honored halibut hunting grounds. Ripping, three-knot currents make for tough fishing, with up to five pounds of lead sometimes needed to hold bottom in 250 feet of water, but the ‘buts are worth the strain. Other beasties on tap are the monstrous lingcod, some of which can grow up to five feet long. Large bucktail jigs tipped with strip baits are dropped down to the bottom in rocky areas up to 60 miles off the coast and bounced until the lingcod are fooled and pounce on the offering. Rounding out the saltwater mix is a collection of rockfish, including black bass and bright orange yellow-eyes, both of which put a formidable tug on the line and are tasty table fare. Look to the rock-strewn bottom waters off Washington, Oregon and Northern California, as well, to tangle with some lingcod.
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