by John Skinner
I'm sure there are a few bass left to catch from the beach over the next couple of weeks, but for most surfcasters, the 2014 season is over. If you had a good one, then you either did an exceptional job and made all of the right moves at the right time, or you're somewhat new to the sport and this past season was relatively good compared to others because you know more than you used to. For the majority of surfcasters, 2014 was a tough one. For one thing, the stripers showed up very late this year. In looking at my logs, my May catches were definitely off from what they should have been, though things rebounded nicely in June. The quality of your 2014 fall run will probably depend on the hours you fished. If you limited yourself to daylight hours, then there's a good chance that you were waiting for a fall run that never came. This was not 2013 or 2010 when sandeels put fish near the sand at all hours. I never saw a sandeel on the beach this year, and saw very little caught in the daylight. If you waited until hours after sunset to hit the beach and/or were on your way home when the sun broke the horizon, you might have done fairly well by today's standards. No one can say for sure why a season plays out as it does, but for me, it's hard not to wonder about the impact of what often seemed like an ocean full of bunker.
Bunker were in large dense schools along most of Long Island's South Shore from the end of May through mid-November. On rare days they came within reach of surfcasters, but for the most part they belonged to the boat anglers. During a good portion of the month of June, 25- to 50-pound-plus stripers were at times easy pickings for any boat angler who could snag a bunker. Even when the fishing wasn't easy, the fish were on the bunker schools. When fall arrived, the bunker were again schooled up with bass underneath. It's hard to understand why a big bass would leave easy and highly nutritional food in deeper water to scavenge within casting distance of the shore, and indeed, not too many did.
The Montauk surf did experience a stretch of good daytime fishing in October, but even that paled in comparison to what is traditionally expected from a Montauk fall run in terms of duration and intensity. On the backside of a late October blow, roughly October 25-27, a large body of quality bass moved west with the bunker. Many South Shore beaches caught some of this action on Saturday, October 25, and if you were on the beach that day, you likely had a good one. Unfortunately, it seemed like a large portion of the migrating quality bass went by eastern Long Island over those days. On the backside of a coastal storm during the first days of November, incredible schools of bunker were in the surf along large portions of the South Shore. By then there were mostly bluefish on them and just small pockets of stripers. Beyond that there was good action with teen bass on the night tides, but the good fishing was not at all widespread. The large schools of small stripers that usually provide action in mid-November went by almost all out of the reach of surfcasters. Brutal cold weather that settled in on November 18th didn't help matters any.
Lessons learned? The big one should be to fish at night if you're serious about catching decent stripers on a consistent basis. The fall of 2013 probably gave a lot of anglers a sense that if they kept going to the beach at daybreak, they would eventually experience a run of fish. We just didn't have the bait, especially sandeels, to make that happen this year. A good approach is to not even bother getting to the beach while the sun is still above the horizon. Good night bites often don't kick in until it's completely dark, and that doesn't occur until more than 90 minutes after sunset. If you've arrived at the beach 30 minutes before sunset, then you've already been there for two hours and may be tired and discouraged by the time a night bite may be close to starting. On the other end of the night it's often not easy to get on the beach a couple of hours before sunrise. Even if you do that you won't have much time to fish if the bite fizzles at first light, which it sometimes does.
One of the brighter spots of 2014 was a superb false albacore run. There were encouraging signs of a weakfish recovery in 2013, but the weaks were generally few and far between this season. Our waters were inundated with bluefish in the spring. I feel we could have used their help in the fall to drive the bait to the beach, but they seemed to stay off the beach with the bulk of the bunker and stripers. No one can say what 2015 will bring. Although the bunker schools that seem to be increasing in number and size each season won't necessarily help surf anglers, a good forage base is always a positive thing for the health of gamefish stocks. More stringent striper regulations are likely on the way, but it will take some time for those to have the potential of a significant impact. For now, get all of that gear cleaned up and enjoy the holidays. After a few months of snow we'll be back at it again.