November 22, 2020
By Ross Purnell
However, a tropical saltwater trip can cost many thousands of dollars and take up an entire week of your time. What many Northeast trout fishers don’t realize is that there’s a world-class saltwater paradise within driving distance of 59 million people in the Mid-Atlantic region.
Island Beach State Park (IBSP) is a 10-mile-long barrier island with unlimited foot access to deep white sand beaches and the East Coast’s famous fall striper run. If you’ve got a four-wheel-drive vehicle, nonresidents can purchase a three-day Mobile Sport Fishing Permit from the Park Gatehouse and Visitor Center near Seaside Park, New Jersey, for $90. You can drive the continuous sand beach from Gilikans Access all the way to the jetty at Barnegat Inlet.
There are many other New Jersey beaches where you can chase stripers on foot, from Sandy Hook in the north all the way to Wildwood or Cape May in the south. But there’s something alluring about the undeveloped nature of Island Beach State Park, and the ephemeral barrier dunes that reach like fingers toward the north and south horizons.
Parking can be a hassle at many of New Jersey’s smaller municipal beaches, where you’ll have to pay for the privilege
of fishing in front of a row of vacation homes, but at Island Beach State Park you will see only windswept dunes and the occasional snowy owl watching you from atop a crest of sand and grass. (Snowy owls migrate from the Arctic to the New Jersey coast in the winter.) The single strip of asphalt on this barrier island is hidden from the ocean front, as are the large parking areas for the designated swimming areas. In the summer these places are noisy tourist traps full of bikinis, beach umbrellas, and sunbathers, but during the fall striper run, these swimming areas are all abandoned.
The fall striper run doesn’t start until early October and often peaks the last two weeks of November. If the weather is good, you can often find stripers well into December, but during the striper run, you’ll see only hints of the summer spectacle: locked and boarded-up change rooms, stairs and boardwalks buried by sand, and abandoned lifeguard stations.
If you walk the beaches you can do a morning session at one parking access area, fish the jetty at the far south tip of the park during an afternoon low tide, and then hit a different swim area in the evening on your way back to civilization.
Riding in a four-wheel-drive vehicle, you can scout far more water, cruising the beaches with the windows down, watching for diving birds, bait balls, and busting fish. Sometimes a point of sand draws your attention, a place that projects a little farther into the sea, and you envision migrating bait and stripers moving around it within easy casting distance. In other places, you’ll see where the riptide gathers surface foam—an indicator that bait may likely be trapped by colliding currents as well. Along the entire length of IBSP, the sand drops off quickly into a series of troughs that are knee-deep to waist-deep. These are perfect highways for traveling fish, and almost always well within casting distance.
Once you are on the beach, you drive until something catches your eye, stop and fish five minutes or an hour, and then move along to a fresh spot as the tide changes. Driving along the beach is as close to fishing from a boat as you can get without a boat. Sometimes it’s better, than a boat—bathroom breaks are easier, and four-wheel-drive vehicles are permitted on the beach all night for early starts and late-night sessions. You are not allowed to sleep or camp on the beach, but fishing is recognized and appreciated as a 24-hour pursuit.
You can also have fires on the beach. On cold afternoons, just dig a pit below the tide line and in 12 hours it’s all washed away, along with all the tire tracks and the bootprints. Every tide provides a clean slate for your saltwater adventure.
Start your journey to Island Beach State Park by researching the web site at state.nj.us. You need more than $90 to drive these beaches: You’ve also got to have equipment like a tire gauge, spare tire, tow chain, shovel, trash bag, and at least a quarter tank of fuel. The state is not interested in rescuing tourists, so come prepared with the right tools for this environment. You’ll need to deflate your tires to 12 PSI to navigate the soft, fluffy sand. There are free air pumps at most of the major beach exit points. Maps and tide charts are available at the park gate where you buy your pass.
In the fall of 2019 I did a three-day IBSP trip in a new 2020 GMC Sierra AT4 with a 2-inch factory suspension lift, standard 4WD with a two-speed transfer case, locking rear differential, skid plates, MultiPro Tailgate, vertical recovery hooks, and a 6.2L V-8 engine and 10-speed automatic transmission. The truck had a CarbonPro B-roll truck bed so we could just throw the Yeti coolers in there along with a load of firewood, all our tackle bags, and stack the fly rods on top of the load while in transit.
I never have been a car or truck fanatic, but it is fascinating to see some of the customized fishing rigs out on this beach . . . you’ll see 4X4 sport utility vans, Toyota Land Cruisers, Land Rovers, Jeeps, and of course pickup trucks, almost all of them modified specifically for beach fishing with rod racks, hitch hauls, campers, and pop-up awnings and shelters. For serious surf fishermen, the fall striper run is a perfect storm of recreational off-roading, comfortable living, and saltwater fishing. It’s amazing how the local salts have adapted their vehicles and their lifestyle to chase the Northeast’s most challenging gamefish.
The weather is your greatest ally or your worst foe during the fall striper run. A perfect day is warm (of course!) with light winds from the south. Wind blowing from the ocean can help push bait closer to shore, or sometimes help trap bait against the shore right at your feet. But casting directly into the wind can be tough. With the wind blowing from the west (and at your back), you can sail some long casts out there, and it tends to flatten out the wave height, but all that doesn’t make much difference if consistent days of west winds have blown the migrating bait a mile offshore. You need the bait and the fish to come close to shore.
What you really don’t want is a cold north wind or especially a nor’easter. You won’t be comfortable, and the fish won’t be either. Cold wind and cold weather propel the fish forward on their southward migration. South winds slow the process and put the fish in a feeding mood. Storms like nor’easters create unruly and even dangerous surf conditions and dirty water for several days. It’s not uncommon for the state park to close the beach to vehicles after a nor’easter due to the storm surge and dangerous surf.
The best sources for wave information are the many surf sites that report on surf conditions. I use surfline.com. If the report says “poor to fair” for surfing with wave height of 1-2 feet, that’s the best fly-fishing conditions you can encounter at IBSP. The website also gives forecasts for wind speed and direction. It’s possible to catch fish with a wave height of 3-4 feet, but conditions are more difficult. You’ll have to work harder to manage your running line, and time your casts for periods between the bigger waves so you can retrieve your line properly and stay in contact with the fly.
Stripers have no problem feeding in the waves, but when crashing waves catch the belly of your line, you lose contact with the fly. You can’t retrieve it the way you want, and you won’t feel the bite if you get one, so time your casts correctly. Keep your rod tip high to lift the line over the curling whitewater, and always carry and use a stripping basket.
You’ll also see many conventional fishermen out on the beach casting lures, or soaking baits like clams and waiting for a bite. The surf height is much less of a problem for them. Watching these guys is always interesting because it’s a barometer of how many fish are around. When they are catching fish, you know you’ve at least got a chance!
Fall run fish tend to be smaller on average than the northbound fish New Jersey sees in the spring, but there are more of them, and there are many more schoolies that spent their first summer feeding in the cool waters of Long Island, Cape Cod, and points to the north. Most of the fish caught by fly fishers are 20 to 32 inches, but 35-inch fish and bigger are regularly caught from shore. Bigger fish tend to follow large baits like menhaden and herring, and schools of these forage fish try to avoid getting trapped against the shore, for obvious reasons. If you do witness a blitz of giant bass on these big baits, get your fly into the mix ASAP, it probably won’t last long. If you see diving gannets, it’s often a sign of herring or menhaden, so keep an eye out for these large birds.
Rainbait (bay anchovies), spearing, and juvenile bunker are smaller baits that are more frequently close to shore. When stripers are keying on small rainbait, and the wind is down, fly fishing can be the most effective method on the beach. Conventional anglers just can’t cast anything this small.
Sand eels are the most prolific late fall baits along the New Jersey coast. IBSP is where Bob Popovics first developed the Surf Candy in the 1970s to imitate sand eels, and the durable, realistic epoxy and Super Hair pattern was a huge step forward for fly fishers. Sand eels provide the most consistent opportunities for fly fishers because in stable weather conditions, they can inhabit the same areas for weeks or even months at a time, acting as a magnet for stripers.
Popovics now uses a pattern called a Fleye Foil to imitate both bay anchovies and sand eels. It’s tied with Fluoro Fibre and UV resin, and you can learn to tie it yourself using the book Fleye Design by Bob Popovics and Jay Nichols (Stackpole Books, 2016).
You may run into Popovics at Island Beach State Park. He lives nearby, and his restaurant, The Shady Rest in Bayville, New Jersey, is a local favorite. This is his beach—the rest of us are all tourists here. One of the things I enjoy most about fishing here is walking in the footsteps of a giant. Popovics is the most influential saltwater fly tier in our lifetime, and his book is required reading for anyone who wants to learn about the baits of IBSP and how to imitate them. Walking these beaches helps you appreciate everything that experts like Popovics have discovered and shown us over these past decades.
Ross Purnell is the editor and publisher of Fly Fisherman.