Photo by Capt. Joe DiorioI am a self-proclaimed albie addict. I fall victim to the “flu” in the late summer and it usually hangs on like a bad cough
I am a self-proclaimed albie addict. I fall victim to the “flu” in the late summer and it usually hangs on like a bad cough right through October. Just when I have recovered from my shoulder season chasing funny fish, western Long Island Sound comes alive for the start of the fall run of striped bass. Just like that, sleepless nights turn into restless days as I finish fishing the migration on my home waters.
In 30 years of fishing the Sound, I have seen both feast and famine. There were years when I could do nothing wrong and others when I felt like I was fishing with a bare hook. While the lean years were always instant disappointments, now that I’m an older angler, those years were the most valuable when it came to planning for the next season. The mistakes I made, the poor conditions, the lack of bait—they are all pieces to my fall-run puzzle. I may fish different locations than you, but I think what I share here can be patterned to other bodies of water when similar conditions exist.
The striped bass swan song lasts longer than many think in western Long Island Sound. Anglers willing to brave frosty mornings and evenings, deal with the occasional iced-up guide, and chase tides and bait can expect as long a season as our counterparts on the open beaches of the Jersey Shore. Let’s work our way east to west starting at the Connecticut River in September.
By mid-September, peanut bunker, bay anchovies, and adult menhaden have invaded the Sound and a smorgasbord of bait is on the menu for migrating bass. While rivers are often mentioned for holdover fishing opportunities, they are also my favorite ambush points for large bass working their way out of the Sound to points south. Dropping tides are key because small baitfish can’t fight against the current, making bays, estuaries, and harbors excellent spots to target fish.
While I don’t usually fish a teaser, autumn is the exception. It’s an excellent technique when there are multiple varieties of bait in the water and I’m not sure what size the fish are feeding on. The 4-inch Tsunami Sand Eel ahead of a larger bait is a great search pattern, even if there are no sand eels in the water. This bait mimics any small, slender bait: sand eels, spearing, or bay anchovies.
Rivers mean current, so I use lures that play well in fast-moving water. Darters are my go-to and have accounted for my largest fall bass when fishing rivers. Play with color any way you like, but green, yellow, and white all go into my bag. There are many plug builders making darters, so whatever ones you pack, make sure you know how deep they swim and choose accordingly for the structure and depth you are fishing.
Working west, my next stop is one of the most unique structures in all of Long Island Sound, an archipelago consisting of 365 islands in a concentrated area known as the Thimble Islands of Branford. There are 81 homes (mainly uninhabited by the fall), and this reef and island structure is teeming with bait and fish. This area is accessed only by boat, but really shines from a kayak. The shallow draft means I can find all the nooks and crannies that big bass love.
Eels, eels, and eels are my three favorite baits to fish this monster boulder field. Cast and slowly retrieved with a high rod tip, these live baits are just magic! This area can be very difficult to fish with lures due to all the snags, but shallow-running plugs, small topwaters, and lightly weighted soft plastics will work.
Pro Tip: Once tog season starts, don’t fish here without bringing a couple dozen crabs with you. Every autumn, some giant whitechins are caught here and it’s always nice to come home with dinner.
West Haven to Westport
A hop, skip, and a jump to the west side of New Haven Harbor gives us a stretch of similar coastline for almost 40 miles. I know, it’s tough to loop this much real estate into a single “spot,” but bear with me as I attempt to break this down.
West Haven to Westport is a stretch full of points, beach bowls, harbor entrances, and mid-Sound structure. There is a shoal called “Middle Ground” off Stratford that is actually in the middle of the Sound. An average of 60 feet of water shrinks to 9 feet and creates an amazing rip, full of life in the fall. Boaters who love to chunk or live-line menhaden can have a field day here.
Back on the coast, we find ample public access unlike points east. Not only is there access, but the fishing is really good. One of the few tombolos in the state can be accessed at Silver Sands State Park. The current cuts on either side of the spit hold both bait and predators. Autumn on Silver Sands is a special time, and on either side, anglers can find stranded bait and bass getting fat and happy. I have always been a fan of round-nose swimmers at this location. I think it’s the slower current and calmer water that make these plugs swim so well.
If you are new to fishing the Sound, rod and reel choices are going to be significantly different than open-water fishing. Use 9-foot rods rated for the plugs you plan to throw and that are long enough to handle the “waves” we see in the Sound.
The islands off the coast of Norwalk are the last stronghold of bass fishing before focus shifts to holdover bass fishing in late November. Bunker like to gather here and create a last supper for bass ready to work their way to the Hudson and Chesapeake rivers. I love throwing a Tsunami Talkin’ Popper along the craggy coast of these islands, working it like a pencil, a standard popper, or even “swimming” it back to the boat with long sweeps of the rod.
A fresh bunker with a bridled circle hook is the most effective way to catch here. There are days, though, where I enjoy taking my 9-foot, 9-weight fly rod out to throw big bunker flies for a late-season, long-rod lunker. There may not be a better spot to get a big fly-rod bass than the islands of Norwalk.
As winter rolls in, the western Sound holdover season really starts to take shape. No matter the river, I have found a few keys that hold true season after season. Starting in Late November, plan on fishing the mouths and first couple miles of the river. The water remains fairly warm, the mouths and estuaries still have bait to keep the bass in place, and you’ll see fish stacking up. As the water cools, the fish move upriver and into deeper holes.
While you may have been using swimmers like SP Minnows the first week of December, by Christmas, I am fishing the bottom third of the water column and dragging soft plastics with jigheads low and slow. There is still opportunity to catch larger fish, though, so don’t be bashful about throwing plastics when searching for that one fish to make the day.
It’s my preference not to target holdovers after New Year’s because there is no doubt that our striped bass population is in trouble. Bass being taken out of the water to remove hooks exposes their gills to freezing temps, and while it may look like these fish are swimming away strong, some will succumb to the extreme conditions. Give them, and yourself, a break after a long season of chasing our favorite gamefish.