Mark Malenovsky rolled down the window of his four-wheel-drive truck and stuck his head outside to sniff the air. "Can you smell all the baitfish in the surf out there?" he asked, rhetorically.

Despite the sweetly pungent scent that belied thick clouds of sand eels in the sudsy wash west of Montauk Village, the day had been frustratingly quiet for the Hooks and Brooks surf fishing guide (ny-fishingguide.com; 631- 589-0065) when we met up recently for a night of casting and catching.

"Let's drive the beach and see where the bait seems thickest," suggested the Sayville resident, who pulled one of Long Island's largest surf caught stripers -- a whopping 64-pounder -- from under Montauk Light back in 1992. "We'll concentrate our efforts around the points."

As darkness falls, my professional guide's bassing sensors kicked into high gear. He started out by beaching and releasing a nice weakfish, then followed with at least one linesider from every stop over the next three hours. Along the way, he suggested small adjustments and subtle changes in lure size, profile and retrieve rate to match the varied influence of an ebbing tide. As I reeled more slowly, switched from large Tsunami holographic sand eel imitations to smaller ones and, eventually, a Bomber plug, each alteration brought new life to the end of my line. By night's end, we had each caught and released a dozen chunky stripers.

Although this season has seen soft plastic sand eel patterns and needlefish lures reign supreme in the surf after dark, Malenovsky predicted a shift toward better daytime scores as water temperatures drop through late October and, indeed, action has sparked along the South Shore ocean beaches. Diamond jigs, which do a great job of imitating sand eels in daylight, have accounted for most bass after sunup, but Malenovsky prefers all-white pencil poppers because they elicit brutal surface strikes.

Of course, with the fall run clearly underway, one might wonder if fishing with a guide is worth the fee?

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"There's actually several reasons to head out with a surf fishing guide in addition to simply catching fish," explained this resident expert. Besides knowing all the best spots and tides, a good guide will have all the appropriate access permits for driving on the beach. His expertise and knowledge should cut your learning curve significantly, too, and you'll get to sample top gear. A guide can also put you on the fish quickly, making great use of your limited time in the surf. Hiring a guide may not be for everyone, but for some it make a lot of sense.

Having spent a night absorbing expert insights and battling a steady stream of stripers along a beach to which I usually only have walk-on access, I'd have to agree.

As for some quick tips for would-be surfcasters, Malenovsky suggested novices practice casting before heading out and factor in extra time to search for baitfish before blindly wetting a line in otherwise nondescript waters.

"Be sure to hit the ocean beaches whenever winds push from the southwest, too," he added. "Those breezes blow baitfish and predators into the breakers and within casting range. It's a volatile mix you don't want to miss."

Email: outdoortom@optonline.net