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.
It's official: I'm in a slump. It happens almost every year, usually between the last week of July and first week of August. I used to fight it, but I've accepted it's a difficult time to fish most of our local waterways. I call it a summer slowdown. Most days, air temperatures range from 90 to 95 degrees and the fishing action just isn't what it used to be. This time of year, I'd much rather be in the water than on the water.
Over the last few days, our great freshwater bite really slowed down. Areas that yielded decent-sized fish since April have all but dried up. On our last trip, we caught a bunch of bass, but none over 14 inches – many weren't much bigger than the baits we used to tempt them. I don't expect an improvement in the near future as a glance at the long-range weather forecast looks like we'll be in the 90s for at least the next week. Well, it was fun while it lasted, but I guess it's time for me to make the change to the night shift.
Other than a few beach trips with the family, I've been away from the saltwater scene for a few weeks. You think I would have learned to bring a rod and reel after my last encounter with the sharks? As luck would have it, we returned to the same spot on the beach and instead of sharks working over large bunker schools, this time it was birds working over schools of peanut bunker and snapper bluefish. I felt like the yappy birds were laughing at me, but it was good to see some signs of life. In my experiences, the back bay and surf bite usually drops off during the dog days, but the summer night bite can be lots of fun.
According to reports, the summer flounder action is starting to heat up on our wreck and reef sites. While short fluke seem to inundate our shallow backwaters, the bigger flatfish usually head for cooler, deeper waters as we head into August. I don't fish on party/head boats often, but I usually manage a trip or two each summer for some deep-water fluke. I'm looking forward to a trip in the next few weeks.
Speaking of summer flounder, I was recently contacted by NBC 4 New York's reporter, Brian Thompson, regarding one of my YouTube fluke videos. Brian was reporting on more looming fluke cuts and wanted to use some of my underwater video footage for his spot on the evening news. I was happy to oblige, but I'm not happy to hear about more cuts to our summer flounder quota. According to sources, the latest scientific assessments are calling for a 43-percent reduction in next year's catches. A 43-percent reduction could mean an even shorter season, higher minimum-size limits and a smaller daily bag limit. Legislators may attempt to loosen the noose a little by spreading the reduction out over a few years, but either way, things are not looking good for flounder-pounders or the businesses that depend on the summer fishery. I'll keep current with the situation and update my blog accordingly.
NBC 4 Summer Flounder Cuts
In other news, according to the NJDEP Fish and Wildlife's web site, the Striped Bass Bonus Program will reopen on Tuesday, September 1, 2015. The party/charter boat facet of the program will also be reinstated. Applications for individuals, as well as party/charter boats, are now being accepted. Former 2015 permit holders will automatically receive a new permit prior to the September reopening. Striped Bass Bonus Program participants will be allowed to harvest one striped bass between 24 and 28 inches. If you've been around as long as I have we used to call this a "slot fish." The SBBP uses the New Jersey commercial harvest quota of 215,912 pounds. If that SBBP surpasses the commercial quota, reductions will be made to the program in 2016. To review, the New Jersey recreational striped bass regulations are as follows: one fish at 28 inches to less than 43 inches and one fish greater than 43 inches. Striped Bass Bonus Program permit holders can keep an additional fish between 24 and 28 inches.
The reopening of the Striped Bass Bonus Program (SBBP) will be at least slightly controversial. Many anglers feel like the striped bass stocks are in decline and the State of New Jersey may have already pushed a little too far with their choice of a two-fish daily bag limit, especially when many of the migration states decided to drop to a one fish bag limit. In my opinion, the state is doing little to protect our striped bass stocks. When you add the new SBBP "slot fish" to the state's striped bass daily possession regulations, only striped bass measuring less than 24 inches are protected. In what could be a critical time to determine the future of the striped bass stocks do we really want to continue keeping three fish of various sizes per day?
I think I'm going to see how the fall run pans out and make my own regs this season – within the legal-limit options of course. To be honest, I miss the "slot limit" fish as the little stripers were tasty, easy to clean and fairly easy to catch in the South Jersey backwaters I frequent. However, if I don't see some improvements during the fall run, I'm not sure those little striped bass will taste as good as I remember.
Is it me or is the fishing season flying by? After a late start to a short, but sweet spring run, it seems as though the summer season arrived right on schedule. I was hoping for an extended spring run, but it seems we've transitioned into our summer fishing patterns as the striped bass and big bluefish continue their northward migration. Summer flounder action seems a little slow as the back-bay flatfish are heading towards the inlets, but the wreck and reef action isn't on fire yet. As far as I can tell, the spotlight appears to be shifting over to sharks and rays. Coastal-water temperatures range from close to 75 degrees at Atlantic City to almost 80 degrees down in Cape May.
Speaking about things flying by and moving along, I received a letter from the American Littoral Society (ALS) the other day regarding a fish I tagged at the Delaware River this spring. I tagged and released an 18-inch striper on 4/9/15 and it was recaptured fifty-five days later on 6/3/15 at Kittery Point, near the New Hampshire/Maine border – that's nearly 400 miles as the crow flies and much longer for a striped bass considering it had to swim south out of the river, down through the Delaware Bay and then north along the beachfront to Maine. I had no idea the smaller fish travelled so far so quickly. I shared the news with my Dad and Jake, as they were present when I tagged the fish. It seems like that little striped bass wanted to get as far away from us as it could!
Tag #850417 Ready for Release
From the Delaware River to Maine in 55 days!
I'm still fairly new to the fish-tagging scene, but I've found the experience to be incredibly enjoyable. I started tagging in late October of 2013 and my only regret is I wish I started years ago. To date, I tagged forty-one (thirty-nine striped bass and two summer flounder) fish and I received four (three stripers and one summer flounder) returned tags. I do not take my tagging gear with me on most trips as tagging fish does require a little extra time and effort so I usually plan my fish-tagging trips in the spring and fall when I'm most likely to find numbers of migrating fish. For more information on the American Littoral Society's Fish Tagging Program, please contact Jeff Dement at Jeff@LittoralSociety.org or (732) 291-0055 ext. 106.
I love getting mail from the American Littoral Society!
On Sunday, July 12, we had a family get together in North Wildwood. I traded my fishing rods and tackle bag for beach blankets, picnic baskets, chairs, sunscreen, bug spray, coolers, beach bags, Frisbees and footballs. We arrived early and set up just a few blocks south of Hereford Inlet. I have to admit, I felt a little out of place being near the water without my fishing rods, but we were packed for a day of fun in the sun. As luck would have it, while lugging way too many items over the dune towards the beach, I looked out towards the water and saw two gigantic schools of bunker about 100 yards off the beach. As I set up what seemed like a small town on the beach, Jake headed for the water and said he saw two sharks just a few feet in front of him. I headed out to see for myself and sure enough, I spotted a few sharks working the backside of the sandbar. As far as I could tell, they were small (3 to 4 foot) brown sharks, otherwise known as sandbar sharks and very common in our waters. The bunker schools quickly pushed offshore as they were worked over by what I assume were more sharks. We spotted a few more sharks and a ton of dolphins throughout the day. We had a great time, but I wish I packed a rod!
I haven't spent much time targeting sharks or rays, but I have caught a few while fishing for other species such as summer flounder, weakfish and late-season striped bass. Over the years, I tussled with a few smaller brown sharks, a couple southern rays, a gigantic butterfly ray and countless cownose rays. The sharks and rays provide a great sport, especially on light tackle, but I just never got into them. After reading some recent reports and seeing a ton of big fish beach photos, maybe it's time to reconsider?
While I may be tempted to try a trip or two for sharks, it's going to be difficult to pull myself from the recent stretch of great freshwater action. The largemouth bass bite has been outstanding, as Jake and I continue to experience quantity and quality on most of the nearby lakes and ponds. Top-water plugs, frogs, plastic worms and big, live baits are working well. The recent storms have the water a little off color, but the fish don't seem to mind. Docks, bridges, dams and patches of lily pads are yielding good numbers of quality fish. Big bluegills, crappie, yellow perch and pickerel just add to the fun. If you have a chance to visit a neighborhood pond or lake one evening, I promise it will be worth your while.
Just minutes after completing my last blog entry, I grabbed my pole and walked down to the lake. As luck would have it, on my very first cast, I battled a 5+ pound largemouth bass to the bank. After all my writing about how it's not all about catching, it's funny how pumped I was after landing this beauty. While it may not be all about catching, it sure is exhilarating when that big girl strikes, bends the rod, starts pulling drag and goes airborne!
6/18 Adrenaline-pumping Beauty!
Late June into July offers some of the best freshwater fishing opportunities of the year, especially for largemouth bass anglers. Big, post-spawn largemouth bass are coming off their nests and extremely hungry. While targeting largemouth bass, you're very likely to come across some other types of green monsters such as gator chain pickerel and slab black crappies. After years of fishing in South Jersey, I'm still amazed at the size of some of the fish that live in our local "puddles."
As back-bay saltwater opportunities for large striped bass and weakfish continue to dwindle, the freshwater action for largemouth and pickerel fills in nicely. Options for catching bass and pickerel are almost limitless, as we've caught fish on everything from plastic frogs, rubber worms, buzz baits, and plugs to blades of grass, hot dogs, bread and banana peels. Whatever you choose, it's likely that if you present your offering well, a fish will end up on the end of your line.
When fishing for bass and pickerel, there are two types of fishing that I prefer: one is for numbers of fish while the other is for big fish. Top-water fishing is tough to beat, especially in many of our weed-choked waterways. If you fish the local waters, make sure to include some frogs, poppers, and top-water plugs like a Heddon Zara Spook – the walk-the-dog retrieve is deadly around lily pads. Make sure to have a rubber worm or jig rigged on another rod to throw as a follow up to any missed top-water strikes. Summer evenings are primetime to throw top-water offerings, but if you can cast close enough to cover, chances are you'll tempt fish at any time of day. Jake and I have been fishing the afternoon shift and killing them on Spooks. Some of the hits are mind blowing - you can see a v-shaped wake accelerate towards your lure and then explode on it!
6/14 Big Pickerel exploded on a Zara Spook
While top-water action provides great action and visuals, nothing compares to live lining big baits for green monsters. As much as I enjoy fooling largemouth bass on artificial lures, watching a 20-inch + bass inhale a 6 to 8-inch golden shiner or a hand-sized sunfish is thrilling. I've spent hours working over an area of the lake with artificial lures with nothing to show for it and then tossed in a shiner, sunfish or perch and had groups of 2 to 6-pound fish appear immediately at my feet as if by magic. If I could bottle whatever action/scent those baitfish put off, I'm sure I'd be a millionaire.
Big Baits = Big Fish!
I came across the use of big live baits many years ago as a boy and purely by accident. I was fishing with night crawlers in front of a spillway when a big bluegill took my hook. Halfway through the battle, the bluegill felt like it got snagged. I tugged and tugged until it pulled free. As I pulled the bluegill towards my feet, I saw a big bass dart in after it. Shocked by what happened, I tossed the sunfish back out and it was grabbed immediately by the green monster. Again I played the fish, but in the end, I pulled the sunfish from the big fish's mouth. Looking back, with a little hook in the sunfish's mouth, I had little to no chance of hooking the big bass, but my adrenaline was pumping and I couldn't get the bait back in the water quick enough. I'm not sure I slept that night.
I returned to the lake more times than I can remember and I had that fish on for what seemed like a 100 times, but I just couldn't land it. I remember one day I had her to my feet before she spit the hook and sat in inches of water staring at me – my buddy, Andre, jumped into the water to grab it, but with one swoosh of her big tail she returned to the depths. Attempt after attempt, I just couldn't get her mouth into my hand. After snapping my 8-pound mono more than few times, I even brought my surf rod down to the lake. I had her on my surf rod, but she managed to spit the hook. Before the younger generation starts laughing, just remember we didn't have braided line, Google, YouTube, and all the other great info you're fortunate enough to have today – we learned on our own and sometimes it took us a while.
July 6, 1995 will always be a special day in my memory. It was the day before I was to marry my beautiful wife and the day I finally caught the green monster! I remember my fishing buddy laughing at me for tossing out a hand-sized bluegill. He joked, "Are you fishing for sharks?" Soon after he said that, the sunfish jumped put of the water followed by a big dorsal fin – my buddy had stopped laughing by now. The sunfish went crazy and then I felt the telltale bump of the largemouth grabbing its meal. I let her run for what seemed like five minutes, before setting the hook and driving it home. After a long back and forth battle and knowledge gained from prior mistakes, I pulled the gigantic bass onto the bank. My buddy, Glenn and I stood and stared in amazement. The fish was enormous and I remember Glenn saying, "Its eyes are bigger than yours!" I put the fish on a stringer, as I was sure I wanted to mount this beast. Glenn caught a sunfish and quickly had it rigged for live lining – if I remember right, he caught a nice 3-pounder a few minutes later. The park ranger and just about everyone else at the lake admired my trophy. As she sat there in the water, Glenn asked if I felt bad killing her. I thought about it for a few minutes and decided to let her go – we didn't have iPhones or digital cameras on us back then so I couldn't even take a picture of my prize. After I revived her and she swam away, Glenn said, " There is no way I would have let that fish go." We laughed about it and packed up to get ready for my big day. That was almost twenty years ago and I remember it like yesterday – that was my biggest bass to date and I have nothing other than a memory, but that's enough.
For some reason, live lining seems to be considered "cheating" by many of today's bass anglers. I assume some of the "pros" would mention (and rightly so) that the chances of gut-hooking a big fish are increased greatly when fishing with live baits, but after twenty years, I've figured out a few ways to minimalize the damage. First, I use big hooks - the larger the hook the better the odds that a big bass or pickerel will not ingest the hook – 6/0, 8/0 and even 10/0 size hooks are good choices. I hook the baitfish as far back towards the end of the dorsal fin as I can – many, if not all, big baits are consumed from the headfirst – having the hook further back into the bait will result in less deep hook sets. If the hook is swallowed and cannot be removed somewhat easily, cut the line and minimalize the stress on the fish. Finally, the big girls fight with everything they have so make sure to spend a good amount of time reviving them properly.
6/25 A live-lined shiner took this nice bass.
It's time for me to head to the lake to visit our local green monsters – lately it's been tougher to catch the shiners than the bass. If everything works out as I'm hoping, the fish will provide some fireworks this afternoon. I hope everyone enjoys some time on the water this holiday weekend. Good luck and stay safe!