The fall months of September through November bring epic quantities of baitfish – and diverse schools of marauding gamefish – within casting distance of the United States’ Atlantic-coast beaches. Whether it’s stripers, blues, false albacore and weakfish in the Northeast, redfish, snook or tarpon along the Florida coast, or myriad species anywhere in between, the next three months promise unparalleled opportunities for surf anglers.
Since fall is, perhaps, the very best time to fish the surf, we asked two of the very best surf fishermen alive – Shell E. Caris and Albert Knie – to share their perspectives on fishing the fall runs. Both agree; it’s all about the bait.
Fueled by equal parts obsessive observation, sleeplessness, and an uncompromising passion for fishing, Crazy Alberto Knie’s methods prove out time and time again.
Florida-based “Crazy” Alberto Knie is one of the most passionate and well-known anglers to ever stalk the suds. Crazy? Yeah, the moniker fits. It’s been assigned by those who fish with Knie to describe the uncontestably effective but extreme angling methodologies he employs.
“There are two things happening in the coming weeks and months that surf anglers can take advantage of,” says Knie. “The mega-migration fall-run blitz and the best big-fish night hunting of the year.”
Some madmen like Knie wear two hats and attempt both. They chase blitzing fish with long casts and artificials during the day and prowl dark, quiet and secluded big-fish haunts with bait at night. “Try it and you’ll start to learn why people call me Crazy,” Knie says. “I just bought a coffee at a convenience store yesterday and said ‘good morning’ to the clerk and she immediately reminded me that it was 7:00 at night.”
Knie says Florida’s fall bait blitz is most commonly associated with the well-known and much-anticipated mullet run. “A massive migration of mullet takes place along Florida’s east coast each fall, typically peaking in September and October and tapering off in November,” Knie says, “and diverse predator species move inshore to chase the feast.” But he says there are other factors that surf anglers should have on their radar screens.
“It’s the mullet run that gets the most attention from anglers, but we have different baitfish moving inshore from the open ocean at this time of the year, too… mackerel, herring, and other stuff,” Knie reports. “It’s no longer bunker and shad and not just mullet. A lot of anglers mistakenly assume it’s always mullet these fish are keying on in the fall and so they miss opportunities. The fish change their feeding habits and chase these new baits, sometimes keying in on one particular type of bait and ignoring everything else. Flooding tides bring this bait and the gamefish closer to shore. This is when the typical gamefish can be caught by shore anglers the easiest… as long as they can reach the action.”
Knie says chasing the fall bait migration – and the diverse gamefish species that follow it – requires medium tackle with the ability to cast long distances. “You’ve got to be able to reach wherever the birds are diving and wherever those surface explosions are taking place,” he says. “Depending on the tide, that could be right in the trough or well beyond the deep side of the bar. You’re largely using a lot of tins and surface poppers, so a rod like a St. Croix’s 10’ medium power, moderate-fast action SEAGE (SES100MMF2) or 10’6” medium power moderate action SEAGE (SES106MMF2) will give you a lot of versatility and casting distance with diverse lures between ¾-ounce to four ounces. Depending on the location, you might catch redfish, blues, snook, tarpon, jacks, kings… almost anything.”
While there’s always fish to be caught during the daytime throughout the fall bait blitz, Knie says the freaks come out at night – himself included. “I’m mostly talking about the largest, fattest, and laziest examples of the species I’m chasing,” he clarifies. I’m looking for the biggest, baddest fish – bull reds, tarpon, and Snookzilla – big, fat, lazy ogres that are smart enough to have lived a long life. I’m also avoiding the pressured areas and times by fishing on my own during what I call the nonhuman hours.”
Knie says the night-hunting giant slayer is still concerned with tidal phase, but it requires a different mindset.
“What’s most important to catch the behemoth, lazy slobs is to be ready to cast into the darkness in the very best ambush spots – usually the deeper holes, troughs and channels – in those 20-minute windows on the either side of a slack tide,” he says.
“I’m often fishing bucktails, swimmers, rubber shads and various topwater poppers during ebb- and flood-tide periods at night with my 11’ SEAGE (SES110MHMF2),” Knie says. “I just love these SEAGE rods more and more every day. They are lightweight and sensitive and cast like a catapult but the key for me is the bulletproof strength and durability that comes from St. Croix’s combination of ART and Veil technologies. When you haven’t slept for hours, you often make mistakes that can put your gear in jeopardy. I love my St. Croix Legend Surf rods, but SEAGE Surf rods are truly worry-free because they can take so much unintentional abuse.” Knie adds he uses 5000-to-7000-size spinning reels on these rods when fishing artificial lures during the nonhuman hours.
Once the much-anticipated nighttime slack-tide period nears, Knie changes his tactics. “I’m usually chunking bait with my 12’ heavy power St. Croix Avid Surf rod (VSC120HMF2) during these magic times… it’s rated for 16 ounces and is the real deal when it comes to putting these bait rigs where I need them, as well as fighting the beasts after they’re hooked,” says Knie, who most often employs 8/0 hooks with 30-inch 100-pound or even 150-pound fluorocarbon shock leaders connected to 80-pound braided mainline. “These are the freak individuals that many people never expect to catch; they usually destroy gear and escape, but not from me; I’m ready and equipped to beat them.”
Whether playing the daytime blitz or the nighttime hunt for leviathans, Knie delivers one final tip. “Because there is so much bait around, you’ve got all these different species and sizes, you’re going to be changing your lures a lot trying to match the hatch,” he says. “It’s important to have a Power Clip setup so you can change lures very quickly and be able to get back into the strike zone before the window of opportunity closes.”
Legendary surf angler, fishing author and guide, Shell E. Caris, has been surf fishing for over 60 years.
Shell E. Caris
“I caught a 28-pound striper when I was 10 years old and I’ve never given up the pursuit since,” Caris says. The Ocean County, New Jersey resident lives just 20 minutes from Island Beach State Park, an 11-mile stretch of dune-lined barrier-island North Atlantic beach featuring scalloped shorelines with diverse cuts, impressions, points and sloughs. It’s an angling playground that Caris says fishes best in fall.
“Separated from the mainland by about three miles of Barnegat Bay, Island Beach is a fisherman’s paradise,” Caris says. “There’s a lot of prime water, and the fact that they allow four-wheel-drive vehicles on the beach means anglers enjoy great mobility. That’s a huge benefit. We spend a lot of time driving this time of year looking for signs of active, feeding fish.”
Caris says mullet are the primary forage that feed stripers, blues and false albacore along Island Beach State Park throughout September. “We’ll get that first significant cold front of the year and the mullet seem to leave the bays and backwaters almost overnight,” he says. “But the water has been warmer than normal later into fall the past few years,” he adds, “so it’s not always an exact science. The season seems to get better for stripers later now… October and into November. That’s when you start seeing the peanut bunker, adult bunker, rain bait and sand eels show up off the beaches. Prime time is often early October when air temperatures start to drop and we get a light northeast wind ten to 20 that comes in and churns up the water a bit and creates more oxygen. That’s what brings the bait in and the stripers show up in numbers.”
Fall surf fishing is all about the bait.
Caris says surf anglers can put a bend into their rod almost any time of day, but he likes to be on the water at first light. “The more time you put in on the water the better your chances will be, but stripers will definitely take advantage of changing light conditions around dawn and dusk for prime feeding, especially if you’ve got a favorable tide.”
Like Knie, Caris encourages fall surf anglers to do their best to observe what’s happening around them and to select lures that match not only what’s most plentiful in the water, but also run where the fish are feeding. “It’s pretty easy to figure out when fish are going to hit poppers and other surface lures,” he says, “but it can be more difficult to tell what’s going on beneath the surface. You’ve got to pay attention and adapt to match the hatch… slender baits if sand eels are around or bigger profile lures if they’re feeding on bunker. Despite the amount and variety of bait on the water, these fish get very selective based on what’s most abundant.”
Caris says his go-to stick is a 10’6” medium-heavy power, moderate-fast action St. Croix Legend Surf spinning rod (GSS106MHMF2). “It has it all; it’s fast and powerful with high-end componentry and casts great with a variety of lures between two and six ounces,” says Caris, who varies his tackle based on the conditions. “If it’s a calm day, I might fish smaller lures up to around three ounces on a 9’ or 10’ medium power Legend Surf.” He also recommends not skimping on your reel, especially in the fall. “Invest in quality reels from a reputable manufacturer,” he advises. “Better reels perform better, last longer and are always worth the money.” Caris prefers spinning reels in the 4000-6000 size range spooled with 30-50-pound braid.
A 55-lb. 9-oz. Jersey-coast fall striper and one very happy client of Shell E. Caris.
“Braided line like 50-pound PowerPro changed the way I was able to fish when it first came out many years ago,” Caris says. “You gain so much strength while maintaining a small diameter so you can cast so much farther, and there’s no stretch. It’s all I use today.” Caris says the 40-pound size is a great choice for all-around fishing. “Braided line in that 40-pound size is going to have about the same diameter as eight- or ten-pound monofilament, but you’ve got four times the strength. You can go up to 50 when fishing rocky areas like Cape Cod Canal and get away with 30-pound when fishing sandy areas.”
Wherever and whenever surf casters ply the suds along Atlantic Ocean beaches come this fall, Caris and Knie agree that the game is all about the bait. So, be prepared with a couple quality rods and reels that support versatile presentations. Be armed with a variety of baits that match what’s in the water, be observant, be prepared to change lures quickly, and follow the other tips of our experts.
Quite literally, the rewards can be huge.