by Frank Ruczynski
It was a great ride, but it looks like we're back to the reality of winter in South Jersey. After an unseasonably mild November and December, I had high hopes for at least the first half of January. A three-day stretch of below freezing temperatures and nighttime lows flirting with single digits proved to be a bit of a mood killer. Over the last few days, coastal water temperatures dropped by nearly 10 degrees and many of our local sweetwater venues have just enough ice to making fishing nearly impossible. The 2015 fishing season started at a zero-to-one-hundred pace so I guess it's only fitting it would end much the same way.
I don't plan on throwing in the towel just yet, but one more cold shot will likely be the knockout punch. The coming weekend actually looks promising – a little rain, but temperatures in the 50s on Saturday and 60s on Sunday. Long-range weather forecasts don't look as favorable and I'm thinking this weekend could be our last shot at any serious action.
Before the cold blast, anglers were making the most of the great late-season striped bass opportunities. Striped bass fishing was steady on all fronts. The backwater bite stayed strong right up until the closure at midnight on January 1. The surf bite was great before the cold shot, but slowed considerably over the last few days. A little east wind and some warmer weather could give the local surfcasters one more shot this weekend. The best striper bite seems to be happening just off the beach where private and charter boats continue to report blitz-like conditions. Yesterday, January 7, Captain Skip Jastremski of the Cape May-based Stalker reported good numbers of striped bass to 40 pounds!
I continued to work the skinny waters for striped bass until the New Year. I had back-bay stripers blowing up on grass shrimp and spearing at 2 AM on Thursday, December 31. The fish showed no signs of slowing down as they annihilated my pink soft-plastic baits and would throw head-shaking fits on every hook set. If the cold weather didn't move in, I'd surely be tempted to make a few more backwater trips. I'm going to miss my line-sided backwater buddies. March 1, 2016 can't come soon enough!Goodbye backwater stripers and 2015!
With the saltwater season nearing its end, I'm looking forward to spending time closer to home and some serious freshwater fishing. I never completely stop fishing freshwater, but it takes somewhat of a backseat when there are good saltwater fishing opportunities. Over the last few days, freshwater action came to a crashing halt as artic air moved in and covered many of our local waterways with a thin layer of ice. One day, I had new lily pads emerging from the warm mudflats and the next they were covered in ice. I believe the fish knew the change was coming as they put on the feedbag and we had some unbelievable action right before the deep freeze.
Before the cold snap, Jake and I were fishing just about every afternoon. Action was good as we caught lots of crappies, yellow perch, pickerel and small largemouth bass on jigs and soft-plastic baits. The crappie bite seemed to provide the best action so we concentrated on them and had a blast. A small float and a little crappie jig is about as simple as it gets. Rigged properly, I doubt there is a more efficient way to catch winter crappies. Jake and I had doubles for most of the afternoon.
Speaking of floats, those little plastic bobbers seem to get a bad rap. Fishing with a float may seem juvenile to some, but they work well for a bunch of reasons – besides being a brightly colored strike indicator, the weighted floats I use allow me to cast 1-inch grubs rigged on 1/64-ounce jigs great distances and they keep the bait strategically suspended in the strike zone which is especially important when fishing in chilly waters. When properly utilized, a bobber becomes more than a float - it becomes another useful tool in an angler's arsenal. Bobber Down!
If our waterways don't ice over, I plan on fishing for pickerel, yellow perch and crappies right through winter. The pineland bogs are on my radar this winter – I'm wondering how they compare to some of my favorite local pickerel hot spots. As I grow older, my sense of reason seems to outrank my sense of adventure. I find myself asking, "Why drive an hour to fish new waters where I'm uncertain of the outcome when I know I can catch tons of fish closer to home?" It's a difficult battle, but one that I believe is worth fighting as I find myself learning much more on unfamiliar waters. My resolution for the 2016 fishing season isn't a new or trophy species – it's to get out of my old routine and add more adventure to the sport I enjoy so much. Whatever your goals are for the 2016 season, I wish you the best! I'm looking forward to 2016 and big pickerel like this one!