Autumn’s shorter days and dropping temperatures signal the massing of striped bass along the Mid-Atlantic coast to fatten up for the long winter ahead. Larger mature bass are leaving New England waters, where they spent the summer months, to migrate to winter grounds off Virginia and North Carolina and they feed relentlessly as they go. Smaller fish tend to winter in the vicinity of the nursery areas where they were born with major concentrations located in the ocean waters adjacent to the Hudson River, Delaware Bay and in and around the Chesapeake Bay. These smaller fish will be on a mission to pack on the pounds too and present great light tackle opportunities for anglers.
The fall migration is aided and abetted by concentrations of forge fish moving out of coastal estuaries forming massive schools along the beaches where they provide a traveling smorgasbord for the hungry stripers. The combination of the need to bulk up and the availability of forage drive the bass to eat a lot and often both day and night. A variety of techniques will catch them, but one that has really come into its own in recent years is matching the prevailing baitfish with soft plastic imitations. Soft baits for saltwater were once nothing more than oversized twister tails that were threaded onto a jig head or under the hair skirt of a bucktail, but tackle shops have literally been flooded with an ever growing variety of the soft stuff in shapes and sizes that match almost any of the forage species the bass will encounter during the fall months. Anglers have found that many of them can really catch fish!
The variety of baitfish you may encounter during fall madness can include silversides, sand eels, two species of anchovies, several species of herring, mackerel, mullet and menhaden in sizes ranging from young-of-the-year peanuts to full grown bunker that can tip the scales at more than a pound. Carrying a supply of soft plastics and tackle capable of fishing each effectively can be the key to catching bass regardless of what you encounter on any given day.
To fish plastics effectively you’ll need a selection of tackle capable of handling the various sizes and weights of the lures. Since most of the new genereation of soft lures are weighted internally the larger ones require heavier tackle to cast or troll. Most can be handled on light to medium spinning or plugging tackle and using braided line will help get them down in the water column when the bass are holding deep. Remember just because birds wheeling and baitfish are being pushed to the surface does not necessarily mean the bass are feeding on top. For example, if you encounter a school of menhaden casting one of these plastic imitators into the school and retrieving it across the surface will probably get little attention from the bass below. Let it sink and begin a slow to medium retrieve and it’s sure to get the attention you’re looking for.
Soft plastics can be fished in a variety of ways. Most of them work well simply casting and retrieving without trying to impart any action other than the built in tail motion. In deeper water when marking stripers close to the bottom on your depth finder you can drop and retrieve or jig them slowly. The largest versions, like the 9 inch menhaden imitation pictures, can be cast on heavier tackle, jigged or trolled behind the boat.
Regardless how you fish plastics for stripers remember that speed is a critical factor. Bass show a strong preference for slow to moderately paced targets. Anglers often have to make a conscious effort to retrieve these lures slowly and it is even more critical with today’s high speed reels. Cranking the lures too fast will result in lots of bluefish bites—and these toothy critters cause havoc on expensive soft plastic lures—but not a lot of interest from stripers.
Autumn is a time of bounty for farmers and striped bass fishermen alike. It has the potential to provide some of the best fishing of the year and one of the best ways to catch a bunch is with soft plastic lures. Don’t leave the dock without them.