Wind Direction and Its Localized Effect on the Striper Bite by Capt. Jim Freda Shore Catch Guide Service
Every winter I like to address in my articles a particular aspect of striped bass fishing that is are not geared towards tips and tactics on how to catch our most sought after saltwater species but rather is directed towards more generalized factors that we encounter that need to be dealt with by all fishermen at some point during their season. In this month's Insider article I would like to address the wind direction and how it affects the striper bite here in our New Jersey waters by looking at a few selected scenarios.
The information I am presenting is based on scientific physical phenomena and also personal observation that has been acquired by spending over 25 years on the water. I am fortunate and blessed that I live only a few blocks from the ocean and visit her each and everyday. I may not be fishing all the time but I am observing, talking to other anglers, and recording my observations so patterns can be identified.
When we look at the big picture, seasons for the most part will tell the angler where fish will be located coastally. Temperature is the underlying controlling factor at work here and is one of the key stimuli in governing migration patterns of fish and bait. Water temperatures are governed by many global and localized factors. Some factors that dominate in all areas are 1) water temperatures will change as currents meander along our coast and move along our coastline 2) increasing amounts of solar energy will hit any square meter of ocean water as the sun climbs higher in the sky as spring and summer approach. This will transfer greater amounts of heat energy directly to that location. 3) localized wind directions can change and alter surface temperatures.
It is this third factor that I want to look at in this article and specifically how different wind directions change surface water temperatures and thereby can affect the striper bite. Remember however there are no hard fast rules and there will be exceptions to each scenario. Also keep in mind my article addresses the central NJ area with beaches that face east.
Let's look first at the end of our season since that is the most memorable time in our minds right now. At the end of our season the wind direction is for the most part the controlling factor that will dictate the how long our season will last. With favorable onshore winds or many no wind days our season can last well into January. This was the exact scenario this past season as good weather put us into stripers right into mid-January.
Of course surface temperatures drop as air temperatures drop and we get below freezing temperatures at night but this can be accelerated by the wind. At the end of the season any hard northwest winds for any extended period of time will chill the water temperature down more quickly.
Northwest winds in December and January means very frigid air from Canada with usually bone chilling temperatures descending upon us. If these winds have high speeds this will compound and accelerate the dropping of water temperatures. It has been my observation that if speeds in excess of 20+ mph persist for several consecutive days than water temperatures can quickly drop over a range of up to ten degrees if our surface temperatures were in the low fifty degree ranges immediately before the clipper blew.
This was the exact scenario several seasons ago as hard northwest winds for several days right after Thanksgiving caused the inshore water temperatures to plummet to a chilly 44 degrees. This quick change in temperature from a prior 54 degrees to 44 degrees over several days pushed the bass and most of the bait offshore where warmer water temperatures could be found.
Physically, hard northwest winds at the end of a season will push the warmer less dense surface water that lies over much colder water offshore and quickly chill the rest. Stripers will not hang out in water in this temperature range particularly when the option of warmer water is just offshore. Bass will take the option of staying in their comfort zone. For that matter the bait will to.
We saw this happen this year also but not until well after Christmas. We had a great end of the season this year because water temperatures remained right around 45 degrees up through Christmas. Since that time water temperatures have dropped to the low forty-degree range but offshore in the 15-20 mile range the 45-degree water is still present.
I know this from the winter party boats that are out there fishing for ling, cod, and mackerel. Skippers have reported that through most of January that were still inadvertently catching bass while fishing for these other species. Even further offshore out by the canyons the water temperatures are in the low 50's. So the coldest water you are going to find right now is right along the beach as you move from west to east.
Without the presence of these stiff northwest winds that can show up as winter approaches our water will cool down slowly giving bass and bait a significant amount of time to acclimate to their surroundings. There will be no so-called "thermal shock" that will be felt and the season will extend with decent catches of mostly smaller bass.
The slow cooling and conversely the slow warming of water in the spring are due to a physical property of water known as heat capacity. To speak technically heat capacity is the amount of energy needed to change one gram of water one-Celsius degree. When compared to other objects such as solids, water has a high heat capacity. To put it in simpler terms this means that the water will warm or cool much more slowly than the land. In comparison, water requires more energy to bring about a change in its temperature.
Think of these examples. We have all experienced cold fall nights with temperatures dropping into the thirties. On these nights the furnace kicks on and you are greeted with frost on the windshield in the morning. Anything that is outside is as cold as the air. But when you get to the water its temperature is much warmer remaining stable in the upper fifty-degree range.
Another example is in the early part of June when we can experience ninety-degree days where the street asphalt becomes so hot you can't walk across it barefoot. But when you go down to the beach to cool off you still find an ocean temperature that will chill you to the bone.
Let's look at what happens now if the predominant winds at the end of the season are onshore in our area. A good northeast or onshore blow at the end of the season will push the warmer offshore water back in close to the beach. This will extend our season. This is exactly the scenario that has taken place this year with not only onshore winds but warmer than normal temperatures throughout the month of December. As a result as I mentioned earlier in this article we caught bass right into the middle of January.
Let's look at another of these wind related events that has an effect on the fishery once fish and bait take up residence in a particular geographical area. This is one that is familiar to most surf anglers and occurs during the middle of the summer. This is when we have a strong south wind for several days that quickly chills the water down. Normally we are looking at surf temperatures around 67-70 degrees in the middle of the summer. A strong south wind can change this quickly and drive surf temperatures down into the low 50-degree range. This quick change usually kills the fluke bite, pushes the blues offshore, but can stimulate some rather lethargic bass that have been taking their summer siestas to feed.
This south wind produces a localized effect known as upwelling. This is when much colder and denser ocean water that sits at the bottom of the thermocline is brought to the surface. This water is about 42 degrees so when it mixes with the warmer surface water it will cause it to steadily drop in temperature. The longer the south wind persists the more the water temperature will drop. And as I mentioned I have recorded 50-degree surf temperatures in the middle of July.
A summertime hard west wind will also produce the same result, as this wind will blow the warmer less dense surface water offshore so that the colder bottom water replaces it. It will also flatten the surf out like a pancake. West winds will produce the above results during any season if warmer water is sitting over colder water.
If we had to pick one wind that stimulates the activity of fish in the surf in our Central New Jersey area throughout the year it would have to be a northeast. This wind will rough the surf up producing a lot of white water that will disorient baitfish. This will give larger predators an added advantage when ambushing their prey. Bass in particularly favor these conditions as their broad shoulders and powerful tails allow them to swim rather easily through all the rough stuff.
This wind will also be responsible for pushing and trapping baits along the north side of our jetties. This will particularly be true in the fall when large concentrations of mullet, peanut bunker, spearing, and bay anchovies are hugging our coastline. You will also notice that a northeast wind in the early part of September will produce the warmest surf conditions of the season. As the warm Gulf Stream currents meander closest to our coast at this time this wind will direct them in our direction. As a result we see the arrival of our warm water pelagic guests the false albacore, bonito, and Spanish mackerel. This wind will also push small to mid-size bluefin tuna further inshore.
Take note that when a northeast blow is predicted for several days in the fall that the first day of a sustained northeast blow is usually the best before conditions deteriorate quickly and large pounding waves develop. This will push the bait off the beach cause the water to become very turbid with suspended sand and silt. Many times the water will become brown in appearance.
Note however that in the early part of the new season in March when everyone is waiting for the water to warm up to stimulate striper activity a northeast wind does not warm the water that quickly or have a major impact as it does in the fall. This is so because the water that it is pushing in from offshore is not much warmer than inshore as it has dropped in temperature to around 42 degrees by the end of the winter.
So there are just a few different scenarios to digest. Many others can be added to the list. If you check your local marine forecast several days before you venture out you should have a good idea of what to expect so you can adjust your plan of attack accordingly. Be cognizant of the relationship between wind direction and water temperature and this upcoming season you will better equipped to maximize your time on the water.
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