It was a seasonable December morning, as we were graced with air temperatures in the low 40s and light winds out of the northwest that made the surface of the sea look oil slick calm. My clients were wise to the hype that fishing this time of year can be downright gangbusters, and because of that, they had high expectations of hooking into one striped bass after another. You see, we were in the peak of the striped bass migration, when these fish move past the central New Jersey coast on their way south. I assured them that this was the case and that this was the best and easiest time of year to catch good numbers of stripers on fly.
As we broke the inlet, I told them that the telltale sign of locating striped bass in numbers would be to spot wads of diving gulls and gannets. We would pull up on the action, take a cast, dump some line and take a few quick strips, and they would come tight with their rods candy-caned over the gunwales.
In December, scenarios like this make the coast of central New Jersey an attractive place to be for fly-fishers when many have already put their long rods away. Perhaps the approaching holiday season and family obligations, and cold weather that comes with them, keep folks off the water; however, those that remain on the water are always handsomely rewarded.
During the early winter, expect to find fish arriving from New England and see massive blitzes all day. Bass typically range in size from 24 to 36 inches, but keep in mind that it’s not uncommon to find yourself tethered to a 30-plus-pound fish. On fly, these bass are a blast to catch, and it is not impossible to have 100 fish days from the boat. This means that just about every cast produces a fish. You can literally have hundreds of bass right beneath your boat.
Since bass can be present over a wide vertical distribution, it will be to your advantage to carry as many pre-rigged rods with different line weights as you can. This way you can quickly grab the right tool for the right situation when you find the fish. You won’t have to worry about changing heads or spools on a boat that could very well be bouncing around. If you need an intermediate line or a quick sinker, it will be readily available.
Key Factors: Dropping Water Temperature and Baits
The actual migration period of striped bass in my guiding area begins in November. Dropping water temperatures are the key impetus to getting baits moving. This in turn stimulates stripers and bluefish to feed heavily as they prepare to migrate to their wintering grounds off of the Carolinas. Since both of these species are cold-blooded vertebrates, they will innately respond to temperature changes in their environment. Their metabolisms do not allow them the ability to maintain a homeostatic or steady internal body temperature. So dropping water temperatures will dictate and limit where and when they can be found and how they will feed.
Both of these species become very active in terms of their feeding behavior at the lower 10 degrees of their comfort range. This would be when water temperatures are dropping from 56 to 46 degrees. This temperature drop is predictable to a certain degree, barring any icy Arctic cold fronts that could come down out of Canada. I have kept water temperature logs for years, so I know the time frame of this event outside of my home port will be sandwiched between the second week of November through Christmas.
The prime temperature drop that I wait to see is when the water drops from 50 to 48 degrees. This is when the greatest concentration of striped bass are located in my guiding area.