by Capt. Steve Byrne
First Cast Charters
here is invariably, a look of disbelief whenever I start talking about December stripers. “But isn't it cold,” they ask incredulously. It's almost as though they are hoping that I will tell them that it is too cold, too windy or too something – anything to avoid going out on the water to catch stripers in December.
While it sounds semi-crazy to some, December is one of the best times of year to catch stripers from Brooklyn to Cape May. The fall migration is at a fever pitch, and contrary to popular belief, the bass will bite right up to Christmas and beyond!
So what type of fishing are we talking about here? There is a significant contingent of surfcasters who drive the New Jersey coast, looking for clouds of birds and the stripers that are feeding below them. They can also be had from the beach between Fort Tilden and Breezy Point. These fish are generally feeding on small bait, and they are willing to hit small diamond jigs, soft plastics, and bucktails. The drill is; drive, check the beach, and drive on if you don't see them. If you have knowledge of and access to a significant rip or piece of structure, they are certainly worthy of your attention regardless of the presence (or lack thereof) of surface activity. StriperSurf.com has the most active group of surfcasters along the Jersey coast, so watch their reports in the late fall. Don't be shy about contributing your own experiences to the reports – every piece of information is helpful.
As an angler who fishes from both the surf and from the boat, I can tell you that the December striped bass experience is best had from the boat. My surf fishing experience centers on the waters of Raritan Bay, and I can tell you one thing for sure: in December, there are very few stripers in the Bay. To that point, the boat has extended my season and vastly increased the numbers of fish in my log. The last thing I want to do here on StriperSurf.com is to try pulling surfcasters from the sand and on to the boat, but consider this: if you have access to a small boat or kayak, December is the time to take advantage of it.
When to go
Believe it or not, December provides us with plenty of warm days on the water. While air temperatures may be falling, the skies are often clear and crisp, and the sun provides plenty of warmth. More importantly, water temperatures are much higher that air temp's. When you are in a boat surrounded by miles of sixty-degree water, it feels like sixty degrees outside. I have enjoyed several striped bass trips in short sleeves in December. If you plan to fish the Jersey shore, pick days with westerly winds. The ocean waters lie in the lee of the coast – especially along the Highlands.
What to bring
We typically fish with light spinning and conventional outfits. 7-foot spinning rods with 10-pound-test are well-suited for casting diamond jigs and soft plastics. For vertical jigging, I prefer conventional outfits – but I know plenty of guys who would rather use spinning rods to bounce bottom. My main issue with spinning rods for jigging is that the line's memory often wraps a loop around the tip of the rod on the drop. Paying close attention to your line will help avoid break-offs. I won't bother telling you how to dress in December, but I will remind you to wear sunscreen. Don't forget your camera – trust me, it's not bad luck.
Typical December striper – fins up & ready for release
What to expect
As always in fishing, every day is different, and every December is different as well. Everything hinges on where the bait decides to run for cover, and what size bait we get. That said however, finding the bait does not always mean finding the fish. I'll give you two examples.
In late fall of 2005, I did a trip with two of my regular guys. We hit all the usual spots - Hoffman & Swinburne, the Parachute Jump, Breezy Point, and east along the beach to Riis Park – with only a handful of stripers to show for our efforts. On the way back in I said, “Let's just take a quick look in by Sandy Hook.” As it came into view, we were stunned. It looked like a boat show was going on right on the beach. There were easily one hundred boats drifting from inside Sandy Hook Bay, right around the tip of the hook. Terns and gulls were screaming, diving, and picking baitfish from the water. The fish finder was lit up like a Christmas tree – baitfish filled the screen from the top of the water column to the bottom. My guys were beside themselves with excitement, but I noticed one detail that was wrong with the picture: nobody was catching fish. There were guys jigging, drifting eels, drifting peanut bunker, trolling, bucktails, diamond jigs, poppers – you name it, someone was trying it. But nobody, nobody came up with a single fish. I have seen this phenomenon several times since then.
In November and December of 2006 Raritan Bay was loaded with bunker; mostly peanuts, and there were decent schools of adult bunker as well. Everyone braced for what we thought would be the run of our lifetimes. And nothing happened. The bait was everywhere, but the fish were nowhere to be found.
So what was missing? Why didn't the fish show up? The answer is simple. You can't assume the fish will come just because there is a ton of bait where you are. It's a big ocean. There may be a ton of bait somewhere else too, and that area may be more appealing to the stripers. The shallow waters of our bays cool off more quickly that the surrounding ocean waters. Why would any self-respecting striper bother to brave the 48-degree water of Raritan Bay, or Sandy Hook Bay for food, when there is plenty of forage in the comfort of the 56-degree ocean waters?
The lesson I took from that experience is that if the fish are not there, look some place else! You have to be willing to burn some gas, and invest some time.
What to look for
Everyone knows that they should look for the birds – it's simple, find the birds and you'll find the fish right? Not necessarily. There were tons of birds working around the Hook in the situation I described above, but there were no fish. There was just so much bait that it was pushed up to the surface by sheer volume, and the birds had an easy meal. Under most circumstances, birds are a great indicator of life in the area. Different species of birds can give you hints as to what the fish are feeding on. Terns and gulls often feed on small forage, like peanut bunker, bay anchovies, sand eels, etc. Gannets specialize in feeding on large baits, so they usually indicate the presence of herring. You can choose your presentation accordingly.
With time on the water, you begin to become something of an expert on bird behavior. It's easy to spot fifty birds throwing themselves into the sea for a meal, but what about a single tern that pulls up suddenly in mid-flight and pauses to look down? You can bet that bird saw something that looked like food. How about a dozen birds floating on the surface together? Chances are a blitz just ended and they are waiting for it to get going again. You might want to stop for a few minutes and wait with them. When you do find that classic melee of birds hitting the water, it isn't enough to just start casting into a football field size patch of water and hope for a fish. To narrow down the target zone, you should look for obvious signs of bass, like boils and crashes. Once you have established the location of the fish, you must plan your approach.
It is easy to put down a school of feeding fish. To avoid this, you really need to approach them with some degree of stealth. The best method is to determine which direction the school is traveling, and get in its path – well ahead of it. Allowing the fish to come to you is the best option; unfortunately that is not always possible. Other boats, wind, and current can all conspire to take that option away. If you cannot let the fish come to you, approach them from up-wind or current and stop as soon as you get within casting range. There are those days that the bass will feed with abandon, paying no heed to boats or any other distractions, but those days are few and far between.
So, getting back to my opening paragraph, why would you want to chase stripers in December? That is easy. Many of my most memorable fishing moments took place while my wife was our Christmas shopping (not for me either). Whether it's the beach or the boat, the only guys out are the hard-core bass hounds. Blitzes sometimes stretch for miles, and last for hours. There is something particularly satisfying about taking part in and being witness to one of the greatest natural migrations of North America.
While you can certainly get in on the December action from the beach, there is nothing that compares to the vision of millions of baitfish expanding and contracting as one living being, while pursued from below by hungry bass and screaming birds from above. The water is crystal-clear, and it is not uncommon to see gangs of stripers approach, and watch as they inhale your lure. If you find yourself scoring well from the December surf, keep at it. If the fish are keeping off the beach however, I highly recommend getting a boat from somewhere, or calling up any one of the great charter services that fish this area to get in on the action. You will not be disappointed.
Copyright © 2004 - 2013 Steve Byrne, All Rights Reserved
Additional Articles by Steve Byrne
“You Seen Any Bunkah?”
Livelining Menhaden for Striped Bass