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A Recipe for Fall Fishing Failure

Give yourself plenty of options for catching stripers this time of year

I knew exactly what I wanted to do. With ice in my cooler, a couple of bottles of water and a box of surface lures, I headed out just before sundown for the mouth of a nearby tributary. Planning a top-water assault to repeat a recent evening’s triumph, my hopes were high.
    Everything was perfect: low light, high water, moving tide and no wind. The only missing element was the fish. I worked up and down the shallow shoreline to no avail. Finally, searching in my boat bag, I discovered a lone Rat-L-Trap. On my third cast with it, I finally came tight with a rockfish. However it was only a 16-incher, and worse, it was alone.
    Looking about in frustration I noticed a group of boats working a distant channel edge. Time was running out as I quietly motored near. One look at my electronic finder explained the fleet’s presence. Scattered marks of sizeable fish suspended at 10 feet were along the edge, definitely a rockfish signature. I drifted and cast through the area, allowing my crank bait time to sink. No success.
    The other anglers appeared to be casting assassin-type baits. I dove into my under-seat storage, praying I had some stashed somewhere. Near the bottom, I came up with a small, weathered box of half-ounce jig heads and a couple of old five-inch assassins in white. That would have to do.
    Keeping an eye on the nearest skiff to see if anyone was actually catching, I finally noticed an angler lean over and furtively lip a fish in the mid-20s up and over the side.
    The boats were crowding each other unceremoniously close. It was getting dark. The action would soon cease, if the presence of so many craft wasn’t forcing it already.
    Flipping my jig out and giving it a chance to sink below the marks, I worked it back with an erratic stop and go. It took two or three drifts and a few dozen casts, but I finally hooked a good fish. Letting it run a bit, I began to think I wasn’t going to get skunked. Then it was gone.
    For another hour, I worked the water. As it grew deep dark and the fleet dissipated, I reconstructed my poor decisions. I should have been on the water earlier … I shouldn’t have wasted so much time working a poor method … I should have had a wider selection of baits. Betting all my chips on surface action in one area was too risky.
    The mouth of this river had become recently popular. I knew that rockfish get lure- and boat-noise shy after just a few encounters. I persisted. Yet I knew better — and will do better the next time.
    For spooky fall fish, assassin-type bodies on jig heads tend to be the most reliable bait. Even better are assassins rigged Texas-style with a bullet-shaped head weight and the hook point buried just under the soft body.
    Such bait is virtually snag-free, a real advantage in working the shallows. It will also fish well in deeper water, and it can be retrieved extra slow, allowing the stripers to mouth it, another real advantage with tentative fish.
    As my ace in the hole, I’ll have four or five small white perch in my live well. They might do the trick in the end. It’s hard for a hungry rockfish to resist the real thing.
    As I headed for home, the skunk smell following me, I swore that the next time I would be better prepared.