There was a time when the striper season along much of the Jersey Shore ended right around Christmas or New Year’s. There were always a few hardy salts who skipped the champagne toasts in favor of frozen hands and an 18-inch short, but shortly thereafter, the season wrapped up until the following spring.
In recent years, winter bass fishing has inched ever closer to the early spring season, and in particularly mild winters, it has become possible to catch stripers straight through. While every year is different, January continues to provide shots at bass, and February fishing is viable unless the winter turns particularly frigid.
Surfcasting for bass in the colder months is not for everyone, but, if the idea of hitting the beach at dawn and enduring frozen hands to catch 16- to 24-inch stripers sounds inviting, then keep your waders and surf gear readily available and heed these tips.
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By mid-December most bass taken in the wash will be on the small side, and these fish are sometimes chasing baitfish no longer than your thumb. In attempting to match such small forage species, I always rig a teaser 12 to 18 inches ahead of a duo-lock snap. Bluefish are well south by now and there’s little chance of hooking a trophy that will break you off. So, you’re safe with the teaser. On some days it will out produce the main lure. Color can be tricky to figure out, so it’s best to carry a variety. Red Gills, baitfish flies, and small Fin-S Fish make great teasers.
If there’s are hickory shad or sea herring around, as there often are in the cold months, they will chase the teasers as well, and can be a welcome distraction when the bass fishing is slow.
Lures for Winter Stripers
A surf bag with a wide variety of selections is important for fooling the cold-water stripers. A well-stocked late-season bag should include Daiwa Salt Pro Minnows or other minnow plugs, paddle-tail soft-plastics, like the smallest size of the Fish Lab Mad Eel, and assorted sand-eel-imitating metals.
Regardless of what lure you’re using, fooling winter stripers requires a slow retrieve. At times, the best retrieve is so painfully slow, it can seem like you’re barely nudging the lure along. Metal lures should be worked slowly enough that they drag the bottom, creating small puffs of sand as they hobble along. A fast retrieve is unlikely to attract even a look.
With small fish dominating the winter scene, it’s a good idea to replace treble hooks with singles that have the barbs filed down. This will make the catch and release process easier on the fish and your fingertips.
If you plan on staying put for at least 30 to 45 minutes and there’s no surface action to chase from beach to beach, it’s not a bad idea to cast out a clam rig and let it sit in the sand spike. Bass slow down a bit in the colder months, and at times will prefer a sedentary bait to a moving lure.
Just Get Out There
Expectations need to kept at a realistic level this time of year. Some winters have consistent fishing for small bass over large areas, while during other winters the bass concentrate in only a few locations, and move around from day to day. seen bass show up at various locations—one day would be good while the next would be quiet. Stay in tuned with what’s transpiring, get to know the local tackle shop owners and some regulars who hit the beaches, come fully prepared especially with attire, and you’ll likely be able to extend your surfcasting season well into winter.
Staying Warm in Cold Surf
To survive the winter surf, you’ll need to wear a good base layer with three to four loose fitting layers on top. The finishing layer should be a waterproof hooded jacket. The jacket should be worn outside of your waders, not tucked in. Taking a wave above the chest line and having water run down inside your waders will make you uncomfortable in July; in winter it will have you bee-lining to your truck! The jacket provides protection against unexpected waves. A snug wader belt is also necessary for added protection and as a safety measure in the event of a knock-down. Dressing like an onion allows you to add or subtract layers depending on the weather and body heat generated.
On especially frigid outings, thick fleece pants should be worn under the waders, but keep in mind, you can’t easily remove layers beneath your waders; the onion concept doesn’t work down there.
Thick wool socks keep toes warm and a knit or fleece hat is essential. I always have a balaclava on hand as well in case my face needs protection.
Maintaining warm hands is the most challenging part of winter surfcasting. When the air is icy, my hands stay warm with a pair of Atlas 495 blue commercial fishing gloves with removable liners. I started using them on winter cod fishing trips, and they worked perfectly even on the coldest days. You can pick up spare liners and keep them on hand in case water finds its way into a glove. They are admittedly bulky, and there’s not an angler in the world who could tie a knot with them. But they are warm and completely waterproof. Short-Finger Gloves are more nimble, but not as warm.