With the fall migration in full swing, anglers forego sleep, chores and even work to chase their fleeing dreams

Photos by Tom Lynch

It is the third week in September, and I am up at 4:45 a.m. and on the road a smidgen after 5 o’clock. Second car in the lot. The temperature dropped into the low 40s overnight, and the sky is as clear as new pond ice.

I am surprised to see how much the swell has built — 3 to 5 feet and larger on the offshore reefs. The waves are fast and powerful, and they break in clean, hollow tubes that turn a translucent silver-green once the sun reaches the right height.

I fish beside two out-of-state guys who hiked out to this frothy reef in the dark, hours earlier, and already had a decent fish of maybe 25 pounds on the sand. The striped bass hang just outside the breakers, but they save their most rambunctious forays for those moments just after large waves break on the reef, leaving broad swatches of white water and scores of discombobulated baitfish. Then they sweep in and feed furiously. If you time your cast correctly, you work your plug for maybe a three-count, at most, before it gets rocked.

The action is pure, unfiltered fall fishing, the sort of morning I live for. It starts in early September when the water and light have more in common with summer than fall and continues until late November, when everything is shutting down and you’re happy to catch a few small stragglers and call it a season.

For those who pursue the fish of autumn with abandon, the chase instills the vigor of the season. I have never been more certain of where or who I am than when I am running along the backside of an island in an open boat at 2 in the morning or bouncing down a rutted beach road where all the businesses are shuttered for the season. Alert, on point, in the moment — alive.

Between the warm southwesterlies common early in the season and the hurly-burly day-and-night winds of late fall, we chase stripers, bluefish, tuna, albies, tautog, drum and their associates down the watery spine of the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic coasts. Blessedly, the waters and beaches thin out once the tourists and fair-weather fisherfolk go back to wherever it is they call home. In the end, only the diehards remain.

Long-handled gaff in hand, a surfman walks out on the north jetty at Barnegat Inlet, New Jersey.

Long-handled gaff in hand, a surfman walks out on the north jetty at Barnegat Inlet, New Jersey.

Never Enough

But we’re still in September. The three of us fish side by side for more than an hour, laughing and hooting at each fish. A fly guy joins us for a time but soon clears out for a distant pile of rocks. There is simply no way to reach these fish with a fly in surf this big and steady.

You have to be able to cast beyond the waves and bring the poppers or spooks through neck-deep tongues of white water covering the rocky shallows. We fish close together, but it never feels crowded. The other guys know what they’re doing; they cast straight, and no one gets in anyone’s way.

Catching chunky school bass between 12 and 25 pounds on surface plugs ranks high on my seasonal excitement meter.

It’s a visual rush, with fish cavorting out of the water, throwing spray, showing their tails and backs, and rolling over. When the action is good, you might get four or more hits on a cast.

There are six or eight boats trying to work the same bunch of fish, slipping back and forth across the surf-break zone, but given the size and the strength of the waves, I am happy to hook them from the sand this morning. The water is still warm by New England standards, and I am wet-wading in a bathing suit, wool shirt and fleece vest. When the action slows, I walk down the beach about 30 yards and lean my rod against a weathered beach log.

The waves have scoured a deep rut into the edge of the beach, and the swells break with the kind of snap that deserves attention. I strip off my top and dive in.

Glassy tubes break with mathematical precision as the small-boat fleet chases the scrums of gulls careening drunkenly over erupting fish. It is one more scene in the wonderfully unpredictable, willy-nilly days of fall. I body-surf a couple of smaller waves to shore. I wash my face in the water, dive beneath a large set and emerge with the morning sun in my eyes.

A brochure dated 1881 describes the beach we fish this morning this way:

The winds, from whatever direction, bring the cool bracing sea air. … The tonic effect of this air upon the appetite, shattered nerves and overworked brain is very marked and approximates very closely to the benefit derived from a sea voyage.

We fish hard, knowing the days and weeks are numbered, drifting back and forth across a shifting line between what is enough and never enough. With time short, I’m happy to overdo it and fish today, tomorrow and the day after that, too. Sleep can always wait.

I walk outside on a chilly morning in late October with not a breath of wind and watch two leaves fall without so much as a nudge. The oomph is the vanishing daylight and falling temperatures. Bare spots appear in the woods. You smell the season in the wet leaves, logs and decay hanging in the still coolness. Your nose tells you another season has arrived.

Fall fishing is a visual sensation.

Fall fishing is a visual sensation.

Signs of Fall

Whether you’re drifting among acres of breaking fish or watching long strings of waterfowl work their way south, the migration is visually spectacular. The look and feel of the season are indelibly etched in my memory.

It is the sting of sand against your bare legs in an early October nor’easter. The barks and yips of coyotes at midnight over the colonial salt marsh as you winch a boat back onto the trailer.

The murmur of a diesel before sunup. A crowded wheelhouse — lures, knives, coffee cans, whetstones, tin boxes, lead weights. The cabin is warm, with a whiff of diesel, the haze of tobacco smoke; it feels mildly claustrophobic but also like home.

The sharp cry of terns mixing with a lively rip; in a moment, fish slash through the waves — see them? There! Cast!

The whoosh of a toppling swell on a ledge in the dark that causes the hair to stiffen on the back of your neck. An osprey descending on a silver fish with all the fury of an Old Testament God delivering earthly retribution. The warm sandy cab of a beach buggy; overtaken by fatigue, your head drops to your chest, and you snap awake.

Faces lit by a beach fire. Clouds sweeping the moon. Surf rushing up to your chest. It’s a good shot of spray in your face on a choppy evening run down the sound in November. The smell of wood smoke as you crest the dune and look homeward up the river.

The low afternoon light of fall is as pure as music, poetry or laughter. It has a tangible presence, like the smell of the sea, the sound of a breaking wave, the heft of a heavy fish with your hand thrust under the gill plates.

Fall is a 50-foot convertible running at 30 knots and throwing sheets of spray on a white-topped sea. In November, northern gannets drop fro m 100 feet on sea herring off the islands as great schools of bass stage and prepare to say adiós.

I stop at a cemetery on a hill overlooking the sea, where wind, rain and ice have erased the names and dates on the brownstone markers, which few visit any longer. I search for an old relative and fisherman named Peleg — an oysterman who worked the river you know so well — dead well before I was born. The season is turning over.

Waning light and fleeting fish amplify the vigor of the season.

Waning light and fleeting fish amplify the vigor of the season.

Loose Lips

Two falls ago, the fishing along one of my favorite haunts in southern New England had been good for more than a week.

I walk out one morning only to be greeted by a pair of fishermen I’ve never seen before heading off the beach. I stop to talk, hoping to pick up a useful tidbit. Bleary-eyed and tired, they report a slow night, confirmed by their heavy trudge and slumped shoulders.

While we chat, I look over the left shoulder of the angler closest to me, who is doing most of the talking. About 50 yards down the beach, school bass have pinned a pod of bait against the shore and are starting to feed. For a moment, I consider telling the two pilgrims about the action taking place, but the old ways die hard. I wish them well as they hike over the dune, and I walk nonchalantly down the sand and into fish.

Some guys talk more than others. I was brought up in the old school, where the first lesson was keeping your trap shut. “If you don’t know somebody, you keep your mouth closed,” Cuttyhunk Pete told me. “Or you tell them something that’s 10 days old. That’s the way it’s always been.”

To make the most of the fall, anglers rise at all hours and fish in a host of obscure places.

To make the most of the fall, anglers rise at all hours and fish in a host of obscure places.

Life on the Run

There isn’t much time for anything but fishing, working and avoiding family mutiny as you run yourself ragged chasing tides and deadlines. Yard cleanup doesn’t begin until November. You are the last in the neighborhood to rake your leaves. So be it.

My vehicle resembles my son’s bedroom for chaos and clutter. Wool socks, food wrappers and coffee cups, empty creamers, a banana peel and assorted coins on the floor. The aroma is a mix of wet waders, damp wool, an eel cooler that has gotten too warm and part of a roast beef sandwich. Also piled on the seats are a damp leather wading belt, a stripping basket, plug boxes, assorted lead weights, rain pants, sea boots, extra clothes and a good bit of sand. Depending on the weather and where the fish are, it also carries some combination of surf rods, boat poles and maybe a fly rod. A home.

 A surf caster works the translucent golden-green breakers of fall.

 A surf caster works the translucent golden-green breakers of fall.

Bunker

Live bait and big bass often go hand in hand. It is a mid-October afternoon, and Bruce and I have filled the live well with a couple-dozen large menhaden. We slam across a 2- to 3-foot chop to an island where we are confident we will find fish.

Two migrating harriers glide over the island, and dozens of monarch butterflies flit about. It is one of those near-perfect days, and no other boats are nearby.

On our first few drifts, large bass act as if they haven’t had a proper meal in days. They fight over the baits. An unforgettable sight: a 35-pound striper greyhounding along the surface — head, dorsal and tail breaking the water — in madcap pursuit of a bunker swimming like there is no tomorrow. That and the sucking, slapping, popping and slurping as the bait is knocked a foot or two into the bright blue October sky. It leaves the water like a slick pumpkin seed squeezed between your fingers. Beneath it are green and bronze-backed sea wolves.

We end the afternoon with 13 or 14 fish, including four nice ones in the mid-30 to low-40-pound range. The afternoon makes me wonder what these fish were doing in the shallows before we drifted by with a barrel of live bunker. Were they just lying there, stemming the tide, positioned between a couple of boulders or a fold in the current?

We drift past the south side of the island, which I can’t pass without recalling a fish I hooked at dawn some years back. I remember the fish not for its size — it might have gone 15 pounds — but for the fact that it surprised me by jumping clear out of the water and hanging horizontally for a long moment. In memory, the fish is drenched in morning light, the water drains off its flanks, and drops are flying. It is frozen in time. I have never seen a striper jump quite like that again.

“If they only jumped, I’d be a goner,” someone once remarked about striped bass.

I think of it now and smile. Fall is back.  

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2019 issue of Anglers Journal magazine.

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