Fall fishing is on the way

September 12, 2020

As daylight grows shorter and the water starts to cool, fish begin to get the idea that summer is over and the time to head for warmer climates is here. Since they don’t like to travel alone, or on an empty stomach, they tend to school up and feed heavily before and during their journey.

This is good news for fishermen as we can intercept these fish along the way, and if we plan it right, or get lucky, enjoy the best fishing of the year.

Some fish, like blues, trout and rockfish, move south while others, like flounder and sea bass, move east. The first three are the prize fish for surf and jetty fishermen, while the other two are sought after by private, charter and head boat anglers.

Right now, mullet are beginning to school up and move out of the marsh and into Delaware Bay and the ocean. Blues and trout will be hot on their tails, and so will surf and jetty fishermen.

The really dedicated members of this group will be out there with a cast net catching their own mullet. I came to an agreement with tackle shop owners many years ago. If they didn’t write fishing articles, I wouldn’t catch my own bait. Besides the fact that the time these guys spend catching bait, I can be catching fish.

Once the mullet run is underway, I will always have a rig with mullet in the water when I am surf fishing. Either a top-bottom rig with two circle hooks baited with chunks of mullet or a whole mullet on a mullet hook.

The other bait that will be moving down the coast is menhaden. These fish will be in large schools and will attract everything from blues and Spanish mackerel to rockfish and cobia. When menhaden or bunker or pogies move close to the beach, the surf fishing can be outstanding. Cut bait or live menhaden will draw strikes from whatever is driving the bait to the shoreline.

Several years ago, I was fishing the beach with Daren Purcell and his dad. We were snagging bunker, then cutting them up and fishing the chunks. I was catching big blues pretty much on every cast, and then Mr. Purcell showed up. On his first cast he caught and released a rockfish that measured over 40 inches. I was thrilled. I kept on catching blues.

Back in the day when big trout ruled the fishing, we used live spot in the fall. Leonard Maull and I caught over 40 big trout at Fenwick Island on a beautiful Saturday afternoon in November, all on live spot.

Live spot are still an excellent bait for big flounder. Catch or purchase as many as your live well will keep alive, then head for ocean structure. Use a fish-finder rig with a circle hook and give the flounder plenty of time to swallow the bait before coming tight on the line.

Offshore fishing can be a bit dicey in the fall. Hurricanes and tropical storms can stir up the water even when the disturbance is many miles away. Fishing can also be fantastic.

Billfish and tunas will be bunching up and heading south, so if you can find them, you should have excellent action.

Those of us with small boats should have a few good days in Delaware Bay. What flounder are left will be gathering together at the mouth of the bay before heading into the ocean to spawn. If we can get a couple of decent weather days to fish the rips between Cape May and Cape Henlopen, there should be some big flounder waiting for us.

Speaking of the Rips, it has been a long time since rockfish have shown up there in the fall. Perhaps this is the year they return. If so, look for them in late October through December. Don’t hold your breath.

The same is true for rockfish at Indian River Inlet. Harry Aiken and I used to hammer the rockfish at the Inlet on incoming water during the fall. We would drift the rip from the Coast Guard Station to the entrance to South Shore Marina casting white bucktails with a white worm. Those were the days!

Fishing report

Not much has changed. Flounder and sea bass are still being caught over ocean structure like the Del-Jersey-Land Reef, the Old Grounds, and reef sites 11 and 10. Dolphin are found on anything that floats as close inshore as Site 11.

Delaware Bay reef sites hold kings, spot, croaker and flounder. The Outer Wall has seen good numbers of sheepshead caught on sand fleas.

The surf remains slow with a few kings and spot, but that should improve shortly. Indian River Inlet has seen blues and Spanish mackerel on incoming water.


  • Eric Burnley is a Delaware native who has fished and hunted the state from an early age. Since 1978 he has written countless articles about hunting and fishing in Delaware and elsewhere along the Atlantic Coast. He has been the regional editor for several publications and was the founding editor of the Mid-Atlantic Fisherman magazine. Eric is the author of three books: Surf Fishing the Atlantic Coast, The Ultimate Guide to Striped Bass Fishing and Fishing Saltwater Baits. He and his wife Barbara live near Milton, Delaware. Eric can be reached at

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