From Shore: Bigger Scup Now!

By Zach Harvey

From the catching standpoint, things are much harder without the mobility or the range afforded you by a skiff. But if you’re willing to think a bit more creatively about the times or places you fish, and what you target, there’s no reason you can’t take solid fish of various species with your feet on dry land.

Now it’s September, a month that marks the end of some summer options like fluke, but opens up some very good fishing for other species, notably tautog and scup, in addition to the striped bass and bluefish and occasional bonito that spend more time within casting range from September onward.

For now, having watched a number of committed and apparently super-patient anglers struggle to find cooperative fish of legal size, I’d like to zero in on scup. As anyone who has logged some years targeting them knows, the challenge in scupping isn’t generally catching fish one, it’s finding some means to catch real ones—the 9- to 13-inchers—when the shoal water is clogged with 4-inch pins and choggies that will swarm and dismantle a flat of your hard-won sea worms in a matter of an hour.

If you count yourself among the ranks of the porgy-afflicted, as I have for most of the last 20 years, the following strategies may well help you root out more bigger specimens per mission.

Timing, Timing, Timing

We’ll delve into the matter of location, which will play a major hand in the size and numbers of what you catch, shortly. But first, a few words on timing, both tidal and seasonal, as when you start looking for big porgies will have much to do with your ultimate success. Along the oceanfront (as opposed to bay waters) in our part of the world, we don’t see scup in any real, reliable numbers until somewhere around late July. But as we exit August and start to get our first cooler nights, bigger porgies will start to pile up on and around pieces of harder real estate inside 30 feet, and you’ll start to see a much more encouraging ratio of keepers to tinies. And really, depending on the timing and intensity of the fall gales, the size composition of the scup out at the end of your cast will improve by the week from here to Columbus Day. Not that you should wait: Your October score will improve according to your effort in September.

High tide is textbook, and worth planning for. But it’s not as important as (1) moving water (i.e. running tide) and (2) your ability to land your baited rigs in 10 to 20 feet of water.

Where, Why

In my home waters, the deeper-water factor will hack your list of prime grounds down to size. From there, look for places with a combination of sand or gravel bottom and rockpiles or ledge—and avoid mucky-bottom areas. In the areas where you’ll be standing on loose stone or sand, keep a close eye open for signs of the telltale mussel shells, fragments or whole small shells—good indicators of all-important mussel beds within your reach (mussels comprise a large part of the scup diet, so it follows that where you find the food, you’ll find the fish you seek. While the big-name porgy perches are typically rocky, you shouldn’t rule out the beachfront. There are some dynamite big-scup spots that most guys associate with stripers in the night surf. The common denominator among such less-traveled porgy places is proximity to deeper water. The key is to look closely at the pitch of the beach—the steeper the angle of the slope, the closer to shore you’ll find depths likely to gather bigger scup. Another way to identify beachfront scup havens is to watch the shorebreaks: The closer to shore the waves hump up and roll over, the less shelf you’ll have to launch a rig over to hit the desired depth. You can rule out most places where you see an obvious outside break that denotes the presence of a shallow bar.

You might also uncover a mother lode of slammer scup in places you can see the buoys that mark the up-and-down lines of fish or lobster pots that might otherwise discourage you from sending baits seaward. It may cost a few rigs to determine whether the gear is a multi-pot trawl or a single trap, or discover which direction a gear string runs, but when you’ve figured it out where you can plop a sinker and get it back intact, you just might have a new porgy bonanza hole. Consider that the fish or lobster gear will contain bagged bait that serves as an ongoing chum dispenser that will keep bigger scup hanging around in places they might otherwise bypass.

On some level, finding good scup ground and getting there at the right time is the easy part of the hunt for bigger porgies—there are numerous places that will hold them, especially in the fall.

Reevaluate Rigging

The average factory-issue scup rig, whether the whole thing or a sleeve pre-snelled hooks, will work as advertised, catch you a load of scup. However, most feature miniature baitholder-style hooks reminiscent of what you’d use to soak nightcrawlers for freshwater panfish. Porgies have small mouths and fragile membranes attaching tougher lips, and require smallish hooks, it’s relative. The store-bought models severely limit the amount or type of bait you can use, and afford only minimal purchase in the maw of a scup of substance.

Few fish in our corner of the watery world pull like a plus-size porgy or two, which seem to pull all the harder in shallow water. If you’ve targeted them for some years, you’ve probably experienced the shock of losing a good one (or two) halfway in, and discovered, as you inspect your rig, a pair of severed lips still attached. If ripped lips or pulled hooks are a normal occurrence in your fishing, it’s time to jump up a bit on hook sizes—more point or more gap to sink and hold in the harder jaw tissue. I’ve had good luck with octopus-style hooks as large as 2/0, but prefer wide gap/kahle hooks anywhere from size 1 to 2/0–the latter pretty big for shorebound scupping, but effective when there are 2-pounders in tight.

The sea worm is standard bait for shoreline porgy-hunting, but it’s far from the only good option. Combine tiny hooks with worm segments, and you have a recipe for lock-and-load pin scup—a 6-incher per hook, per cast. I like to mix the same sea clam bellies (the goopy belly meat) with a small ribbon of well-salted squid or a strip of choggie (i.e bergall or cunner). Clam is for scent, the other, tougher bait for staying power. Believe it or not, I often use strips of bluefish belly to deter small scup when they start to swarm—given the problematic relationship little porgies have with choppers. It takes a fair-sized scup to keep chewing when there’s the smell of predators in the water. Point here is that even bait choice can help you cull scup on the bottom.

A parting thought: While I generally advocate long mono topshots on braided running line, I tend to shorten them up for surf scupping. Trying to set quickly enough at the end of a long cast to catch speedy porgies before they strip hooks down to bare metal can be tricky under the best circumstances: Minimize stretch in your rigging to achieve as direct a connection as possioble to the business end of your line.