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 daytime highs in the 90s and another heat wave expected for the coming week, it's hard to believe we'll be flipping our calendars to September tomorrow morning. For many, Labor Day marks the unofficial end of the summer season and it's just a week away. Thousand of big, yellow buses will be on the road later this week as the kids head back to school and if you haven't noticed, the sun is setting a little earlier each day. Some of the local wildlife is already shifting gears – several species of birds and fish are already staging in preparation to make their fall migration. The writing is on the wall: enjoy what's left of summer because fall is right around the corner.
Sunsets Are a Little Earlier
As much as I enjoy the summer months, I'm looking forward to fall and everything that comes with it – well, everything but raking the yard. According to many of the long-range weather forecasts, it seems like we could be in store for a warm autumn. A late summer followed by a warm fall usually goes in one of two ways: a late run that last well into the new year or a late run that ends abruptly with coastal storms and frigid temps. In the part of South Jersey I fish the most, Atlantic City to Cape May, summerlike fishing patterns can last well into October. A September mullet run provides a little spark, but for the most part, we're left waiting for the striped bass and bluefish to make their way down from places like Montauk, Sandy Hook and Island Beach State Park.
A slow and calm transition from summer to fall usually bodes well for Cape May County specialty anglers whom target southern species such as speckled sea trout and redfish – my fingers are crossed! A few good sea trout seasons were followed up by a little boom in redfish catches in 2012 and 2013, but the 2014 season turned out to be a big bust – I blame the frequent cold fronts for cutting our season short. If the weather cooperates, the specks and redfish fill a niche for many of us as we wait for the bass and bluefish.
Let's hope some redfish show up for this year's mullet run!
With coastal water temperatures at 74 degrees in Atlantic City and 79 degrees in Cape May, I haven't put much time in lately. However, fishing reports are picking up a little and I plan on making a few scouting trips later this week. Mullet and peanut bunker schools are popping up all over our backwaters so it makes sense that our resident striped bass, weakfish, bluefish and summer flounder are becoming more active.
It's time to dig out the cast nets!
Back at home, I've been busy with end of the summer activities such as fishing with Jake, family reunion barbeques, school shopping and becoming a grandpa! Addison Lee Ruczynski came into the world on August 16th and checked in at 8 pounds, 6 ounces and 20 inches – a keeper for sure! Addison is a real cutie and I'm already looking forward to having another little fishing buddy!
She's a keeper!
In between the excitement of a new family member, Jake and I have been hitting the local ponds and lakes. For the most part, fishing action has been a little slow as many of the local waterways we frequent are low and crystal clear. I believe I heard something in passing about this August being one of the driest on record – we haven't had much rain in quite some time. Small pickerel and largemouth bass are providing some action, but we're working for them. I enjoyed freshwater fishing this summer, but I really miss the salt life. I'm looking forward to mornings on the beachfront and nights in the backwaters.
In other news, I'm expecting my 2015 Striped Bass Bonus Program Permit (SBBP) any day now. The original message from New Jersey's Fish and Wildlife page stated that current 2015 permit holders would receive their new permits by September 1st, however it appears the notice was updated recently and now states, "All current permit holders received notice that the old 2015 permits are no longer valid and will automatically receive a new permit prior to or shortly after September 1, 2015." As of September 1, the new (SBBP) regulations will be: one striped bass between 24 and 28 inches. I'm fairly certain taking a permitted "slot fish" along with regulations allowing the general public one striped bass at 28 inches to less than 43 inches and one striped bass over 43 inches does little to protect our striped bass stocks. I'd feel a lot better about our regulations with the (SBBP) slot fish and one striped bass at 28 inches or greater. At this point, legally killing three stripers a day seems at the very least questionable. Just because our regulators don't use common sense doesn't mean that we can't. Please consider making your own sensible striped bass limits, within the law of course.
Let's face it: unless you're out at the canyons or offshore wreck and reef sites, the dog days of August don't exactly offer the best fishing opportunities. The long, hot days and warm water temperatures take a toll on many of our favorite freshwater and saltwater species. I'm not saying it's impossible to put together a decent catch, but the odds are stacked against us when water temps are in the low to mid 80s. September is fast approaching and with it will come cooler nights and the much-anticipated mullet run. In the meantime, I suggest hitting your favorite panfish holes and having some fun with the scrappy crappies, perch and sunfish that are more than willing to bend a rod.
When I think about fishing for panfish, it's usually because options for other more desirable species are limited – usually during the mid-summer and mid-winter periods. However, over the last few years, I've gained an appreciation for panfish, especially black crappies and yellow perch. Our local waters offer some great panfish opportunities and because of our climate, the crappies, perch and sunfish have a longer growing season than up north or out in the Midwest. While a trophy crappie may not compare to a trophy striped bass, you won't find me complaining about any type of world-class fishery.
Before you dismiss fishing for panfish, there are a few things I'd like you to take into consideration. Panfish are schooling fish and can provide hours of insane rod-bending action. The variety of yellow perch, white perch, crappies, and sunfish always keeps things interesting and if a stray largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, pickerel or catfish decides to join the party, all the better. Daily bag limits are fairly liberal when keeping crappies (8-inch minimum and 10 fish), perch and sunfish (no minimum size and 25 combined). While most panfish are bony, they are fairly easy to clean and offer sweet, firm, delicious, white fillets.
I'm sure at least a few readers are asking themselves, "Can you eat fish from our local waters?" According to the State of New Jersey's General Freshwater Advisories and the 2013 Fish Smart, Eat Smart Guide, there are "no restrictions" for the general population when consuming sunfish. While specific bodies of water do have more stringent consumption guidelines, panfish seem to be one of the least affected by pollutants. I'm assuming a sunfish's diet and shorter life span don't allow them to accumulate toxins as easily as some of the other species listed such as largemouth bass and striped bass. From much of the literature I read, generally, I would say that eating panfish is likely less harmful than eating striped bass. Surprising huh? For more detailed information, visit http://www.state.nj.us/dep/dsr/njmainfish.htm.
After our great family outing at Parvin State Park last weekend, Jake and I decided to return this weekend and set up our fish camp. We packed light and trailered the kayaks down to Parvin on Friday, August 14. It took just a few minutes to set up the tent and get our campsite in order – we checked in around noon and were carrying the loaded kayaks to the water's edge by 12:30 PM. Our plan was to fill a cooler with some tasty panfish to cook over our campfire each night.
After a short paddle, we returned to the same little cove that surrendered so many fish last weekend. Just a few casts in and we located a school of gigantic crappies. Cast after cast ended with 12 to 14-inch crappies, 10 to 12-inch white and yellow perch and 8 to 10-inch sunfish. I was tossing a 3-inch Berkley Gulp Minnow on a bare hook while Jake was jigging small, brightly colored tubes from a crappie kit we picked up at Wal-Mart. The crappies seemed to hit closer to the surface while the perch preferred our offerings a little closer to the bottom. We attached a small, ice-filled cooler to Jake's kayak and had it filled in no time. This wasn't a fishing trip – it was a catching trip.
Filling the Cooler
On our return to camp, we pulled our kayaks and compared notes about the great fishing action. We kept our limit of crappies, a few perch and released a bunch of other fish. It wasn't until it was time to clean our catch that I noticed preparing these fish wasn't going to be as easy as it is at home where we have a hose and a fish-cleaning table. I didn't think the next campers would appreciate us using the campsite picnic table as a fish-cleaning station so I decided to use the next best thing – and old tree stump. Cleaning twenty-five or so fish on a tree stump in the wilderness is quite an experience. Jake helped by bagging the fillets, tossing the discards and filling the bucket with clean water when needed. About an hour later, I had a sore back and big bag of tasty fillets.
Our Camp Fish Cleaning Station
Later that evening, after we showered and cleaned up, we prepared the fish for dinner. We packed aluminum foil, cracked pepper, a little butter and some locally grown squash and zucchini to cook with our fillets. A few minutes over the fire and our tasty meals were complete. Jake and I talked about how great the fish tasted and how much fun we had catching them. I thought about the many great fishing experiences I've had over the years and how this panfish trip somehow ended up right there with any of them.
We hit the lake early the next morning and fished the weekend away. It was a great trip as the fish cooperated the whole time. We practiced catch and release for the rest of the weekend as Friday afternoon's trip provided plenty of fillets for us. Now that my back is feeling better, I can't wait to get back out there again.
Do yourself a favor and don't overlook those puny, little panfish. They are a lot of fun to catch on light tackle and make for delicious table fair. With such liberal regulations, I'd like to remind everyone to make their own sensible limits. Just because we can keep so many fish per day doesn't mean we have to keep a limit on every trip. Responsible practices will allow us to enjoy great fisheries for years to come.
Looking to get away from it all? I was, so I did a little research on nearby campgrounds. I'm a little ashamed to admit it, but I haven't planned a family-camping trip in close to ten years. I wanted a venue that offered a campsite on or near water, hiking trails, kayaking opportunities and good fishing action. A Google search made viewing and comparing campgrounds a breeze. Things sure have changed a lot since our last family camping trip!
I started my search at some of the South Jersey shore-point campgrounds, but to my surprise, many of the coastal campground sites are charging hotel-room like rates to set up a tent for the night. My attention quickly shifted to the New Jersey State Parks where $20 a night ($25 for non-residents) seemed much more reasonable. My choices were quickly narrowed down to Bass River, Belleplain, Parvin, and Wharton State Parks. Each location seems to offer fun and exciting adventures so I decided to choose the closest to home, Parvin State Park.
Our State Parks use a website called ReserveAmerica.com to provide information, maps and payment options for campground reservations. Parvin State Park offers fifty-six tent and trailer campsites with fire rings, picnic tables and lantern hooks. Up to six people and two vehicles are allowed per site. Four group campsites capable of accommodating twenty-five people are available for $50 a night or $100 for non-residents. If sleeping on the ground isn't your thing, the park also offers eighteen furnished cabins with running water and electric. Each cabin offers a living room with fireplace or wood-burning stove; two bedrooms to accommodate four people; a kitchen equipped with an electric stove and refrigerator; a bathroom with sinks, toilets and showers; outdoor campfire ring, a brick patio with table and grill. Two of the cabins are accessible for persons with disabilities and offer accommodations for six people. Cabin rates are $55 a night, but the park requires a minimum of a week stay between Memorial Day and Labor Day – a week's stay will cost you $385. Cabin fees for non-residents are $65 a night and $455 a week. Six-bunk cabins are $75 a night and $525 a week while nonresidents will be charged $85 a night and $595 per week.
With fishing and kayaking high on our priority list, campsites 013 and 015 at Jaggers Point were our top choices. Site 013 was reserved so we took 015 – both campsites back up to a common ground in which a canoe or kayak can be carried about 50 yards to the waters edge. For those trailering a small boat, the park has a boat ramp available for a $12 fee. If you're travelling light, you can always visit Al's and Sam's Canoes, Boats, and Kayaks on the other side of the lake. Their rates were reasonable for an hour or two on the water and the dockhands seemed friendly and knowledgeable.
Jake and I set up camp on Friday afternoon while the ladies were due in later that evening. It took us a little longer than expected, but we made sure our site was perfect for our weekend getaway. After we set up camp, gathered wood and hiked a few trails, we took the kayaks out for a quick tour of the lake. A stiff northeast wind made paddling around the lake a little more difficult than I hoped, but we managed to scout out some likely fish-holding areas for the next morning.
Our Weekend Retreat
Sleeping on the ground at 30 years of age was a lot more enjoyable than sleeping on the ground at 40 years of age. After a long, almost sleepless night, Jake poked his head into my tent and whispered, "Dad it's time to wake up and fish." I responded with something like give me a few minutes. A few minutes passed and Jake returned with, "Dad big bass are jumping all over!" The kid knows how to get me up.
We gathered our fishing equipment and carried the kayaks out to the lake. The sunrise was beautiful, but that pesky northeast wind made fishing for bass by the lily pads quite difficult. After a half hour without a strike, I started to worry that it may not be our day. We left the fishy-looking structure on the south shore and headed to the other side of the lake to a beautiful cove where the trees blocked the wind. A few minutes in and we could see fish surfacing all over the cove. I tossed a 3-inch Berkley Gulp minnow while Jake decided to use a tiny portion of a leftover rubber worm. Within minutes our rods were bent over and we were into some of the best big panfish action I've ever experienced. We caught a mixed bag of sunfish, crappies, yellow perch, largemouth bass and pickerel, but the numbers and sizes of the sunfish and crappies were impressive – countless sunfish from 8 to 10 inches and crappies from 12 to 14 inches. We finished our morning with big smiles and a return to camp for breakfast around 10 AM.
After a great breakfast, we decided to check out the lake's swimming area. The kids drove to the other side while Jen and I took the kayaks over. I stopped for a few casts on the way and had a tough time pulling myself away from those monster crappies. About a half-hour later, we made our way over to the swimming beach. The beach area was nice, but many of the children were unruly and that's being polite. The lifeguards had their hands full and were continuously yelling at the kids. It was not enjoyable for any of us so we packed up and headed back for camp.
Swimming or crappies?
At sunset, Jake and I returned for the evening bite and found the same great action we had during our morning session. A few other boats were out on the water, but we felt like we had the lake to ourselves. The wind had settled a little and the experience was perfect as we caught fish well into darkness. Roasting marshmallows over a campfire completed a great day.
I slept a little better on Saturday night. I'm not sure if my body adjusted to the surroundings or if I was just too tired to care. Whatever the case, I was ready to go and had drag Jake out of bed on Sunday morning. We paddled back over to "our spot" and were immediately back into solid action. The pure numbers and variety of fish in that cove was amazing – cast after cast with largemouth bass, sunfish, crappies, yellow perch, pickerel and I lost a small carp at the side of my kayak. This action lasted for about three hours before we left them biting and decided to head in for breakfast.
Instead of a visit to the swimming beach, we decided to kayak up Muddy Run – the creek that feeds Parvin Lake. Jen and I took our kayaks while the kids rented an extra kayak from Al's and Sam's. Just a little ways upstream from the lake we came across a perfect little swimming hole. We stuck our paddles in the sand to anchor our kayaks and enjoyed a peaceful and refreshing swim – the water seemed much cooler than the lake water. We played in the water for hours. It was an experience I doubt any of us will soon forget.
Jake jumped right in.
We returned to camp for lunch and then headed back out in the kayaks to explore Muddy Run. We paddled for more than an hour upstream and covered at least a few miles. Some stretches were perfect and serene, while a few others turned out to be a little more adventurous – it was exactly what I was hoping for!
Julia and Craig heading upstream.
Julia and Craig having fun on the water.
As we paddled further upstream, the current felt stronger, but maybe it was just fatigue. We spotted all kinds of small fish, turtles, birds, frogs and even some wild grapes growing alongside the creek. We paddled over and through logjams, in inches of water, under a bridge and through some areas too narrow to paddle through – we had to paddle hard enough to gain momentum to carry us past the narrowest sections. Exhausted from hours of fishing and paddling miles upstream, it sure felt good to drift back to the lake.
This turtle was quite the climber.
Not being one to leave a good bite, Jake and I fished again on Sunday night and again on Monday morning before we had to break camp. I didn't think the great action could last, but it did. It's difficult to find a public lake that fishes like a private lake, but that's how I would describe Parvin Lake. Perhaps anglers are so enamored with the largemouth bass they overlook the outstanding panfish bite? Either way, Jake and I can't wait to fish the lake again. We had a blast!
To make the experience perfect, they could tighten up the rules in the swimming area and clean the bathhouses a little more frequently. To be fair – I believe the pros outweigh the cons 100 to 1, but I will be calling to complain about the bathhouses and the rowdy swimming area patrons – most of which aren't campers as the park offers swimming passes for a $2 daily fee.
If you're into fishing, this one should be put on the to-do list. Parvin State Park is a great asset to South Jersey. It offers a beautiful setting for all kinds of outdoor activities.