Surface Fishing with Light Tackle on Long Island Sound

Captain Sal Tardella with Bonnie Tardella

No matter how often you’ve experienced it, you always get a rush–that quickened heartbeat–when you see a fish break the water’s surface as he strikes your lure.  To achieve this piscatorial thrill it’s necessary to use light tackle and the most appealing top-water lures.  When fishing in shallow water along the shoreline, or when blues or striped bass are three to six feet below the surface, I generally keep the following equipment in my bag of tricks.

I prefer the Loomis GL series 6’6″ medium-hard bait casting rod with Shimano 4000FH spincaster reel and 10-12 pound test pink Ande line with 25# fluorocarbon leader.

If you’re targeting bluefish and using the lighter-test line, it’s a good idea to add a 25#  test shock leader; it helps withstand the wear and tear of the fish’s shark-like teeth.  When blues are hitting, take a moment to run your hand along the end of the line to check for nicks and frays.  If you find any, cut the line 6-12″ above the point of damage, and reattach your lure.  If you’re lucky enough to find yourself surrounded by a school in a feeding frenzy, I know that it takes a lot of discipline to halt your casting to take care of business.  But if you don’t, you’ll probably regret not heeding this advice because you might end up losing both the fish and your terminal tackle.

TIP #1: Before your first cast of the day, be sure that your drag is properly adjusted.

There are scores of good top-water lures on the market, but after decades of testing and discarding trendy new products, I’ve recently narrowed my selection to the following:

  1. Creek Chub 3/4 ounce Chrome-colored
  2. Gag’s Grabber 3/4 ounce Chrome-colored
  3. Atom 3/8–7/8 ounce Blue & White
  4. Stillwater Popper 3/8 ounce Olive Back/Silver Hologram
  5. Yo-zuri 3/4 ouncePopper

Occasionally, none of the above is 100% successful; I then switch to something else in my tackle box-perhaps a bucktail (white lima bean shape jig with white bucktail sweetened with a chartreuse or white Mr. Twister soft bait.)  I also like the 4-3/8 ounce Yo-Zuri sinking swimmers in black/silver and blue/silver; they weigh half an ounce).

TIP #2: Whatever your lure of choice, make sure it has a white bucktail on the end; these bucktails, that include a small built-in treble hook, should be replaced whenever they start to “go bald”; new ones can be purchased at any tackle shop.

My personal choice for attaching a lure to your line: There’s a lot of disagreement among fishermen regarding the use of terminal tackle when fishing with light line. Some of the best anglers I know insist on just tying the lure directly onto the end of their line.  I’ve tried this and every other method, and have settled on the use of customized hardware composed of an AFW  Duolock Snap #53 with Rosco Barrel Swivel #10-both in black.  I buy these in bulk and take the time to connect them to each other, a simple chore, but time consuming when making 100 or so, as I do once or twice a year.  Using these snap swivel combos allow me to rapidly switch lures from one style to another, as needed; the barrel swivel helps avoid the twisting of the line, and the swivels don’t seem to “spook” stripers that might catch sight of them as the lure moves through the water.  Because of their configuration, barrel swivels also seem to also allow more play in the lure than do the traditional Coastlock swivels.  This technique is purely a matter of personal preference, but readers might be interested to hear that during one November trip, during the fall migration–with three good fishermen bucktailing off of Westport–we tallied 139 striped bass, all caught with that swivel combo holding the lures.

When fishing for striped bass, try to find structure (pilings, rock formations or grassy areas) that create ideal conditions for predators to conceal themselves as they lay in wait for baitfish.   Also look for water rippling around sandbars or reefs.

When targeting bluefish in the middle of The Sound, look for tell-tale signs of their presence, such as swirls, visible dorsal fins, V-shaped lines near the surface, or the frenetic explosion of baitfish.  Flat, calm water is perfect for spotting fish this way, even at quite a distance from your boat.  Another sign-even during a windy day-is a concentration of sea birds-especially terns-hovering and/or diving over a particular area.

TIP #3: When you spot your quarry, don’t gun your engine and rush to the site, and never run your boat over a school. This will just scatter the fish or cause them to dive to deeper water.  Such poor judgment will also anger fellow fishermen who might be in the immediate area.  Just nudge your boat close enough to maintain a practical casting distance.  Then turn off your engine, and drift.  Cast towards the action, working all sides of the boat in an attempt to find the best approach.  Avoid any unnecessary noise on deck, as sound travels through the water and can “spook” the fish.

The way you “operate” your lure is just as important as the choice of lure style.  For striped bass, keep the action slow and easy, with a very brief, occasional pause in the retrieval.  With bluefish, move the lure much more quickly, creating a commotion at the top of the water without actually lifting it completely into the air.  Keep the lure going, reeling right up to the last moment-since fish often hit within two-four feet of a boat just as you’re lifting the lure out of the water.

TIP #4: Especially when hitting a school of blues, remember to keep your retrieval going, even if a fish strikes at it and misses.  He will try again and again to get that morsel into his mouth; and if he isn’t up to the task, then his sister or brother will be attracted by all the movement and strike at the lure.

When a fish hits, set the hook with a short, solid strike rather than a sweeping motion.  Keep your line taut at all times, lifting the rod and reeling down to the fish.  Don’t allow the line to go slack, and don’t reel while the drag is being pulled out.  Just keep the fish’s head up, and reel only when he shows signs of tiring.  Don’t try to “horse in” the fish; it’s not a tug-of-war, and your tackle gives you the upper hand once the hook has been set.  Relax and enjoy the give and take; remember fishing is a sport.

Also, be patient after you’ve hooked your fish.  Avoid adjusting your drag while fighting him.  I’ve seen many nice fish lost that way.

The hooks on lures are meant to catch fish.  They can be devastating if they hit someone.  Take the time to look around you to make sure everyone aboard is out of harm’s way before you cast-every time.  Be sure that your spinning-rod bail is open, so your line will peel out smoothly instead of recoiling, which could result in a hook impaling itself onto you or a fellow passenger.

One more reminder:  Don’t ruin a great fishing trip by running out of gear just when things begin to heat up.  Always take extra tackle with you.  Lures get lost, lines get destroyed, and reels can jam up.  Be prepared!

Good luck…and please keep only what you’re going to put on the table.

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