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Catching the Fall Bite

In the shift to shallow water, tackle makes the difference

Live-lining small Norfolk spot remains the surest bet for a limit of striped bass on the Chesapeake. But light-tackle lure fishing grows more exciting as our waters cools with September’s chillier weather, when striped bass behavior changes.

Fish Are Biting

The shallow-water rockfish bite is growing more reliable after the warmer-than-usual water temperatures. So live-lining Norfolk spot around the Bay Bridge pilings, off of Podickery Point, Hackett’s and around Thomas Point Light is still the most reliable method for a quick limit of rockfish.

Spanish mackerel may well be on their way out of the Bay, but some anglers are still hitting a few schools, mostly near the mouth of the Eastern Bay. Spotted seatrout, also called specs by their admirers, are in scattered numbers on the Eastern Shore from Crisfield up to the Honga. Anglers working shallow-running baits early or late in the day around the many small islands and inlets should be able to count on some action.

Bluefish, croaker, perch and spot remain in the mid-Bay and are providing great action and superb dinner fare. But you’d better hurry. All but the perch will be moving out soon. Crabbing has lit on fire with the cooler temperatures; bushel limits of fat jimmies are being filled in a matter of an hour or so in some locales.

In Season

Hunting seasons are now open for both birds and beasts. 

Resident goose season continues thru Sept. 15 in the eastern zone and Sept. 25 in the western zone. 

Whitetail archery season: Sept. 15-Oct. 21

Early teal season Sept. 16-30

Dove season thru Oct. 21 

Rail birds thru Nov. 9 

Squirrel thru Feb. 27

Details: www.dnr.state.md.us/huntersguide.

They are already becoming much more aggressive as they assume their fall feeding patterns and begin to frequent shallow waters, especially during low light. 

Having the correct tackle will make your pursuit of fall rockfish (or bluefish and sea trout for that matter) not only more successful but also more enjoyable. The shorter, stiffer-actioned, summertime rods that were perfect for bait fishing or live-lining are no longer the ideal tools for the job.

Autumn means tossing surface lures, crank baits and soft plastics at distant targets, often for extended periods of time. The tackle should be as light as possible to avoid fatigue while enabling you to manipulate the lures appropriately. The equipment also must be sufficiently robust to withstand the rigors of fighting fish that can sometimes weigh in at 20 pounds.

The Rod

More appropriate now are light rods of medium to fast action in six-and-a-half to seven-foot spinning and casting models. Designed to handle lure sizes in the half- to one-ounce range and rated for 10 to 15 pound line, better quality sticks will weigh in at a mere three to four ounces. I use St. Croix and G. Loomis rods, but Shakespeare, Daiwa and similar manufacturers also offer extensive lines.

 

The Reel

Match the rods with a first-rate spinning or casting reel holding 125 to 150 yards of monofilament or braided line and you will have the ideal instrument for seducing and battling the shallow-water predators of the fall bite. Shimano’s Sahara and Curado model reels are my favorites, but Okuma, Daiwa, Abu-Garcia and Penn also manufacture quality spin and casting instruments that will hold up to big stripers and years of hard use.

 

The Lures

The lure selection for tempting the invigorated fish of autumn runs even longer. Topwater favorites in the tackle boxes of most experienced anglers include Stillwater Smack-Its, Storm Chug Bugs and Heddon Spooks. 

When the fish aren’t interested in smashing surface baits and you must pursue them underwater, you face another problem. Your lures have to swim down, but if they swim too deep in the skinny water they can easily hang up on bottom structure. The solution involves lures designed to swim at depths of one to four feet.

Shallow-running crank baits that have proven effective for me in these circumstances include the Bill Lewis Rat-L-Traps, particularly the floating model; the Strike King Red Eye Shad series; the River2Sea Cranky; Rapala Shallow Shads; and the Yo-Zuri Crystal Minnow series. 

Retrieve them gently but erratically with a high rod tip, keeping in mind that while you don’t want them snagging bottom, occasional contact with structure triggers strikes.

Soft plastic lures, also called jerk baits, are probably the most versatile of all the artificials I’ve described. These lures are almost weight-neutral in the water, but they can be presented at any depth. 

On the Chesapeake especially, the lures are rigged on jig heads weighing from one-eighth ounce on up to one ounce with most of the soft, fish-shaped plastics measuring from five to seven inches long. The heavier the jig head, the deeper it goes. They can also be set up weightless using a Texas-style worm hook and retrieved right on top or just under the surface. 

The most popular lures of this type are Bass Assassins (my preference); Bass Kandy Delights (BKDs); the Berkeley Gulp series; the Zoom’s Fluke series; Sassy Shads; and the Lunker City Fin-S lures. You can’t go wrong with a selection of any of these soft baits in white, chartreuse and lavender.

They are all inexpensive compared to the cost of hard baits, and, because of their versatility, if they are the only lures in your box you will be at no disadvantage in the catching department.