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.
With a mild winter, I had high hopes for an early spring run, but every time conditions began to look promising, we'd get just enough of a cold blast to shut down any hopes of serious action. Fortunately, the latest warm-up put us over the top and the fishing action blew wide open. Striped bass reports seem to be coming in from all over South Jersey. Over the weekend, solid reports of striped bass came from anglers fishing the rivers, bays, inlets and even out front along our southern beaches. Many of the striped bass are on the small side, but there are enough keepers around to make it interesting. The big girls can't be far behind!
Conditions are prime for serious action. With daytime highs forecast in the 50s and 60s, it looks like we've finally turned the corner. Ocean water temperatures are running well-above average as the NOAA monitoring station in Cape May is reporting 51.8 degrees while the Atlantic City station checks in at 47.8 degrees. Backwater temperatures are finally stable and holding in the low to mid 50's.
Photo courtesy of U.S. Geological Survey
The recent stretch of warm weather pushed the back bay water temperatures into the 50s and the striped bass bite went from zero to hundred in what seemed like seconds. The last few days and nights have been a blur. Between holiday family gatherings, modifying my trailer, rigging my new Wilderness Systems A.T.A.K. and striper fishing the overnight shift, time for sleep has been few and far between. With a great striper bite, who has time for sleep?
Jake's spring break couldn't have come at a better time. Earlier in the week, we put off a few fishing trips to get some household chores and yard work done in order to bank fishing time for this week. We started our weeklong fishing spree on Saturday at Wilson Lake at Scotland Run Park. Jake met up with a school buddy to fish from his bass boat, while Jen and I paddled our kayaks around the lake. It was my maiden trip on the new ATAK and it was great – I never imagined I'd be standing in a kayak, but I did and the platform was very stable. The adjustable Air Pro Max seat is amazing - in the high position, my viewpoint of the flats was much improved, yet I didn't feel like I gave up much, if any, stability. I caught a bunch of pickerel and few largemouth bass on Rapala Shadow Raps. Our boys in the bass boat didn't fare as well. After my first trip, I have some outfitting to do, but one thing is for sure: my ATAK is going to be one bad fishing machine!
My New Fishing Machine
After ribbing Jake about his uneventful day on the water, he wanted redemption. Even though we were both tired, we decided to head down to the backwaters to catch the late-night high tide. When I pulled up to one of our favorite early-season hot spots, I noticed the wind was blowing a lot more than it was back at home - I started feeling like it may not be our night.
My hopes were soon restored as I watched a striper swipe at my jig on the first cast! As I looked over to tell Jake, I watched his rod double over and he screamed out, "I'm on!" My second cast got annihilated and the fun began. Doubled up, we battled our pair of 26-inch stripers up onto the bank. As Jake held both bass for a quick photo, the top-water popping began. We could hear bass after bass exploding on baitfish – if you've never been fortunate enough to experience this, it sounds and looks like someone is throwing bowling balls into the water.
It turned into one of those nights where we could do no wrong. Stripers were popping at our feet to as far out as we could see. Our retrieval styles and cast location didn't seem to matter - it was an all out feeding frenzy and we hooked up on just about every cast for almost three hours. I couldn't imagine kicking off the spring striper season in a better way!
During the wee hours of the morning, I think delirium set in as Jake began mumbling incoherently. With an hour ride home, we decided to pack it up even though the fish were still biting, but between us, we tallied close to fifty stripers on the night. Most of the stripers were in the 23 to 26-inch range, however we did manage to box a pair of keepers for the dinner table. I fished the entire night with a bubblegum-colored Zoom Super Fluke on a ¼-ounce jig head while Jake fished with the same Zoom, but on a ½-ounce lead head.
I returned to the same locale last night and found the stripers feeding on top again. I got in a good hour of action before the skies opened and the rain came down. People say that fish don't mind the rain, but that's not the case in my experiences, especially when I'm fishing on the flats. The fishing action didn't completely die, but it slowed down considerably - enough that I determined it wasn't worth getting soaked over. I decided to pack it up to catch up on sleep so I can be ready for my next trip.
Before the Rain
If you're still wondering when it's worth getting your gear out and hitting the water, the answer is now! The freshwater action is great, our resident striped bass are active, and the bigger migratory striped bass are moving up into the rivers to spawn. Trout Day is less than two weeks away and bluefish, weakfish and summer flounder will be here before you know it. Good luck out there - it's time for me to hit the water.
Wow, what a warm up! It's hard to believe we had a couple inches of snow on the ground a week ago and now I'm sunburnt from head to toe! The recent stretch of 70 and 80-degree sunny days almost seems too good to be true; it is early March in South Jersey right? Birds are singing during the day while chorus frogs screams can be heard throughout the night. One thing is for sure: warm, sunny days will kick start fishing action all over the area so expect fishing reports to pick up greatly in the coming week.
After years of logging fishing trips, it didn't take long to see how much weather and water conditions influence fishing action. Air temperatures, water temperatures, wind speed, wind direction, cloudy days versus sunny days, rainfall or lack of rainfall and a myriad of other weather-related factors have at least some impact on most species of fish. Water temperature is certainly one of the main factors to consider when fishing. Cold water temperatures may not always dictate movement, as in migration, but it does play a major role when it comes to feeding habits. Knowing your quarries preferences will help increase the odds of a successful day on the water.
Unlike air temperatures, water temperatures usually change gradually; however, big swings in air temperatures, like the unseasonal warm-up we're experiencing now, can speed up the process dramatically. Dark-colored mud flats and a strong March sun are a perfect combination to warm up chilly waters. Smaller, shallow bodies of water can vary by as much as twenty degrees in just a few hours. In tidal areas, the back-bay flats will warm up much more on a sunny day, especially towards low tide. An incoming tide can drop temperatures and an angler's odds at finding active fish considerably as cold ocean water flushes over the flats.
USGS Current Water Temperature Chart
Last week's snowfall put a littler damper on my hopes of an early-season striped bass. I haven't fished the backwaters for striped bass since opening day, but after the last few days and a glance at the water temperature, I believe it's time to start making plans. The long-range forecast looks good with average to above average daytime highs. Back bay water temperatures are already flirting with that magical 50-degree mark. Reports along the Delaware River are trickling in and I have a feeling we'll be hearing a lot more about striped bass over the upcoming weekend.
Even though I didn't get out for stripers, I tried to make the most of the beautiful weather by spending some time in my kayak on the local waters. On Tuesday, my daughter, Julia, and I stopped by Wilson Lake at Scotland Run Park. We arrived at the lake around 10 AM and it was already approaching 70 degrees. First step into the water quickly reminded me that the recent snow had melted just days before: the water was so cold; it felt like it was cutting you! I tried my normal go-to fishing holes, but the chilly water seemed to be working against me.
With just a small pickerel to show for my efforts, I decided to head towards the shallow flats at the back of the lake. After a quick paddle onto the flats, I could see the sun's effect on the skinny water as tiny baitfish were being pushed along a weed line by a school of hungry pickerel. I poked around in skinny-water areas that would be unreachable by any other means other than a kayak and it was perfect. Only a week into March and I'm on the lake in my kayak in shorts and a t-shirt catching fish after fish.
I told Jake about our trip that evening and decided to let him play hooky on Wednesday – what can I say, 80 degrees in March is a holiday at our house. We had plans to hit a nearby lake that had been on our radar for years, but we just never got around to fishing it. Fishing is allowed but kayak access would be difficult as would parking my trailer. Whatever the case, we were going to make it happen.
We got to the lake a little later this time – you know to let the sun work its magic. I pulled up to lake and we quickly unloaded the kayaks. Our only access was from a small, backwoods road and we had to slide the kayaks under a guardrail. Once we unloaded our gear, I parked the car a short distance away and took off my shoes and left them in the car. The walk back to the kayaks was fine, but loading the kayaks from land to the water would be an issue: hundreds of little spiked balls (we call them monkey balls) properly known as sweet gum balls made the barefoot carrying and rigging a real nightmare – I might have preferred walking on glass.
Once we finished navigating our way through the treacherous monkey balls, we slid the kayaks into the water and felt like we finally arrived in paradise. The warm sunshine, crystal-clear water (which was noticeable warmer than the day before) and light breeze set the table for a great afternoon on the water. I hooked a pickerel on my third cast and never looked back. The grass beds are just coming to life and were quite a spectacle as shades of greens and gold blended into each other. As luck would have it, the best fishing took place right on these shallow grass beds.
A pickerel's colors camogflage perfectly into the green and gold weeds.
Jake and I spent hours catching bass and pickerel on small jigs and soft-plastic baits. After exploring the lake, we decided that it has some serious potential. We didn't take the day lightly as this type of weather should be appreciated for all its worth. Towards the end of the day, neither of us wanted to go home: mostly because the weather was so beautiful, but also because we knew we'd have to pass the monkey-ball gauntlet again.
Honestly, if I could picture heaven, it would be very similar to my experiences this week – well, maybe the fish could be a little bigger. Spending a beautiful day on the water with the people you care the most about; how can it get any better? I hope everyone has an opportunity to enjoy the spring season as much as I plan to.
It feels great to be back in the swing of things! Getting off the couch and back out by the water's edge with a bent rod was exactly what I needed. Even though fishing action isn't quite in full swing yet, some impressive catches have been made over the last few days. Freshwater action is very good and the season's first striped bass have already hit the scales. We have a lot to look forward to, as fishing action should continue to improve with each passing day.
Let's start with striped bass – Tuesday, March 1 marked the beginning of a new fishing season for many of us as New Jersey's back bay and inlet waters opened to striped bass fishing. A few South Jersey tackle shops offer "bounties" for the first legal striped bass of the season. Captain Dave Showell, from Absecon Bay Sportsman Center, offers one of the most-generous bounties around. Anglers can claim a variety of prizes, up to a $200 gift certificate. On Tuesday afternoon, Matthew Calabria made the long ride from Raritan Bay with a 28.5-inch striper to claim the title of the season's first striped bass and earned two $100 gift certificate prizes.
Matthew Calabria with the Season's First Striper! Photo courtesy of Absecon Bay Sportsman Center
Minutes after Matthew claimed his prize, local angler, Trevor Daniels, stopped by the shop with his own striped bass - taken from the Mullica River. Trevor's striped bass pushed the scale down to 23.7 pounds and earned Trevor two $100 store gift certificates of his own. I'd like to congratulate both anglers – catching the season's first striped bass and earning $200 worth of equipment at Absecon Bay is a great way to start the 2016 season!
Trevor Daniels with His Prize-winning 23.7-pound Striped Bass Photo courtesy of Absecon Bay Sportsman Center
I wish I had a great fish story to share, but my season-opening trip was rather uneventful. For the first time in a few years, yours truly drove down to fish for stripers on opening day – well, opening night as I started fishing just after midnight on Tuesday, March 1. I had good conditions, but just didn't come across any signs of life. I made the rounds and gave it an honest effort, but came home empty handed. On the way home, I thought to myself, "we're close but just not there yet." I have a rather odd cue that signals when the striped bass bite begins in earnest: frogs – spring peepers to be exact. I haven't heard the chorus of frogs yet this year. There is one particular area, just about a ¼ mile from my home, where I usually hear the first peepers of the year. After taking my first skunk off the year, I'm nearing home and pull up to the last stop sign intersection before my house. I roll down my window and believe it or not, I heard what sounded like a solo frog doing its thing. I sat at the intersection (I live in a rural area and at 3:30 AM I'm not holding up traffic) and listened to that lone peeper for a few minutes with a big smile on my face. It won't be long before thousands of frogs are singing and screaming through the night and the stripers turn on the feedbag.
I think we have a few more days to wait, but I expect things to pick up later into next week. The weather doesn't look great to end the week as it seems like we're due for a little snow tonight and maybe a few more flakes on Sunday. Fortunately, next week looks to rebound nicely as I saw a bunch of days in the 60's and a couple in the 70s! The water temperature stations are showing a slight improvement since last week as Atlantic City is reporting 43.9 degrees and Cape May shows 44.1 degrees. I'm sure next week's warm afternoons will get those frogs singing and wake up the resident stripers.
While the striped bass seem to be a little slow to start, I've had a little more luck at the nearby lakes and ponds. Largemouth bass, yellow perch, crappies, and pickerel seem to be enjoying the extended daylight and are frequenting the warmer, shallow flats. I used to fish with live baits early in the season, but I feel like I'm holding my own with a variety of soft-plastic baits. Trout Magnets, Berkley Gulp Minnows and rubber worms seem to be on par with live baits. Jake and I haven't caught any big bass this week, but I've seen a few trophy fish taken recently. March is a great time of year to catch quality bucket mouths.
This Average-sized Spring Bass Couldn't Resist a Berkley Gulp Minnow
After not fishing for a few weeks, it seems like I'm a little more of an action junkie than usual and crappies have a way of filling in nicely. It seems like just about any shallow structure (2 to 4 feet) is holding crappies and the bite continues to get better each day. The wind has been a bit of an issue - catching in 20 to 30 MPH winds is never easy, especially when you're tossing ultra-light lures. Despite the wind, Jake and I are having a ball with the local crappies.
Jake Tempted This Slab Crappie with a Rubber Worm
In the coming weeks, I'm sure I'll forget about those crappies and move on to bigger and better things. To be honest, I'm already looking forward to tiderunner weakfish and striped bass, but for now, those crappies are the best thing going and I'm going to enjoy every minute of it. If you have a chance to hit the water, don't overlook the great crappie bite – they can be found in great numbers and are lot of fun on light tackle.