I've spent the last twenty years chasing the fish that swim in our local waters and I've enjoyed every minute of it! During that time, I've made some remarkable friends and together we've learned a great deal by spending loads of time on the water.
Don't hang up those rods and reels yet! If you don't mind riding the weather rollercoaster, there are still plenty of fishing opportunities in our area. After waking up to a coating of snow on my car this morning, it's hard to believe we hit 70 degrees yesterday afternoon. After a warm October and frigid November, I think it's fair to say the local fishing action was anything but predictable. After lots of ups and downs, it appears as though we have some normal weather heading our way and hopefully a few more fish to catch before the end of the season.
By most accounts, striped bass action along our stretch of the state, from LBI to Cape May, was especially poor for land-based anglers. Surfcasters caught a few fish, but action was nothing like it was a few years ago. Backwater anglers haven't fared much better. Lots of factors come into play: lack of fish, different migratory routes, and weather patterns are usually tops on the list. Whatever the case, my eyes tell me striper fishing just isn't what it used to be.
On the bright side, over the last few years, the month of December has offered some of the best striper action of the season. While most of the bait and tackle shops are wrapping it up, diehard anglers are cashing in on the late-season action. I've had some of my best fall outings during the first half of December. The bulk of the migrating fish are just off our coast; we just need a few schools to move in along the beachfront.
Boaters seem to be painting a much brighter picture of the fall run. The Delaware Bay striper bite may not have been record setting, but when the weather allowed, most of my bunker-chunking buddies returned to port with their limit of big bass. While the bay bite seems to be slowing down, trolling out front has been worthwhile for many anglers. Stretch 30s were hot this weekend as many anglers cashed in on the great late-season action.
Cameron Koshland with a pair of stripers he trolled up on 12/1/14.
Over the holiday weekend, I spent lots of time with family and still managed to sneak in a little fishing. Jake and I worked the nightshift on the back bays in search of stripers. Even though conditions were prime, many of my old honey holes just weren't holding fish. We fished a bunch of areas just before high water and had nothing to show for it. After covering a little ground, our last stop paid off. As soon as the water starting falling, the stripers started popping. The bass were schooled up in just inches of water along a shadow line. We tossed small jigs on light spinning gear and had a blast catching 18 to 28-inch stripers. The fish weren't as big as I'm used to and we had to work a little harder to find a bite, but the end result was the same: driving home with smiles on our faces.
Good times with Jake
Before the holidays, my experiences on the back bays weren't much different. Most of my trips consist of driving around to find a school or two of mostly 18 to 24-inch fish. After years of outstanding fishing, it's not easy to appreciate the new normal. I've tried to make the best of it by joining the American Littoral Society's tagging program. Tagging the small stripers is easy and I enjoy the feedback when another angler returns a tag. I'll cover a little more about tagging over the winter months.
I've been busy tagging short stripers
When I didn't have time to make the ride to the coast, I hit the local lakes and ponds. With skim ice present a few times, I wondered how long my freshwater fishing opportunities would last, but with the recent warm up it looks like I'll be fishing well into the new year. Fishing for largemouth bass, chain pickerel, yellow perch and crappie has been very good. The state also stocked a few of the local lakes with good numbers of 10 to 12-inch trout. The smaller trout haven't received much attention so they should provide some action-packed fishing opportunities throughout the winter months.
On Monday, I spent most of the day fishing with my daughter, Julia. With a forecast high near 70 degrees, it was a perfect day to hit the local waterways. Julia is 18 and usually very busy so we don't get to spend as much time together as we used to. It was great having my little redheaded fishing buddy back even though I'm pretty sure I'll be suckered into some time at the mall in the very near future. We stopped by Blackwater Sports Center and picked up a few dozen minnows. On our way back from the shop we fished a bunch of lakes and ponds until we ran out of bait. Pickerel and crappie provided most of the action, but we caught a few small bass too. I prefer to fish the salt, but the freshwater action is tough to beat, especially during the winter months.
"This is so much better than the mall!"
On a side note, I'd like to mention a little about our weekend training for the Hooked on Fishing – Not on Drugs Program at the Lighthouse Center for Natural Resources in Waretown. My wife, Jen, and I plan on starting our own program to get kids outside and away from drugs. The state's Hooked on Fishing – Not on Drugs (HOFNOD) Program offers the public a tremendous amount of resources to get started. We had a great time and learned a lot during our weekend stay. If you have a little free time and would like to help some of the neighborhood kids, please consider starting your own HOFNOD group.
Good luck to the big-hearted people we met at the HOFNOD Training Program!
If we're going to have a fall run it better happen soon! South Jersey fall runs aren't like they used to be, but the late-season migration still provides some of the best action of the year. The big weekend storm is over. With a few passing tides and decreasing winds, the water should clean up quickly. Before the storm, coastal water temperatures were well over 60 degrees in Atlantic City and Cape May. This morning, the monitoring stations have our beachfront water temperature just a little over 50 degrees. Over the next few days, water temps should stabilize and be perfect for a good bass bite!
Bring on the Stripers!
Right before the blow, migrating linesiders were pushing down from Sandy Hook towards Asbury and Island Beach State Park. Our northern neighbors reported a major push of sizable striped bass and bluefish late last week just as the storm cranked up. It will be interesting to see where those fish show up after the dust settles. I'm hoping they pushed even further south.
While waiting for the migratory fish, I experienced some great summerlike backwater action. Snapper bluefish, weakfish, summer flounder, and small striped bass provided a steady bite before the nor'easter. I spotted tons of peanut bunker, silversides, and a few pods of mullet, too. I expect the storm sent most of the summer species packing for warmer waters.
Good numbers of weakfish around should bode well for the future.
Our resident striped bass remain active throughout the summer months, but they really turned on the feedbag after our first cold shot and following northwest wind. Late last week, I found a bunch of hungry little stripers set up along a shadow line and blowing up on passing silversides. The pint-sized striped bass are fun on light tackle and I enjoy tagging them. I just received a bundle of new tags from the American Littoral Society and I'm hoping to tag a bunch of fish before the season's end.
Hungry Little Stripers
My search for South Jersey redfish was a bust this season. After last season's big push of red drum, I had high expectations this year. It's possible that a few may show up over the next few weeks, but I put in a fair amount of time and decided I'm done chasing unicorns. Once the water cleans up a little, I'll make the rounds to see if I can find a few specks (spotted sea trout.)
When I'm not fishing along the coastline, I'm usually plying the nearby lakes and ponds. Largemouth bass, chain pickerel, yellow perch, and crappie provide some great fall action. Views of a beautiful autumn landscapes with a bent rod are high on my to-do list. Throw in thousands of state-stocked trout and I'm in heaven.
This year's fall trout fishing was a little different than the last few years. The state hatchery had some issues and the big brook trout that I look forward to each October were replaced by much smaller rainbow and brown trout. Knowing this may not go over well with those of us that purchased trout stamps, the state added thirty big rainbows to each stocked pond and lake. Looking back, I believe the state made the best out of a bad situation. I'm interested to hear their plans for the winter trout stocking. I'll keep you posted.
One of the many big trout stocked into our local waters.
Fortunately, I reside in an area surrounded by ponds and lakes, many of which were on the state's trout-stocking list. My son, Jake, and I visited three separate stocked waters and had a blast catching beefy rainbow trout at each venue. While some anglers frown upon stocked trout, my son and I thoroughly enjoy our time on the water chasing these over-sized "truckbows."
After the great trout action, I found myself feeling a little spoiled. With a forecast high of 75 degrees last Tuesday, I decided it was time to pack up the kayaks and make a trip to a local lake. I had a feeling it would be my last day on the yak in shorts and a t-shirt. After a short paddle, I had fish jumping on both sides of me. I positioned myself in a small channel and had largemouth bass schooled up on a stump field on one side and chain pickerel patrolling the flats on the other. It seemed like every cast was a follow, strike or hook up.
I spent the entire day on the lake and enjoyed everything it had to offer. I was surrounded by picturesque fall colors while a bevy of swans circled above and a pair of whistling bald eagles watched from a nearby tree. Catching fish and a bent rod is great, but it becomes much more when you learn to appreciate all of the little things.
A Beautiful Fall Day
Whatever the rest of the season offers, make sure to get out there and make the most of it. You know where I'll be.
What do you picture when you think about the fall run? If you're a surfcaster, you probably think about bent rods, drag-screaming runs, slammer bluefish and blitzing striped bass. Backwater anglers likely picture linesiders blowing up on top-water plugs, jigging soft-plastic baits for weakfish and stripers around structure, and a chance to tangle with unicorns: South Jersey redfish and spotted sea trout. Whatever your quarry, it's a magnificent time of year to be on the water.
The season's first cold front and subsequent chilly northwest wind is usually enough to get most of our wheels spinning. While it may feel like fall in our backyards, warm ocean temperatures usually hold steady until Columbus Day. With nighttime lows sinking into the 40's this week, it's hard to believe my family and I were swimming and boogie boarding in Cape May just ten days ago. Currently, the ocean water temperature is 66 degrees at Atlantic City and 69 degrees at Cape May. Summer is over my friends.
The sun sets on the summer season
In my experiences, the mullet run marks the changing of the seasons. Most years, mullet pour from our backwater estuaries, through the inlet, and down along the beachfront. Depending on a number of variables, our mullet runs can range from boom to bust. Ill-timed coastal storms and flood tides can end a mullet run before it even starts. By my observations, this season seems to be an average run with good numbers of mullet showing at the inlets and usual beachfront pockets.
Mullet Run in Cape May
As we transition from summer to autumn, the mullet run helps to kick-start the fall feeding frenzy. While some early migrating and resident striped bass may be found chasing the mullet schools, it can be difficult to get under the small bluefish that seem to inundate our waterways. Growing up in South Jersey, I associate the mullet run with snapper bluefish more so than any other species. Once the water temperature drops a few more degrees and the snapper bluefish thin out, the real action begins!
Right now, mullet can be found along the beachfront and schools of peanut bunker carpet our backwaters. Most of us know striped bass can be caught in our waters throughout the summer months, but there has been a noticeable upswing in action since the water temps dropped a few degrees from their summertime highs. We seem to be right on track; the ingredients seem to be in place for a great fall run.
When the weather permits, you'll find me spending my days chasing redfish along the backwater shell beds and out front along sandbars. After a few decent seasons in a row, last year's redfish run was the best I've seen in my lifetime. I had high expectations for this fall, but redfish reports have been slim to nil so far this season. My first few attempts at redfish have come up empty, but it's early still. After last season's showing, I'm not throwing in the towel yet.
My nighttime backwater trips have been much more worthwhile as striped bass and weakfish have put on the feedbag. Getting through the relentless snapper bluefish can be difficult, but their presence often signals productive waters. As much as I despise the little eating machines, I'll gladly sacrifice a few soft-plastic tails in order to find a feeding school of weakfish and stripers. On more than one occasion, I found bluefish, striped bass, and weakfish feeding on schools of young-of-the-year weakfish. You can't help but feel bad when a bluefish tosses a half of a still-wiggling weakfish at your feet; those poor little weakfish don't stand a chance.
I'm glad I'm not a little weakfish!
While we may not be in full fall-run mode just yet, please don't overlook the variety of opportunities this transitional period offers. What our waters currently lack in trophy-sized fish, they make up for with a variety of fish we only see during this time of year. As I scroll through my Facebook feed, I see pictures of everything from blowfish to striped bass. It's a great time of year to be an angler in South Jersey.
With another fall run just around the corner, I think it's the perfect time to talk about our beloved striped bass. The plain truth is fishing for striped bass isn't nearly as good as it was just a few years ago. For many of us in South Jersey, the fall run almost seems like a dream now. I don't know about you, but I find myself driving a little further north every fall season to get in on the type of action I desire and even when I'm fortunate enough to I find it, the bite is usually short lived and unpredictable.
Heaven on Earth
As concerned anglers, the first thing we need to do is decide if we have a problem. Those booming striper years were great, but is it really supposed to be like that every season? While fishing for stripers may not be what it was a few years ago, it seems far from a crash. Our best science tells us there has been a slight drop in biomass numbers, but the Chesapeake's 2011 spawning year class is the 5th highest on record; this strong year class should mature by 2019 at the latest. I question much of our "best science" and usually feel more comfortable relying on my own eyes.
Before 2011, I felt comfortable with our seemingly modest two-fish bag limit and protected federal waters. Honestly, not that long ago, I wondered if we we're actually erring on the side of extreme conservation. That time passed when I saw the massacre of the 2011 fall season. I spent my days and nights fishing a little further north at Island Beach State Park (IBSP.) Clouds of sand eels had what seemed like every striper in the ocean off IBSP. The fishing action was unbelievable with as many 26 to 38-inch linesiders as you wanted. As word got out, the normally peaceful, natural beach turned into a traffic-jammed nightmare. Surfcasters were COMING DOWN from MONTUAK. Rods lined miles of beachfront; at times it was difficult to squeeze in anywhere along the park. As if that wasn't enough, you could walk on the boats lined up from Manasquan to Long Beach Island even on the weekdays. Everyone caught fish and many took home their limit including yours truly.
Limits for everyone!
By the time the holidays came and the bite died off, I sat back and reflected on the great fishing action. At first, I felt privileged to take part in such an amazing bite. If you could put that type of action in a bottle, I'd be happy for the rest of my years. Part of me began to wonder if I'd ever be fortunate enough to experience another fall run like that. Then, I started to wonder about how many fish were removed from the biomass that fall season. Hundreds, if not thousands, of fish were removed everyday for at least a month. How could this bode well for the future?
To me, the 2011 season at IBSP is a microcosm of the bigger coast-wide fishery. Whenever a fishery does well, it attracts attention. The better the fishing action, the higher the number of angler participation. Years ago, when striper fishing was poor, angler participation was low which allowed the fishery to gain some momentum. Today, angler participation seems to be at an all-time high and I'm concerned that a two-fish bag limit may actually be hurting the fishery. Other than a week or two here and there, my experiences tell me we're in trouble.
How do they stand a chance?
Personally, when I'm faced with a problem, I ask myself a few questions. First, how can I fix the problem? If I can't solve the problem, I'd like to make the situation a little better and if I cant figure that out, at the very least, I'll come up with a way to not allow the situation to get worse. If I can figure out the problem, I'll follow up with: how can we stop the problem from happening again? This seems reasonable to me.
I've come to the conclusion that fishing for striped bass could be better and I'm ready to do something about it. I attended the hearing in Galloway concerning the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) Draft Addendum IV to Amendment 6 to the Atlantic Striped Bass Interstate Fishery Management Plan. It was nice to run into a few old friends, but I was disappointed by the small turnout. We spoke about benchmarks, fishing mortality and things like the spawning stock biomass. After the presentation, the general consensus seemed in favor of cutting our total harvest by 25%. Several anglers preferred the selections in the Option B Section, some of which allow a one fish bag limit for the 2015 season. I'm going on record in favor of Option B1, which calls for a one fish bag limit and a 28-inch minimum size limit; this selection is expected to reduce the 2013 harvest by 31%.
It's not too late to be heard! You have a variety of options. For NJ anglers, there is a meeting on September 15 from 7 to 9 PM at Toms River Town Hall, L. M. Hirshblond Room, 33 Washington Street, Toms River, NJ. For more information call Russ Allen at (609) 748-2020. If you're from PA, you can attend a meeting on September 17 at 6 PM at the Silver Lake Nature Center, 1306 Bath Road, Bristol, PA. For more information, call Eric Levis at (717) 705-7806. If you cant make the meetings, public comment will be accepted until 5 PM on September 30, 2014. Forward comments to Mike Waine, Fishery Management Plan Coordinator, 1050 N. Highland Street, Suite A-N, Arlington, VA 22201 or you can fax Mike at (703) 842-0741, email at email@example.com or call (703) 842-0740.
Unless you live under a rock, you probably know some of the world's best anglers visited our area last week to vie for the Bassmaster Elite Series - Delaware River title. South Jersey's own, Mike Iaconelli, was the favorite going in and most of the local fish-heads were rooting for "Ike" to bring the trophy home. The Delaware River provided ample room for over 100 Elite Series anglers while the Great Plaza at Penn's Landing proved the perfect stage for one of the world's biggest fishing events.
Philly was ready for the Bassmasters!
If you're not familiar with the bass-pro scene, the 2014 Bassmaster Elite Series consists of eight tournaments plus a year ending, top-fifty Angler-of-the-Year event paying out a total between $6 and $7 million in cash and prizes. Believe it or not, competitive fishing is much more involved than casting a bobber and worm at the local lake or pond. The Elite anglers take fishing to the highest level.
Fishing for largemouth bass can be tough on the Big D. By most accounts, catching wasn't easy and finding any number of sizable largemouth bass was difficult. Many anglers had to downsize their offerings to catch keeper-sized bass. After yesterday's rainstorm, I'm sure the Delaware is running high and muddy; the Elite anglers were fortunate the weather cooperated during the event or the outcome could have been much different. Even with favorable weather conditions, the perigee full moon (commonly referred to as a super moon) produced some extreme high and low tides.
Despite challenging tides, Elite anglers fished for four days and weighed in some impressive bag limits. Hometown hero, Mike Iaconelli, didn't disappoint as he bested the other pros with a four-day total of 47.14 pounds. The big win paid out $100,000 in prize money and sealed Ike's invitation to the 2015 Bassmaster Classic (the Superbowl of the bass fishing world) at Lake Hartwell in South Carolina. According to the Bassmaster.com website, less than a quarter pound decided second through fourth places: runner-up, Chris Lane tallied 39.14 pounds, Jason Christie took third with 39.1 pounds, while Kevin Short bagged 39 pounds for fourth place.
On Sunday, I packed up the family and made the short trek over the Walt Whitman Bridge and up I-95 to Penn's Landing. We could feel the excitement in the air as soon as we opened the car doors in the parking lot. The top-twelve anglers were competing on the water so we had some time to check out the vendors in what I called "Fish City." We met up with a few friends and talked to some of the pros. Jake and I tested our knot-tying skills at the Berkley Knot Wars booth; our Palomar knots proved sufficient on the machine's 10-pound test. I felt privileged to attend the last day of the event.
By 3:00 PM, the crowd around the stage was electric. The Elite anglers pulled up to the dock and everyone cheered, "Ike, Ike, Ike!" Minutes later, the familiar Saturday-morning faces, Tommy Sanders and Mark Zona popped out and really got the crowd fired up. I remember hearing at least three separate "E-A-G-L-E-S" cheers and a few other disparaging Dallas Cowboys chants; there was no doubt we were in Philly. One by one the anglers put their bag of bass on the scale, but it seemed like the crowd just went through the motions as they waited for Ike to take the stage. Even though the finish was a bit anticlimactic, when Ike finally walked out on the stage he was greeted with a rock-star like admiration. Even though I'm not a big fan of the bass-pro circuit, I couldn't help but get sucked into the moment. It was great to see a local guy win it all and share the moment with his family, friends, and fans. Does it get any better?
I want to be like Ike!
As usual, Jake and I have been doing our best to play bass pros on our local lakes. The bass and chain pickerel action has been great and we've been having a blast tossing top-water lures. Fishing around the lily pads has been entertaining and worthwhile. I've been working the edges and holes with a Super Spook while Jake's been throwing frogs through the thick stuff.
Jake thinks he's a pro!
Freshwater fishing has been fun, but I'm getting the itch to get back to the coast. The summer seems to be flying by and I'd like to get in a few deepwater summer flounder trips before the season closes on September 27th. Enjoy what's left of the summer season; fall will be here before you know it.
Is there anything better than topwater fishing? Not for me, whether it's popping plugs in the surf for striped bass and bluefish, walking the dog with a big Super Spook or pulling a weedless frog over the lily pads for largemouth bass and big chain pickerel, the anticipation of a topwater hit is purely exhilarating. The jaw-dropping strikes get the blood flowing and offer a whole new aspect of fishing, especially to a soft-plastic finesse fisherman like myself.
Over the last few weeks, I've been hitting the local lakes and ponds with my youngest son, Jake. We rarely just go fishing to go fishing as I usually have some kind of tactic or strategy planned for our trips. Lately, we've been fishing exclusively with topwater lures. Some anglers may feel as though we're missing out by only bringing topwater gear, but most of the waters we're fishing are so overgrown with weeds, it would be difficult to fish anything else.
By most accounts, early-morning and late-evening trips offer the best topwater action; however, Jake and I decided to fish the midday shift. Ready for battle, we headed out armed with sunscreen, weedless frogs, Super Spooks, Hula Poppers, and Jitterbugs. Our plan: Jake would hit the lily pads with a frog while I'd work the weedlines and pockets with a topwater plug. As luck would have it, a toothy pickerel attacked my first cast. Soon after, Jake had a largemouth bass explode on his frog. Five minutes in and we were hooked!
We spent the following trips fine-tuning our presentations. While the cadence of walking the dog came naturally to me, I found on most days, the fish preferred an erratic twitch and pause retrieve. Before long, Jake and I felt confident enough to call our shots. While we didn't always stick a hook in a fish, more times than not, we had fish exploding on our lures. With the shallow nature of the lakes and ponds we were fishing, it wasn't difficult to figure out where fish were located. Weedlines, pockets, stump fields, creek mouths, submerged trees, and docks were good to us.
This fish put on quite a show!
Some little things I noticed while fishing: my hookup ratio was ten times better when using plugs like the Super Spook versus weedless frogs. While it was difficult to keep the weeds off the treble hooks, it was usually worth the extra effort. Topwater fishing on calm waters was much more productive than working over a wind-blown chop. I can only assume the fish could see, hear, and feel the vibrations of my offering better in the quieter, calm conditions. Line slap can and will spook fish. When working topwater lures in quiet, shallow waters, the line lays on the surface and the vibration from the retrieve is noticeable enough to spook wary fish. I found by holding the rod tip higher, I obtained better control of my lure and usually eliminated line slap. Jake learned not to set the hook by visual strikes. After a little trial and error, Jake found by setting the hook when he felt the strike versus when he saw the strike, his hookup ratio improved dramatically.
Somebody call a doctor, Jake's got froggin' fever!
The lakes and ponds we frequented yielded about the same number of largemouth bass as chain pickerel. While we didn't catch many bass over two pounds, we did hook into our fair share of big chainsides. I think we'd have a better shot at sizable bass by concentrating our fishing efforts a little earlier or later in the day, but fishing the dayshift was certainly worthwhile.
Fish like this one are even more memorable on topwater lures.
Honestly, long, hot days make for tough fishing conditions. By noon, most of us would rather be in the water than on it, but if you're willing to tough it out, the fish are there for the taking. Many of our local lakes and ponds are fairly shallow and offer superb topwater fishing opportunities. The explosive topwater strikes are so invigorating that you'll find yourself not minding a missed fish or two as the take is incredibly enjoyable all by itself.
Jake didn't miss this one.
On a side note, I'd like to include a little reminder about fishing lines and snagged hooks. Yesterday, a friend was out kayaking and noticed a duck wasn't acting right. When she paddled in closer, she noticed the duck was wrapped in fishing line and a hook. Thankfully, she untangled the duck and took it to get the much-needed attention it deserved. Her post struck a nerve as I've come across this scene myself a little more often than I'd like. Over the years, I've untangled my share of seagulls, geese, and swans. More times than not, I've noticed it's the braided lines wrapped around the wildlife. I've come to the conclusion that the new "super lines" are so strong that when some anglers are snagged they cannot break the line at the knot so they decide to cut the line leaving quite a bit of braid hanging from trees, poles, or wires. I found the best way to snap braid at the knot is to point your rod at the snag and pull directly away from it with no bend in the rod whatsoever. If your drag isn't strong enough to break the line, hold the spool with your hand and continue to pull the line away until it breaks. In my experiences, the line usually breaks at the knot and a hook in a tree is far less damaging to wildlife than a hook in a tree with twenty to thirty yards of fishing line attached. Another trick I've seen is to wrap your braid around a wooden dowel or a stick and pull away until the line parts. Be careful and make sure to have some type of protective eyewear as sometimes the lure gives way and comes flying back at you with some momentum; I learned the hard way! A little extra effort could save a life.
If you've followed my blog for a while, you should know I make it a point to learn a new fishery each season. A few years back, I felt complacency creeping in so I decided it was time to shake things up a little. Exploring new fisheries is always exciting and brings back the boy-like enthusiasm of the sport I hold so near to my heart. I love fishing for largemouth bass, but I don't understand how so many anglers dedicate their entire lives to chasing the same species of fish. Ok, so maybe I'd be content with 10 to 15-pound tiderunner weakfish. Seriously though, with so many angling opportunities available, I find it difficult to concentrate on one species for more than a few weeks at a time.
Last season, I decided to chase snakeheads along the backwoods tributaries of the lower Delaware River. I walked for miles along railroad tracks, through head-high brush, swampy marshlands, and through quaint little neighborhoods. I found more snakeheads than I could have ever imagined. I learned much about snakeheads and fortunately came across a similar species that shares the same waters: the bowfin.
With bowfin, also known as mudfish, on my radar, I spent some of the offseason reading up on their characteristics and behavioral patterns. Bowfins are stalking, ambush predators and will strike a variety of artificial lures as well as live and cut baits. Their preferred habitat includes lowland rivers, lakes, vegetated backwater creeks, and swamps. Bowfins are bimodal breathers, which means they can breathe air and water. Because they breathe air, bowfins are often easy to spot as they break the water's surface.
Cut bait, such as sunfish, work great for bowfin.
Bowfins are native to New Jersey waters. From my limited experiences, they seem to be thriving in many of the Delaware River tributaries, especially from Trenton down to Salem. I found bowfins in all kinds of areas, but there was one small waterway that seemed to be inundated with the "living fossils." There were so many bowfins in this particular waterway that we averaged between ten and twenty fish per trip with most ranging from 3 to 8 pounds. For that many bowfins to gather in such a small waterway, I came to the conclusion that this particular area must have offered a prime spawning area. In my mind, there was little doubt a good portion of the Delaware River fishery decided to enter this small tributary.
This one put up a great battle!
After my first few catching experiences, I wondered why anglers didn't talk about these fish more often? Bowfins hit hard, seem to be around in good numbers, and put up a heck of a battle once hooked. I should note that hooking bowfins is a little more difficult: their mouths are so bony that setting a hook can be tough. I missed more hits than I'd like to admit. Strong, sharp hooks will definitely come in handy when fishing for bowfin.
The bone structure of a bowfin looks prehistoric.
I have much more to learn about this great species, but I can't help to wonder why bowfins seem to be looked down upon by so many anglers. By most accounts, "mudfish" are junk fish that are usually by-catches made by anglers pursuing other types of fish. Even the state "overlooked" the bowfin on their list of species to qualify for a Skillful Angler Award. I made a call to the Division's Freshwater Fisheries to ask why bowfins weren't included and they couldn't offer a rational explanation. Sunfish, catfish, and carp are included in the program; why not bowfin? When I pressed further, I was told adding bowfins to an already underutilized program would create a lot of paperwork and would be unlikely. I guess I'll give them a pass on this one; it sounds like they still have their hands full with hatchery problems.
Jake with a male bowfin in full spawning colors.
For the record, bowfin aren't scavengers, they explode on top-water lures, reach impressive sizes, and put up a great battle. What's not to like? The state record for bowfin is 10 pounds, 14 ounces and was set in 2011 by Chris Hoffman while fishing on the Delaware River. If that weight sounds familiar, it should, it also happens to be the same exact weight of the state record largemouth bass. I'd bet the house the bowfin record falls much sooner than the largemouth bass record. Honestly, from some of the things I witnessed over the last few weeks, I wouldn't be surprised to see the bowfin record fall a bunch of times over the next few years. If you're looking for an escape from the same old same old, give bowfins and snakeheads a try; you won't be disappointed!
Can you believe it's June already? The nearby beaches are filling up fast, the kids will be out of school in a few days, and the official start of the summer season is only a little over a week away. The spring fishing season flew by, but it was one I'll remember for a while.
With the late start to the season and the long winter still fresh on my mind, I hit the water hard this spring. After two months of fishing almost daily, it caught up with me: I've been down for the last week with a head cold, which turned into a chest cold, which turned into bronchitis. I'm beginning to feel somewhat human again and I'm dying to get back on the water. I'd rather be sick for a week in the offseason than a day in the spring.
Before I came down with the cold, I bought a new Apple iMac. The new software and operating system definitely takes a little getting used to, but the upgrade should allow me to edit photos and video much more conveniently. Since I've been grounded, I decided to play with the movie software and put together a short teaser with some of my weakfish shots from this spring. It's a little dramatic and the legend stuff should be taken in jest, but I think it's amazing what ‘s available out there to us now. The potential possibilities have my head spinning.
2014 Spring Weakfish
Ok, let's get back to fishing. I'll start with weakfish since that's where I spend most of my time. The spring run was one of the best I've experienced in a while. I tallied over 100 weakfish between 24 and 30 inches so far this season. Daytime action is beginning to slow down due to the higher water temps and summer-like boat traffic. Many of the inlet and bay-shore rock piles continue to surrender sizable weakfish, but expect the best action to take place around sunrise and sunset. I'll be fishing the back bays on the grave shift soon.
Back Bay Beauty
Striped bass action has been good for some and a little slower for others. Cape May County anglers experienced a decent clam bite on the bay-shore beaches while a little further north in Atlantic City and Longport rock-hopping anglers are landing cows on clams, bunker, and plugs. I didn't spend much time chasing stripers this season, but a few of my South Jersey surfcaster buddies are scoring some beautiful linesiders. While it's always great to hear about big striped bass, numbers seem to be down a little from prior years. Enjoy the action while you can because those big girls will be heading north for cooler waters soon.
The 2014 Summer Flounder Season is off to a good start; despite my opening day flop. I fished behind Sea Isle in Ludlam Bay on opening day and it was a circus. I was hoping the Friday opening would keep the crowd down a little; I was wrong! A steady northwest wind, 100s of boats and narrow channels don't usually make for a great day. We ended up with a couple of throwbacks and a lesson learned: don't fish on opening day again. With the new 18-inch size limit, I suspected keeper-sized fluke would be tough to come by, but a remarkable amount of flatties over 20 inches have been reported so far this season. The best action seems to be reported by anglers using bucktails tipped with Berkley Gulp baits or minnows, if you can find them. Backwater temperatures have been good, but expect most of the keeper-sized flatfish to make their way towards the inlets over the next few weeks.
The bluefish bite has been dependable so far this season, especially up in the Barnegat Bay. Recent trips have been lots of fun as the top-water action has been insane with two fish taking one plug multiple times. I used to hate bluefish, but I've found a new appreciation for them over the last few years. In my mind, they used to get in the way as I was jigging or plugging for what I considered to be much more desirable species such as striped bass and weakfish. I think their aptitude for chomping my soft plastics right behind the hook probably had something to do with my dislike for bluefish, too.
Two at a Time
The oceanfront beaches from LBI northward are offering some incredible bluefish action. Slammer bluefish can't pass up a fresh chunk of bunker, but they're taking plugs and metals, too. For some reason, we rarely see the same kind of bluefish bite south of Brigantine. If you don't fish north of LBI at least once in a while, you're really missing out.
Slammers in the Surf
Freshwater fishing opportunities shouldn't be overlooked. Once those big bass come off their spawning beds they're going to be hungry. I've been hitting the local waterways with my little fishing buddy, Jake. We've done a little bit of everything from casting poppers for chain pickerel and largemouth bass to bait fishing for bowfin and snapper turtles. We're exploring some new waters and finding some great things. I'll share some of our new experiences in the next week's report.
The month of May offers South Jersey anglers some of the best fishing opportunities of the year. Big, hungry striped bass are pouring out of the rivers and scouring the surf for food; weakfish action is as good as it's been in years; bluefish seem to be just about everywhere, and summer flounder season finally opens next Friday, May 23. If that's not enough, over the last few days, anglers also reported the season's first blowfish, kingfish, and croaker catches. Throw in some of the best largemouth bass fishing of the season and it's not difficult to see why May is my favorite month to fish.
The striped bass run was a little late this season, but it seems to be in full swing now, especially for anglers fishing in Cape May County. The recent bite has been good in the lower Delaware Bay, around Cape May Point, and along the oceanfront beaches. Clams are the bait of choice with incoming tide offering some of the best action. I'm a little late to the party, but I plan on visiting some friends and a few linesiders later next week.
Father and son team Cody and Don Miller with a pair of Cape May linesiders that weighed 23 and 33 pounds respectively.
Weakfish receive much of my attention and while the bite has been incredible, I can't help to think I'm missing out on some other action, but I just can't pull myself away. The action has been steady and dependable with most days yielding more than a handful of 24 to 28-inch weakfish. I've shared lots of time chasing these backwater beauties with friends and family and we've made some great catches together. I know these big spawning weakfish won't be around long so I'm trying to make the most of it.
Jennifer Ruczynski with a back bay beauty
After close to a month of catching weakfish, I've had some time to figure out a few things. In the area I'm fishing, creek mouths and bottleneck areas produce better on the outgoing tides while the fish seem to be holding along channel edges in about 10 to 14 feet of water during the incoming tide. Low-light conditions are best, but fish can be caught throughout the day if boat traffic is minimal. When wind and current make fishing light jigs difficult, bottom bouncing sandworms or bloodworms can save the day.
Worming for weakfish
While on the subject of figuring out a few things, I wish I purchased a kayak years ago. For years, I was a land-based angler and spent countless hours wading back bay flats, but the kayak has opened up so many new opportunities. First and foremost, it allows me access to waters unreachable from land. The kayak also permits me to keep my bait in the strike zone longer as I can position myself perfectly for the best angle for presentation. With no engine noise, I can paddle over the fish all day without spooking them. Kayaks really do offer the best of both worlds.
When the weather forecast is for heavy rain or winds over 20 mph, I leave the kayak at home and try some other types of fishing. On Wednesday, I decided to take Jake a little further north on his first bluefish trip. With a stiff northeast wind, I figured we'd toss some metals at the inlet and hope to run into a few bruisers. Jake and I set up along the seawall and were into bluefish right away. The action wasn't crazy, but there were enough bluefish around to keep us busy for a few hours. Jake had his hands full with the 9-foot rod, but he kept at it and ended up landing a couple on his own. We ended the morning with over a dozen fish to 9 pounds. After this trip, I have a feeling catching sunfish at the pond will never be the same.
Jake is singing the blues.
Speaking of ponds, over the weekend, I was out at one of the local parks with the family and noticed largemouth bass lined up all over the shoreline. On Tuesday morning, I had some errands to run, but not before a few casts at the park pond. I threw a rubber worm out into the middle of the pond and was surprised when a big bass took my worm and went airborne. After a little back and forth, I slid a hefty 22-inch lunker up onto the shoreline. I admired her for a moment and sent her on her way. I fished the pond for another hour and landed three more decent largemouth bass before packing it up.
That old saying, "So many fish, so little time" was probably coined in May. I'm already having a tough time keeping up and let's not forget the 2014 summer flounder season is just days away. I caught a few flatties while jigging for weakfish so I know there here and hungry. The weekend weather looks great so get out there and bend a rod.
Freshwater or saltwater, it's spring in South Jersey and I'm on the hunt for trophy trout. While most anglers are busy chasing striped bass, I'm perfectly happy chasing rainbows, bruiser browns, and my favorite, tiderunner weakfish. It's been a magical two-week stretch: I tallied well over 100 freshwater trout and nearly fifty weakfish.
I'll begin with weakfish as I'm still giddy about the great action. It all started last Monday, April 21: I woke up at 3 AM with thoughts of landing my first weakfish of the season. To tell you the truth, my brain was telling me, "It's too early and the water is still too cold," but the weather looked great and I needed to assure myself I wasn't missing anything.
After the hour-long commute, I unloaded my kayak and paddled out just before sunrise. As I took in the beautiful morning colors, my second cast got nailed. The tell-tale headshakes brought a smile to my face that remains until this moment. Following a well-spirited battle, I pulled a beautiful 26-inch weakfish alongside my kayak. Weakfish are true backwater beauties, but they're even more stunning at sunrise.
I picked up a few more weakfish over the next hour before I decided to check out some other areas. Usually, the best weakfish bite takes place at night and during the first hour or two of daylight so my expectations for the rest of the day were low. I thought to myself, "Anything more would just be the icing on the cake."
After fishing a few other areas, I came back to my morning hot spot and worked the area over with ¼ and ½-oz jigs and bubblegum-colored Zoom Super Flukes. After some experimenting, I found the mother load and had fish for a solid two hours. I was in heaven: 20 to 30-inch weakfish after weakfish crushing my jig and towing me around. My back and arms weren't in fishing shape yet, so I pulled up to a nearby sodbank and caught a few more in my waders. It was an amazing day that I'll never forget. I'm glad I didn't listen to my brain!
Ok, the fish catching stories are great, but let's get to conditions, tactics, and techniques. The weather and water conditions were perfect: it was sunny, light winds, clear water, and a falling tide. I usually prefer overcast days, but when the water is cold a little sunshine can warm up the backwater flats just enough to put the fish on the feed. Looking back, the best bite occurred about two hours before low tide which makes sense as the water temp is usually at its highest during low tide on sunny, early-spring days. After varying my casts and retrieves, I found that working the jig aggressively worked best as it seemed like a jerky, upward-jigging motion drew their attention while a slow fall enticed them to strike. This type of retrieve works best when you're right over the fish in a boat or when your jig is directly in front of you when casting from a bank. I've found a jig can be worked much better when the tide is pulling away from you as it's easier to control the fall speed of the jig by slowly lowering your rod tip until you feel bottom. The bite varies from day to day, but the two-jigs-up-followed-by-a-slow-fall technique has worked well for me over the years.
Jigging for Weakfish
Since my first outing, I've been back out more than a few times. While none of my recent excursions have been as good as the first, I've had a low of four and a high of eleven fish per trip, with an average of about six fish per trip. Weakfish catches have ranged between 18 and 30 inches; however, most fish seem to be between 22 and 26 inches. Not bad for April, I'm looking forward to May and some better weather. If you share an appreciation for tiderunner weakfish, please feel free to visit my Facebook page: Wonderful World of Weakfish - https://www.facebook.com/tiderunnerweakfish
On the freshwater scene, the state-stocked trout action couldn't get much better at our local ponds, lakes, and rivers. I keep busy fishing freshwater when conditions are not optimum along the coast. Believe it or not, a few of the trout they stocked this year rival some of the tiderunners I caught recently. The little trout are fun, but once you catch a big, breeder trout, you want more.
By only fishing for freshwater trout on bad weather days, I think I've stumbled onto something. More times than not, the wind is the biggest factor when I decide to forego a weakfish trip and decide to stay local. With the wind blowing at 20 to 25mph, it's difficult to throw tiny spinners to trout. With that being said, I've been forced to use heavy spinners to combat the wind and I've had tremendous results. A 1/4-oz Rooster Tail has been my go-to spinner. I can cover twice the amount of water as other anglers, the little fish hit it just as much as they would the down-sized versions, and the big fish love them!
Big Spinners = Big Brown Trout!
The state inundated many of our waterways with trout this season and by my account, participation has been marginal. With so many trout still swimming around, they should provide rod-bending action for anglers well into May.
4/24/14 Rainbow Trout
I can't totally dismiss our striped bass run, but it doesn't seem to be off to a great start. Some good fish were landed in the Delaware River and in the upper Delaware Bay recently, but according to most anglers, it's nothing to write home about. Water temperatures are still marginal, so let's hope May brings better weather, warmer waters, and big linesiders. In the meantime, you know where I'll be. I'm out like a trout!
I don't know about you, but I have a serious case of spring fever. It was extremely difficult for me to stay in today to catch up on the things I've put off due to two weeks' worth of fishing trips, but I guess I can be an adult for a day. Lately, it's tough to do anything other than think about fishing with the amazing amount of fishing opportunities available in our area. Largemouth bass, pickerel, crappies and literally truckloads of trout have my head spinning. Saltwater action is also picking up as striped bass action seems to be improving daily. Believe it or not, I'm glad the stripers are a little late; otherwise, I probably wouldn't have slept at all this week. As soon as I finish writing, I'm picking up some "select" bloodworms and spending the weekend chasing striped bass on the banks of the Delaware River.
I guess I'll start with striped bass and get to the freshwater report a little later. By most accounts, the striped bass action has been a little slow to start, but it seems like the recent warm-up was enough to get things going. Over the last two days, it's like somebody flipped the switch: reports of striped bass are coming in from the rivers, bays, inlets, and oceanfront. My Facebook news feed looks more like a Fishbook news feed as it's filled with happy anglers holding linesiders. Most of the striped bass are running on the small side, but a few cows are beginning to show up in the Delaware River.
TJ Messick Delaware River 4/10/14
Just a few days ago, I made my first striper trip of the season. Yes, I know, I can't remember ever starting so late. I'm usually out there trying for stripers on March 1st, but with frigid water temps, I didn't like my odds until recently. I arrived at one of my favorite early-season spots just after midnight as the tide started out. Honestly, I expected to see stripers busting on spearing and grass shrimp, but it was quiet and my retrieves came back untouched.
After a half hour, I decided to hit another back bay location that usually warms quickly and provides solid action. As I walked towards the water, I could hear the tell-tale "pop" sound made by striped bass feeding on the surface. The bass weren't holding in their normal areas; they were a little further out and difficult to pinpoint in the darkness. I cast soft-plastic baits into the night and picked away at short stripers for most of the night. I tagged a few fish and ended the trip with eight bass to 25 inches. It wasn't an outstanding trip by any means, but it's a start.
First bass of 2014
Even though striped bass action seems to be off to a slow start, there have been a few reports of weakfish and summer flounder catches already this season. I found the reports a little hard to believe at first, but there were pictures to back up the reports. With water temps in the high 40s, who would expect weakfish and fluke to be taking baited hooks? Hopefully, it's a sign of promising fishing action as we approach the month of May.
Tracie Lynn with a 30-inch beauty caught on 4/5/14 Photo by Robert Conroy
I cannot express in words how good the freshwater fishing is in South Jersey right now! The warming waters have big, pre-spawn largemouth bass looking for their first meal of the season. Monster chain pickerel and slab crappies seem even more willing than normal to strike a bait and the state has dumped thousands of trout into many of our ponds, lakes, and rivers.
Colin Steward represents the Hooked on Fishing - Not on Drugs kids well with this 6-pound lunker
The week before the opening of trout season, I had one of the best big crappie bites I've ever experienced. Day after day, it didn't seem to matter what I threw at them; they were taking everything. I started with live minnows, but ended up catching what seemed like 100s of 12 to 15-inch slab crappies on soft-plastic baits, top-water plugs, and spinners.
That's a slab!
At 8 AM on Saturday, April 5th, trout season officially started. By 8:01 AM, my son, Jake had his first trout on the stringer! The trout were hungry and we had a steady bite for two hours before the wind kicked up to 25 mph. I caught a bunch on spinners, while Jake was feeding them chartreuse power bait. We landed twenty rainbows and ended the trip with our limit of trout.
Trout Day 2014
Before Saturday, I haven't attended an opening day of trout season in at least five years. I grew tired of the crowds and the whole scene. This year, Jake asked to go on opening day, so I figured we'd give it a shot. To my surprise, the lake wasn't very crowded and the few anglers that were fishing with us were very polite and courteous. While we enjoyed a little elbow room and some great fishing action, I did find myself wondering why interest in trout fishing seems to be much lower today than it was a few years ago.
The trip with Jake rejuvenated my interest in trout fishing. Over the years, I've caught lots of big brook and rainbow trout, but I wanted a big brown trout this season. I watched them stock a few of the nearby lakes and there was one fish in particular I had in my sights. On Tuesday, I spent the afternoon hunting for my trophy. The brown trout were killing spinners, but I couldn't find one over 14 inches. It was fun, but on the drive home, I couldn't stop thinking about the "one."
Fun-sized brown trout
I woke up early the next morning, grabbed my gear and headed back to the lake. When I arrived, there was one boat out on the lake; otherwise, I had the entire shoreline to myself. With the wind at my back, I could cover half the lake with my big yellow spinner. On my second cast, I had a hit and reeled in another normal-sized stocked brown trout. The morning action was steady as I caught about fifteen more trout before another angler showed up. We started talking and I found out the older gentleman just got back into fishing and this was his first time out in years. I filled him in about the bite and as I was showing him how to work a spinner, the big brownie hit! She took me through a submerged bush and then up and down the shoreline a few times before I slid her hefty body onto the bank. My new buddy seemed just as excited as I was and was nice enough to snap a few pictures before he tied on a spinner.
My big brown trout!
After landing the big brown, I was done for the day. I took my limit down to the creek and shot a few pictures. I thought about how lucky I was to have such great fishing opportunities just minutes from my home. It's hard not to feel blessed when you're sitting by a backwoods creek with a limit of brown trout on a gorgeous spring day.
On my way out, I noticed a familiar family of four; they fish at the lake frequently, but never seem to catch much. They made such a big deal about my catch that I offered it to them. When I asked them if they wanted the trout, they responded like they just won the lottery. In my mind, it was the perfecting ending to a perfect day.
The perfect day!
Tons of trout will continue to be stocked in our local waters for the next two weeks so get out and enjoy the great action while it lasts. After what seemed like a never-ending winter, 70 degrees and sunshine never felt better! The weekend weather forecast looks amazing. Birds are chirping, flowers are blooming and the fish are biting. If you haven't wet a line yet, it's time to get out there!
The spring season is just days away and we're already riding the weather roller-coaster. Yesterday, I was fishing along the banks of a local lake in shorts and a T-shirt. This morning, I woke up to a power outage, house-shaking wind, and an air temperature of 22 degrees. After a long, cold winter, I'm not going to complain about ups and downs; at least we have some ups now, right? The weekend forecast looks promising and the fish are biting!
I'll get to the fishing report a little later, but first, I'd like to share some information about the Hooked on Fishing - Not on Drugs Program. If you've never heard of the Hooked on Fishing - Not on Drugs Program (HOFNOD), it is a nationally-recognized program created by the Future Fisherman Foundation. This worthwhile program has been around for twenty years, but has recently been updated. The curriculum uses angling to teach our youth about the benefits of a healthy lifestyle and how to deal with life's daily challenges. The HOFNOD network includes trained-aquatic-education professionals in over thirty states with thousands of programs nationwide.
Jake is hooked on fishing!
The state of New Jersey seems to be jumping into the revamped program with both feet. Some of you may find this hard to believe, but it appears the state is putting at least a little of our tax dollars to good use. HOFNOD programs are popping up all over and I think the kids are going to love it!
The kids loved these cupcakes!
My son, Jake, and I had the pleasure of attending a Hooked on Fishing – Not on Drugs orientation meeting last Saturday at Lake Mathilde in Sicklerville, NJ. The Gloucester Township-based program is run by Bob Johnston and he's put together an impressive twenty-eight week course highlighted by field trips including: kayaking on Barnegat Bay, fishing on the Bodacious, overnight camping, and a group bus trip to Bay Day. Sounds like fun and get this: the program is free!
Is someone telling fish stories?
During the orientation, we met lots of great kids and friendly adults. Bob did an excellent job preparing the grounds and curriculum. While the kids walked along the wooded paths and looked over the mostly-frozen lake, I took the opportunity to talk with the state-appointed HOFNOD Coordinator, Liz Jackson. We talked about the program for a while and the more I heard, the more I liked the program. There are no strings: the purpose of the program is to get kids back outside and to keep them away from tobacco products, alcohol, and drugs.
An ice-covered Lake Mathilde
I have many passions, but my family and outdoor activities are tops on the list. If I can incorporate the two, I will, and I'm going to love every minute of it. While some of us may not need a program to enjoy time outdoors with our loved ones, there are lots of kids that don't have the same opportunities. If you'd like to help, please contact Liz Jackson at (908)637-4125 x122 Liz.Jackson@dep.state.nj.us
OK, back to fishing! It seems like a little sunshine was enough to get some fish moving. Reports are far from on fire, but the season's first few striped bass were taken over the weekend. The warm-water outflow and tributary rivers are always early-season hot spots. If you're just looking for action, I suggest grabbing some grass shrimp or bloodworms and trying for white perch. The perch bite seems like the best thing going and it only takes a few perch to make a tasty dinner. Look for the striped bass action to pick up near the end of the month. I'm sure I'll be poking around soon.
I haven't hit the salt yet, but I did get to spend the last few days fishing the neighborhood lakes and ponds. Even though it's been warm, ice is still covering a few of the backwoods ponds, but most of the larger bodies of water are open. It sure did feel good to soak up some sun and bend the rod again. Chain pickerel are on full tilt and waiting for just about anything to cross their path. If you can get minnows, expect some easy fishing. Some of the largest bass are taken in March, so get out there this weekend; it was a long winter and the fish are hungry!
As I write this, many of us are counting down the minutes to the official opening of striped bass season in our back bay and inlet waters. If you're like me, March 1st doesn't just signify the beginning of striped bass season; it brings high hopes for the beginning of a whole new fishing season. Warmer weather and bent rods are getting closer everyday!
It won't be long!
Most years, by March 1st, I'm really amped up and ready to attack the waters with reckless abandon, but I'm not feeling so reckless this season. Maybe a little part of it comes with age, but the frigid weather is definitely taking a toll on my excitement. Right now, NOAA's reporting center in Atlantic City is showing a water temperature of 35.8 degrees while Cape May's water-temp gauge shows 41.2 degrees. Throw in a bone-chilling, ten-day forecast and another winter storm or two and you can see why I'm not overly excited. With the current and predicted weather patterns, I have a feeling some of our early-season hotspots may not start off so hot this season. Fishing for striped bass in waters below 40 degrees isn't usually what I would call worthwhile. While the calendar will soon be flipping over to March, it sure does feel a lot more like January and February.
On the bright side, the March sun is gaining strength and will heat up the muddy flats regardless of air and water temperatures. I've noted temperature differences as much as 20 degrees higher on the flats versus a nearby channel. Sun-warmed, shallow water will attract baitfish and in turn predator species. I spend a lot of time fishing freshwater and saltwater flats and I've seen some amazing things in just inches of water. Skinny-water anglers should expect action to heat up as we near the end of the month.
My son, Frankie, with an early-season flats striper
If all else fails, the warm-water outflows offer solid fishing opportunities as water temperatures usually average about 10 degrees warmer than surrounding waters. The warm water not only attracts stripers and other species like a magnet, but the fish residing in the warmer water are much more likely to take a hook. Fishing can be magical at these outflows, but the word is out so if you plan on visiting a warm water area, expect lots of company.
With the number of bounties offered by some of the local tackle shops, I'm sure happy I'm not a striped bass. If you're fortunate enough to land a legal striped bass you could end up with much more than just striper thumb. Here are just a couple of the shops offering prizes for striped bass catches:
Absecon Bay Sportsman Center 1st legal striper weighed in wins a $200 gift certificate 2nd legal striper weighed in wins a $100 gift certificate 3rd legal striper weighed in wins a $50 gift certificate 1st striper over 20 pounds wins $100 gift certificate 1st striper over 30 pounds winds $100 gift certificate In addition, the first boy or girl 12 years old or under to catch and weigh in a striped bass over 28 inches will be awarded a Sea Striker rod and reel combo. The first female angler to weigh in a legal striped bass will win a Shakespeare 7-foot Ladyfish combo. *If you're an Absecon Bay Sportsman Center Facebook fan, Dave is throwing in an additional $100 gift certificate to the first angler that is registered for the shop's 1st Striper of 2014 "Event" and brings in a legal striped bass.
Captain Howard's Bait and Tackle 1st legal striper weighed in wins a Penn Battle rod and reel combo valued at $125 2nd legal striper weighed in winds a Shakespeare combo 3rd legal striper weighed in wins a Shakespeare Breast Cancer Awareness rod and reel combo
The great prizes offered by bait and tackle shops should motivate anglers to stand out in the cold just a little longer this weekend. No matter the weather conditions, I'm certain someone will be weighing in striped bass this weekend. If it's anything like last year, there may even be a line of anglers waiting to cash in their catches on Saturday morning.
Midnight Striped Bass
I don't want to send the wrong message here as I'm all for keeping a fish or two for the table, but please keep in mind that this could be a make or break year for striped bass. In recent years, the fishing has dropped off some and I'm hoping the trend doesn't continue again this year. I used to think taking a fish or two wouldn't hurt the population, but the truth is, taking a fish or two isn't helping either. Good luck out there this weekend and stay warm!
I don't know about you, but I've had enough of the winter season. I'm tired of hearing about single-digit temperatures, below zero wind-chill factors, snowfall predictions, and that ever-popular catch phrase, "Polar Vortex." I can deal with thirties and forties, but days in the teens and nights around zero are a bit much. The little time I've spent outdoors this week consisted of shoveling the porch and driveway, cleaning off our cars, and freezing my tail off. When I checked the weather the other night, it was 8 degrees in my backyard and 40 degrees in Anchorage, Alaska. You can keep your three layers of clothes, hats, and gloves; I'm done with winter!
Sunny Snow Squall
It may be hard to believe, but this time last week, I was wading at a local lake, tossing soft-plastic baits to largemouth bass and pickerel in nothing more than a hooded sweatshirt. It felt great to land my first few fish of the 2014 season. I definitely made the most of the brief January thaw. You'd think a little rod-bending action would help ease the cabin fever, winter blues, or whatever they call it. The truth is, it did help, but it was short-lived and left me wanting more!
First Fish of 2014
Since my last fishing trip on Monday, January 20, we've had close to a foot of snow and glacial temperatures. All of the local waterways have completely iced over; however, I'm not certain they're safe for ice fishing. With temperatures forecast to be above freezing this weekend and a possible big storm headed our way next week, I'll probably end up poking around for pickerel at a few of the nearby spillways.
Looking for some signs of hope, I checked a couple of the long-range forecasts and it appears that the worst of the frigid temperatures may be over, but there are some very real chances of big snow storms through early March. I keep telling myself, just one more month. Hopefully, a few fishing shows will help pass the time. I'm looking forward to the Atlantic City Boat Show on February 5 to 9, Greater Philadelphia Outdoor Sport Show on February 13 to 16, Southern Regional Fishing Flea Market on February 15, Surf Day on February 22, and the Ocean City Intermediate School Fishing Club Flea Market on March 1.
At times like this, when I can't fish, sometimes shopping for fishing-related gear works as a quick pick-me-up. Over the last couple weeks, I've been in the market for a new pair of Costa sunglasses and found the selection lacking in much of the South Jersey area. It's not like you can order a pair online because you need to try them on before you purchase them. After a bunch of phone calls and a couple of disappointing visits to local optometrists' shops, I was about to give up until a friend told me about Vutt Sunglasses at the Burlington Center Mall. On Sunday, I stopped by Paul's shop and was pleasantly surprised by a great selection of Costas along with many other brands. Paul spent a great deal of time answering my questions and making sure I'd be happy with my choice. I left his shop more knowledgeable about eye care and feeling good about my selection. If you're going to spend a lot of time on the water, it is imperative to have a good pair of polarized sunglasses. Not only do they protect your eyes, but they enable you to catch more fish. They are of utmost importance to me as I spend lots of time sight fishing on shallow flats.
Shopping for Shades
With most of my shopping list completed, I've begun my countdown for the 2014 backwater striped bass season, a little more light at the end of the tunnel. We're only a month away and it looks like we're going to need a substantial warm-up to get things going by March 1. A quick glance at NOAA's coastal water temperatures shows readings of 33 degrees in Atlantic City, 34 degrees in Cape May, and the Delaware River checked in at an icy 31 degrees. I haven't seen water temperatures that low in a few years. I'm looking forward to starting the season off right; even if I have to join the masses at the warm-water discharges.
Striped Bass Countdown
I've tried to make the best of the winter weather, but it's just not good enough. Sledding with the kids was fun for a day or two, but they enjoy being outside when it's 5 degrees even less than I do. Off-season maintenence is complete as my fishing equipment has been thoroughly cleaned and organized. I have a bunch of new toys that I'm dying to try on the water this season. Spring can't come soon enough!
Well, another year in the books and I'm left wondering where did the time go? It seems like just a few weeks ago I was waiting for the fall run and now I'm already thinking of warmer temps and next season's first spring striped bass. Sure, I've had my fun with the local chain pickerel and state-stocked rainbow trout, but it's just not the same. With skim ice becoming more common each day, it's likely even my freshwater fishing opportunities are numbered. I have a feeling it's going to be a long winter!
South Jersey Pickerel
While some anglers seem down about this season's striped bass run, there were some encouraging signs from other species. Summer flounder, otherwise known as fluke, made a good showing for much of the summer months. I didn't hear many complaints about flatfish as the 17.5-inch size limit seemed attainable and the eight days added onto the end of the season was a pleasant surprise.
Speaking of pleasant surprises, how about this year's weakfish run? This spring, weakfish reports flooded in from many locales and the solid action lasted well into the summer months. Areas that haven't seen decent weakfish action in years came alive again with fish and anglers. Some of our younger anglers were fortunate enough to experience a good weakfish bite for their very first time. The unexpected resurgence of weakfish was the highlight of my year. Hopefully, it was just the beginning of things to come in the next few years. I'm already thinking of spring tiderunners!
I can't forget to mention the appearance of redfish. I caught my first New Jersey redfish back in 2008. At the time, I knew it was possible, but highly unlikely to catch redfish in our waters. I noticed a trend last season as an above average number of redfish were caught, especially around Cape May County. The 2013 season brought even more reports of redfish and we weren't talking accidental catches; in some locations, you could successfully target them. In September, I made the trip to Cape May Point for red drum and I caught one and lost another. I'd say 100s of redfish were caught along our coast between late August and early December. If the trend continues, we're going to have a lot of fun next season!
Cape May Point Red Drum
Going back through my log, I noticed my striped bass catches were a little off this season. March started off a little chilly and the weather rollercoaster just continued on from there. Some anglers believe the lack of striped bass has more to do with a decline in the stock, but I can't help but wonder how much our weather patterns have to do with it. This spring, we had cooler-than-average water temperatures with very little transition to summer temps. I'm not certain of the exact numbers, but it seemed like we went from 50-degree waters to 70-degree waters in a week's time.
The same could be said about the fall: I felt like we were too warm until a sharp drop brought water temps down dramatically. It seemed like temps went from 70s to 50s within a week and before we knew it, surf temps dove into the 40s. If I learned anything about fishing in our area over the last twenty years, I know that it's nearly impossible to pattern fish when weather conditions are severe. Maybe there aren't as many striped bass around as there were five or ten years ago, but the brutal weather patterns surely didn't help us much this year.
Overall, my yearly striped bass numbers were down, even though my numbers were on par per trip. I fished much less than usual as I find myself looking to hit homeruns more than singles these days. I only fished during windows which I considered to be good-to-prime conditions and my catch rate was very high. So my assessment of the season is somewhat skewed as every other year I fished in all types of conditions. I haven't figured out if I'm just getting older and wiser or older and softer. Either way, looking back and seeing that I made the best of the time I committed to fishing feels good.
So, I should be happy to think I'm on to something as I'm using the time I have on the water to the best of my ability, but somehow I'm still feeling a little empty. After a good portion of the season was over, I found out what was missing. While catch rates were good by only going out on the days and nights that offered the best fishing opportunities, I found I stopped learning. As you continue into the sport, the catching part isn't enough anymore. Looking back, I remember finding a new fishing hole or finding a great bite in the middle of nowhere, far more enjoyable than catching a bunch of fish in the same old holes. Don't get me wrong, I'm not going to stop pounding some of my favorite fishing holes, but I realized that I need to get out of my comfort zone every once in a while to increase my knowledge.
While I didn't learn much about striped bass, weakfish, bluefish, or summer flounder, I did learn a little about redfish and a lot about our freshwater snakeheads. I spent days searching for snakeheads and I found them in so many areas it blew my mind. I read much about snakeheads, but found very little useful information about catching them. I threw all kinds of lures and baits at them and they seemed uninterested 99% of the time. I landed a few and I got one good one, but I feel like I should have done much better. They better watch out next season!
A Worthy Adversary
Recently, I've been hitting the local ponds and lakes and catching rainbow trout, largemouth bass, and chain pickerel. Fishing action has been good, but ice has been creeping in on some of my favorite venues. Chain pickerel should keep me busy through the winter months, even if I have to hit spillways to find open water. In my opinion, pickerel are one of the most underappreciated game fish in our local waters. If you feel the need to get out and bend a rod this winter, try for pickerel; they won't disappoint you.
I'm already looking forward to the 2014 season. I have lots of gear to go through, charts to study, and reading planned during the next few weeks. I hope everyone had a memorable 2013 fishing season and I wish you well for the New Year!
Wow, what can you say about the lovely weather we had this weekend? The sad truth is that it's not looking much better as we head into the end of November. After today's 40-mph winds, a nor'easter is due to blast our coastline on Tuesday and continues into Wednesday, followed by another shot of hard northwest wind and more frigid temperatures. To top it off, the December long-range forecast looks to be filled with additional below-average air temperatures. If the current trend continues, I think the South Jersey fall run may come to an end before it ever really started. I hope I'm wrong, but it's not looking good.
I think most anglers would agree that it's been slow for those of us that fish from Long Beach Island to Cape May. About ten days ago, we had some strong blowout tides and things have been slow to recover ever since. I've been out day and night and while I'm finding some fish here and there, it's been far from what we've come to expect from our fall striper run. In areas where I'm used to catching five to ten bass in a few hours, I feel lucky to have two or three on the end of the line.
On the bright side, a little further to the north, boaters and surfcasters reported some better action. Earlier this week, anglers fishing around Island Beach State Park enjoyed some solid action. I, like many anglers, grew tired of waiting for the stripers to visit our area so I headed up to IBSP to get in on the hot bite.
With a tip from a friend, I walked on to the beach at 5 AM and had birds and stripers busting on sand eels in front of me for hours. I caught a bunch of fish in a short amount of time and enjoyed every moment of it. Does it get any better than watching the sunrise over the ocean with a bent rod and a school of hungry stripers in front of you? Not for me, I was in heaven! I caught most of my fish on metals and teasers, but needlefish plugs and Daiwa SP Minnows worked well, too.
First bass on my new Van Staal
By the next day, word of the great bite was out and most of the beach was shoulder to shoulder with surfcasters. Even with 100s of surfcasters on the beach, I still managed to put together a decent catch of solid striped bass. I thought to myself, this is what I've been waiting for!
Word of the hot bite spread quickly!
A return trip on Thursday morning saw more anglers and less fish. A stiff, east wind provided some beautiful white water, but it also cut into my casting distance. I felt lucky to land the one that I did. Since my last visit, the weather and fishing reports have gone downhill quickly.
A fall fatty, full of sand eels
Recently, one or two sources were laughed at for tossing the idea of, ‘The season might be over." out there. While I wouldn't go that far, I have to admit, I'm certainly concerned. A cold shot or two is normal for this time of year, but an extended cold period with a coastal storm mixed in could be a death blow. I sure hope my feeling is wrong; I was just starting to have fun.
With poor conditions for the weekend expected, I hit the South Jersey backwaters on Friday night as I thought it might be my last shot for any decent backwater action. I waited out the rain and hit a bunch of my favorite backwater fishing holes. Conditions were good, but I had to make a few moves before I found any action. I picked away at schoolie stripers during the falling tide and tagged a few more fish. You really have to work at it to put together any decent numbers of fish. I made the best of it and jigged up eight small stripers and drove home wondering if things were going to get much better from here on out? Over the last few season's some of our best action comes in December so I'm not giving up hope just yet.
A tagged fish right before release
My experience with tagging fish continues. I finished up my shipment of twenty lock-on tags and I'm trying the same number of spaghetti-style tags from the American Littoral Society. I've found the lock-on tags to be ten times more convenient. It's amazing how quickly you can apply a tag and release a fish with a little practice. The spaghetti-style tags require a little more effort, so once this batch is used, I'll be sticking with the lock-on tags. I'm still looking forward to receiving my first tag return.
Spaghetti-style tags from the ALS
Don't forget some of our local waters will receive a visit from the trout truck this week. I've included the stocking schedule below. For more information, please visit the NJDEP Division of Fish and Wildlife's website at http://www.njfishandwildlife.com.
‘Tis the season: the month of November offers South Jersey anglers some great fishing opportunities highlighted by truckloads of sweet-water trout and tons of salty striped bass. Over the last few weeks, the state stocked thousands of super-sized trout in many of our local waterways, with hundreds more heading our way in the coming weeks. Striped bass action hasn't quite reached full tilt, but action is picking up and should continue to do so for the entire month of November. It's a great time to be fishing in South Jersey!
The best of both worlds!
I've been fishing day and night with solid results. My days have been spent chasing trout along the banks of streams, creeks, rivers, ponds, and lakes. By dusk, I'm in my car and headed down Route 55 to cover the back bays, inlets, and beachfront for striped bass. Believe it or not, I welcomed this morning's storm as I needed some time to catch up on sleep, household chores, and my blog.
A few weeks ago, big, beautiful brook and rainbow trout were stocked into many of our waterways. For some reason, the trout haven't received much attention from local anglers. I can't figure out why the fall stocking doesn't seem to garner the same attention as the spring season. The weather is perfect, crowds are minimal, and the average trout is at least twice the size as the spring fish. I've visited a bunch of the freshly-stocked venues and more times than not, I have the area to myself. Don't get me wrong, I love having the lake and hundreds of trout to myself, but I just can't figure out why more anglers don't take advantage of the great fishing action.
Our limit of brook trout
With so many fish available locally, I've had my little sidekick, Jake, with me on most trips. We've been fishing spinners and the fish have been eager to chase them down. Over the years, I've thrown all kinds of spinners, but I've settled on one that seems to receive strikes much more than the others. It's made by Thomas and it's a nickel/gold double spinner. Just in the last few weeks, I've caught hundreds of trout on this spinner. The spinner casts a mile, tracks smoothly, and provides more flash than any other spinner I've ever thrown. I have a few more left in my bag, but I'll be making a bulk order before the end of the season.
Jake with a beautiful brookie
While there are still plenty of big brookies swimming in our recently stocked waters, the truck will be visiting again on Tuesday, November 25. This time, hundreds of 14 to 18-inch rainbow trout will be tossed into some of our neighborhood lakes and ponds. For a complete list of stocked waters feel free to visit the NJ Fish and Wildlife site.
Ok, it's time to get salty and talk about stripers. To be honest, the striped bass action has been a little slow to start as mild, ocean temperatures seem like the new normal. I can remember, not that long ago, when some of the best back bay action took place in October; that's just not the case anymore. Over the last handful of seasons, it seems like the bulk of the migratory bass arrive in our waters sometime between mid-November and December. Thinking back, I can remember the time between Halloween and Thanksgiving offered the hottest action; however, more recently, the best opportunity at numbers of striped bass seems to have shifted a little later into the season with the best bite occurring between Thanksgiving and Christmas, especially in the southernmost portion of the state.
Julia with a limit of backwater bass on 10/28/13
Although I'm certain the fall migration starts a little later than it used to, I'm still out there giving it my all. There are enough striped bass around to hold my interest and in the last few days the action really picked up. While there usually seems to be plenty of 18 to 26-inch bass around in the backwaters, recently, there's been a push of sea lice covered 26 to 32-inch fish. With the water temps still hovering around 60 degrees, I've hooked into a few weakfish and a bunch of out-of-season summer flounder. We need the water temperature to drop a bit more before we experience any serious striped bass action.
Striped bass with sea lice
With high expectations over the next few weeks, I've decided to start tagging many of the fish I catch during the fall migration. I did a bunch of research and talked to the great people over at the American Littoral Society in great depth about the science of fish tagging. I've bothered Jeff Dement, the ALS Fish Tagging Director, a bunch over the last few weeks with email, phone calls, orders, and questions and he's been a pleasure to talk to each and every time. I'm looking forward to sharing my fish tagging stories in the coming weeks.
My tagging packet from the American Littoral Society
Well, it looks like the storm is over and the front pushed through. You know what that means: it's time to pack up the gear and get ready to hit the water. I'll catch up on sleep later. Get out while you can because the holidays and Old Man Winter will be here before you know it.
Does it get any better than late summer - early fall in Cape May County? The seasonal crowds are long gone, daytime highs are usually around 80 degrees, water temperatures hover just a little above 70 degrees, you can fish while barefoot in shorts and a t-shirt and to top it all off, you never know what's going to end up on the end of your line.
Cape May Point
What started off as plans for a family camping trip in the Pine Barrens quickly turned into a motel stay in North Wildwood as I just couldn't pass up the unbelievably-low offseason rates. With summerlike weather forecast for the weekend, I figured we'd put off the camping trip until a little later in October and sneak in one more summer weekend. Fishing was fairly low on the family's priority list, but I knew we'd manage at least a little time on the water.
After bike rides on the boardwalk, sightseeing, a Monster Truck Show, and some time spent in the heated pool, we hit the beach. Our motel was right on Hereford Inlet, but the constant northeast wind made sitting on the beach a little uncomfortable. My trusty fishing experience kicked in and I decided we'd head south to Cape May Point where I figured the wind would be much less of a factor.
North Wildwood Surf
Fifteen minutes later, we parked the car right under the Cape May Point Lighthouse and headed over the dunes to the beach. It was like another planet as the ocean was flat, it felt twenty degrees warmer, and dolphins were jumping out of the water. We set up our beach chairs and blanket and were content with the world.
As the afternoon passed and the tide started coming in, I noticed a few birds working the nearby rips. I thought nothing of it as its common for small schools of snapper bluefish to feed on the plethora of baitfish in the area. I continued to watch as the birds were moving closer to the beach and growing in numbers. As luck would have it, a full-on feeding frenzy took place right in front of me and I didn't have my fishing gear!
The blitz lasted about twenty minutes, but it felt like an hour without a rod in my hand. As it turned out, we enjoyed an incredible day with some amazing scenery, but it could have been so much better if I could have made just a few casts! Most of the action seemed like snapper blues, but you never know what's going to show up when big schools of baitfish are present. With one more day of vacation and the forecast calling for a continued northeast blow, we'd have no choice but to return to the Point again and I'd make sure to pack my equipment this time.
We returned to the Point again on Sunday and experienced similar conditions, but the birds were gone. I know how blitzes work and the odds of repeating the prior day's action was probably close to one in a million. I figured I'd work the rock piles as I used to catch a ton of weakfish around them. I started with a ¼-ounce lead head and a bubblegum-colored Zoom Super Fluke. Low tide passed and the water just started to move. I worked the current seams at each rock pile and found tons of bluefish and a few small flatties. Right across from the lighthouse, I had something hit my Zoom hard and take a few runs before it shook the hook and left me questioning if I might have had one of the few redfish that seem to be showing up in better numbers each season. Soon after, I came to my senses and told myself I was silly to think I just lost a redfish.
As the tide continued in, the bluefish became so thick that my soft-plastic baits didn't stand a chance. Those little bluefish have a way of chomping off most of the bait without getting the hook. With only a small stock of lures packed, it was time to break out the cast net. After a few blind casts came back empty, I walked the Point jetties and found small pods of mullet in each pocket. Before long, I had more than enough bait in the bucket and it was time to have some fun.
I set up a rod for my son, Jake, and we started working the jetty pockets. Every cast ended in a strike. We caught tons of bluefish, a bunch of weakfish, croakers, kingfish, and a couple more summer flounder. Jake just turned twelve so it was a joy explaining why the fish were in the areas they were and as the day continued on I had him showing me where the fish would be holding. I didn't think it could get any better.
Jake with a Weakfish
Believe it or not, catching a bunch of 12 to 15-inch fish was a lot of fun on my 6'8" light-duty G.Loomis NRX and Shimano Stella 3000; even the small blues pull a little drag. After I had my fill of snapper blues, I figured I'd try throwing a lively mullet into the hole where I lost a larger fish earlier in the afternoon.
Soon after my bait hit the water, I felt the snappers chomping at the tail so I let it sink and worked what I'm assuming was half a mullet back along the current seam towards the rock pile. Right before my retrieve was complete I got whacked and my drag started peeling. By this time, the tide had risen considerably and it probably wasn't in my best interest to be fishing on the rocks barefooted. The fish on the end of the line took me around the tip of the jetty and I was having problems maneuvering on the wet rocks. After a few good runs, I gained control and saw the fish surface just a few feet away from the rock pile: it was a redfish! I didn't want to chance losing it on the rocks, so I walked it down to the pocket and landed it on the beach.
I picked up the 25-inch red and admired its beauty. The copper-colored drumfish had a distinct black dot and a brilliant blue tail. I've caught redfish in New Jersey before, but it's always special to cross paths with this great game fish. They put up a great battle, are pleasing to look at, and taste great on the dinner table. After a few pictures, I couldn't help but to think it was a redfish that I lost earlier in the day.
New Jersey regulations on red drum are one fish per day between 18 and 27 inches with no closed season. You read that right, if you're fortunate enough to catch a 50-inch red drum, you cannot keep it! I guess the state record is safe. While the regulations might seem tight, I believe they are one of the main reasons we're beginning to see reds return to our waters. Reports of redfish are increasing each season and it's not just in Cape May County. Just in the last few days, I heard reports of multiple redfish catches in Long Beach Island waters.
Looking back, we managed to squeeze a week's worth of fun into a three-day weekend. The wife and kids had a great time and everything worked out perfectly; well, I guess I could have had my rod with me during the blitz, but the redfish helped me get over that. Our summer definitely went out with a bang!
As coastal anglers, it's safe to say that most of us are anticipating a great fall run, but why rush it? The truth is, many of the summer species remain in our waters and will continue to hang around for at least another month. No matter how much we want the striped bass run to begin, it's at the very least, a solid month away. Sure, the mullet are beginning to make their way towards the inlets, but for every striped bass chasing those mullet, there are a 1000 snapper bluefish. With a little over a week left in the summer flounder season and a solid showing of 12 to 26-inch weakfish, I'm not in any rush to say goodbye to the summer season.
A late-summer sunrise over Cape May Harbor
I hope anglers plan on taking advantage of the unexpected, extra eight days added to this year's summer flounder season. It's rare to receive bonus time on any type of species, so I'm looking forward to at least another trip or two. Flatfish action remains good at many of the local wreck and reef sites. For those of us that are old enough to remember a time before summer flounder had a season, we know that those wrecks and reefs hold fluke well into October. Ocean conditions look a little sporty for much of the week, but the forecasters are expecting calmer seas by the weekend. If the weather prediction is right, I may spend the next few days live-lining some mullet around some of my favorite inlet rock piles. Those big flatties love mullet! I'm hoping to be back out on the wrecks and reefs by Friday or Saturday.
The party boat fun isn't over yet!
Once I'm done with the flatfish, I would be a fool not to take advantage of some of the best weakfish action of the season. Late-September and October nights offer incredible weakfish action. Our backwaters are chock-full of peanut bunker, spearing, and mullet and those speckled beauties are hot on their tails. Most seasons, the late-summer/early-fall push of weakfish run on the small side, but over the last few seasons, numbers of 3 to 5-pound weakfish seem to be increasing steadily. If we happen to find some decent striper action while targeting weakies and I'm certain we will, no one will be complaining.
I spent last Tuesday, September 10, enjoying a summer day at Hereford Inlet. I did some scouting around and everything I experienced felt like summer. I fished a few of my favorite fishing holes and caught tons of small spot, sea robins, sea bass, bluefish, and kingfish. I took in a little sun and enjoyed a few hours boogie-boarding in the 75-degree surf. The day was incredibly enjoyable as fishing action was great, even if they were on the small side. There were quite a few anglers out and about and most seemed content with the small bluefish and kingfish they were catching.
A Hereford Inlet kingfish
On the way home, I stopped in a few of the local bait and tackle shops and heard some talk about mullet. Since my visit a few days ago, talk about mullet has increased and should continue to do so as we approach the full moon on September 19. With a cold front passing today and a little NE wind forecast for tomorrow, things could get interesting along our inlet jetties. As great as all this sounds, we can't ignore the fact that water temperatures are above 70 degrees along much of our coastline. I'm sure some resident bass will take advantage of the departing mullet, but I seriously doubt that we'll be experiencing any monumental fishing action in our area. In my opinion, most of the mullet leave a little too early to expect any real widespread striper action. There was a time when a September mullet run meant something in our area, but it's been years since we've seen newsworthy striped bass action in September. If only those mullet could hang around into October and November, then, we'd have something to talk about.
Honestly, I don't blame anyone for looking forward to the fall run, especially after last season's unforgettable Super-storm Sandy. Many anglers, including yours truly, hung up the gear after Sandy and the nor'easters that followed. A fall without fishing just didn't feel right, but I felt lucky as missing a fall's fishing run was minuscule when compared to some of the devastation others had to endure. Just days before Sandy rolled through, we were into an incredible weakfish bite. After the storm hit, fishing was the furthest thing from my mind as I watched friends struggle to get their lives back in order.
Mornings we all dream about
Looking back, not fishing last fall has allowed me to appreciate the sport I cherish much more. I find myself enjoying each fishing trip, even if the results aren't impressive. Thoughts of blitz-type fishing with schools of bass and blues on mullet, peanut bunker, or sand eels is every anglers dream. My heart rate increases just thinking about it, but as much as I'm looking forward to the fall run, I'm going to enjoy every bit of summer that I can!
Summer flounder action is heating up along our reef and wreck sites! Fishing reports are pouring in from all over as bottom-bouncing anglers fill their fish boxes with tasty fillets. The season has been extended an extra eight days until September 24, so there's still plenty of time to plan a trip or two. With a little luck and some decent weather, the last few weeks of the 2013 summer flounder season could be magical.
As a backwater angler, I take a little time away from the saltwater scene during most of July and August. The fishing action generally seems to be a little slower and to tell you the truth, the thought of beach-going crowds makes me cringe. Usually, local freshwater action holds my interest, but I needed an escape from largemouth bass and lily pads.
Salty air and a trip on a head boat to fish over some rough bottom is just what I needed. Believe it or not, I have a lot of fond memories about fishing along the party boat rails. It's been a couple of years since I fished on a head boat, but the Cape May-based Porgy IV came to mind as I feel like Captain Paul is one of the best in the business.
My buddy, Dave, and I agreed to head out on Friday, August 16 as the weather and ocean conditions looked superb. We arrived in Cape May at 6:30 AM and were a little surprised to see so many anglers already lined up, especially in the bow and stern. When we were a little younger, we would put our rods on the boat around midnight and fish the back bays until sunrise, but we're a little older and softer now. We grabbed our gear and set up on the starboard side just a few feet from the stern.
Early-morning full boat
With our rods tied to the rail, we walked over to the Lobster House and ordered breakfast. The eggs, toast, potatoes, and orange juice hit the spot. I've had breakfast at all the local eateries, but the Lobster House's Luncheonette gets my vote. After our meal, we walked across the street to Jim's Bait and Tackle to pick up a few rigs and some ice for our cooler. Before we knew it, it was closing in on 8 AM, the boat was full, and we could hear the roar of the engine.
Rigged and ready
When we fish for fluke with Captain Paul, we're used to making a hard right at the inlet with a south heading set for the Old Grounds, but on this day, we headed almost straight east to fish what I assume was the Cape May Reef – head-boat captains never seem to like talking about their fishing spots. With word of good fishing action at the Wildwood and Cape May reef sites, I wasn't too surprised that we headed east – if nothing else, at least the ride was a little shorter.
As Cape May slowly disappeared along the horizon, we double checked our rigs and shared a few fishing stories with some of the other patrons while the mates collected fares and prepared bait for our day on the water. I always enjoy watching the old-timers break out their secret rigs and magic baits. Everyone was pleasant and a joy to be around; it was a good crowd.
Well-prepared bait boats
When we approached the fishing grounds, we could make out what looked like a small city. It turned out to be a fleet of boats that were already into a good pull of flatties. Our captain decided to fish alone, just a little south of the fleet. The boat provided an ample amount of squid, fluke belly, and mackerel strips to bait our hooks. I dropped my green, mylar rig down to the bottom and was into fluke right from the first drop. We caught so many short fluke, I wondered if a keeper-sized flatfish would ever get a shot at our baits. I saw a few other patrons land keepers, but I was stuck in shortyville. The action was great, but reeling up 8-ounces of lead and 16 to 17-inch fluke from the depths soon began to feel like work.
A few drifts and about a dozen throwbacks later, I finally had a better fish on. I got it about halfway up before it shook the hook. About ten minutes later, I had another solid take and put a near 20-inch fluke in the net. I continued to catch a bunch of short flatfish as I watched most of the boat pick away at keepers.
Finally a keeper!
Dave was busy with throwbacks for most of the morning. Right around lunchtime, he set the hook on what looked like a monster. After a well-spirited battle, we saw a belly-hooked, 20-inch flatfish on the surface. It wasn't the doormat we were hoping for, but it was another solid keeper. We played the throwback game for a little longer before Dave nailed two keepers on back-to-back drops on our last drift of the day.
Dave with a pair of his three keepers
When the final horn sounded most of the patrons had a flattie or two. I think high hook had four, but I'm not sure if that was a catch made by a couple of anglers. I didn't see any true doormats, but most of the keepers were thick 20-inch fish and the pool winner was pushing 5 pounds.
Our box of flatties
The mates made the rounds looking for pool fish, but we didn't have any quality fish to challenge the 5-pounder that was already on the hook. A few others were close and as it turned out, one was so close that two anglers split the pool money.
We drug our cooler to the cleaning table and watched as the mates filleted flounder after flounder. It's been a while since I had someone clean fish for me and it was a real treat. The guys were good and made quick work of the flatfish.
Looking back, there was nothing truly memorable about this trip, yet I found it incredibly enjoyable. My catch was far from spectacular; Dave did a little better, but we've experienced 100s of trips with better action. I guess part of it was the incredible weather and ocean conditions: air temps were about 75 degrees with a light breeze and wave heights were never more than two feet. The patrons came from all walks of life; yet, we got along like we knew each other for years. Tangles were at a minimum, even with a full boat, so it seemed like everyone knew at least enough to not ruin anyone's trip. Everyone was there to have a good time and that's just what we did. I have a feeling I'll be back out on the big boat again later this week.
Why do so many of us make fishing more complicated than it is? Over the last few days, I've hit many of the local freshwater fishing holes with my two youngest kids and I've learned a lot by watching and listening to them. Some of our recent experiences have me questioning what it means to be a good angler; maybe fishing is a little easier than I thought it was?
Much of the 2013 summer season has been tough as it seemed like we had one of two weather options: heavy rains or near 100-degree air temperatures. Thankfully, it seems like we've broken the pattern and better days are ahead of us. Sunshine-filled days in the 80s are welcome as we're all dying to get out on the water.
Fortunately, I have the luxury of spending the summer with my kids and they like fishing enough to tag along with their old man. While my youngsters put in an effort on most trips, more times than not, they're goofing around until their rod bends. We always have a good time, but I can't count the times I wondered, "How do they get so lucky?"
On a recent trip, my 11-year-old son, Jake, joined me for the day at a local, public lake. Most of the time, we'll start by fishing the spillway creek as the moving water creates oxygen and a better environment for summertime fishing. Some of these little holes are so full of fish you could scoop them up in your hands. As soon as our bait touches the water, a fish is on the hook. After a few fish are caught, they seem to grow even more aggressive as they go into feeding mode and become highly competitive. Our bait container was a few feet over by the first hole so I wanted to show Jake how we didn't need bait to catch these fish. I grabbed a small green leaf from an overhanging tree and put a little piece on my hook. Sure enough, I had a sunfish on just seconds after my offering hit the water. Jake followed along and quickly started catching fish on whatever he grabbed and threaded onto his hook. Soon after, we were hooking sunfish on bare hooks and laughing about those "stupid fish."
Jake working the spillway
Later that afternoon, we made our way over to another lake. It was my first time at this venue so I worked the perimeter to see what the structure looked like. Jake sat by the spillway and happily caught sunfish after sunfish on worms. As I moved a little further away, I could hear Jake yelling or singing; I wasn't sure what he was doing, but whatever it was grabbed my attention. I headed back over to the spillway just in enough time to see him hoist a nice-sized largemouth bass onto the bank. He looked at me with a big smile and said, "Dad, this bass just ate a little piece of grass I put on the hook." We both started laughing and admired the bass for a few seconds before I took a few pictures and sent it on its way.
Jake's grass bass
After Jake released his bass, I wondered about the guy that fished a half-hour in the very same location with all kinds of fancy equipment and caught nothing. I couldn't help but think about how "lucky" Jake was to catch that bass. We all know sunfish aren't difficult to catch, but I know lots of guys, including myself, that spend a ton of money on fancy lures for largemouth bass, while my 11-year-old son is here catching them on a little blade of grass that he plucked from the bank of the lake.
Catching fish on a variety of offerings doesn't come as any earth-shaking headline, but I think some of us may take fishing and ourselves a little too seriously sometimes, I know I have. We've caught weakfish and striped bass on bare lead heads, tog on soft-plastic baits, and largemouth bass, perch, and pickerel on banana peels. I'm not suggesting that it's a preferred way to fish for these species, although I may be onto something with the banana peels, but it does provide enough evidence that fishing isn't always rocket science.
Now, this may ruffle a few feathers, but honestly, how much skill does it take to throw a bunker chunk or clam 30 yards into the suds. I know lots of anglers that feel like they're "special" because they caught a big striper on a clam or bunker chunk. You could take it as step further and add the diehard jetty guys, as I'm aware of quite a few rock piles that only require an angler to be there and toss plugs, almost aimlessly, into the water. The same could be said about most other types of fish, no matter the location.
Frankie's big catch wasn't so difficult thanks to a tip from a friend
Don't get me wrong, there are times, lots of times, when fishing seems so specialized that a PhD may be required. Nothing will ever compare to the knowledge and experience gained from time on the water, but I'm beginning to think those types of anglers are slowly dwindling.
For every angler out there finding a bite and putting their time in, there are probably a hundred others waiting for his or her report. It doesn't seem to be so much about what you know as it does about where and who you know. For example, I can't imagine my children are better anglers than I was, yet they've caught 100 times the fish I caught at their age. As a young boy, I fished all day, every day and if for some reason I couldn't be on the water, I'd be watching fishing shows or reading magazines about fishing. My kids catch more fish than I did at their age simply because I put them in the right locations at the right times.
Julia hooked a good one
So is fishing really that difficult? I guess it depends on whom you ask. For me, fishing was difficult as I learned mostly on my own with a little help from Jimmy Houston, Roland Martin, and Field and Stream. If you ask my kids, fishing is easy. As I'm writing this, I asked Jake if fishing was difficult and he responded with a smile and quick, "No." When I asked him why he felt that fishing was easy he said, "Because you show me what to do and I do it." It's summertime and the fishin's easy; well, at least it is for some of us.
Before each season begins, I make a small to-do list to expand my experiences and knowledge in the great sport of fishing. Besides the normal goals of 50-pound striped bass and 10-pound largemouth bass, I throw in some new techniques and species to expand my horizons. This year there were two things at the top of my list: kayak fishing in saltwater and catching snakeheads. The saltwater-kayak trips were checked off the list months ago with more than a few back-bay trips and a surf launch under my belt. It's time to talk snakeheads.
Like most anglers, I heard the rumors about the invasive northern snakeheads in some of our local waters, so I felt like it was time for me to find out what these so-called "frankenfish" were all about. Before my first trip, I did some research and found lots of interesting information. Much to my surprise, many of the rumors turned out to be true. Northern snakeheads are a freshwater species native to China, Korea, and Russia. They can reach 40 inches in length or better and are obligate air breathers – they must breath air or they will suffocate. Snakeheads have an impressive set of teeth and feed mostly on other fish, frogs, and on occasion, small animals such as rats and young birds. Parent fish are extremely aggressive and have been known to sacrifice themselves to protect their young. Snakeheads can live on land for up to four days, provided they are wet and they've been known to wriggle their bodies and fins or "walk" as far a quarter mile!
With my interests peaked, I made my way to one of the more well-known snakehead areas along Little Mantua Creek. Upon my arrival, I ran into another angler and asked a bunch of questions. I didn't get much useful information other than, "You'll see ‘em all over out there." I headed to the water and was greeted by snakeheads milling about in open water. I couldn't believe what I was seeing, they were all over! I dropped my gear and started casting at them.
About an hour later, my high hopes were quickly dashed as cast after cast came back untouched; there's nothing more frustrating than seeing fish that you can't catch. On more than one occasion, I watched as snakeheads jumped out of the water and onto the rocks beneath me. I couldn't help but to question everything I read about these incredibly aggressive fish; why weren't they attacking my baits? After a few frustrating hours, I returned to my car with my tail between my legs.
Luke Dautel with one of many he caught back in early June
That evening, I read so much about snakeheads my head was spinning. Everything I read seemed to contradict what I had experienced out on the water. According to the experts, snakeheads preferred slow-moving waters surrounded by lily pads or other types of structure. The particular area I was fishing had heavy current and little-to-no structure, but the snakeheads were all over. I had a hard time sleeping that night, but I would be back again to try in the morning.
The next morning, I packed every lure I could think of into my bag and returned for round two. Once I settled back at the water's edge, I could see snakeheads jumping in the current, coming up for air, and swimming back and forth in front of me. I started with buzz-baits and top-water lures, but the snakeheads seemed to be spooked by my offerings. I switched lures a bunch of times before I finally had a hit on a Blue Fox Vibrax spinner. I missed the hit and tossed that spinner for another hour before trying my old standby, a Zoom Super Fluke. Minutes later, I had a solid swipe, hooked up, and after a spirited battle, I landed my first snakehead.
It wasn't easy, but I killed the snakehead as instructed by New Jersey's Fish and Wildlife regulations. It was the first time I killed a fish just to kill it. Eating the fish is not a viable option as I won't eat fish from those waterways and I don't know anyone that will. I've caught a handful of snakeheads over the last few weeks and although I've killed each one, it's becoming a little more difficult with every catch. At first, killing the fish was an easy decision, but the more I learn about these so-called "frankenfish" the more I'm beginning to appreciate them.
Lots of snakeheads die on these rocks
I spoke with the Division's principal fisheries biologist, Chris Smith, and was told to keep killing the snakeheads as they're quickly reproducing and expanding their range. Snakehead catch reports are increasing substantially along the Delaware River tributaries, especially from Salem to Trenton. Their range also seems to be moving east as Chris passed along information about a snakehead reported at the Harrisonville Lake spillway. When I asked Chris about the Division's plans concerning snakeheads, he said there wasn't much the state could do other than rely on anglers to keep them in check.
In the last few weeks, I covered lots of ground and to my surprise I found snakeheads in almost every body of water I explored. Even in the muddiest of water, they are easy to spot because they have to come up for air. With a noted aggressive nature, I found their behavior questionable most of the time. I still have so many questions to answer: maybe their behavior has something to do with the tremendous amount of rain we've had this month? Were they spawning? Maybe they just aren't that easy to catch?
Snakeheads live here
Indeed, I have much to learn about snakeheads, but I'm starting to believe the hype has more bark than bite. I fished some very hard-to-get-to waters and watched as snakeheads, largemouth bass, sunfish, carp, and small baitfish seemed to live in harmony. The one thing I can tell you for sure is that I've enjoyed fishing for snakeheads and they are a blast once you get them to take the hook. For better or worse, I have a feeling these fish are here to stay.
Fishing opportunities in our area couldn't be much better than they are right now! Despite fluctuating water temperatures and what seems like a never-ending south wind, fishing action remains solid. Not only are striped bass, weakfish, summer flounder, and bluefish more than willing to bend a rod, but in the last few weeks, we've seen kingfish, croakers, spot, sea bass, and blowfish join the party. Throw in some amazing freshwater fishing opportunities and I'm left wondering, what more could you ask for?
According to NOAA, the current water temperature in Atlantic City is 56.3 degrees while the Cape May station is reporting a balmy 69.3 degrees. The weekend heat wave was a little taste of summer, but the long-range forecasts have our area in the 70s for much of the rest of the month. Perhaps the water-temperature roller coaster will slow down and we'll experience some cooler, stable weather that should make fishing action much more predictable.
In spite of the persistent south wind, the spring weakfish run continues to impress anglers. Many of our young anglers are experiencing those head-shaking, drag-pulling runs for their very first time. After some down years, it's great to see good numbers of weakfish around again.
Most of my free time has been spent chasing weakfish and I haven't been disappointed. I've found the speckled beauties in all of their old haunts. Kayaking creek mouths for weakies continues to be productive, especially during the outgoing tides. Action along the ocean and bayside rock piles has been outstanding; the early-morning/late-afternoon bite continues to be predictable and worthwhile. During the night tides, good numbers of weakfish are gathering around sod banks, mussel beds, fishing piers, bridge pilings, and other types of hard structure.
When I'm targeting weakfish, I usually start with a ¼ to ½ ounce jig head and a bubblegum-colored soft plastic. While I find the light, lead-head and pink plastic work most of the time, there are some areas where I'll switch it up. In dirty water, I've had more success tossing rattling plugs and paddle-tail soft plastics. Dark-colored swimming plugs work well when fishing at night along the sod banks. When I'm fishing from the rock piles, it's tough to beat a bucktail: a small, white bucktail tipped with a pink plastic or a purple, fire-tail worm is deadly when fished from the Cape May County rock piles. When talking about weakfish at the rock piles, I'd be foolish not to mention bobbers and bloodworms. As hard as it may be to believe, the bobber and bloodworm combination is incredibly simple and extremely effective.
Weakfish at the Rock Piles
It's been tough to pull myself away from the weakfish, but I made my first attempt at ocean kayaking last Friday, May 31. With reports of monster striped bass and bluefish under acres of bunker, I couldn't help accepting an offer from a good friend. We met at sunrise at Ortley Beach and began scanning the horizon for signs of life. With calm conditions, we continued north stopping every few blocks to look for action. We covered some ground and finally found what we were looking for just north of Shark River Inlet. The water was chilly and launching our kayaks into the waves was definitely a lot more invigorating than my freshwater and backwater adventures. After paddling through a substantial wave, I found myself out in a good swell surrounded by acres of bunker. Snagging bunker was incredibly easy; however, we couldn't find anything willing to eat our impaled bunker. After a couple hours without any action we decided to head back, but not before two humpback whales sounded off about 20 yards from our kayaks! As a backwater angler for most of my life, the whale sighting gave me an incredible adrenaline rush; it was an experience I'll never forget. The pair of whales came up a few more times before they continued south down along the beachfront. Although we didn't find any bass or blues, I still consider my first ocean kayak trip a success. I'm already looking forward to calm seas and my next ocean adventure.
Acres of Bunker
With so much to do and so little time, I've been neglecting the flatfish. I've been catching a few here and there while fishing for weakfish, but I have plans to drift the back bays later this week. Reports have been good and I expect the flatties to hang around in the skinny water for at least a few more weeks before they start heading towards the inlets. The weather forecast looks favorable for backwater trips all week and I plan on taking advantage of it.
That's Not a Weakie!
While I've been busy chasing weakfish and playing in my kayak, some of my South Jersey surfcaster buddies have been clamming up some trophy striped bass. The bite hasn't been easy, but diehard anglers continue to make impressive catches. Sean Hillegass stole the spotlight with his 52.2-pound trophy striped bass. I watched Sean grow up: even though it was years ago, it seems like just yesterday I was watching him ride his BMX up onto the bridge for the late-night bass bite. Congratulations buddy, you deserved that fish!
Sean's 52.2-pound Beast
In between my saltwater fishing adventures, I still manage to find time to hit the local sweet-water fishing holes. The other day, I had the pleasure of fishing with my youngest son, Jake, and his buddy, Joey. It was Joey's first fishing trip so we wanted to show him how much fun fishing can be. We dug some worms in the backyard and then headed over to Wilson Lake at Scotland Run Park. The boys caught tons of sunfish and a few nice-sized largemouth bass. Joey had a blast and I think Jake might have a new fishing buddy. I'm looking forward to spending lots of time on the water with the boys this summer.
They're back! Weakfish are popping up all over: reports of 3 to 6-pound weakfish are making headlines along much of the northeast coast. The numbers and sizes of fish may not compare to the glory days, but there are certainly more weakfish around than we've seen in the last few years. Most anglers targeting weakfish are catching them in impressive numbers, while others are pleasantly surprised by weakfish at the end of their lines when fishing for striped bass, bluefish, or summer flounder. Let's hope this is just the beginning of a tremendous success story similar to what we've witnessed with the striped bass years ago.
The Glory Days
I don't know where to start. Ok here we go: my name is Frank Ruczynski and I'm a weakfish junkie. I do crazy things that most "normal" people would never dream of in order to catch "a fish." My wife and kids know that I'm not quite right, but even more so during the month of May - they've learned to deal with it; God bless them. Thoughts of tackle-testing tiderunners and a serious case of sleep deprivation often make it difficult for me to concentrate on much else; it took an unbelievable amount of willpower to stay in today so I could catch up on household responsibilities and my blog. During the little bit of sleep I receive, I often wake up to a hook-setting jolt. Once I realize the bite I just set the hook on was just a dream, I'm disappointed and usually can't get back to sleep. To most people it's just "a fish," but fishing for weakfish is one of the things I enjoy most on the planet.
Twenty years ago, when I first started fishing, those fanged-backwater beauties were abundant. I guess you could say weakfish taught me how to fish. In those days, tiderunner weakfish were the talk of the town as striped bass were talked about in a past tense only. At that time, a 10-pound tiderunner was the mark that most of us aimed for, however as the years passed our expectations went up as we continued to catch larger and larger weakfish.
Not Long Ago, Weakfish Like This Were Caught Every Spring
Since then, we've watched the population crash as those great year classes expired. We'd have some hope as schools of spike weakfish would show up here and there in the late summer/early fall season, but the action was sporadic at best.
Recently, we've seen lots of promising signs. It started a few years ago when we were tossing our cast nets for mullet and peanut bunker, but came up with tons of 4 to 6-inch weakies. The next season, we had a nice run of 12 to 16-weakfish. Last spring, we saw a fair amount of weakfish with many in the 18 to 22-inch class. The fall was amazing as we had tremendous numbers of 2 to 4-pound weakfish until Superstorm Sandy put an end to the fun. So the spring push of weakfish isn't much of a surprise, but it sure is welcome. With stories of the striped bass demise, I watched the weakfish dwindle with my own eyes, and storms like Sandy hitting our coast, I take nothing for granted. Enjoy the great fishing while you can!
They're Back and Getting Bigger!
This season, I've mixed two of the things I love the most together: spending time on my kayak and fishing for weakfish. I'm still fairly new to the whole kayak scene as I've spent most of the last two seasons floating in the sweetwater. What can I say? I'm like an old boy scout, I like to be prepared. With plenty of freshwater kayaking experiences under my belt, I felt the time was right to get the little plastic boat salty. I've been out a bunch in the last two weeks with great results.
On my first time out, I had one of the best weakfish action trips in years. Everything went according to plan, even with east winds blowing at close to 20 mph. The current wasn't nearly as bad as I expected and I was extremely comfortable on my Wilderness Systems Tarpon 120. I caught over 20 weakfish and went home with a smile from ear to ear.
Return trips haven't been as good as my first trip, but I haven't come home disappointed yet. I've been fishing early mornings, but I think I'm ready for a night trip soon. Most of the weakfish are in the 20 to 24-inch range, but I had a bunch up to 26 inches and one the other day that was pushing 30 inches. With striped bass, bluefish, and summer flounder thrown in, I feel like I've died and gone to heaven.
My Little Piece of Heaven
None of my close friends have kayak fever yet, but I have a feeling it's only a matter of time. Fortunately, I met up with a bunch of good guys on my last few trips. Dan Tholen from Lacy Marine has been a pleasure to fish with and seems to have this kayak thing down to a science. The early-morning kayak crew sure seems much more pleasant than some of my old, bridge-running acquaintances.
I'm stuck in weakfish gear, but there are lots of other great fishing opportunities to take advantage of now. The striped bass run is picking up and should pop just about any day now. Just in the last few days, I've heard reports of a number of big linesiders out front between Cape May and Long Beach Island. Bluefish seem to be just about everywhere as do an incredible amount of blowfish. Yes, I said blowfish; they are invading our waterways and are pretty good at stealing bait. Let's not forget that summer flounder season kicks off this Saturday, May 18th. Maybe I'll pull myself away from the weakies for a few days; fresh fluke fillets sure sound tasty.
Ok, it's time to catch up. I'm not sure if this week's blog will be up to par as my brain may not be fully functional due to a serious lack of sleep, but I'll do my best. The last two weeks are a bit of a blur. With brook, brown, and rainbow trout in the local watering holes, largemouth bass on the beds, weakfish and bluefish invading the bays, and the spring striper run in full swing, who has time for sleep? I've been fishing day and night and I love every minute of it!
Fishing Day and Night
Even when I'm not fishing, I spend a tremendous amount of time outside. Over the years, I've noticed some connections between nature and fish migrations/patterns. Little things like certain flowers blooming or a particular animal sighting, often correlate to fishing action in some way. Some of the old timers swear when the dogwood trees bloom, weakfish enter the bay. One of my triggers is frogs: each spring, the first night I hear the spring peepers singing, I call my buddies and say it's time to catch stripers. My best weakfish action usual coincides just days after the cherry blossoms fall off the trees.
You See Cherry Blossoms, I See Weakfish
Closer to the water, many of us use diving birds as a sure cue of an ongoing blitz, but there are other, more subtle, hints to finding fish if you keep your eyes open and your mind working. I feel like night herons are my personal little fish finders. If I walk up to a marina with fifty slips, the herons are always perched above the most productive holes. The night herons feed on little fish much like our backwater striped bass, bluefish, weakfish, and summer flounder so it only makes sense that they would show up in the same areas. Good anglers have one thing in common: they pay attention to every detail in their environment and use what they learn to catch more fish.
The sweet water trout bite hasn't been very complicated, when you see the big truck and the guys with nets, it's probably a good time to fish. Fishing for stocked trout might not be the most challenging or rewarding way to fish, but it sure is a great way to spend a day with my boys. The state stocks a bunch of lakes within minutes of our house and I just can't pass up a truckload of trout on a beautiful 70-degree day.
Time for Trout
Last Thursday was Take Your Child to Work Day and as luck would have it, the hatchery truck was due to hit our local lake on the same day! Jake and I packed up our gear and headed to Harrisonville Lake for the day. The guys stocked the spillway with brookies and the lake with rainbows and a few brown trout. After I took a few photos, Jake and I started working spinners in the spillway and had beautiful brookies on almost every cast for a good hour before we moved over to the main lake. Within minutes, we had rainbows chasing down our double-bladed spinners. With a total of five guys fishing the entire waterway, 400 trout was more than enough to keep us busy for the afternoon.
Another Great Day with Jake
While the trout trips are fun, it's the saltwater action that keeps me up at night. With some bigger bass and weakfish popping up, it's tough for me to not spend every minute in the water. Fishing action has been good and it should get much better in the coming weeks. The recent full moon and what seems like a never-ending, east wind didn't help the weakfish bite, but the stripers didn't seem to mind. Some better-sized bass moved into the backwater and they've been a blast on light tackle.
Skinny Water Fun
I feel like I'm surrounded by stripers: they're in the rivers, bays, and surf. I try to do it all, but I usually find myself leaning towards the backwater bite. While I prefer to fish with light tackle in the backwaters, you can bet I'll be out front when the big girls come out of the bay.
Local surfcaster, John Jones has been hitting the suds and bay shores with his son Jimmy. The Jones boys have been plugging the bay shores in the evenings and surf fishing with clams during the day. They've been catching good numbers of 25 to 34 inch fish. My son, Frankie, and I have the back covered. We've landed lots of schoolies and a few keeper bass up to 37 inches on jigs and soft-plastic baits. As fun as it is to be on the water, it's ten times better when you can share the adventures with your offspring.
The Next Generation
If you haven't been out yet, it's time to grab your gear and get out there! Fishing action is good and getting better everyday. It's time to put on the waders; you know where I'll be.
Wow, we've come a long way since two weeks ago when I posted my last blog entry. Before the recent warm up, most of us were beginning to wonder if winter would ever end as we set record lows and struggled to reach 40 degrees for daytime highs. I don't think anyone could have imagined such a change in the weather pattern: from 30s and 40s to 80s and 90s? I still have a hard time believing the mercury hit 90 degrees on Wednesday afternoon. This type of up-and-down weather rollercoaster usually makes for unpredictable fishing action, but the recent spike in air temps may have been just the kick start we needed to get things going!
Like most anglers, I have striped bass on my mind, but I've been spending most of my free time chasing pre-spawn largemouth bass and brook trout. Over the last few days, freshwater action exploded and it's been tough to pull myself away from the great action. The warm up has been much more noticeable for inland residents than it has for our coastal residents. On Wednesday afternoon, a little sea breeze dropped air temps into the low 50's while it was close to 90 degrees in most of our inland towns. I choose to enjoy the summer-like weather at my local lakes and ponds in shorts and t-shirts versus throwing on a hooded sweatshirt and heading to the chilly coast in search of linesiders.
Inland versus Coastal Temperature
Last Saturday, April 6, marked the opening day of trout season in New Jersey. Trout season is in full swing as many of our local lakes, ponds, and rivers have been inundated with brook, rainbow, and brown trout. Since the initial preseason stocking, many of the same bodies of water have already received their second round of fish. Some of my favorite venues will be stocked again next week, April 15 - 19 and then one more time during week 3, April 22 – 26. There's plenty of trout for everyone!
NJ Trout Stocking
John Jones with a Big Brown Trout
Fortunately, I live in an area that's surrounded by lakes and ponds, many of which are stocked by the state. The same waters that resembled a mob scene on opening day are often quiet and peaceful on the restocking dates. I enjoyed fishing at three different lakes in the last three days and the trout action was great at each stop. To be honest, most of the recently stocked fish are on the small side, but I truly enjoy tossing spinners to those beautiful, little brook trout.
Brook Trout - Speckled Jewels
Before the trout stole my attention, I kept busy with largemouth bass and chain pickerel. After years of bugging my buddy, Dave, to try a kayak trip, we finally made it happen. On Monday, we loaded up the little plastic boats and made our way to Black Water Sports Center to pick up some minnows. I had plans to hit Willow Grove Lake as I figured the shallow water would warm quickly making it a great time to fish the massive stump fields.
Just minutes from the shop, we arrived at the lake and readied the yaks for a day on the water. I had fished Willow Grove from the shoreline, but never from a kayak, so I didn't have any experience to share with Dave about the lake. As we entered the lake, neither of us could believe how cold the water felt, but we continued on with high hopes. Dave paddled around for a few minutes and quickly got the feel of the kayak. We paddled up one side of the lake and never found more than a foot of water, but we did see lots of small pickerel shooting along the flats. We caught a few toothy chains and then moved along in hopes of finding deeper water and some largemouth bass.
Plenty of Pickerel
As it turned out, we never found deeper water, but we did find plenty of hungry bass! Dave and I placed our kayaks on the edge of the stump field and watched as hungry bass and pickerel exploded on 6 to 8-inch shiners. Hooking 2 to 5-pound bass in inches of water makes for a great fight and some incredible visuals: when you're sitting in a kayak and a bass jumps, its right at eye level. As the day went on, the wind picked up a little, but we continued to catch fish steadily throughout the afternoon.
Hefty Largemouth Bass
Dave handled the kayak like a pro and we caught lots of fish, but that was only part of the experience. While on the water, we witnessed some great sites: turtles sunned themselves, great egrets and blue herons stalked the shallows, ospreys dove into the water to grab pickerel, and a small flock of swans flew overhead for most of the day. It was a trip neither of us will soon forget and a sure sign that spring has sprung!
I wish I had some better news to share, but the truth is March hasn't been much different than January or February. Most of "Marchuary," consisted of snow showers, daytime air temps in the low to mid-40s, and a steady dose of 15 to 20-mph wind. The immediate future isn't looking much better with a coastal storm due on Monday and high temperatures forecast below 50 right through the end of the month. There may be some light at the end of the tunnel as most of the long-range forecasters are expecting a sizable warm-up in April. I guess it can't stay cold forever.
Most years, we don't see consistent action until April; however, it doesn't stop some of us from trying. Sure, there are some localized areas that are known for early-season action, but the bulk of the fish don't arrive until April. If you haven't fished yet, you're not missing much. Even though it may not feel like spring, the coastal water temperatures are just about on target for this time of year.
NOAA Coastal Water Temperature
Despite less-than-favorable conditions, more than a few striped bass have been caught this season. Most of the reports are coming from anglers fishing at the warm-water discharge, but there has been some action in our backwaters, too. Shallow bays and river mouths are yielding linesiders, even though most of the action has been fairly inconsistent. The Delaware River water temperature at Philadelphia is currently below 40 degrees, yet anglers are catching striped bass on bloodworms. The ball's rolling; we just need a little warm up to initiate some serious action.
Between the recent weather and a nasty virus that went through the family, my time on the water has been limited. I have a couple of trips under my belt, but I have a lot of making up to do! As usual, we started at midnight on March 1. My son, Frankie, and his friend, Kyle, joined me in hopes of returning with our first linesider of the year. As it turned out, we did more driving than fishing and ended up with nothing to show for the night but some laughs. We enjoyed our time together, but it was a bit of a disappointment after the great start we experienced last season.
I waited what seemed like forever (about two weeks) before heading out again. I saw a weather window last Friday night (3/15) and made the most of it. I fished the dropping tide with soft-plastic baits and caught three stripers up to 26 inches. The fish weren't very aggressive and I only saw one pop on the surface, so I felt lucky to land the three I did. With water temperatures in the low 40s, catching bass on artificial lures is never a sure thing. A keeper would have been nice, but I went home with numb fingers and a smile on my face.
First Striper of 2013!
Just because I haven't spent much time on the water doesn't mean I haven't been busy with fishing-related duties. Planning my assault is a never-ending task. I researched a ton of fishing gear, ordered a bunch of new tackle, rigged and polished two kayaks, and learned how to use my new GoPro: the remote control feature and iPhone app are great, even if they are still working out the bugs. I've spent a great deal of time preparing for the season so I won't have to waste time when the fishing action really picks up.
Bass Pro Delivery
One of the things I'm looking forward to the most this season is fishing new areas. I've studied my nautical charts and zoomed in on Google Earth enough to make me cross-eyed. As a land-based angler for most of my life, access to most of the fishy looking areas was always restricted. Having a kayak and feeling comfortable in it will allow me to explore areas that few others fish. I can't tell you how many times I heard thunderous splashes in the distance while stuck on a distant sod bank, bridge, or pier. If nothing else, I'm sure it'll be an adventure.
Yeah, yeah, I know what you're thinking, but the title of this week's blog doesn't have anything to do with the recent air temperatures or wind-chill factors. Despite the ongoing cold and windy weather pattern, we're just days away from a new fishing season: at midnight on March 1, striped bass season opens in our bays, rivers, and inlets. Even though fishing action usually starts off a little on the slow side, it will sure feel good to be back in the game!
The recent stretch of winter weather has kept me from hitting the local lakes and ponds. Instead, I've used my free time to prepare for the 2013 fishing season. Over the last few weeks, I've serviced and re-spooled reels, cleaned rods, organized tackle boxes, patched waders, tied rigs, practiced knots, studied charts, sharpened knives, set goals, purchased permits, registrations, and licenses. Believe it or not, I even have my iPhone tricked out to improve my time on the water. I am more prepared this season than I've been in my twenty-plus years of fishing and it feels good.
During the offseason, one of the things I look forward to the most is buying new gear. I do a lot of research before purchasing equipment. This season, I was fortunate enough to be enrolled in an Elite Purchase Program offered by Shimano, G.Loomis, and Power Pro. I ordered lots of new gear, but I'm especially looking forward to breaking in my new Stella/NRX and Sustain/GLX rod-and-reel combos. I'm also very happy with the new pair of Kennebec waders I purchased from LL Bean. I can't wait to test all my new gear out on the water!
As you may recall, last winter was one of the warmest on record and many of us ended up fishing straight through the winter months. A good number of striped bass remained active throughout the winter months. With my favorite backwater holes closed for striped bass, I chose to stay close to home and take advantage of some great freshwater action. By March, I changed over to stripers and had them popping up in all of my favorite early-season locales.
Things are a little different this season. Last winter was much warmer: I believe more than half of the days in February were over 50 degrees last year, while I'm pretty sure we've reached the 50-degree mark three times this month. I just checked the long-range forecast and I'm seeing a lot more 40's in our future. I think it's safe to say, it's not going to be so easy this season.
During the first week of the season, I'm sure we'll hear about a few linesiders caught by anglers plying the warm-water discharges, but most areas won't yield any solid action until mid-to-late March. I usually give the backwaters a shot or two before I head over to the Delaware River to catch some schoolies on bloodworms. By mid-March, the odds become much more favorable and by the end of the month, we usually have bass popping up all over.
Soaking Bloodworms in the Delaware River
This spring run is going to be special to me. After Superstorm Sandy, I realized that I took the fall run and coastal fishing in general for granted. I enjoy my time along the shorelines as much as anyone and it was, for the most part, taken away from us by one storm. I haven't visited my favorite places since last October and it feels like forever. I may live fifty miles inland, but those oceanfront beaches and back-bay sod banks are where I belong. The first fish of the year will mean a little more to me this season.
Usually by mid-January, I'm feeling the effects of cabin fever, but not this year! The recent warm-up has done wonders for the local fishing action and my soul. Our area lakes, ponds, and rivers are yielding good numbers of chain pickerel, yellow perch, black crappie, and largemouth bass. At the same time, coastal anglers continue to enjoy a fairly-consistent striped bass bite along the beachfront. As I see it, this is January fishing in South Jersey at its finest!
As one might expect, fishing took a backseat to family obligations during the holiday season. Once I had some free time to check out the nearby waterways, I was greeted with a coating of skim ice. Skim ice is an angler's worst enemy: you can't stand on it and you can't cast through it. When we were younger, we'd take the canoe out and break through the ice with our paddles, but I'm much older and not nearly as adventurous now. I ended up fishing a few of the local spillways, with limited success.
Thankfully, a week into the new year brought a little sunshine and some much warmer air temperatures. The skim ice quickly melted and I was able to hit my favorite fishing holes. I was greeted with some great action, especially on the flats. Believe it or not, the January sunshine can warm those mud-bottomed flats in just a few hours. After a few sun-filled afternoons, I began seeing baitfish jumping and predatory fish boiling on the surface: game on!
Some January Fun in the Sun
The mid-January bite was much better than I expected. While chain pickerel and yellow perch always seem to be willing participants, I was surprised to see largemouth bass and black crappies so active. Usually in cold water, a painfully-slow retrieve is required to draw a strike, so I couldn't believe how these fish were chasing down my 3-inch Berkley Gulp Minnow. I moved up to 5-inch Zoom Super Flukes and continued with great results.
Lots of Action
A few days into a steady bite, I received word that Blackwater Sports Center acquired a fresh shipment of lively minnows and I haven't put my rod down since! My son, Jake, and I took four-dozen minnows out over the weekend and had a blast, despite the dense fog and lower-than-forecasted air temperatures. The action has been fast and furious and to top it off, some monster crappies have joined the party.
Jake had his hands full with this slab crappie!
While I've been busy at the neighborhood hot spots, some of my fishing pals continue to beat up on the state-stocked rainbow trout. Spinners and mealworms took a few fish, but Berkley Powerbait is the go-to bait when the water temperature approaches 40 degrees. Those pretty rainbows should keep anglers busy right through the winter.
Jimmy Jones with a January Rainbow Trout
If freshwater fishing isn't your thing, it sounds like there are lots of saltwater options now, too. Party and charter boats are fishing over the deepwater wrecks and loading up on sea bass and tog. Closer to home, a few of my diehard, surf-fishing buddies are catching stripers on clams in Cape May County. Further north, rock-hopping anglers are catching striped bass on small plugs, teasers, and bucktails. According to the National Oceanographic Data Center, surf water temperatures are just about 44 degrees at Atlantic City and a balmy 48 degrees in Cape May.
As I write this, more-seasonable air temperatures have returned and the long-range forecast is looking rather grim. This weekend may be a little windy, but daytime high temperatures should be close to 50 degrees; if you want to get out and bend a rod, get out while you can! I have a feeling it won't be long before old man winter returns and freezes over our waterways again.
I'm not going to pretend that my recent freshwater trips compare to last year's epic striper run, but I've enjoyed my time at the local ponds and lakes a lot more than I could have ever imagined. Fortunately, rainbow trout, largemouth bass, chain pickerel, black crappie, and yellow perch have been more than willing to tug on the line. Over the last month, I've been fishing just about every day and much of the time with a bent rod.
My Morning Workout
Since Hurricane Sandy and the following nor'easter, I've decided to write off this season's fall run and stick close to home. I considered heading down a few times, but it just never felt right. The ocean water temperature dropped like a rock after the storms and I guess a part of me felt like I'd be in the way of people trying to put their lives back together. I keep telling myself next year's first striper will taste that much sweeter.
As it turns out, I think I made the right decision as I've learned much about our local waters and spent lots of time fishing with my family. Most of my prior freshwater experiences were based around the striper run: I'd fish the ponds and lakes in January through February and then again in July and August. Most seasons, we're striper fishing right up until the end of the year and then I start hitting the sweetwater soon after. I really didn't know what to expect from my local fishing holes as I'd usually be striper fishing in December. So I headed out with low expectations figuring if all else fails, I should be able to fool a few chain pickerel with soft-plastic baits and minnows.
On my first trip to a nearby, public lake, I was hooked! Largemouth bass, pickerel, crappie, and perch inhaled my offerings like they hadn't eaten in a month. To tell you the truth, I didn't think this kind of action was possible on public waters. Open-water fishing was a pleasure as I'm used to dealing with thick weed beds and lots of other anglers, but those weed beds are gone and on most days, I've got the whole lake to myself.
Hooked Up on My Rock
I've taken the kayak out a few times, but most of the time, I put on my waders and work the perimeter of the ponds and lakes. The flats warm up quickly on sunny days and seem to be holding some fish, but they're really schooled up along channel edges. Soft-plastic baits and small plugs accounted for a few fish, but live minnows can't be beat. Finding minnows in December isn't easy, but Blackwater Sports Center in Vineland always has them when I stop by.
Jen and I Having Fun in Our Waders
The size of the fish seems to depend on the species: most of the largemouth bass and crappies have been on the small side, but I've landed some very large perch and pickerel over the last few weeks. I took my personal-best pickerel the other day from a small, public lake. It took a big minnow and ran me up and down the shoreline before I finally pulled it onto the mudflat. It taped out at 31 inches and beat my previous best by a full inch. I felt like it was a real accomplishment, especially on 6-pound test monofilament.
Big Pickerel and Perch Are Available Throughout the Winter
Not only are there some trophy-sized fish available, but the number of fish landed per trip has been astonishing. On a two to three-hour trip, I've been averaging between twenty and fifty fish, most of which are pickerel and bass. There are a few locations that I can guarantee a fish on the first cast. I've shared the great action with all of my family members and a few friends. There are no tricks or tips, you just have to cast a minnow in the right location and wait for the line to start going out; with action like this, everyone has fun. I certainly wasn't expecting a predictable and dependable bite like this in late-December!
To top it off, there's still plenty of trout swimming in our local waters. The state-stocked trout always grab my attention even though they're just a bonus to some other great fishing opportunities. Beautiful rainbow trout have kept me busy since late November. The big trout have been chasing down spinners and small crank baits. If things get a little slow, a well-placed ball of Berkley PowerBait quickly gets the action going again. The winter stocking took place right before Thanksgiving, but the trout haven't received a lot of attention from anglers so they should be available throughout the winter months. The state hatchery does a great job and needs some feed back to continue improving the fishery. Please take a few minutes to fill out the New Jersey Trout Angler Survey - https://www.research.net/s/NJFishandWildlife2012troutsurvey
Trout fishing in South Jersey isn't like it used to be! Not long ago, if someone mentioned trout fishing, thoughts of 10 to 12-inch trout, overcrowded lakes, ponds, and streams came to mind. If you've fished on the opening day of trout season, you know what I'm talking about. I'm not knocking the spring fishery, but comparing the spring fishery to the fall fishery would be like comparing mice to men.
An Average Fall Brook Trout
The months of October and November offer South Jersey anglers incredible opportunities as super-sized trout are stocked into many of our local waterways. The fall and winter stockings consist of tackle-testing 14 to 24-inch brutes. Go ahead, bring your ultra-light combos loaded with 4-pound mono; these hook-jawed monsters will surely test your angling skills!
A Drag-Pulling Rainbow Trout
During the fall, I usually prefer saltwater fishing for striped bass, but with the recent coastal storms, I've decided to stay close to home at the local fishing holes. Whether I'm pounding the banks or out in the kayak, my time on the water has been incredibly enjoyable. Fishing for largemouth bass has been tough since the snow storm, but the trout fishing has been nothing short of outstanding.
The Calm After the Storm
I've enjoyed the great, fall-trout fishery since 2006, so I always make sure to circle the stocking dates on my calendar. As soon as I saw the date, I asked my 11-year-old son, Jake, if he'd like to tag along. He looked at me with the, "do you even have to ask" look and then came the difficult task of smoothing it over with mom as the stocking date fell on a school day. Not only did my lovely wife agree to let Jake play hookie, she decided to join us at the lake, too.
On the big day, we headed over to Hammonton Lake around 9:30 AM as the trout truck usually shows up between 10 and 11 AM. When we pulled up, I was happy to see just a few other anglers along the bank. Jake and I gathered our equipment and set up in a prime location. Over the next half-hour, we kicked around some rocks and talked about some of our other recent fishing trips. Before we knew it, the hatchery truck pulled up behind us and we watched in awe as the guys threw in trout after trout.
Raised with Pride!
Watching the big trout being tossed into the water was amazing, but we didn't waste any time; Jake and I started casting right away and it didn't take long for us to hook up. Usually, the trout are a little wary as they need to acclimate to the water, but not today! They were nailing spinners like they hadn't been fed in weeks. Big brookies, rainbows, and brown trout were swarming right in front of us and attacking just about anything we cast into the water. It was the best trout fishing action I've ever experienced and the fact that my son was there with me made it ten times more enjoyable! Watching Jake reel in those big brook trout will forever be etched in my memory.
Jake Had His Hands Full with This Brook Trout
A little later into the day, we were visited by NBC 40's reporter Sam Sweeney. He asked us a few questions about fishing and informed Jake and I that we'd likely be on the evening news. I fish often so I've seen my share of newspaper reporters while out on the water, but it was the first time I saw a television-news channel covering a local fishing event.
Soon after the reporter and cameraman left, I sat on the bank and thought to myself, "Could today get any better? Here I am enjoying a beautiful fall day with my wife and son, catching big trout after big trout, and now we're going to share our day on the news!" By the way, I set my DVR to record the 5:00, 5:30, 6:00, and 11:00 PM news and the "Gone Fishing" segment was a little different every time, but we had lots of face time; I still call Jake superstar.
The trout have thinned out a little since the fall stocking, but the trout trucks will be visiting our area again next week! Don't miss your chance to get in on the action! I know I'm looking forward to seeing those big rainbow trout. The 2012 winter trout stocking schedule for our area is as follows:
Tuesday, November 20
Atlantic County Birch Grove Park Pond - 180
Camden County Haddon Lake - 190 Rowands Pond - 100
Cape May County Ponderlodge Pond (Cox Hall WMA) - 160
Cumberland County Shaws Mill Pond - 200 South Vineland Park Pond - 160
The recent stretch of cool days and chilly nights has striped bass fever surging through South Jersey. While just about everyone I know is trying for striped bass, we're sitting back and enjoying one of the best late-summer/early-fall weakfish runs in at least five years. Like everyone else, I'm looking forward to the fall run, but I'm not in a hurry. Once the striped bass arrive in numbers, we'll have them around well into December; maybe later, if this year's push is anything close to last season's run. One good storm or a string of strong cold fronts could end the outstanding weakfish bite in a heartbeat, so I'm going to enjoy this weakfish run for all its worth!
Enjoying the Weak Nights!
Just a few days ago, ocean temperatures from Atlantic City to Cape May were in the seventies. As of today, the Atlantic City station is reporting 62.8 degrees while Cape May is a little higher at 66.4 degrees. I rarely check the backwater temperatures, but I'd bet they're hovering in the mid to high-fifties. With another cold front swinging through today, we may see the water temperatures drop a few more degrees before they stabilize later in the week.
As expected, the recent drop in water temperature slowed the weakfish bite slightly and increased the striped bass action at most of the areas we frequent. Fortunately, weather forecasters are predicting day-time air temps around 70 degrees later this week, so I don't think those weakies are going anywhere in the immediate future. Years ago, we had weakfish in the back bays until Thanksgiving, but most years we see them thin out right around Halloween. I'm hoping our little head-shaking, spike-toothed friends hang around for at least a few more weeks.
Northwest Wind Equals Bass
Our recent trips have been spent fishing around lighted structure: bridges, bulkheads, fishing piers, and docks. Schools of baitfish are thick everywhere, but they're especially abundant under the lights. More times than not, when you see snapper bluefish or hickory shad feeding on the surface, it's likely that weakfish are holding in the same areas. While we do see weakfish join in on the surface action from time to time, they usually seem to prefer to hold a little deeper in the water column. I usually fish with light-action-spinning gear and rarely throw more than ¼ to ½-ounce jigs - sometimes I have to get creative to keep my offering close to bottom, especially in areas with a lot of current.
Over the last few weeks, my buddy, Dave and I experienced one of the best fall weakfish bites we've seen in a while. We've been hitting a few of our favorite lights and pulling out weakfish after weakfish on just about every trip. Our best night happened about a week ago when we teamed up for close to fifty weakfish up to 22 inches. On more than one night, it literally took seconds before we had weakfish on the end of the line. First cast, second cast, third cast – they all came back with fish on the end of the line and this would go on for hours most nights!
The unbelievable action became so predictable that I had to get my kids in on the great bite. Jake and Julia have been on night trips with me before, but it's always been with peanut bunker or mullet on the end of the line; fishing with soft-plastic baits is a lot more work and requires some feel. I took Jake with me the first night and told him exactly what do to; thankfully, he seemed to catch on quickly. I figured a worst-case scenario would have him reeling in some of the fish I hooked. I was pleasantly surprised when I saw him concentrating and working the lure through the water column. In this particular fishing spot, it's more about flipping your jig out into the current and quickly getting to the bottom. Once you've contacted the bottom, you need to start jigging and hope for a bite before you've passed the hole and your lure is swept away and towards the surface in the strong current. It took him a little while to get his first bite, but when he did he was hooked! He ended his first trip with a bunch of weakfish, a striper, and a couple of bluefish. As luck would have it, he caught the biggest weakfish of the night and I'm still hearing about it!
The next night, we returned with Julia in hopes that she would hook her first weakfish and we weren't disappointed. Jake enjoyed showing his big sister the ropes and it wasn't long before she was hooked up. We had a great time with a bunch of weakfish and the kids experienced a few of the great sights and sounds our backwaters offer: we had a massive school of peanut bunker out in front of us, schools of spearing in the lights that were under attack by hungry bluefish, and in the distance, we could hear a lonely owl.
The way I look at it, you can only catch what's in the water and lets face it, there's a lot more weakfish around right now than there are striped bass. I'm going to enjoy what we have while we have it. Each and every one of our trips has been short and uncomplicated. We make a stop or two, catch weakfish to our hearts delight and leave with smiles on our faces. Isn't that what it's all about?
It's a great time of year to get the family down to the beach. Daytime air temperatures are hovering around 75 degrees and the water temperature is close to the same. A baited hook isn't safe anywhere: the back-bay sounds, inlets, and ocean front are full of life!
After a long summer of freshwater fishing, I'm finally settling back into my regularly-scheduled night fishing routine and I haven't been disappointed. Schools of bait seem to be everywhere and there's been no shortage of weakfish, bluefish, summer flounder, or small striped bass. The weakfish action has been nothing short of amazing. All of my old weakfish holes are holding good numbers of 12 to 24-inch fish and we're even finding some weakies in places we never caught them before.
Fresh Weakfish Fillets
On the way home from one of our night-shift weakfish trips, my buddy, Dave, and I talked about getting our boys down to get in on the fun. A midnight trip would likely be frowned upon by their moms so we planned an all-day crabbing/fishing trip. We talked about these kinds of trips before, but this time we were going to make it happen.
On Saturday, Dave showed up at my house at 6AM; we packed up and headed for Stone Harbor. My son, Jake and Dave's son, Nate, were full of excitement and ready to go. On the way down, we visited The Girls Place for some fresh bunker and made a quick stop at Wawa for some snacks. We arrived at the pier around 7AM and immediately rigged up our crab traps.
One by one, we baited the cages with half of a fresh bunker and lowered them into the water. Dave showed me a little trick to keep the bunker attached to the cage. He used wire ties to fasten the bait to the cage. Two slits were cut into each bunker and then a wire tie was passed through each slit and fastened to the bottom of the cage. The baits stayed in place and lasted us the entire trip. The wire ties were extremely efficient; it was a great tip that I will surely remember on future trips.
Before long, the boys put their first keeper in the basket and we had a slow pick of small and keeper-sized crabs. Action started a little slow, probably because the proximity of high tide created very little water current. We could see the boys needed a little pick-me-up so Dave grabbed the cast net and started catching some small fish to keep them interested.
Little Boys with some Big Crabs
By the time they were done with the cast net, the water started moving out and the crabs were on the move. The boys had their hands full as they had a dozen cages to attend to. Besides crabs, they pulled up all kinds of things in the cages: tons of 4 to 6-inch spot, a handful of small sea bass, three juvenile black drumfish, a pair of oyster crackers, and a small fluke. The morning flew by and it was lunchtime before we knew it. We ended our morning crabbing trip with a little over two-dozen large blue claws and some big smiles.
A Great Morning
As you might imagine, we worked up quite an appetite so we headed up to Avalon to grab lunch at Brady's Hoagie Dock – Home of the Humongous Hoagie. I pass this place all the time on my overnight fishing trips and that humongous hoagie sign gets me every time. It was nice to finally be in the area during normal business hours. The service and sandwiches were great. I just wish I could have talked them into staying open for our late-night trips.
On the way to North Wildwood, we stopped at a few back bay and inlet areas to cast net some mullet, but we couldn't find any in the perennial hot spots; I'm sure low tide wasn't helping our efforts much either. After a quick stop to Jersey Bait and Tackle for some bloodworms and mullet, we headed for Hereford Inlet.
When we pulled up to seawall, I was surprised to see so many people fishing. After a minute of observation, I could see why it was so crowded, everyone was hooked up! No one was catching any large fish, but spot, kingfish, bluefish, blowfish, and summer flounder were keeping rods bent.
We rigged up and didn't waste any time getting in on the action. The boys didn't have to wait long before they were reeling in some nice-sized kingfish. Those bait-stealing spot made it tough to fish for anything else as they hit our bloodworm baits as soon as they hit the water. We threw out some cut mullet and the bluefish were all over it. A few minutes later, Dave and Nate found a school of hungry flatties right in the wash.
Nate with a Feisty Flatfish
As the sun was setting, I took a few minutes to soak it all in. I couldn't help but think about how lucky I was to be in this place sharing these experiences with my family and friends. It was certainly much more memorable than an afternoon at the park or in some movie theater. To me, this is what fishing is all about!
The month of September marks the end of the summer season and the beginning of autumn. Sweltering days spent sunbathing on the beach, attending family cookouts, and lounging by the pool quickly transitioned into early mornings on the school bus, hayrides, football games, and cool fall nights.
Back to School
Our three children started school last week. My oldest son, Frankie, just started college – boy, do I feel old! Julia is a sophomore in high school and Jake is enjoying his last year at the little, elementary school down the street.
I was privileged to spend much of the summer with our kids at the lake so they asked how I'd be spending my free time while they were attending school. I told them that I was going back to school, too! Of course, they looked at me like I had three eyes. I went on to explain that my school was about an hour away from home and I wouldn't need any teachers or text books: my school could be found along the coastal waters that surround Southern New Jersey and I had much to learn.
Weakies Gone Wild
My first class was up in Barnegat Bay where I had a weakfish assignment to complete. Fortunately, I'm very familiar with the waters and had a good plan to start my first day back on the right track. A stop at some hard structure looked promising as schools of bait fish were under attack. Usually, when I come across this type of visual activity, snapper bluefish will be feeding on the surface while weakfish, striped bass, and summer flounder can be found a little closer to the bottom. As luck would have it, I hooked into a beautiful 15-inch weakfish on my second cast. A buddy and I continued to work the area over with 3-inch Berkley Gulp baits attached to a 1/4-ounce jigs. We had a blast catching weakies in the 12 to 22-inch range as the bite continued well into the night. If this trip was a test, I aced it!
We returned to the same location over the next few nights and found similar results each time. Feeling confident that we could catch fish, we branched out a little more into Barnegat Bay to see if the weakfish were as thick as we suspected. A few stops along unfamiliar areas revealed that the weakfish were thick all over the bay: each location was choked with bait and hoards of spike weakfish, along with school striped bass, snapper bluefish, and undersized fluke. In my opinion, the bay looks as healthy as I've ever seen it and the weakfish numbers seem to rival those of the old glory days.
Dave McKinney with a Barnegat Bay Beauty
After a day off to catch up on sleep, my next class was scheduled a little further south to see how the fishing action was behind Seven-Mile Island. At first sight, I knew we would be just as pleased as we were during our Barnegat Bay trips. Enormous schools of peanut bunker were churning water in what seemed like every direction. Bluefish worked the top of the water column while 12 to 20-inch weakfish waited below and eagerly attacked our jigs. Hungry, spike weakfish seem to be just about everywhere now and I'm captivated by the potential of the fishery. After years of decline, it's great to see good numbers of weakfish again!
I learned much over the last few days, much more than I could have in any classroom. The weakfish bite is far better than I could have possibly imagined. Small 3-inch baits received much more attention than my old-standby, 5-inch, soft-plastic baits. The outgoing tide seems to produce a little more action at most locations and the weakfish bite was a little more subtle during the new moon phase. Massive schools of bait fish should keep plenty of fish around over the next few weeks and make for an action-packed fall run. Why couldn't school be this much fun?
We're heading into late August and the tide is slowly turning. Those long, hot summer afternoons are slowly moderating as we continue to lose a minute or two of daylight every day. On June 20, sunrise took place at 5:34 AM and sunset at 8:28 PM. Today, the sun came up at 6:18 AM and set at 7:47 PM. Since the first day of summer, we've lost 44 minutes of daylight in the morning and 41 minutes in the evening for a total of an hour and 25 minutes. By the first day of autumn, we'll lose another hour and 20 minutes of daylight. If you're like me and prefer to fish at night, well, we're not losing anything, but gaining darkness and more productive fishing time.
Back Bay Sunset
I've spent countless hours plying the South Jersey backwaters and the late-summer/early-fall time period is one of my favorite times of the year. When I think of late-summer nights on the water, I think of peanut bunker flipping on the surface and the gamefish I'm searching for beneath them. At this time of year, trophy fish often seem few and far between; however, what the fish lack in size, they make up for in variety. There are so many possibilities on any given cast. The usual suspects such as striped bass, weakfish, summer flounder, and snapper bluefish provide most of the action; however there are enough speckled sea trout and red drumfish around to keep things interesting.
South Jersey Surprises
As enjoyable as the fishing action can be, the late-summer pattern can also be very frustrating for anglers. If you think about it for a minute, it makes sense that this time period would be one of the most difficult times to catch fish: the warm back-bay waters are boiling with a plethora of baitfish and there hasn't been any real trigger to put the gamefish into blitz mode. A single gamefish could swim through thousands of baitfish in just a few minutes; what are the odds that it will take your bait?
Most of the time, I prefer to fish with small jigs and soft-plastic baits, but there are occasions when my offerings go untouched. I've thrown small plugs, bucktails, and everything else in my bag to feeding fish with no results. That's when it's time to break out the cast net and wrangle up some live bait. Peanut bunker are usually quite easy to find. Keeping peanuts alive can be difficult, but I've experimented with some fresh-dead bunker and found they seem to work well threaded onto the same jigs that I use when I'm tossing soft-plastic baits. The weakfish really seem to love them. A fish-less night can be quickly turned around with just one well-placed toss of a cast net.
Tossing the Cast Net
The recent return of weakfish should make for some great late-season action. We've had nights when we've caught well over fifty weakies per night. While most of the weakfish are usually in the 12 to 18-inch range, we see enough fish in the mid-20-inch range to keep us entertained. Years ago, when weakfish stocks were strong, we caught them right through the Thanksgiving weekend. Barring any severe coastal storms, I expect some of the best action to occur in early October as blitzing weakfish will be gorging themselves before making their way towards the inlet and out to sea.
Unfortunately, keeping up with life has put a serious dent in my fishing time. I thought life would be a little easier as my children grew up, boy, was I wrong! Fun time with a rod in our hand has been replaced with car shopping and applying to colleges with my oldest son, tennis practice and school shopping with my daughter, and it's always an adventure trying to keep up with my 10-year-old son. We hit the local lakes and ponds from time to time and we always enjoy ourselves, but it's just not the same.
On the bright side, I'm taking care of business and school starts in two weeks! I'll miss the little ones, but my schedule will allow me much more free time and I can get back to doing what I love to do. I better get going; I can already hear those weakies calling my name.
Where has the summer gone? August is creeping up and I can't help but wonder what happened to June and July. I've spent much of the last two weeks close to home on our local waterways. During those two weeks, I've hit a bunch of sweet-water venues and enjoyed the company of at least one of my family members on each trip. I guess the old adage rings true, "Time flies when you're having fun!"
Kayaking with Jen at Lake Narraticon
My family is very fortunate to live in an area that is surrounded by small lakes and ponds; we have at least a dozen lakes within a ten minute ride of our house. One of these lakes is named Lake Garrison; chances are good that you'll find us fishing, swimming, or sunbathing here on a hot summer day. The lake is open to the public for a small fee: $6 on weekdays, $8 on weekends and holidays or you may choose to take advantage of their discounted season passes, as we did. For more detailed information, check out their website.
Fun in the Sun at Lake Garrison
There are tons of things to do at Lake Garrison, but I don't know if any of its other attributes can top the outstanding fishing opportunities this gem offers. Fishing from land is very limited, but the friendly staff rents rowboats, kayaks, and paddle-boats to get out onto the water. If I'm going out with the family, we'll usually take a rowboat, but when I'm by myself, I really enjoy fishing from the kayak. The shallow, cedar-colored water with lots of lily pads and docks resembles most of the other nearby lakes, but the fishing action here is head and shoulders above the rest.
Jake Has His Hands Full
On the last few trips with the crew, the fishing action was unbelievable; it almost seemed too easy. Usually, I spend a great deal of time and energy planning out our fishing trips as I want to make sure the kids have a great time, but this was as easy as it gets. A bucket of minnows, a few hooks, and a couple of rods is all we needed. The kids reeled in fish after fish and giggled the whole time, while I sat in the back of the boat with my GoPro and a big smile on my face.
With little ones on-board, I find myself fishing less as most of the time I'm busy watching, teaching, or helping them in any way I can. Every once in a while, I manage to sneak in a few casts and as luck would have it, I ended up taking my personal-best pickerel this week. The kids cheered for me the whole time as they watched me battle my trophy next to the boat. I've caught thousands of pickerel in my lifetime, but this 30-inch beast topped them all. An already great day just got better!
Once we got back onto land, I told a few of the patrons about our successful fishing trip. Some of the responses I got were funny. One of the residents told me he fished the lake often and never caught anything. A nearby patron heard us talking and was shocked to learn that he was swimming in a lake that had fish in it. On my way home, I showed the girl at the gatehouse a picture on my phone and she told me she had no idea that fish like that lived in the lake and that she would think twice before swimming in there again. Looking back, maybe I shouldn't have said anything; those teeth are intimidating!
Look at Those Teeth!
Julia and Jake are already bugging me about our next trip. Before you know it, summer will be over and the kids will be heading back to school. I'll miss our days on the lake, but I'll have lots of memories to remember; I hope you will too. You know where we'll be.
Is it me or did summer used to be a lot more fun? The last two summer seasons have really taken a toll on South Jersey. Last summer, we had multiple-record-rainfall events that caused sinkholes, breached dams, historic floods, and extensive property damage. This summer isn't looking much better.
Soon after the 2011 floods, I drove down to Bridgeton to spend some time at Sunset Lake and the Cohanzick Zoo. I was devastated when I arrived and noticed that the once beautiful lake was nothing more than a massive mud flat. Just up the road, I stopped by Seeley's Mill Pond which had breached the roadway and was no longer the picturesque little waterway that I remembered. Dams failed at lakes in Atlantic and Salem counties too.
Seeley's Mill Pond 2011
This summer is shaping up to be another memorable one. Last week's storms caused widespread damage and headaches for hundreds of thousands of people living in our area. Many of us learned a new weather term: derecho – a wide-ranging, long-lived, straight-line wind storm that is associated with a fast-moving line of severe thunderstorms. Fallen trees caused fatalities at Parvin State Park – my thoughts and prayers go out to the two young boys and their families. Others in the area were fortunate enough to escape with their lives, but had major damage from dangerous lightning and 70+ mph winds. Some of the worst hit areas were without power for days and all this just happened to occur during our second and worst heat wave of the summer. I was one of the lucky ones, we only had a few limbs down, but I witnessed much of the severe damage to the east in Atlantic County and to the south in Cumberland County. Not quite my idea of fun in the sun!
Summer Storm Nightmare
On the bright side, the cleanup is well underway, they'll be no shortage of firewood this winter, just about everyone's power has been restored, and the heat wave is over. I don't know about you, but I'm looking forward to spending the rest of the summer on the water with my family and friends.
After a great winter fishery and a decent spring run, I needed a little time off to recharge my batteries. For anyone that fishes as much as I do, you know what I'm talking about. Lately, I've spent much of my free time rigging my wife's new kayak, turning my utility trailer into a kayak trailer, and getting my fishing gear back into shape. With no real off-season this winter, I neglected some of my usual winter-checklist responsibilities. I have to admit, cleaning and re-spooling reels in an air-conditioned house is almost enjoyable when it's 100 degrees outside.
Jen's New Kayak
With a favorable weather forecast and a little time away from my rod and reel, I'm dying to get back on the water. The local lakes and ponds offer some great action during the early-morning and late-afternoons hours and the backwater night bite should be worthwhile. I continue to hear a good deal about weakfish, so I have high hopes for the latter part of the summer season. Traditionally, the late-summer weakfish run provides some of the best action of the year.
I'd like to remind our readers that it's a great time of year to get the kids out on the water. I take my little crew out frequently and plan on getting them out often over the next few weeks. Whether you fish freshwater or saltwater, the summer months offer a tremendous amount of fishing opportunities. A bobber and a baited hook should provide lots of action in most of our lakes and ponds. Sunfish and catfish are plentiful in our waters and will usually provide steady action until you run out of bait. In saltwater, a plethora of species are available to our coastal anglers. It's tough to beat snapper bluefish, but croakers, kingfish, and little sea bass can usually be found in good numbers.
My Little Fishing Buddies
Over the years, I've learned a few things while fishing with my kids. My best advice: Make sure to never forget the snacks and keep the trips as action-packed as possible. Kids don't care what they're catching as long as they're catching something. You'll find that sand sharks, stingrays, and turtles are much more admirable than any striped bass, summer flounder, or largemouth bass. I can promise you one thing, they'll never forget the time they spent with you on the water!
What seemed like a week-long stretch of northeast wind followed by the recent push of near triple-digit air temperatures complicated most of my back-bay fishing plans. I know there are still some fish around the backwater sounds and inlets, but I feel like my fishing time may be a little more productive by spending time on my kayak at some of South Jersey's finest freshwater fishing holes. I'm still fairly new at this whole kayaking thing, but there is one thing I can tell you for sure: it's incredibly enjoyable!
Freshwater Fun in the Kayak
I picked up my kayak last July after much research. Making a decision on which kayak would best fit my needs was much more involved than one may think; with so many types of kayaks on the market today, choosing between them can become a daunting task. My first decision was sit in vs. sit on top. For fishing purposes, just about every pro pointed me towards a sit-on-top kayak. The next decision was a little more difficult; did I want to pedal or paddle? The new line of Hobie Kayaks offers some great pedal drives, but they come with a premium price tag. I fish in a lot of weedy, shallow water and thought the Hobie MirageDrive may not be in my best interest.
Once I narrowed down the type and style of kayak I wanted, it was time for some field testing. I spent the better part of the day getting in and out of all kinds of kayaks. I quickly learned the difference between primary stability and secondary stability - primary stability is a term used to explain how much a kayak rocks back and forth when a paddler shifts their weight and secondary stability describes how readily a kayak capsizes. After many years of canoeing, I was expecting most of the kayaks to flip over rather easily when pushed to the limit. As it turned out, most of the kayaks I tested were very difficult to flip.
With a few safe fishing platforms to choose from, my final decision would be based on comfort. I stopped canoeing a few years back, mostly because after a few hours on the water, my back just couldn't take anymore. I planned on spending lots of time in my new fishing machine so it was important that the seat offered proper support. The new seats on some of these kayaks are unbelievably comfortable and make spending eight hours or more on the water entirely possible. After much time and thought, I chose to go with the Tarpon 120 – Wilderness Systems Kayak.
My Fishing Machine
From the day my kayak was delivered, there's been no turning back. I started fishing in some of the smaller lakes and ponds and couldn't get over how enjoyable and rewarding fishing from such a small vessel could be. From tossing nearly-frozen minnows in two-inches of water for early-season pickerel to froggin' on the lily pads for largemouth bass, I feel like I can do it all. Many of the places I fish, I couldn't access in anything other than a kayak. I find myself tweaking little things here and there to make the most of my time on the water, but that just adds to the fun.
Just recently, I added smallmouth bass fishing onto my to-do list. I had plans to fish Lake Audrey for smallies, but before I got down there, I accidentally stumbled onto a terrific smallmouth bite at Union Lake. I knew the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife stocked smallmouth bass into Union Lake, but I had no idea that the fishery was so far along. Since discovering the great smallmouth fishery, I've spent countless hours chasing them in my kayak. If you haven't fished for smallies, you have no idea what you've been missing. They attack top-water baits with reckless abandon and then put on an acrobatic display that would rival any circus performer.
On my last trip, it took a little longer than I expected, but after a few drifts, I found the mother lode of smallies just off an island point. For a solid two hours, every drift provided an explosive strike followed by another airborne smallie; when you're sitting at water level in the kayak, the jumps seem even more dramatic! At the end of my trip, I couldn't help noticing the gargantuan explosions coming from the nearby lily pads. I paddled over, but realized I left all my frogs back in the car and it was getting late. I won't forget them next time.
Union Lake Smallmouth Bass
As if the smallmouth bass weren't enough to keep me out there, I found that Union Lake offers a tremendous fishery that could only be rivaled by our northern New Jersey waters. While drifting for smallmouth bass, I've hooked into largemouth bass, crappie, yellow perch, sunfish, shiners, white perch, pickerel, and channel catfish.
Kayaking Around South Jersey
I'll never forget my first encounter with a Union Lake channel catfish. I was drifting for smallies with light-spinning gear spooled with 6-pound test when my rod doubled over. At first, I thought I was snagged, but quickly noticed that whatever grabbed my bait was pulling me and my kayak against the wind. Being a land-based angler for a good portion of my life, I have to admit, it felt odd being towed around the lake. I couldn't believe this thing was capable of pulling me and my kayak wherever it wanted to; for the first time in my life, the fish was pulling me around! After a long battle, I finally pulled a very tired 12-pound channel cat beside the yak. When I saw that it was a catfish, I have to admit, I was a little disappointed as I was hoping for a trophy smallmouth or largemouth bass. I would have never guessed that a catfish could provide such excitement. Since that trip, I've caught a bunch of big channel cats while fishing for smallmouth bass and I've enjoyed the fight so much that I'm planning a trip specifically for them sometime in the next few weeks.
A Hefty Union Lake Channel Cat
With summer in full swing, I'm going to be spending most of my time exploring some more of the nearby waterways. Over the last few weeks, I've heard a lot of talk about snakeheads in our local waters. Hopefully, I'll have some useful information about them in my next entry.
At first, I thought it was just me, but after looking at the regional fishing reports, I think it's safe to say that most of the big, spring stripers have pulled out of our local waterways and are heading north for cooler waters. Reports from Cape May to Ocean City have slowed down considerably over the last few days. At the same time, some remarkable catches have been made a little to the north around Long Beach Island. The long-range weather forecast is calling for spring-like air temperatures, so let's hope those big girls hang around LBI for a couple of weeks; I'm not ready to give up on them yet!
Our back-bay waters also appear to be making the transition to the summer season. Striped bass and herring seem to be thinning out a little more on each trip, while snapper bluefish are invading the inlets and wreaking havoc in the skinny waters. Regional water temperatures are well-above normal and surely play a big role in my recent observations.
Current Water Temperatures
Before the holiday weekend, some monster bass were caught on the Cape May beaches and between Ocean City and Atlantic City. The Cape May bite was best during the incoming tides and especially good towards slack tide; fresh clams continue to be the choice bait along the beachfront. The striper bite in the OC to AC area took place at night and lots of big fish were caught on plugs. Since the weekend, things have quieted down. I'm hoping that the full moon (Monday, June 4) tide stages will spark the bite again.
Rob Woolfort with a Beauty from Cape May
I had quite a streak of fishing time going on until about two weeks ago. It started last fall with that incredible run of striped bass off of Island Beach State Park and continued right through the winter months. By mid-January I fell into some great freshwater-fishing action. Between the great sweetwater action and an early start to the 2012 striper season, I just couldn't get enough. I felt like I was making all the right decisions and scoring great catches on just about every trip. I guess it couldn't last forever.
Like many other anglers, I read the reports and use them as a barometer of the general fishing action for a particular area. I usually do my own thing and find that it's the best way to go, however there are times when the big fish reports get to me and I join the masses at the perennial hot spots. Between the fishing message boards and the never-ending newsfeed on my Facebook account, my backwater 30+ inch bass and spring weakfish eventually get trumped by 30 to 50-pound striped bass. You would think surf fishing for 30 to 50-pound bass would take precedence over everything else, but not for me. I prefer to catch monster tiderunner weakfish, however after years of catching 10 to 15-pound weakfish, the 12 to 24-inch fish just don't seem to bring me the same joy. Don't get me wrong, I still love being out there and fishing for tiderunner weakfish and I think it's great that we're seeing good numbers of smaller weakies, but it's just not like those glory days. Throw in a passion for backwater doormat fluke, plugging the rock piles and sod banks, and freshwater fishing for bass and trout and it's tough to squeeze it all into about a month's worth of fishing time.
As it turns out, I tried to do it all and fell into a bit of a slump. It started at my local lake when I lost an absolute giant largemouth bass right at my feet. Since then, I've been catching fish here and there, but I've made a bunch of poor decisions and with some of the largest striped bass of the season around, the timing couldn't have been much worse. I've fished long enough to know that it happens to everyone from time to time. I'm sure when I think back about the last six-months of great fishing, my two-week slump won't seem like such a big deal.
Lost a Good One
It's a big weekend in South Jersey for outdoor enthusiasts. The 20th Annual Delaware Bay Day will take place from noon – 9 PM at Bivalve on Saturday, June 2. The Bayshore Discovery Project and the township are inviting everyone to come out for food, fun, and a shared appreciation of South Jersey's maritime and natural heritage. I take the family every year and we always have a good time. My little one loves the blue-claw crab races! http://www.nj.com/cumberland/index.ssf/2012/05/bay_day_brings_back_fireworks.html
Whether you call them fluke, flounder, or flatfish, they're here and they're hungry! Our South Jersey backwaters are loaded with flatties and anglers are taking full advantage of the new regulations. The decrease in the minimum-size limit from 18 inches to 17.5 inches should allow flounder pounders to put a lot more flatfish in the box. The 2012 size reduction came with a price though as the daily-bag limit dropped from eight fish in 2011 to five fish this season.
The New Size Limit Puts More Flatfish on the Table
It looks like the federal government is finally coming around with what some of us local anglers have thought for years: the summer flounder stocks are rebuilt. On Monday, NOAA released the 2011 Status of the Stocks Report. It's an interesting read and the status of the summer flounder fishery can be found on page 9. http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/stories/2012/05/docs/status_of_stocks_2011_report.pdf
Years of Tough Regulations Are Paying Off
Usually, our maiden voyage for summer flounder provides some of the best action we experience all season. My buddy, Dave McKinney and I woke up early and headed down to Stone Harbor to rent a small boat from Lou at Smuggler's Cove. A flood tide and stiff southeast wind was forecasted for the day; even though we knew our drifts would be tough, we had high hopes.
We loaded up the boat and made our way to one of our favorite creek mouths along the Intracoastal Waterway. After a few drifts without a bite, we reeled in our bucktails and teaser rigs and headed straight for Paddy's Hole. It usually takes us a good half-hour to get from the marina to Paddy's, but with the super-moon incoming tide and a 15-mph southeast wind at our back, we flew back there in our 13-foot dingy powered by a mighty 8-horsepower outboard engine.
When we arrived, I was pleasantly surprised to see just a handful of boats fishing along the ICW. On most days, Paddy's Hole looks more like a parking lot than a fishing hole, but on this windy Monday morning we had plenty of room to drift wherever we pleased.
Soon after we cut the engine, Dave had a bite and hooked into a short fluke. It took a little while to figure out the best drift lines, but once we did, we started hooking up regularly. White bucktails in sizes ranging from half to one-ounce in weight and teaser rigs sweetened with mackerel strips and minnows did the trick. Dave started with the hot hand, but I caught up by the end of the trip, numbers wise at least.
I Finally Got a Good One
Despite the decreased size limit, keeper-sized fish seemed tough to come by for me, but not so much for Dave. We were fishing the same baits on the same rigs on the same boat and neither of us was using any special technique, yet Dave somehow managed to go seven-for-eight on keepers while I netted one legal flatfish and six throwbacks. Either the back of the boat was presenting a better drift presentation or it was just his day, I'll never know for sure. I can tell you one thing though, I'll be in the back next time!
A Good Flounder Fishing Trip Ends with a Great Meal
It's a great time to be an angler in South Jersey! The month of May offers some of the best fishing opportunities in our area. The last few days/weeks have been a blur as I've spent every free minute fishing the local ponds, lakes, backwaters, inlets, and rock piles. I've been trying to do it all, but I just can't keep up with all of the fishing opportunities that are available in our area now.
Trout fishing is a tradition in our family. We used to get up early and fish with the masses on opening day, but the in-season weekday stockings are just so much more enjoyable. Even though I have monster striped bass and tiderunner weakfish on my mind, I make time to hit the trout pond at least a few times each spring. Every year, I let the boys take a day off from school to go trout fishing. Frankie had a high-school tennis match, so Jake had my undivided attention. We got to the pond soon after the hatchery truck stopped by and we were into fish right away. We had an incredible day that ended with Jake taking his first limit of rainbow trout. The smile on his face makes it all worthwhile!
Jake's Limit of Rainbow Trout
As usual, most of my time has been spent in the back bays chasing striped bass and weakfish. The skinny-water bite has been steady and for the most part, predictable. The falling tide has been action-packed as the bass have been active during the beginning and middle of the outgoing tide; while the weakfish show up a little later towards low water. The fish I've been catching haven't been anything to brag about, but the action has been steady and I'm enamored with the amount of 12 to 20-inch weakfish that have invaded our backwaters. Those back-bay beauties seem to be around in better numbers than I've seen in the last five years.
Back Bay Beauty
On Tuesday night, I was lucky enough to catch a tagged striped bass. This particular tag was from the American Littoral Society. I called in the tag number on Wednesday morning and I can't wait to hear back from them. I've been fortunate enough to catch a bunch of tagged fish over the years and it's always a pleasure to learn more about the fish we pursue. The location and date of the tag are always interesting, but it's also worthy of note to see how much the fish has grown. The prizes and certificates offered by the tagging agencies are also an added bonus.
Tagged Fish Prizes
We're just hours away from the 2012 summer flounder season. The flatfish have become much more aggressive over the last few days. We're starting to catch them regularly at night, so I'd imagine the daytime bite has to be very good. I have a trip planned on Monday, so I'll have some more information to share in my next blog entry. I'm glad the season opens in a few short hours; it's been tough playing catch and release with those hefty flatfish.
Thanks to a little prodding from my pals, I finally pulled myself away from the backwaters and spent a day on the rock pile. We fished a popular, Cape May jetty on a very windy day and managed to score a few striped bass. Action was far from fast and furious; nevertheless, we did catch a few decent linesiders on plugs. Dark-colored Bombers are a favorite at this location, although we caught most of our fish on Yo-Zuri Mag Darters. I didn't give up on my Bombers easily, but I ultimately gave in and tied on a Mag Darter after some more prodding by my buddy, Rob; after all, he already had a few fish under his belt. Just a few casts later and I was into a decent striper.
Jetty Bass with Rob Woolfort
With so much going on, I haven't spent much time with my feet in the sand. Up until recently, surf-fishing reports seemed rather inconsistent. Just over the last few days, I've heard about some real monsters coming out of the Delaware Bay and up along the Cape May beachfront. A long-time friend, John Jones and his son Jimmy were fishing clams at a well-known hot spot on Thursday evening when one of the rods doubled over. After a well-spirited battle, Jimmy slid the 44-inch, 33-pound cow up onto the beach. This weekend's full-moon tides should keep the big girls on the move. I have my 11-foot Lami's all rigged; I know where I'll be on Sunday morning!
Rainy days are perfect for catching up. This nor'easter should provide some much-needed rain and allow me to complete some of the tasks that I've been putting off: starting with my blog. To say I've been fishing a lot over the last two weeks would be a colossal understatement. Striped bass and weakfish have kept me busy on the nightshift while state-stocked brookies and rainbow trout fill my days. I love this time of year; this is what I live for!
Dock Light Backwater Stripers
A couple of weeks ago, I planned to switch from back-bay fishing to fishing out front and over in the river, but the skinny-water action just keeps me coming back for more. I had the pleasure of fishing with my oldest son, Frankie, last week and our late-night backwater trip turned out to be a memorable one. Striped bass were blowing up on spearing and grass shrimp and were readily slamming our soft-plastic baits. Frankie's a senior in high school and has a busy schedule so he doesn't get to fish with the old man like he used to, but he picked a perfect night to tag along. We caught a bunch of fish and ended up taking home a pair of beautiful 36-inch fish. These fish were a blast on our light spinning gear.
A Great Father and Son Moment
Since that great night with my son, the bass bite has steadily slowed down and I've had to work a little harder to find quality fish. They've been around, but I've had to cover some ground and put in some hours. In my experiences, this back-bay slow down happens each season as much of the striped bass population makes their way into our rivers to spawn a new generation. I have a feeling that once this storm passes, ravenous striped bass are going to pour out of the rivers. We're going to have a lot of fun in the next few weeks!
Backwater Bassin' with Dave McKinney
As luck would have it, just as most of the bass moved up into the rivers, weakfish moved into the back bays. While we haven't come across any of the big tiderunners yet, we have been catching good numbers of 12 to 20-inch fish. Usually, we don't see the spike weakfish until later in the season, but I'm not complaining. The weakies have been especially aggressive towards the end of the falling tide.
Back Bay Weakfish
This storm might be good for striper fishing, but it's not going to help the weakfish bite. I have a feeling it will be at least three days before things start to settle down and the weakies become active again. When the weakfish were active, they were spewing out young-of-the-year herring, which seem to be plentiful in our back-bay waters now. By midweek, I'll be playing the tides and spending lots of time fishing between Cape May County and Barnegat Bay.
Historically, the month of May provides us with the best weakfish action, but everything seems to be running a little early this season due to the mild weather and warmer-than-average water temperature. My heart is hoping that we'll see a return of the big tiderunner weakfish this year; however, my brain tells me that it's going to be at least a few seasons until we start seeing good numbers of big weakfish again. Hopefully, the spike weakfish that we're catching now will make it to tiderunner status in the coming years.
As a writer and an angler, I often check the fishing reports for my own area and other areas to see if I can find trends. I've been fishing too much lately to read through all the reports, but when I do look, I rarely see any information about weakfish. I know how tight-lipped anglers can be, especially when it comes to weakfish. I'm hoping that the fish we're seeing in Cape May County are a sign of things to come and not just an anomaly.
I woke up this morning and flipped the page on my calendar; it's hard to believe that we're just entering the month of April. Since my last blog entry, I've logged a ton of hours on the water and lipped quite a few striped bass. Friends and family have joined in the fun and we've already had some memorable trips. I feel like we're halfway through the spring-fishing season, when in reality it's only just begun!
Over the last two weeks, the fishing action has really picked up. Local anglers are catching good numbers of striped bass in the back bays, rivers, inlets, and out front in the surf. Action has been far from consistent, but we're still well ahead of schedule.
Believe it or not striped bass aren't the only game in town. Bluefish and summer flounder are here and they're hungry. Bluefish showed up out front last week and a few have pushed into the backwaters over the last few days. Summer flounder invaded the inlets about a week ago and seem to be around in good numbers, especially at the perennial early-season hot spots. A good friend has been nailing flatties behind Seven-Mile Island all week while tossing jigs for striped bass. I saw my first flatfish the other night when my buddy, Rob, landed one while we were fishing for stripers; if they're biting at night, you know they're aggressive. May 5 seems so far away!
My buddies and I have been spending a great deal of time fishing in the shallow backwaters. Even though we've managed to put together some good catches, finding any type of pattern has been difficult. Things were just about to get interesting when adult bunker moved into the Great Egg Harbor Bay last week and then a strong cold front with gusty northwest winds sent them packing. Just when we begin to think that we've got the bite figured out, the fish throw us a changeup.
The nightshift bass bite has been productive, although most of the fish have been on the short-side of the 28-inch-legal-size limit. We've been tossing soft-plastic baits on ¼ to ½-ounce jig heads with good results. One night, the fish will be blowing up on grass shrimp and spearing and inhaling our soft-plastic baits and the next they're on the bottom and only halfheartedly striking our jigs. While it seems that we can't keep a bite at one location for more than a night or two, I have noticed that our best action usually takes place on either side of high water.
I've had my fun with the little fish, but it's time to switch gears. It's time to start chasing some better fish. The bite on the Delaware River is picking up and the big girls are moving in to do their thing. This week, I'll dust off the big rods and make a trip to my river hot spots. After a few trips tossing bloodworms along the riverbanks, I'll switch over to chunking bunker and clams along the bay shores and down around Cape May Point. By month's end, I'll be back out front looking for bass busting on bunker.
I'm a back-bay skinny-water angler by nature, but I'll be making the rounds over the next few weeks. Fishing opportunities seem endless as our waters become inundated with striped bass, summer flounder, and bluefish; a stray weakfish would be nice too. It's hard to do it all, but I'm going to try my best to spend as much time as I can on the water this season. If the bite gets real good, eat, sleep, fish will turn into fish, fish, fish!
Well, I guess it's safe to say goodbye to the winter that wasn't and you won't be hearing any complaints from me. The mild winter was much appreciated, but the month of March has been nothing short of outstanding. Lately, it's been feeling more like May than March in South Jersey and I've been taking advantage of this glorious weather. After the harsh 2010 and 2011 winter seasons, it's hard to believe, but thoughts of rock salt, snow shovels, and heavy winter coats now seem like nothing more than distant memories.
By most accounts, spring has sprung: bright-yellow daffodils are popping up all over; maple trees are budding; lily pads are emerging from the lake's bottom; painted turtles are climbing onto logs and sunning themselves; spring peepers are singing in the bogs; canadian geese are pairing off, and the mosquitoes are already buzzing. From my experiences, the perennial signs of spring tell me that we're at least two weeks ahead of schedule.
Generally, by this time of year, I'm content with a few pickerel, black crappies, and yellow perch to start off the season. Later on into March, I begin to spend more time chasing striped bass. This season, I already have hundreds of fish under my belt and I don't see things slowing down any time in the near future. Freshwater fishing action has been off the charts and my nighttime striped bass trips just keep getting better!
Every morning I wake up and think about how lucky I am to spend as much time on the water as I do. Over the last few days, the toughest decision I've had to make was whether or not to stay close to home and fish the sweet-water lakes and ponds or to make the ride down to the back-bay waters for striped bass. If it's really nice out and the tides are lined up right at my favorite fishing holes, I usually do both.
I spent much of the last week fishing at the neighborhood lakes and ponds catching largemouth bass, chain pickerel, yellow perch, and black crappies. The pickerel, perch, and crappies have been active throughout the winter months, but the largemouth bass bite really turned on over the last few days. I've been getting most of my fish on soft-plastic baits and live minnows, but jigs and crank baits worked well, too. The big girls are on the prowl and super aggressive.
As much as I've enjoyed the great freshwater action, my heart belongs to the sea. It may sound a little corny, but when I'm driving over those causeway bridges, I feel like I'm home. As I was driving on the causeway the other night, I pulled over to take a peek under the bridge lights. The incoming tide was rising and I could see and hear little pops and splashes on the water's surface; I knew it was going to be a good night!
I ran back to the car and grabbed my gear. I started fishing with a baby-bass-colored Zoom Super Fluke attached to a ¼-ounce jig head. I didn't see or hear any evidence of striped bass, but with so much bait around, I felt good about my chances. I worked the small channel for about ten minutes before I got my first hit. It was a small striper, but a good sign for the rest of the night. After another ten minutes, I moved over to the other side of the bridge and quickly caught another 20-inch striper. I worked the area a little longer without a strike before I decided to move on to another nearby fishing spot.
After striking out at a bunch of other areas, I decided to head back to the same place that I had fish on my last trip. This particular area is as close to a sure thing as you can get and always comes to mind when other locations are slow. As I approached the water's edge, I heard those little pops and splashes again, a sure sign of baitfish and herring. Everything was right and I had a feeling that it wouldn't be long before I found some action. After a few casts in the likely areas came up empty, I was starting to feel a little less confident. Then it happened, I heard a bass pop in an unusual place. If you haven't heard a striped bass "pop" before, I can only describe it as an unmistakable, loud popping noise that a striper makes when it sucks down a baitfish from the surface of the water. Bass feed on top in many ways: sometimes, they quietly leave a boil on the water's surface, other times they sip or slurp bait from the top, but when they "pop" it usually means they're hungry and willing to chase down just about anything in the vicinity.
By the time I moved into position to reach the fish, there were multiple fish popping on the surface. I had a strike on my first cast, but I missed it. I casted again and had a solid strike before I turned the handle on my reel. These fish were a class up from my last trip and lots of fun on my light-spinning gear. The steady bite lasted for about an hour before the rising tide slowed down and the fishing action dwindled. Once the tide started out, I worked the water column and landed three more stripers.
Right before the sun came up, I decided to pack it up for the night with a total of sixteen fish up to 30 inches. The 30-inch linesider took the ride home with me. Does anything taste better than a fresh-caught broiled striped bass?
The 2012 striped bass season started off with a bang as word of keeper-sized stripers spread like wildfire. As expected, a great deal was made about the season's first legal linesiders. The perennial hot spots paid off again: Oyster Creek and the Mullica River are two of the more productive early-season waters and I'm fairly certain that the reported fish were taken from these areas.
News of the first fish of the year always gets the blood pumping, but don't get too excited yet. For every fish that makes headlines, there are probably a 100 anglers that returned home with nothing more than cold fingers. Even though water temperatures are well-above normal, the migratory fish are most likely a few weeks away. Sure, there are plenty of resident fish around, but they generally don't make the minimum-legal-length of 28 inches.
After a long day of radar watching, a persistent rainstorm forced me to cancel any plans of fishing at midnight on March 1. Hold on, before any of you comment, "The fish are already wet" or "Some of my best fishing trips took place on rainy days," let it be known that I've never taken my first few fish of the season in the rain and God knows I've tried. Most of my early-season trips take place on shallow flats or around lighted structure and in my experiences, the baitfish just don't seem to school up in these areas like they do when it's not raining. To be totally honest, I try to put myself into the best possible situation to achieve success and after years of practice on the water, I've learned that your success ratio will soar if you play the odds.
The rain delay made my choice to fish the South Jersey backwaters a little more questionable as I learned of confirmed reports of keeper-sized stripers in the river and at the power-plant outflow, but I felt like I had a good plan and I was going to stick to it. With water temperatures pushing the 50-degree mark, I thought it might be a good idea to start at the inlet bridges. Those bridges yielded good numbers of bass on my last trip of the 2011 season (December 29) and it was possible, maybe even likely, that the fish stayed active throughout January and February. If plan A failed, plan B was to head back into the bay and fish some skinny water.
I arrived at the inlet just after midnight and found near-perfect conditions. The wind was calm, the water was clean, and the current was moving just right. While casting soft-plastic baits, I looked and listened, but I just couldn't find any promising signs of life. I made the rounds to check out some other productive areas near the inlets, but each attempt came up empty. I was starting to wonder if I should have headed up north to the power plant, but I continued on to plan B.
After a short ride, I pulled up to the same place that provided my first striper of 2011 (March 23). As I made my way to the water, I looked around and listened for feeding bass. More times than not, if the fish are at this location, you can see and hear them feeding on the surface. I looked and listened for a full five minutes before casting, but there were no signs of life. At this point, I was beginning to think that the first trip of the year was going to be an uneventful one.
My first cast hit the water and about two-seconds later, my baby bass-colored Zoom got thumped and the fight was on! Well, it wasn't much of a fight; the feisty 24-inch striper was far from impressive, but it sure felt good. I continued fishing the last hour of the incoming tide and landed four more bass between 18 and 26 inches. Right before high tide, I heard some thunderous pops on the far sod bank. This area was out of casting range, so you can imagine how torturous that experience was. The fish continued popping along the bank on the falling tide and all I could do was listen to what sounded like bowling bowls being thrown into the water. On the bright side, I picked up two more little bass before the wind picked up and the bite died down.
While it may be true that I didn't come home with any fish, I still consider my first trip a successful one. Seven stripers to 26 inches isn't a bad start to the season, but I still can't shake those earsplitting bowling-ball pops. I'll be back with my kayak!
We're just hours away from the beginning of the 2012 striped bass season! I'm sure some anglers may argue that the 2011 striper season never really ended, but March 1 marks a new season for our inlets, back bays, and rivers and I have a feeling it's going to be a good one!
If you're like me, right about now is when you start feeling like a little kid on Christmas Eve. Your mind starts racing and you start wondering: what will the new season bring? Will this be the year that I catch the monster fish that I've been dreaming about? If that trophy cow takes the hook, will my equipment hold up? Anticipation and excitement grow at the thought of a new season and the endless possibilities it offers.
Fortunately, this winter was as mild as any in recent memory. Ocean water temperatures in South Jersey seldom, if ever, dipped below 40 degrees. The average water temperature for the month of February in Cape May is 37 degrees. By mid-March, the water temperature rises to an average of 42 degrees. Right now, just days before March 1, the National Oceanographic Data Center (NODC) is reporting a balmy 47 degrees! Warmer water should make for some great early-season action.
There are a couple of areas that offer striped bass action year round, but for the most part, fishing action is historically slow during the first-half of the month. The season's first keeper-sized stripers typically come from warm-water outflows via power plants. This year should be different though. Above-average water temps and a favorable long-range forecast could mean that the playing field is a little more even and I have a feeling those warm-waters outflows won't be the only game in town.
In South Jersey, we are blessed with an intricate system of bays, sounds, rivers, and creeks that run from Cape May Harbor up through Barnegat Bay. These large, shallow bodies of water warm quickly and are particularly productive during the spring months. Resident bass will use these flats as feeding stations as small crabs, spearing, minnows, and grass shrimp are plentiful in these waters year round. Ordinarily, the shallow flats begin to turn on as we get closer towards the end of March, but I'm fairly certain that some of those flats are already holding active fish.
This Wednesday night, I plan on continuing my tradition of heading out at midnight on March 1, weather permitting. Usually, I know the chances of catching a fish on the opening day are slim, but this season I feel like my chances have increased tenfold. After a little homework, I found that high tide will be at 1:45 AM and it looks like it's going to be a little breezy at the location I plan on fishing. Another look ahead shows prime conditions, favorable-evening high tides and daytime air temps into the 60's, beginning on March 6, just a couple of days before the full moon. Tides and weather always play a role in fishing, but they're even more significant during the beginning of the season.
Catching the first bass of the new season should be enough of a reward, however there are a handful of bait and tackle shops that have sweetened the pot by putting a bounty on the first keeper-sized striped bass of the year. Some of the contests are location based, while others include the entire state. Absecon Bay Sportsmen's Center offers some of the area's most lucrative prizes such as a $200 gift certificate for the first keeper-sized striper, $100 gift certificate for the second keeper bass, and $50 for the third linesider weighed in at the shop. Dave also anteed up a $100 gift certificate for the first bass over 20 pounds and another for the first striper over 30 pounds. That's a lot of clams!
To start, I'd like to thank Rob Pavlick and the crew at noreast.com for bringing me back and giving me the opportunity to share some of my daily/weekly fishing adventures with such a great community. The new blog format offers unlimited possibilities; we've come a long way since the days of printed magazines and week-old fishing reports.
While many of us are sitting at home eagerly awaiting the return of spring stripers, some anglers never put their fishing equipment away. We're two-thirds of the way through one of the mildest-winter seasons that anyone can recall and savvy anglers are taking full advantage of the spring-like weather conditions. Sure, the fishing flea-markets and outdoor shows help with cabin fever, but there's nothing like the feeling of a bent rod!
Over the last few weeks, I've turned my attention to the local sweet-water venues. That's right, my beloved striped bass, weakfish, bluefish, and summer flounder have been replaced by chain pickerel, largemouth bass, yellow perch, and black crappie. While I'll be the first to admit it's far from an even swap, the smaller freshwater species are incredibly active and more than willing to pull on the other end of the line. Yellow perch and toothy pickerel have been particularly aggressive lately.
Living in South Jersey, we are blessed with a plethora of fishing opportunities. Besides the many saltwater options afforded to us, we have what seems to be an endless array of freshwater waterways. Rivers, creeks, streams, lakes, and ponds carve out much of our otherwise flattened landscape. Of course, many of the waters are private, but there are more than a few overlooked public ponds and lakes that offer unbelievable fishing opportunities.
I reside in Monroeville, NJ which is about five minutes from Route 55 and the town of Glassboro. After making the hour-long commute to the beach on what seemed like a daily basis, hitting the neighborhood fishing holes almost seems too convenient. To top it off, I seldom see another angler at any of the local hot spots, even on the nicest of days. Nice weather, lots of hungry fish, close to home, and no crowds, what's not to like?
If I had to choose one species to fish for during the winter months, it would surely be the chain pickerel. While these slimy, toothy beasts aren't nearly as appreciated as their larger cousins, the northern pike and mighty muskellunge, they offer great sport on light tackle and are abundant in just about all of our local waters. Pickerel will readily hit live baits, soft-plastic baits, plugs, and just about anything else that they can track down and fit into their mouths. Up close, you'll notice that their dentures are quite impressive; those razor-sharp teeth are more than capable of cutting through monofilament and braided lines. You'll have a whole new appreciation for "bass thumb" after you have to remove a top-water plug from a big pickerel's choppers.
Pickerel thrive in our shallow, acidic, timber-filled waters. On sunny days, they can often be found in just inches of water, making for some great visual strikes. That's why I prefer to start my trip with a top-water plug, usually a Rapala Skitter Pop, to see how aggressive the fish are on a particular day. If they're hitting the Skitter Pop, it's going to be a good day. If not, I'll switch up to a soft-plastic bait, Zoom Super Flukes are one of my favorites, and work the lure back with a relatively steady, but jerky retrieve. More times than not, pickerel will hit my artificial offerings. If for some reason the bite is slow, live bait will certainly wake them up. A live minnow casted into the right area is as close to a sure thing as you can get.
On Friday, the weather was perfect for a midwinter fishing trip: sunny, calm, and air temperatures rising to a balmy 50 degrees. It's been a while since I've spent time on the water with my oldest son, so we let him take the day off from school to go fishing. A few weeks ago, I stumbled onto an amazing bite at one of the nearby ponds; the chances of him spending most of the day with a fish on the end of his line were very good.
After a trip to Blackwater Sports Center, we arrived shortly after 9 AM. As we walked up to the water, we could see fish swimming away from the shoreline. It was a little chilly to start, but the warm sunshine felt good on our faces. Frankie tied on a Zoom Super Fluke, while I started Skitter Poppin' the flats. The fishing action started slowly, but as the February sun beat down on the dark-colored flats, the bite picked up. We played around with some different types of retrieves and started catching good numbers of pickerel and yellow perch. By 10 AM, we each had a handful of fish and I knew it was only going to get better.
By lunchtime, it seemed like we were hooking up on just about every cast. We caught a couple of largemouth bass, a few crappies, a bunch of hefty yellow perch, and just about every pickerel that lives in that lake. We spent the remainder of the day talking and laughing while we continued to reel in fish after fish. What more could you ask for?