I've spent the last twenty-five 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.
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!