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Copyright © 1998 - 2014 Captain Jim Freda
December’s Grand Finale
by Capt. Jim Freda
Shore Catch Guide Service

ecember will be an interesting month along our beaches in both Monmouth and Ocean counties as our grand finale will take place when it comes to catching stripers and blues. The last blitzes of the season will happen and hopefully be memorable enough to sustain us through a long cold winter that is on its way. How long the action lasts will be dictated ultimately by the water temperature. If the water temperature drops slowly then the bait and fish will remain along our beaches for most of the month. If however the water temperature drops quickly and sharply then this mass exodus of bait and fish will be accelerated. I have seen the action come to a close in a matter of a week when the weather outside gets bitter quickly.

What will precipitate these changes will depend on our weather fronts. If we have relatively stable weather with daytime temperatures in the low forties and nighttime temperatures dropping into the upper thirties than water temperatures will stay in the upper forty degree ranges for most of the month. If however we get an extended period of icy northwest wind dropping down out of Canada that blows 20+ mph for days on end than water temperatures will plummet quickly. If this happens to avoid a thermal shock the bait and subsequently the fish will move to our south rather quickly.

Water temperatures for good activity to remain through December need to range from 50-45 degrees. Once water temperatures drop below 45 degrees you can expect the action to slow considerably. We have had decent action down to 42 degrees but from this temperature and below it is spotty and slow at best and you are usually thinking more about why am I out here rather than the fish you might be able catch.

Another consideration that can impact the December fishery will be northeast storms. Any big blows during the month will scattered the bait and will more than likely move it even further to the south. This is unlike what happens when we get nor’easters in the early part of the fall as in September and October. During early fall northeast events the bait just moves back into the river and bays further upriver or goes deep along the oceanfront. At this time of year the water is still too warm to cause the bait to migrate out of the area so rather it just waits it out.

If we have a major nor’easter with a several day duration the effects on the fishery can be devastating and bring the action to a close prematurely. This was the exact scenario that took place when we had the so called “Storm of the Century” from December 11-13, 1992.

It is now December 8th and the first 8 days of this month have been very good. We have had one snowstorm so far with another on the way tomorrow. But for the most part the wind has been from the west-northwest and water temperatures have been dropping slowly. Water temperature today is 47 degrees. On the beach yesterday Shell E had 12 bass up to 26 inches. On the boat we are still doing very well with the bass with almost constant action throughout the day.

Striped bass and bluefish will be more than willing to cooperate this month as water temperatures in the low fifties to upper forties will have them stimulated to feed. In fact they will gorge themselves sometimes feeding throughout the entire day. It is not uncommon at this time of year to catch a fish on almost every cast if you are over or into a large pod. This is more common in the boat than on the beach as one can quickly move from one feeding pod to the next.

Striped bass will range in size from small short bass up to hopefully the mid 30 lb range. Most bass commonly caught however will range from 20-32 inches. Bluefish will range from 3-12 lbs with the most commonly caught blues in the 5-8 lb ranges.

The late fall migration route can differ as some years it takes place along the beach and in other years it is an inshore event occurring from 20 feet out to 70 feet of water. Many bass will also move on by past us well offshore of this range beyond the legal fishing boundaries. This is seen every year as the party boats that are wreck fishing for bottom fish out at the Mud Hole usually catch some striped bass on a daily basis.

The striped bass that are present in December will be a combination of local fish that are on the move plus northerly fish from New England and Montauk that will join them. The biggest bass, the trophy cows, mostly stay deep and offshore as they move by our guiding area. It is during the springtime that we see these fish and have the best chance of catching them when the adult bunker schools are along the beach.

During this migration it will be the bait that ultimately dictates where the schools of bass and blues will set up. Peanut bunker may still be present but can quickly be accelerated on their way if winter storms approach quickly at the beginning of the month. The other two baits that will be key players at this time of year will be sandeels and sea herring. These two baits can appear on the scene in large concentrations at the end of November into December and make your end of the season bass finale one you will never forget.

The sand eel, also referred to as the sand launce, or lance, is an inshore species not related to the common eel. Its scientific name “Ammodytes americanus” literally means sand burrower, a typical behavioral pattern of the sand eel when it is fleeing from a predator or resting.

Sand eels are recognized by their slender body with a pointed snout. They have a long dorsal and anal fin and are deep blue green to bronze on their back with a white belly. They can grow as long as fifteen inches but are commonly found in the four to six inch ranges. The sand eel is found in shallow waters less than ninety meters with a sandy composition and comprises one of the most important staple foods for the striped bass.

The sea herring, also known as the Atlantic herring (Clupea harengus), are the edible baits that are normally jigged in the winter around our inlets and then pickled and canned. They are steel to greenish-blue on their dorsal surface fading to silver on the sides and belly. They have a dark, oily, full-flavored meat. Small immature herring of one to two years are called sardines. Adults can grow as large as 17 inches and up to 1-1/2 lbs in weight.

Copyright © 1998 - 2014 Captain Jim Freda

At this time of year locating either of these baits is going to be the key to your success in finding large bass. Sandeels may take up residence in the surf zone after moving in from deeper inshore waters. When they do you will find them rooting along a sandbar.

Sometimes at low tide you can dislodge them while walking along. At other times they can be clearly visible swimming around in the upper part of the water column. This behavior is more characteristic at night when the water is calm. Sandeels will come to the surface to feed on zooplankton that migrate upward in the water column at night. During the day zooplankton migrate downward in the water column in direct response to a toxin that is produced by surface phytoplankton during photosynthesis. Since the zooplankton migrate downward during the daylight feeding sand eels will do the same.

That is why it is still important to be out early this month as the action can be hot and heavy from the boat right at first light. With the sandeels up in the water column the gulls and gannets will be on them immediately and so will the fish. We have had several days already this week where it has been like fishing in a beehive by 7:00am.

There is no guarantee however that sandeels will move into the surf zone at all when December rolls around. However when they do and are thick in numbers many times you will snag one here or there when casting and retrieving a trebled hook artificial. This is a dead give away the conditions are prime.

By boat one will have a much higher degree of success in locating sandeels as they concentrate in large numbers over sandy bottoms. When utilizing your fishfinder sandeels will appear as tightly packed balls of bait on your screen. Most of the time, they will be in the bottom one third of the water column.

As for sea herring these baits will pass through the surf zone but will not hold or concentrate in a particular area. They just pass through. Sea herring are an open ocean fish traveling as a rule in schools of hundreds or thousands, single fish are seldom seen. As a rule all the individual members of a school are about the same size, whether large or small. Around the mouths of inlets or in the inlets themselves is a better location to find these baits.

By boat sea herring can be located by looking for groups of diving gannets or gulls. These birds usually pinpoint their location when these baits are being pushed to the surface by marauding schools of big bass. We have witnessed some amazing sites in the cool December waters as schools of 20 and 30 pound bass can be seen savagely attacking these baits right next to the gunnels of our boats.

Sand Eel Photo courtesy Hank HewittAt this time of year matching the profile of the sandeel or sea herring with your artificial will definitely put you into fish. Since water temperatures are usually in the low fifties to upper forties by now bass will be stimulated to feed and may do so all day long. You don’t need to be up at first light to cash in on the action.

To imitate sandeels some artificials you can use are the Gibbs, Boone, Habs, or Superstrike needlefish, Avas, tin squids, rigged tin squids with Femlee eels, rubber eel teasers such as Red Gills, block tins, Deadly Dicks, Need-L-eels, or other thin profile metals, Mambo minnows, bucktails with a Mr. twister tail or worm attached. In the surf the needlefish is often deadly and should be retrieved very slowly in an almost do-nothing manner. I will retrieve back slowly in a straight line while twitching the rod tip ever so slightly every ten feet or so.

An Ava-27or 47 diamond jig is traditionally a must have lure and can be considered the go to lure for surfcasters when conditions are rough or for boaters to jig deep. They can be fished with or without tubes but I favor using them with the tubes when casting into the surf. I have had equal success with tubes or without them when jigging from the boat. Different shades of green, black, red, or wine have been my most productive colors. If one color tube is not producing when you think it should be switch to another.

On the boat drop them to bottom and jig slowly. Work the bottom five feet of the water column by jigging up and then dropping down. Most of the time a bass will hit them on the drop. So it is important to keep a tight line to the jig on the drop. If you don’t and have slack in the line you will miss feeling the characteristic bump of a bass on the metal and as a result miss the hook set.

If trolling is your game, then equally as effective will be trolling umbrella rigs with colored tube tails fished on wire line or heavy mono with drails right near the bottom. This usually results in constant hook-ups particularly anytime your rig drags over a lump or high spot.

Fly fishers too will have a high degree of success when sandeels are around both in the surf or from the boat. For flies, a long slender slim profile fly will work best. Jiggies, clousers, and half and halfs will do a nice job to emulate the sandeel’s slender profile. The weighted heads of these flies will also put these flies deeper in the water column, which will be important during the middle of the day. Other flies such as Popovics’s stick candies and other epoxies, flat wings, and tube flies will also be effective patterns that will emulate the bait.

From the boat a quick sinking line or head will bring your fly down deep into the strike zone. Thirty feet of a Rio T-14 head attached to a thin diameter .030 intermediate running line will drop quickly in the water column with minimal drag when your boat has little or no drift. Strong currents and winds pushing your boat will make getting down deep more difficult.

If sea herring are the primary bait in an area than large swimming plugs will be what you will want to be casting into the pods of bait. Your traditional plugs such as Bombers, Megabaits, and Yozuris, will all produce. Also very effective are the custom wood swimmers.

A green, blue, silver, or pearl back fading to a white underbelly will work best. Large six to eight inch shad bodies in the same colors will also be very effective. The Storm Wildeye in chartreuse works well when the water is off color.

Copyright © 1998 - 2014 Captain Jim Freda

For flies, large Popovics bucktail deceivers and hollow fleyes are my number first choices as these flies are easy to cast and present a wide and long profile in the water. Big synthetic bunker flies or other herring patterns will also work. >From the boat fish these flies on an intermediate line when the sea herring are being pushed to the surface by big bass.  End

Copyright © 1998 - 2014 Jim Freda, All Rights Reserved

Articles by Captain Jim Freda

Capt. Jim FREDAEmail Captain Jim Freda

Jim Freda is a highly respected charter captain, author, outdoor writer, seminar speaker, and photographer. His first book Fishing the New Jersey Coast, has been a best seller and received the “New Jersey Center for the Book Award” as one of the most notable NJ books. He co-authored a second book Saltwater Fishing a Tactical Approach, A Guide for Northeast Beach and Boat Fishermen, with his Shore Catch associates Capt Gene Quigley and Shell E. Caris.

Jim has weekly fishing columns that appear in the Bergen Record, NJ's second largest newspaper and the Coast Star and Ocean Star newspapers of Monmouth and Ocean Counties. Nationally, Jim is a contributing editor for Fly Fishing in Saltwaters magazine and also writes for Fly Fisherman magazine, Saltwater Sportsman, Eastern Fly Fishing, Big Game Journal, and Regionally he writes for On the Water magazine where he has is own monthly column, The Fisherman magazine and the NJ Federation of Sportsman Clubs newspaper.

As a seminar speaker Jim is featured as one of the celebrities on the Saltwater Sportsman National Seminar Series, as one of the “Stars of the Show” at the Fly Fishing Show in Somerset, NJ, the Northeast’s largest fly fishing show and is on the National Pro Seminar slate at the Toyota Saltwater Expo also in Somerset. He is also regularly featured each year at many of the local fishing clubs in the surrounding area including the State’s two largest clubs the Hudson River Fishermen’s Association and the Saltwater Anglers of Bergen County. Capt Jim has also been a guest speaker at all the Trout Unlimited Clubs in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Jim has also been a special guest speaker at the Bloomberg Network in New York City.

He is a member of the National Factory Pro Team for St. Croix Rods and pro staff for Fins Fishing Line, AVET Reels, Spro, Gamakatsu, Hogy, Korkers, Costa Del Mar, Columbia Sportswear and Aquaskinz.

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