Friday, August 12, 2005

Surf Fishing at Sunset & Sunrise

Magic hours fishing has all the advantages associated with fishing at sunrise, with a lot fewer anglers on the beach. The low light levels make the surf an active feeding zone for all types of predators.

Fishing the surf is always an adventure. The variables involved and the challenges that anglers must overcome are simply overwhelming. One of the many decisions that anglers have to make is when to fish.

Although fish can be caught at any time of the day or night, the consensus among surf anglers is that certain times provide the optimum opportunities to succeed. If surfcasters were polled as to their favorite time of day to fish, no doubt the results would show a definite preference for the early morning hours around sunrise.

Low-light conditions around dawn provide great feeding opportunities for predators that like to ambush unwary prey before the rising sunlight drives them into deeper water.

As an angler, it is also nice to get your licks in early and then have the rest of the day to do whatever else has to be done in our busy lives today.

Of course, fishing the surf at dawn has a built-in bonus: viewing spectacular sunrises. Even when the fish are not cooperative, the sight of the sun rising above the eastern horizon is an impressive sight that even the most veteran surfcasters never tire of seeing.

Many surf anglers are either unaware of or fail to take advantage of another opportune time of day to ply their trade: dusk. The conditions found along the shoreline at dawn reappear around sunset — but in reverse order. Instead of sunlight coming up, daylight gradually degrades into full darkness.

The hour before dawn and the two hours afterward are the most popular with anglers working the early morning shift. Later in the day, the two hours before dusk and the hour afterward (before complete darkness takes over) are prime time. I have found that there is something magical about fishing as the sun is going down, when predators dare to come into the surf to begin their overnight feeding on the abundant bait found in the wash.

Most surfcasters I know love to work the surf in relative solitude, with as few anglers on the beach squeezing their space as possible. If you fit this profile, then the magic hours of fishing around sunset are for you. You will find lots of elbow room and plenty of action under conditions that are very similar to those found at the same shoreline spots around the cherished sunrise hours.

Magic hours fishing is an option for the three seasons of the year that state anglers are able to work our saltwater waterways. During the spring striped bass run (when the fishing begins back in the rivers and bays), fishing later in the day is a decided advantage over early morning fishing. Water temperature often decides whether sluggish striped bass feed or remain inactive in this early season fishery. After a sunny day, the warmth generated on the shallow flats from the rays of the sun often spikes marginal water temperatures upward and in so doing energize stripers to eat. If you can match magic hours fishing with the time of high tide, expect good results.

One of the reasons the summer is not the best season for surf fishing is because the high water temperatures found along our coasts at that time tend to keep predators off their feed and in deeper water during the daylight hours. If you factor in all the bathers competing for shoreline space during the summer months, even gaining access to favorite fishing spots is tough during the daytime.

Except for fluke, sea robins, and shots of small bluefish, the daytime surf is relatively quiet all summer anyway.

Focus your efforts on fishing dawn and dusk, however, and your odds of encountering bigger bluefish, striped bass, an occasional weakfish, and even sporadic shots of such exotic species as Spanish mackerel, cow-nosed rays, bonito and false albacore are significantly increased.

As bathers leave the beaches late in the day, anglers regain access to the shoreline. With fading light levels and with diminishing winds, the surf often becomes very settled — on the surface. Underwater activity, however, can be hectic.

As daylight fades, bathing areas again become feeding zones for predators who return to the surf shallows to feast upon the baitfish hugging the shoreline and those seeking shelter around any underwater structure. Most species — especially the southern exotics like false albacore — are sight feeders so they use these low light conditions to their hunting advantage. Bluefish and bass can feed 24 hours a day, seven days a week, but still find low-light conditions favorable to their ambush tactics.

Given a choice, I prefer to fish lures rather than bait. Still, I use whatever catches fish. In the springtime, I fish bait almost exclusively. During the summer and fall, I feel lures give me the best chance to hook up with some nice fish. Magic hours angling around dusk (two hours before sunset, one hour after) provides some great opportunities during the summer months to present my lures.

My best surf success during the first half of the summer is with bluefish and striped bass. They respond well in low-light situations to metal jigs, surface poppers and even swimming plugs. If a northeast chop is pounding the shoreline, I'll even revert to fishing clams in hopes of picking up an aggressive striper the roiled surf has stirred into action.

With the arrival of August, surf action begins to heat up around dawn and dusk. The species mix now includes the ever-present bluefish and stripers as well as Spanish mackerel. High water temperature and lots of bait in the wash also begin to draw false albacore into the surf from offshore waters.

An impressive false albacore run beginning in late August and lasting until mid-October in recent years has really spiced up late summer surf fishing. It is very difficult to get these southern speedsters to strike metal lures because of their extraordinary eyesight, but anglers have the best odds of doing so in the low-light conditions found around dawn and dusk.

Lots of anglers like to work the late August shoreline for fluke during the evening hours. The fluke they encounter are looking for that last meal before moving out into deeper water after fattening up all summer in inland waters. Using bucktail jigs or flutter baits, they do well as the fluke use the failing light to their advantage in ambushing prey right in the wash.

The best surf fishing of the season begins after Labor Day. As the daylight hours get shorter and nights get chillier, baitfish instinctively begin to school up and move out onto the oceanfront where they hug the shoreline on their long southern journey. The presence of these forage fish in the wash is the magnet that draws all kinds of predators into the surf during the fall run.

As the autumn migration gets under way, terrific blitzes of bluefish can take place at almost anytime but dawn and dusk seem to be the most common times for such spectacles to take place. These blitzes can attract crowds of anglers who lose all sense of reason as they try to get in on the action and maximize their catch. With all the lures and hooks flying about, caution must be exercised so as to avoid getting hurt. At the very least, anglers frequently get their lines tangled up with other surfcasters — an all-too-common annoyance along a crowded shoreline when the blues are blitzing.

With a lot fewer anglers on the beach in the hours late in the day, you can fish even a full-blown bluefish blitz in relative safety and with plenty of room to fight your fish. Fishing a blitz under these ideal conditions hardly ever happens around sunrise, or even during the midday hours.

When working lures in the late summer/early fall surf, I have a pattern I follow as the light level falls. I begin with metal jigs like Luhr Jensen's Crippled Herring and their Krocodile spoon, the Gibbs Minnow, the A17 diamond jig, and O.B. Fish Company's Brandy's Minnow. While the light is still up, I also like to work surface popping plugs like MegaBait's Bubble Pop, Tsunami Lures' Talkin Popper, and Atom's Striper Swiper.

Once the light gets low, I switch to surface swimming plugs like Mann's Super Stretch 1-Minus, Bomber's A-Salt and Luhr Jensen's Javelin Shallow Runner.

With the sun setting in the west, you do not need sunglasses while fishing the summer's magic hours. You can also skip the sunscreen as the sun's rays are not as penetrating as they are during the heat of the day. Do bring bug repellent, though, as flies and mosquitoes can be a problem.

Once all the other species (except for an occasional bluefish) have departed for southern waters, striped bass close out the surf season. Beginning in early November, these glorious fish can be caught around dawn, dusk and during the overnight hours until sometime in late December.

Magic hours fishing is a great time to tangle with these fish but different tactics are used from when they opened the fishing season way back in March. Lures, rather than bait, are the way to go.

Most of my late-season striper fishing is done with swimming plugs. My most effective plug colors late in the season range from bright shades in daylight to black in complete darkness.

For example, as dusk approaches I first use a yellow Javelin Shallow Runner, later switch to a school bus (black back/yellow body) color A-Salt, and finish with a black Super Stretch 1-Minus. It is important to retrieve your plugs very slowly since these end-of-the-season bass respond best to slow-moving targets in the late season cold water.

Conditions during this final stage of the season are pretty harsh for even veteran surfcasters. It is at this time that surf fishing closely resembles the personal satisfaction of finishing a marathon: just trying to catch striped bass and surviving the elements are almost as important as actually landing any.

Depending on the season when you fish the magic hours, always dress for the conditions you will encounter. Waders keep you warm as well as dry. A slicker, warm clothes and gloves are often the difference between fishing and giving up. It is a good idea to have some kind of small flashlight (or head light) to assist you when darkness takes over.

Always observe posted parking restrictions; have any nighttime fishing passes required (such as at Sandy Hook and other parks statewide) affixed to your vehicle.

Magic hours fishing is a great time to catch fish in the surf throughout the long fishing season. You won't find lots of other anglers vying for space on beaches, jetties, and sea walls; you will find the fishing to be at least as good as that found around sunrise, or at any other time.

There's nothing magical about catching fish during this special time. You simply have to be there within the prescribed time frame. Your fishing instincts will take care of the rest. [Org Pub. Asbury Park Press, by Allen D. Riley]

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