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To Catch, You Must First Find

Diaper stripers far outnumber keepers
     Casting to breaking rockfish under birds in the main Bay is outstanding right now. Just don’t be fooled into thinking that open water is where you’ll find keepers.
     Actively feeding schools provide some exciting action, but most of the fish in them are schoolies (lately called diaper stripers), and they are shorter than ever this year. They eagerly attack any lure thrown in their direction, but your ratio of throwbacks to keepers is close to scandalous. If you are catching these shorties, squash down your barbs or go somewhere else, for the fishes’ sake and for yours.
     Tributaries and shallow water offer superior adventure this month. But getting your share of this action is not a slam dunk. Expect a difficult success curve, for the fish will not be everywhere you look, and there are just not enough rockfish to go around this fall.
     You’ve got to eliminate a lot of empty territory. The best bite this time of year is dawn and dusk. That means if you’ve selected Area A and the fish turn out to be absent, there is little time left for Area B.
      If you have a strong arm and a good breakfast under your belt, you can begin casting sinking crankbaits and heavier soft plastic jigs at the depth changes along tributary channels for the rockfish as they retreat to deeper water. You can also troll smaller baits along the contour changes. Either way, expect it to prove difficult to score. 
      Bring a perch rod along. That’s as good a Plan B as you can get, and the results could be delicious.
     If you are determined, eventually you will begin to find rockfish. Once you do, you may want to be discreet.
      This time of year in shallow waters, the fish are moving mostly in pods. If you are lucky enough to locate a good pod in skinny water and hammer it till they stop biting, they probably won’t come back any time soon. If you pick off a half-dozen nice fish and release most of them, chances are that pod will return on subsequent days, under similar conditions.
      Keep track of the conditions when your honey hole is at its best. I’ve found that light winds, darker phases of the moon and the higher tidal aspects are essential to a good skinny water bite. However, each place and each pod of fish may have their own peculiarities. It’s wise to note what they are.
      Wind direction is also important. A top- or shallow-water bite can still flourish with excessive winds if you’re in a lee. Having shoreline exposure options can be invaluable.
      Shadows thrown by large trees, brush or landscapes can also be good. Morning shade will concentrate and hold fish longer into the morning than water in full sun. Similarly, fish will show up in the shadowed shallows earlier for the evening bite. 
     When searching your selected target area both early and late, explore the water column with a series of techniques. Stop your craft outside your intended target area, rest the area for a couple of minutes, then begin the search as you get closer. I like to throw crankbaits starting in 10 to 15 feet of water. Rat-L-Traps, Rapala X-Raps and Yo-Zuri Crystal Minnow have been productive choices.
      After moving in closer to depths of five feet and less, I go to surface lures like the Smack-Its, the Heddon Spook series and different types of chuggers, like Badonk-A-Donk. If those fail to get any attention, I then go to Assassin-type soft baits on light jig heads. Or I work weighted weedless hooks slowly across the bottom.
     Fall is a great time of year to fish, and you can make it last all the way into December if you plan properly.
 
Fish Finder
      Schoolie rockfish are many this fall, virtually omnipresent and almost all under 19 inches, especially in the mouths of tributaries. Bigger fish seem to have wandered into the rivers to meet the baitfish migrating downstream to the Bay proper. The early and late shallow-water bite is the best, though legal fish can be found in the tributaries trolling the channel edges with small bucktails and soft plastics. White is currently the best color, but don’t depend on that.
     Most action seems to be focused on rivers south of the Bay Bridge. Try the Eastern Bay for a better rockfish bite and Tolley and Thomas Point for bluefish (some to slammer size: 26 inches), lots of Spanish mackerel, a few redfish and occasionally a cobia or two. The same holds true around Poplar Island.
    Crabbing remains surprisingly good. The late-season heat wave ought to prolong this a few more weeks.