by Frank Ruczynski
This year, I decided to spend most of the summer months concentrating on freshwater ponds and lakes in search of trophy largemouth bass, crappies and pickerel. I landed some real beauties and had a great time exploring new waters. Fishing stump fields, laydowns, lily pads and weed mats from my kayak was a blast, but I'm looking forward to breathing in some salty air, watching mullet spray through the waves and hooking into weakfish, summer flounder, bluefish and striped bass!
During the summer months, fishing along the coast is worthwhile, however I don't think it compares to fishing during the spring and fall seasons. When back bay water temperatures approach or exceed 80 degrees, many of the largest species head for the ocean and deeper, cooler waters. Throw in thousands of summer vacationers with their speed boats, sail boats and jet skis and you may understand my decision to spend most of the summer season inland on a quiet pond in the woods. Summer Is Drifting Away
While our shore towns are still filled to capacity, I couldn't help myself – it's like a little voice in my head wouldn't stop until I went down to check out some of my favorite late-summer fishing holes. Wanting to avoid the masses, I planned accordingly. The weather and tides were perfect for a late-night backwater trip: a light west wind and air temperatures in the lower 60s with high tide slated for 1 AM. I planned to fish two hours before and two hours after high tide.
Our first stop was a small causeway bridge that is usually choked with baitfish. As soon as we walked up onto the bridge, we spotted a big, black cloud of peanut bunker. Snapper bluefish were tearing through the school, many of which weren't much bigger than the bait they were attacking. After a few casts in the bunker school, I walked up a little higher and spotted two, 28 to 30-inch striped bass working the surface of the shadow line. On the first cast, I missed the mark. The second cast got hammered, but somehow I missed the fish. The third cast would have been it if not for the knot that formed in my freshly spooled braid - the fish hit and as I set the hook the line broke at the knot. This is not how I planned on starting off my night!
I muttered to myself as I tied on another ¼-ounce jig and grabbed a bubblegum Zoom Super Fluke from my bag. I tossed a few more casts, but I blew my chance. As I walked down the bridge headed to the next location, I thought to myself, "I can't believe I blew it, but it sure was nice to see some fish at our first stop."
Our next stop would be a small marina where I usually find striped bass working over baitfish under dock lights. By the time I arrived, the incoming current had slowed down considerably and the snapper blues had the bait balls all to themselves. Over the years, I've noticed striped bass and weakfish seldom compete with the hoards of small bluefish – if stripers or weakfish are present, they'll usually set up below the snappers and clean up the leftovers. I worked high and low at the docks, but only came up with a couple snapper blues and a few half eaten Zooms.
At slack tide, we headed over to another small bridge and were a little surprised to see baitfish stacked on both sides of the bridge. Large schools of peanut bunker swarmed to the lights like moths to a flame. Watching thousands of baitfish circle under the lights is hypnotic. Unfortunately, other than a few snapper bluefish, action was slow. With so much bait present in our waters, it's easy to find bait balls, but not so easy to find bigger fish working them over.Catching bait in the cast net doesn't get much easier.
We checked a few more likely areas before we found some active fish. The tide just started moving when we heard the telltale "pop" sound made by a surface feeding striped bass. We could hear the stripers feeding from a couple hundred yards down the Intracoastal Waterway. We pinpointed the sound to a well-lit pier that I call the fish bowl. Upon arrival, I noticed a large school of peanut bunker under the lights, but the stripers were only feeding on the stray baitfish that were swept past the dock pilings by the falling tide. Even though there were thousands of peanut bunker inches away, the stripers were keyed onto the small crabs and silversides that were carried by the tide. I made a few well-placed casts and landed a small striper. This one was hungry!
To most, the catching aspect of fishing is always paramount. While I enjoy the catching as much as anyone, I find watching and learning about my quarry to be equally gratifying. Fishing under bridge or dock lights isn't much different than watching fish swim around in an aquarium. Seeing how and figuring out why fish behave as they do is a gigantic plus, especially for those other times when you can't see what's happening beneath the water's surface. The way I look at it, the time I invest learning about fish behavior will result in more fish on the end of my line.
The striper bite at the pier lasted about fifteen minutes. With late summer backwater temperatures hovering around 80 degrees, the fish are relatively lazy and usually only feed during the most opportune times – typically, the same type of behavior occurs when temperatures are at the lower end of the spectrum, too.
The final stop on our scouting trip would be a small bridge that usually lights up with action on an outgoing tide. It was close to 3 AM and by this time the outgoing current increased a great deal. Mullet, peanut bunker and silversides were holding up in the shallower water where the current was much slower. I watched as snapper bluefish and needlefish slashed through the bait balls. I made a few casts, but only came back with half-eaten soft-plastic baits.
A little frustrated, I thought about our prior stop at the pier and how the striped bass related to it. While the bridge was much larger than the pier, the set up wasn't much different: lights, current, baitfish and pilings. A few casts across the pilings and I was hooked into another summer schoolie striper. Once I figured out their location, I found steady action. The bass didn't want to fight the current, snapper bluefish, and needlefish for food; they decided to sit, almost effortlessly, beside and behind the pilings to pick off the easy meals the current provided. Summer Stripers
While the fish we caught that night weren't very big, I learned a little more about fish behavior and the areas I fish. The big schools of baitfish aren't always the best place to fish? How many times do you read that in a book? In the few hours we fished, we covered a small area and saw lots of fish. I'll be down at least a couple times a week until things really start to heat up. If you have a chance, get down to the back bays and set up at a well-lit municipal pier or bridge – it's quite a show!