By the time the mango-colored moon cleared the trees, I had released three striped bass. It was three days after the recent October full moon, and the fishing was already better than the previous two nights.
Just back from more than a week out of the country, I was doing my best to splice into the fall run. The night looked good from the start. The wind was in my face, and the ocean was silvery-black, with moguls extending to the horizon. I like a noisy, windy beach at night, and so do stripers, especially now that they are on the move.
The coastal migration is underway, and bass and bait are dropping out of the tidal rivers and estuaries and moving south. Storms, cooling temperatures and shrinking daylight ignite this mass movement along the coast from Maine through the Mid-Atlantic.
The onshore wind — correctly predicted to become a gale the following day and night — would certainly stir things up, giving the migration a boost in some spots while creating lulls in others. The cold front raced across the coastal waters of New England the following day and brought high winds and waves. Scouting, I watched as large, green-and-white storm waves barreled into the rocks at a lighthouse. A large, shattered tree and root ball was carried here on these roiling seas and sprawled ignominiously across the riprap at a point farther up the rocks than I can ever remember seeing one.
On the previous night, the Hunter’s Moon had moved in and out of the clouds all evening. At one point, it glowed faintly behind a smudge of charcoal clouds. That’s the kind of moon I prefer. Diffused light, not a spotlight. Some striper guys love the moon; others prefer dark nights. All I know is that fish must eat, moon or no moon. I stopped trying to figure out the vagaries of its impact years ago and simply fish based on the wind, tides, local knowledge and experience.
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The tide tonight is low. I get off a couple of casts just before total darkness and am happy with the distance I’m getting into the wind with a 7-inch floating minnow. The water is clean, with an occasional piece of eel grass coming in on the swimmer.
I fish more than 100 yards of beach, casting and retrieving, taking a few steps and repeating the process. Old timers used to say, “Don’t marry a rock.” In other words, don’t stay in one spot waiting for the fish to swim past. Keep moving and casting until you find them. I’ve had a long, happy marriage with a couple of glacial boulders situated on the edge of the striper world, but those are ambush spots favored by resident fish. With the entire coastal contingent of stripers on the run, you have to keep looking and adjusting, whether fishing from shore or a boat.
This is the time of year to talk less and fish more. Get your arse out of the truck and start casting. The fish don’t always broadcast their presence with scattering bait and diving birds. Stripers might be in one place for a tide or two, and then poof, they’re gone. That’s what gives fall a wonderful, restless energy.
If you’re in the right location at the right time, the results can be as memorable as any you’ll encounter. Miss it, and you might be in for a long, slow pick and a forgettable fall. In the investment world, there’s an old saw about the long-term impact of missing the top 10 trading days of the year. In the last 20 years, the 10 best days accounted for something like 75 percent of the gain.
There’s a parallel here to fall fishing. You want to be there for the good bites and the blitzes, when you’re seemingly hooking fish after fish amid crashing waves and sheets of spray, under clouds of demented gulls. The thought of missing out on those days or nights keeps all of us dragging our tired selves back.
On this night, I find a bunch of school fish beyond a bar where the waves break willy-nilly, without any crisp, discernible pattern. This is a spot where a sandy beach meets a long stretch of rocks. The sand piles up here, creating a shoal and an erratic beach break. The bait always seems to be hurrying like hell to get past it. It’s a good spot.
I take four fish and keep moving deeper into the boulder field. I approach one of my favorite rocks and notice the new intrusion of sand. I used to swing one leg up onto the wrack-covered boulder and then pull myself aboard. Tonight, I step right up on it as easily as climbing a staircase. The only constant on barrier beaches is change. I wade out past the rock and take three more school fish.
I love everything about fall. The cold, empty nights, as well as those rare occasions when you lose track of how many fish you’ve caught. My SUV smells like damp waders. There are sand ridges and shoals growing over the floor mats and carpets.
I’ve been staying in a small, one-bedroom rental attached to a larger home owned by a yacht captain. He keeps a close eye on the weather, too, given that he still has a boat to bring to Florida.
It’s been a good night. I’ve found a bunch of fish willing to eat. The beach is empty, save for me and a few-dozen wind birds, which feed through the night. On the walk back, I stop a couple of times to watch the sanderlings as they race the waves and surging foam up the face of the beach and back down. Over and over, unflagging in their efforts.
The cold front generates a large swell and plasters the roadways with wet leaves. In its wake is the promise of more fish. Surely some larger ones. The water is still surprisingly warm. Anything is possible.
It’s late as I walk into a convenience store, a great black-backed gull in waders and black beanie, wobbling a tad while hungrily eyeing a pint of ice cream — the proverbial icing on my cake.