by Frank Ruczynski
For some of us, striped bass season is in full swing, yet many of New Jersey's southernmost anglers are left wondering when or if the striped bass season will begin at all. By many accounts, reports of striped bass and bluefish from New York to Long Beach Island (LBI) have been outstanding, while anglers fishing south of Atlantic City are left questioning the health of the fishery. This pattern seems to be more of a reoccurring trend than an anomaly and I think it's about time we addressed it.
Is it time to worry or should South Jersey anglers remain patient and hope the big schools of striped bass eventually make their way towards Cape May? As a longtime South Jersey angler, I can tell you for certain things aren't like they used to be. Stop waiting for the fish and do yourself a favor - migrate north!
Over the last few fall seasons, it's almost like the Garden State Parkway exits could be used as a striped-bass meter in which the exit numbers equate your chances at landing decent-sized striped bass: Exit 0 down in Cape May, Exit 38 to Atlantic City, Exit 63 at LBI, Exit 82 takes you to Island Beach State Park and Exit 100 will put you into the Asbury Park area. From LBI to the north, most anglers are happy catching 20 to 30-pound striped bass, while most South Jersey anglers are happy catching 20 to 30-inch stripers. About 50 to 80 miles separates world-class striped bass fishing versus dogfish city.
In my own experiences, I have spent less than 5% of my fishing time north of LBI, yet over the last five years many of my best catching trips, in both numbers and sizes, have taken place to the north. I grew up fishing just about every nook and cranny of South Jersey and I've grown to love and appreciate all that the area has to offer, but the fall runs just aren't cutting it anymore. My familiarity with the local waters keeps me coming back in hopes of finding the action that I once knew, but I consider myself lucky to have a handful of memorable trips per season. I'm beginning to question my want to fish south of LBI at all.
I joke with many of my northern friends, "Anything north of LBI is New York to me." There seems to be an imaginary line that cuts along the Route 72 Causeway in which the state transforms into a completely different and unfamiliar area, especially along the coast. Rooting interest for professional sports teams change from Philly-based teams to NJ/NY teams; hoagies are called subs; minnows are referred to as killies and most importantly the coastline changes. If you look at a map of New Jersey, Barnegat Inlet and to the south is the point where the coastline begins to recede towards the west. This one feature alone could be enough to explain the difference in fishing action results for North and South Jersey anglers.
While geographical features cannot be underestimated, there are many more questions to ask – many of which I'm not sure anyone can answer. Are the big schools of striped bass currently off our northern/central coast Hudson or Raritan Bay fish? How many of them actually retreat northward back into deep-water holes to wait out the winter months? Do most of the fish continue south from Barnegat Inlet and follow a straight line south and stay miles off the South Jersey Coast? What happened to the Delaware Bay fishery? Is climate change and warming ocean waters to blame? Despite lots of research and our best science, many of us are left with more questions than answers.
My thoughts on the subject are relatively simple. The range of striped bass is clearly shrinking due to a dwindling biomass. Much like the weakfish, I witnessed the best fishing action move a few inlets north almost every season – it started in the Delaware Bay, moved up and around Cape May and before you know it, most of the South Jersey coast loses another solid fishery. I watched the weakfish collapse happen and denied it at the time, mostly because I was catching some of the largest weakfish of my lifetime – albeit in a smaller area and a little further north than I was used to fishing. Sounds familiar right?
With all that said, I've had a lot of fun with the striped bass this fall. The northern fishery is as good as it's been in years and I'm finding good numbers of smaller striped bass in a lot of my backwater holes. However, I cannot ignore the fact that fishing in South Jersey has been dismal. My range used to consist of Atlantic City to Cape May. Lately, I find myself fishing from Avalon to Seaside Park, but my trips south of Ocean City have been few and far between. I haven't completely given up as I plan on fishing south tonight. I'm trying to keep hope alive, but it's becoming increasingly difficult.
At this point, it would almost be some type of small miracle if the striped bass moved down into our neighborhood just in time for the holiday season. It wouldn't be the first time South Jersey fishing lit up after the Thanksgiving holiday - some years the action lasted well into the New Year. Regardless, I'd like to wish everyone a great Thanksgiving. Enjoy time with your family and friends and if you can do it on the water that's even better. It's time for me to go chase some linesiders.