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.
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.
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
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!
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!