Fall Striped Bass on the Chesapeake Bay
As summer temperatures fade, trees begin to shed their leaves, and I unpack the cold weather fishing gear, my mind always shifts to one fish - the striped bass. Fall weather defines striped bass fishing for many here in the Mid-Atlantic, or maybe I should say that striped bass fishing defines the fall. For me, the latter is certainly true.
Quality striped bass fishing can be found in the Chesapeake Bay year round, but the fall is when striper fishing really kicks into high gear. Cooling waters spread fish across the region in hot pursuit of bait; Menhaden (often called bunker) and bay anchovies (sometimes referred to as a type of "rain bait") make up the majority of striped bass forage in the fall. Knowing how these baitfish look and act can help maximize your success on the water; but honestly, striped bass are so aggressive in the fall that many different types of lures and flies can elicit explosive strikes.
Topwater Lures and Flies
One of the most exciting ways to target striped bass in the fall is by using a topwater presentation. Targeting striped bass on topwater is best accomplished during low-light periods (i.e. morning, evening, or overcast days) in shallow water or around structure; however, solid topwater action can also occur on bright, sunny days when fish push bait towards the surface.
When fishing topwater presentations - both fly and spin - pick a presentation that will move erratically, generate noise, and make a lot of commotion. For spin fishing, I like walking baits like spooks, pencil poppers, and topwater darters in 4-6" sizes. For fly fishing, consider using large profile gurglers made from foam for extra buoyancy. For both fly and spin, use a long monofilament leader in 15lb or 20lb test. I prefer mono to fluorocarbon for topwater presentations since fluorocarbon tends to sink and may effect the action of your lure. As another tip, consider using an angler's clip to make switching between baits a breeze!
Shallow Water Creeks and Flats
Shallow creeks, flats, and bays also offer some explosive subsurface and topwater action during the fall, mostly in September and October. The shallow water striper bite heats up and cools back down pretty quickly in the fall - based on water temperature - but when it is on there is nothing quite as exciting. On the eastern and western shores of the bay, areas of grassy flats, narrow creeks, and shallow sounds offer fantastic striped bass fishing (as well as chances at speckled trout, bluefish, redfish, and more). I've covered this type of fishing in a recent article, so I won't elaborate too much here. Be sure to give that article a read, as it covers some tips for targeting the shallow water bite.
Open Water: Birds and Jigs
If you have access to a boat, open water jigging and chasing birds is about as quintessential as Chesapeake Bay striped bass fishing gets. I recently got out on the water with Travis Long (Instagram: @the_reel_travis_long), who put on a clinic on how to target striped bass in open water during the fall.
In a short evening on the water, we found fish feeding aggressively on menhaden, often chasing them to the surface (which allowed us to spot them, and stay on the bite). We quickly learned that 1oz G-Eye Jigs paired with 8" Z-Man plastic jerkbaits was the hot ticket, especially with some bigger fish that were around. I also caught a few quality fish on a 5" Keitech swim shad, also paired with a G-Eye Jig hook.
As the evening went on, we saw plenty of birds diving on bait, which is another proven method for finding fish in the fall. However, the thicker the birds were, the smaller the fish we found under them. We enjoyed some fast action for small stripers on the fly rod, but ultimately moved on to find bigger fish.
The key to success - and to finding bigger fish - was to locate smaller pockets of larger birds feeding in open water. Once we located some larger gulls, we found larger bait, and it didn't take long to find the bass harassing them from below. Casting our jigs, letting them sink in, and then working them erratically back to the boat was the most effective method. We had a great evening of fishing, boating fish up to and over 30".
To concluded this article, it is worth quickly discussing the state of the striped bass fishery. As many may already know, striped bass are officially considered to be "over-fished". Within the last couple of weeks, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) voted on new regulations for the striped bass, which are ideally meant to be applied consistently up and down the east coast. These new regulations are meant to reduce the impacts on the large, breeding females by instituting a slot limit for harvesting a legal fish. They are also intended to reduce overall fish mortality and harvest by at least 18%. New regulations were also placed on the Chesapeake Bay fishery to achieve the same goals. While it may sound like a step in a better direction (and it likely is), many think the new regulations are not doing enough.
Along with over-harvesting, the striped bass are suffering in other ways. Take for example Omega Protein, who harvests menhaden - a primary food source for many game fish in the bay, including striped bass - for use in health supplements, cosmetics, and other products. Omega Protein knowingly and willingly exceeds their quotas on this vital bait fish, without many consequences. This only adds to the struggles that the striped bass face. Many fisherman in the Chesapeake Bay believe that reigning in Omega Protein, and their negative impacts on the fishery, are just as critical to rebuilding the striped bass populations.
While new regulations aren't the main focus of this post, it is important as anglers to be informed about the impacts on a specific fishery. I encourage you to do your own research and make your own conclusions. Personally, I believe that practicing catch and release, properly handling and reviving fish, using debarbed hooks, and not fishing with bait - if you plan to release your fish - are all good ways to enjoy the fishery now while also protecting its future. The short version is: get out and enjoy the great fisheries that the Chesapeake Bay has to offer, but do your best to be knowledgeable about the resource and our impacts on the species.