Of all the folklore, myths, and outright lies that circulate among striped bass surfcasters, none have been more romanticized than the legends of giant late-season stripers.
Most of these tales—shared in hushed tones at tackle shops or beachside greasy spoons—follow the same formula. A surfcaster who’s racked his rods for the season is on the water for a non-fishing-related activity including, but not limited to, duck hunting, dog walking, or taking the scenic route to his day job. There, he sees the mother of all striper schools. The bass are always enormous, showing themselves in the faces of breaking waves as they chase down the hapless baitfish (usually Atlantic herring, sand eels, or menhaden). The angler bearing witness never has a rod and reel, but rushes home to retrieve one, only to return to a beach that’s completely devoid of life.
Many surfcasters, after hearing iterations of this story on an annual basis begin to see them for what they probably are: bullshit. Though occasionally, such reports are cases of mistaken identity. A raft of diving ducks, which you are far more likely to see in the late-season surf, looks exactly like blitzing stripers from a distance—especially when the feeding ducks attract a flock of sea gulls.
Two decades worth of archived reports from online surf-fishing forums suggest that the larger fish form the vanguard of the striper migration, with the smaller fish taking up the rear. Posts from late November onward almost always include scaling down tackle to enjoy the last of the “schoolie” stripers as they quickly swim south.
However, there are just enough verifiable accounts of late-season monsters for me to justify investigating the claims of any dog walker or duck hunter within reasonable driving distance. On Halloween 1998, there was a 60-pounder taken from the Cape Cod Canal; in November 1982, there was a 73-pounder caught on Nauset Beach; and in 2011 there was a 44-pounder pulled from the December surf in Rhode Island. This year holds even more potential, as abnormally warm ocean temperatures have extended the striper season. In New Jersey, surfcasters have been reporting the best fishing for big bass in a decade—with most of it happening after Thanksgiving.
Even with these reports, though, it’s the idea of the monstrous unreported stripers that warms my bones in the icy, fall surf.
I believe hardcore surfcasters to be the most secretive breed of fishermen. For each of those widely-circulated catches, I’m willing to bet there are five more massive stripers caught and released without anyone ever knowing. In my mind, if anything could verify the presence of the cow stripers in the waning days of autumn, it’s the old guard’s silence on the subject. At least that’s what I tell myself, when I’m adding another layer under my waders and chipping the ice off my eel bucket. In all likelihood, my fall run will end without my name being added to the list of casters who wrestled legendary bass from the cold Atlantic surf—but then again, it might. There’s only one way to know for sure.