Short striped bass are thick in the surf and easy to catch

Nino Aversa, winner of the Flounder Pounder 2019, holding a migratory striped bass caught way up north in the Raritan Bay area. The big girls are on the move, time to tune up that gear for the fall run. Now if they will just come close enough to Delaware’s coast to fish for them. Submitted photos

The fall fishing is almost upon us, striped bass are on the move, and one of our favorite activities is what we call rat wrangling. Short striped bass known as rats to some surf anglers are thick in the surf right now feeding. Up north (Jersey/NY) migratory bass are thick on sand eel and bunker schools as they move south.

Down here in Delaware, sand fleas, mullet and rainfish are what the striped bass are feeding on, so you know the color for this time of year, white. The infamous white swim shad is your best bet, or any soft plastic on a bucktail or jig head. Other colors will work when the fish are schooled up and in a feeding frenzy, but white seems to out-fish them all. These days I just park the truck and walk the beaches following fish up and down the beaches. The striped bass schools will move with the tide, it is easier to just walk and follow them instead of dragging the truck along for a ride. If you have a couple people with you, park a vehicle a couple miles ahead of where you will be walking so you have a ride back.

The fall run happens in stages. First stage is the resident striped bass start “schooling up” and feed heavy. That is triggered by a drop in water temperature, which happened here many weeks ago when that cold snap occurred. Despite the warm-ups in between, it doesn’t slow them down. Once that trigger is pulled those fish just feed. The schools are all over the waterways moving with the tides, following or looking for food. You can catch them with bucktails, swim shads, bombers, plugs, poppers, flies and of course bait. How you fish for them depends on the water conditions you are fishing.

The second stage is when the “big girls” or the cows start running south. Those are the Atlantic migratory striped bass schools, and they will come down in stages. The largest of the “breeders” usually will head down first. Some will move in schools and others will just wander down on their own. The bigger schools will be next that have the smaller class fish. Then in the spring they do it all over again and head north.

Kevin Golden holding a nice sized short bass caught in the surf at Cape Henlopen State Park at the point. We call this rat wrangling and it is a blast on light gear.

Once you find a school, keep away from it and cast towards the fish. Running a boat through a school spooks the fish and they regroup elsewhere. Spooked fish do not feed, they run (swim away). Boats fishing deep water will troll with stretches and mojos. If they find a school along the surface then it is time to start tossing bucktails and big swim shads. Matching the bait the fish the bass are feeding on or following helps, but when they are in a frenzy (blitz), the lure will get hammered regardless most of the time. Get your gear tuned up and check that fishing line for wear. Many a fish has been lost with gear that the angler thought was OK and didn’t check first.

Head boats and charters are doing well on sea bass. The weather has been an issue as of late with small craft advisories almost daily. Then we get a window of a few nice days. Unfortunately those days seem to always be on the weekdays and not the weekends. Another reason to blow off work and fish the weekdays. Not to mention the lack of crowds on the weekdays, especially when the striped bass show up, the meat fleet will be out there in full force. Unfortunately due to Delaware’s position on the East Coast, once the striped bass come off the edge of the Jersey coast line and keep straight they are way too far out to fish. Because they are in the EEZ. That is why many Delaware boats will head to Jersey waters to fish the migratory schools.

No migratory bass

I wouldn’t expect to see too many migratory bass along our coast this year for two reasons. The fact the fish numbers are down drastically, and the Rehoboth and Dewey Beach replenishment projects will stir up a lot of sand that the fish will avoid. It happens every time there is a replenishment project.

Other fish are hitting well for the boat anglers. Trigger are still on the wrecks and reef sites. Tautog is now picking up as well from the walls in the harbor of Safe Refuge to the wrecks. The Indian River Inlet has a decent amount of action with many an undersized tautog being caught. The occasional flounder are being caught too, many are fishing for sea bass instead.

The surf is pretty active with short striped bass and small bluefish. Some days are better than others and again the weather has a lot to do with the catching. The heavy storm surges we keep seeing pushing water up onto the beaches is not helping. In some cases it does help, though, allowing the bass and blues to blitz bait in the wash of the surf.

Chris Kline caught this basketball sized northern pufferfish at Assateague Island while surf fishing.

You can put a couple sand fleas on a hook with a light weight and let it roll around in that foot deep wash and catch fish. Mullet chunks are working well for blues and bass. The bigger Kingfish will hit mullet chunks and mullet rigs this time of year. It is fall, everything has the feedbag on.

Pompano are still being caught in the surf and still on some of the shallower wrecks and reef sites. They won’t last much longer when it gets colder.

Small summer fish

The usual small summer fish are still being caught in the surf, spot, kingfish, weakfish, sand perch, pompano, northern puffers, burrfish, short striped bass, and flounder, to name a few. Fishbites on DS Custom Tackle top and bottom rigs are hooking up many of these regularly. DS Custom Tackle has been the most popular local brand of gear, because sharp hooks get the job done, and locally made in Delaware. You can buy the cheaper “one and done” rigs but you are just throwing away your money. I have given many an angler a DS Custom Tackle rig when we are catching and they aren’t, then they start catching. It is all in that sharp hook, cheap hooks don’t catch fish.

The Delaware Bay reef and wreck sites are active enough to keep the head boats and charters busy. Croaker is the one fish we haven’t seen a great deal of this year. Usually they are on fire for a large part of the summer, that action picked up, then dropped off. Sheepshead and small black drum have been good farther up the bay. Tautog is hit or miss but people are catching. False albacore have been making an occasional appearance. Dying to see them show up in the surf for some crazy action. The weakfish are a little bigger this year, which is great to see, now to get the tide runners back.

Freshwater anglers are doing well with bass and pickerel. Ditch pickles are one of the best fighting fish, but many would prefer to target snakeheads for even more pull on a line. These fish will hit just about anything shiny, much like bluefish. Their teeth are an issue for light line anglers, cutting through it like butter.

Top water action has been good with buzz baits and for fly anglers. Now that the waters are starting to cool off. fish will be deeper near ledges and drop offs. Fishing with a slower retrieve will help with more hookups.

Trout stocked

Trout have been stocked in White Clay Creek for the annual fall trout stocking season.

Deer and turkeys

Hunters are doing good “catching” deer. Haaaahaaaahaaa, that is my favorite question. “Did you catch any deer this weekend” … “Nope, she broke off about 40 yards out and snapped my bullet.”

Now the turkeys are moving around the woods and just before Thanksgiving, that must be their idea of payback maybe? Then there are the squirrels making all that noise. I could roll across the yard on all the acorns that have dropped. There are a lot of deer making it to the freezer for the winter.

I shoot the same deer every morning, in my front yard, with my camera. Surrounded by turkeys in the Sussex County zoo.

Rich King’s outdoors column runs Thursdays in the Delaware State News.

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