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September’s arrival signals the beginning of the fall fishing season, although it doesn’t always signal the arrival of fall fishing. The water temperature is often slower to cool down than the anglers are to warm up. There is no doubt, however, things are about to get a lot more interesting for anglers in our local waters.
The autumn months offer the best inshore fishing of the year, with almost every local species being both available and hungry, ready to gorge on the hordes of bait running through our waters. Last week I wrote about the spot run, which will be eagerly awaited by many folks, a lot of them who don’t live around here but keep track with local relatives, waiting to find out when these important panfish start their annual migration through our waters.
Heck, there are supposedly folks who study satellite photos looking for evidence of big spot schools headed down the coast. Not me, now, it’s just something I’ve heard. There are plenty of other fish, however, that will occupy anglers’ time in the fall and end up on the dinner table.
We’ve had a pretty good summer for pompano, and they are not a fish that goes away when the first chilly winds blow. These flashy silver and yellow panfish stay close to the beach and dart in and out of the crashing surf, feeding on sand fleas, turning their thin bodies sideways to gobble them up. Pompano make a big showing in the early fall before heading for Florida to their winter homes.
Pompano are caught on bottom rigs with or without the gold hooks many favor for them. The best baits are those same sand fleas that make up their diets, but most people catch them on cut shrimp, which works fine as well. Pompano hit in very shallow water and are often caught by pier anglers while they are waiting on the spot.
Whiting are also in the panfish mix while the leaves are turning colors. Called sea mullet by most of us (they aren’t mullet at all but a relative of spot and drum), they love sucking up sand fleas in the surf as well but can also be found in deeper beach sloughs and inshore holes eating a wide variety of small critters. They tend to run in small pods instead of large schools and often hit best after dark. A hard-fighting little fish, they are often caught right along with spot, and they are just as tasty fried up.
Fall is a great time for flounder fishermen. For one thing, the flounder tend to be bigger and fatter. For another, a lot of flounder anglers are off chasing other fish. Flounder will be gorging on finger mullet, the small size of (actual) mullet that run down our coast in the annual “mullet blow” and are the favorite food of many gamefish.
You can debate the merits of various flounder baits, but in my opinion there is nothing in the fall that will work better than a feisty finger mullet fresh out of your cast net. One of these darting baitfish, hooked above the eye-socket and left to roam on a fishfinder rig with just enough weight to keep it near the bottom, will get those big flounders’ attention if there are any around to attract.
Flounder are among the best tasting of our inshore fish, as long as you don’t overcook them. Big flounder are great baked stuffed with crab meat and drizzled with butter.
Bluefish also rally for a big run in the fall, though if the pier is full of spot anglers you might not know it. Until it begins to get cold, small boaters can usually find blues when they can find nothing else. Blues will strike bloody cut bait (or any bait) on the bottom, but it is much more fun to catch them on lures like pencil-plugs. Surf fishermen can reach roaming blues by casting metal lures out great distances.
Blues are not thought of as ranking among the rest of our fall fish when it comes to eating, but that is because a lot of people catch a few while spot fishing and fry them. Blues aren’t good fried but show up very well when baked or broiled in many recipes.
All of our other important inshore fish will be out in force this fall. On the ends of our piers, king mackerel anglers are already decking silver giants. Spanish mackerel will run along with the blues during the first part of the season. Light-tackle anglers everywhere will be chasing speckled trout and red drum, something that will only get more evident as winter approaches, because those are two fish that hang around all year.
It may take a few weeks for all of this to get rolling. Fish are stubborn in that they pay far more attention to the water temperature than the human calendar. Rest assured, however, that the fish will be out there. So will the anglers, and they’ll inevitably be out there first.
JEFFREY WEEKS is a fishing columnist for the Beacon. Reach him at email@example.com.