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.
September is a transitional month that marks the end of the summer season and the start of autumn. Despite warm ocean temperatures, cool nights and dwindling daylight hours trigger the beginning of the fall migration. Hoards of baitfish move out of our backwater creeks and channels towards the inlet and out along the beachfront. Most seasons, mullet are one of the first species of baitfish to begin their fall migration and this year they seem to be moving out right on cue.
The mullet run is in full swing!
Timing the mullet migration isn't usually difficult. Mullet begin moving out of our back bays sometime between the end of August and the beginning of September. If calm and stable weather patterns are present, full and new moon phases usually get the mullet moving. This year's September new moon phase took place on Sunday, September 13 and the mullet responded accordingly. I spent the last few days fishing the coast from as far north as Island Beach State Park (IBSP) and to the south at Cape May Point – numbers of mullet were present at almost every jetty pocket along the way. The mullet should remain staged along our beachfront at least until the next full moon, which occurs this Sunday, September 27.
Inlets are a great place to find mullet.
Unfortunately, the recent onshore flow caused by a slow-moving, low-pressure system just off the Carolinas could make spotting any mullet difficult for the foreseeable future. Building seas and an increasing northeast wind will make conditions along our beachfront especially difficult this weekend as northeast winds are forecast to reach 20 to 30 MPH. I have a feeling this coastal storm will end the 2015 mullet run a little prematurely. I hope I'm wrong, but slow-moving, poorly timed coastal storms have a way of killing even the best of runs.
While I'm a little disappointed with the weekend forecast, I'm sure glad I spent the last few days chasing mullet in the surf. I don't know what it is about cast netting bait that I find so enjoyable, but I always feel like a little kid when I'm catching bait – at least until the next day when knee and shoulder pain bring me back to reality.
On a recent trip up to IBSP, balls of small bay anchovies, also known as rain bait, greeted us as soon as we made our way over the dunes. Diving gulls and balls of baitfish under attack really get the blood pumping. I spent a few hours casting into the melee, but only found snapper bluefish, mostly between 8 and 12 inches. The action and environment were great, but I had hopes for some bigger fish.
After playing with the tiny bluefish, we drove south to the inlet jetty. As expected the jetty looked like a small parking lot as cast netters were lined up in search of mullet. I watched as men threw their nets into the jetty pocket and along the inside of the inlet jetty with varied results. I decided to keep my net in the truck, as the amount of netters seemed to outnumber the amount of mullet. A few cast netters filled up while others came back empty time and time again. We fished our way back up the beach and caught a few more snappers before we packed it up for the day. It wasn't a great catching day, but it was a start.
Inlet Jetty Parking Lot
I decided to look for mullet again on Tuesday, September 22. Conditions were far from perfect, but the forecast seemed to be going downhill right through the upcoming weekend. With flood tides and a brisk 15 to 20 MPH northeast wind, I figured Cape May Point would offer the best conditions for fishing and cast netting mullet. As soon as I made my way over the dune, I felt the wind at my back and saw schools of mullet along the beach. I ran down to the beach and loaded up on mullet. The surf was a little higher than normal, but the mullet schools were packed between what's left of the small groins.
When conditions are right, it doesn't take long to fill the bait bucket.
After a few successful tosses of the cast net, I decided to live line a few mullet. Snapper bluefish, skates and tiny sea bass quickly attacked my baits. The snappers would bite the tail off and then the skates and sea bass would finish off the rest. A lone 16-inch summer flounder was my "catch of the day." I had hopes for a possible redfish, weakfish, striped bass or doormat fluke, but I didn't see or hear of much other than snapper blues. With my fill of small blues, I decided to put the rods down and go have some more fun with the cast net.
As high tide approached, the mullet were a little more difficult to spot in the big water, but they were thick – even my blind throws were coming back with a dozen or more mullet per throw. It didn't take long to fill a bait bucket with lively, 3 to 7-inch mullet. My bycatch consisted of mole and calico crabs, a couple snapper blues and a bunch of small 10 to 12-inch striped bass.
Cast Net Striper
With my fill of snapper bluefish and a bucketful of mullet, I headed for home. After the hour ride home, I took the bucket of mullet out back to my fish-cleaning table to sort and package for the freezer. The sizes of mullet varied a little more than I'm used to, about 3 to 7 inches. Usually, the mullet are a little more uniformed in size - between 4 and 6 inches. For live or frozen bait, I prefer fishing whole 4 to 5-inch mullet, but the 3-inch mullet should be perfect for the backwaters. I cut the 6-inch and larger baits into chunks for later use. In total, I bagged about twelve dozen, which should get me through most of the fall.
Rinsed and Ready to Pack for Freezing
In closing, I'd like to note that Cape May Point should not be overlooked when searching for mullet. Years ago, Hereford Inlet was my go-to mullet stop, but Cape May has provided a much more consistent catch over the last few seasons. If you think about it, it makes sense that the mullet would stage at the southernmost portion of our state before heading south for the colder months. If you plan on fishing this weekend, the west side of Cape May Point should offer an escape from the wind. I'd also like to take a moment to remind fellow cast netters to be responsible and only take what you need for bait. Let's hope this coastal storm doesn't hang around too long so we can get back on track.
September in South Jersey offers many things, but great fishing action isn't high on the list. Brilliant, sunny days and refreshing, cool nights stir thoughts of great fishing action and the fall run. The backwater creeks and sounds are filled with mullet, peanut bunker, silversides and a plethora of other young-of-the-year species. What more could you ask for?
To start, how about some cooler water temperatures? As of this writing, the coastal water temperature in Atlantic City is 72 degrees while Cape May's monitoring station checked in at balmy 76 degrees. With daytime air temperatures forecasted to be in the mid 80s for most of the upcoming week, I don't expect our water temps to drop anytime soon. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but the bulk of the migratory fish are well to the north and if recent trends continue, we're at least a month away, maybe two.
I spent most of last week plying the waters of Cape May County. After a long summer of freshwater fishing, it sure felt good to taste the salt again. Backwater creeks, bridge pilings, fishing piers, shell beds and rock piles – this is where I belong. I started my scouting trip at some of my favorite bait holes and I wasn't disappointed. Peanut bunker was thick at each of my stops. With one toss of the net, I had more bait than I needed for the night. Equipped with live bait and a good outgoing tide, I fished a few bridges without much luck. Small sea bass, snapper bluefish and dogfish wouldn't leave my live baits alone. I switched over to a jig and soft-plastic bait and had to work for a few small striped bass. The action wasn't bad, but with so much bait around, I had high hopes.
The next morning, I drove around in search of mullet. My first few stops came up empty, but I found some good pods way in the back. After a few throws, I had enough mullet and decided to try the Cape May Point rock piles. Action was slow as it was tough to keep bait in the water – the crabs and snapper blues were relentless. I walked the beaches, but only found more of the same.
Searching for Mullet
I fell into the trap – the September in South Jersey trap. You'd think after all these years I'd know better. If you're a South Jersey angler, I'm sure you know what I'm talking about: baitfish all over, the first push of cool nights, social media reports from our northern buddies holding big striped bass – you want the fall run so bad you can taste it, but it's just not happening down here yet. I can remember a time when September offered great striped bass fishing, but the last few years just haven't been the same. I believe the summer-to-fall-fishing transition begins in our area right around Columbus Day weekend. Until then, it's probably best if you fish strictly at night or just enjoy the summer species while they're here. If you just can't wait to get in on the action, a road trip up to Montauk may be in order.
9/9/15 South Jersey Summer Striper
Ok, enough with what's not happening. As mentioned above, the weather is glorious, crowds are gone, baitfish are everywhere and there's still plenty of worthwhile summer-fishing opportunities. Summer flounder season remains open until September 26, 2015. Those big flatfish love mullet and we still have two weeks to bring home some fresh fluke fillets. Snapper bluefish are all over and offer steady action. With a little effort, you could fill a cooler with panfish such as kingfish, croakers, and spot. Late-season crabbing usually provides some of the best action of the year. Freshwater fishing action is also good, especially for largemouth bass and crappies.
We have a lot to look forward to in the coming weeks. Striped bass and big bluefish are the big draw, but freshwater trout fishing should not be overlooked. I miss the big brookies the Division used to stock, but the big rainbows will be fun, too. Approximately 20,000 two-year old rainbow trout, averaging between 14 to 22 inches and 1.5 pounds to 8 pounds, will be stocked into our streams, rivers, ponds and lakes starting on October 13, 2015. Grab some spinners - those big trout are a lot of fun!
2014 Fall Rainbow Trout
Over the next few weeks, I look forward to chasing redfish at Cape May Point. I heard a few more reports of red drum this week and expect the catches to increase as we head towards the end of the month. Hopefully, a few speckled sea trout will show up too.
After last week's trip, I've learned to appreciate what we have, even if the fishing action is a little slow. The weather, water and coastal landscape is beautiful and there is no place I'd rather be.
New Jersey's Striped Bass Bonus Program (SBBP) was reinstated on Tuesday, September 1, 2015. According to the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife, "Permits have been issued to replace permits purchased prior to May 1, 2015. Anyone who purchased a permit prior to May 1, 2015 and has not received a replacement permit by September 14, 2015 should call (609) 748-2020 and leave a message with their name and a phone number where you can be reached during business hours."
I purchased my SBBP permit this spring and have not received my new tag. Some other anglers have received their tags and forwarded me information they received from the Division of Fish and Wildlife that is not currently included on the Division's website. I'll list some of the important changes below, but new permits will be limited so if you'd like to participate in the program, please visit www.njfishandwildlife.com to print and complete a 2015 SBBP Individual Participant Application and Child Support Application. The program appears to be free for the remainder of the 2015 season, but the Division requires applicants enclose a self-addressed, stamped, #10 business envelope per application.
SBBP Individual Application Form
The revamped SBBP has changed in quite a few ways, some of which will come as a surprise to many anglers. The new regulations are as follows: one striped bass from 24 inches to less than 28 inches – if you remember back a few years, we called this size range our "slot fish." The old SBBP paper permit has been replaced by a red plastic tie that must be securely attached to the fish through the mouth and gill immediately upon capture and prior to transportation. Harvest reporting is mandatory and must be reported online or by leaving a voice message at (609) 748-2074. Only one bonus permit will be issued per person in 2015 – you read that right, you may only take one bonus striped bass for the remainder of the 2015 season. Anyone failing to submit logs to the Division will not be considered for the 2016 Striped Bass Bonus Program. Logs must be submitted by mail or online by January 15, 2016 – the Division's website has a link to complete logs online by using participants' nine-digit conservation identification numbers as their user names and participants' date of birth as their passwords.
I'm not certain how I feel about the changes yet, but I believe the old SBBP needed some improvement. I can't figure out how adding a red plastic tag will result in any advancements to the program, but I do like that submitting log information is now a necessity to be considered for continued participation in the program. I look at the SBBP as a privilege and believe the information gathered is extremely beneficial. However, when it comes down to regulations, I think the State has it backwards - I'd much rather see our general, state-wide regulations include some type of slot fish and our SBBP turn into a trophy tag of say one fish over 40 inches.
An average South Jersey backwater striped bass.
The party/charter boat facet of the SBBP allows customers to use a permit each day. Party and charter boats captains are required to submit daily logbooks and weekly reports of striped bass harvest to ensure the quota is not exceeded. I feel for the party and charter boat captains, but I dislike the fact that if I fish on a "for hire" boat, I can take a bonus fish every single day, yet as an individual recreation angler, I am only allowed to use one permit for the remainder of the 2015 season. I never liked the fact that as an individual recreational angler I have to follow strict bag and size limits, but if I want to buy commercially harvested fish, I can buy as much as I want - I can't count the days I had to let go big, beautiful summer flounder while the commercial guys fished right next to me and could kept every fish they caught. I understand that hook and line commercial fishermen provide a much less harmful way of harvesting fish, but at the end of the day it just rubs me the wrong way. The state claims the allocation of commercial harvest has been transferred to the recreational sector, but with the current SBBP regulations I think it's fair to consider party/charter boats as commercial vessels. We have one set of regulations for average anglers and another set for those willing to pay a price.
I'll keep up-to-date with the SBBP and continue to update the blog accordingly. I hope everyone enjoys what's left of the summer season and the holiday weekend. Stay safe and good luck out on the water!
The Division released another statement regarding the delivery date of our SBBP tags. 2015 SBBP permit holders should receive their SBBP tag no later than October 1, 2015. According to sources, some post offices claimed the Division did not include enough postage for the tag envelopes to be delivered. The tags were returned to the Division and the proper adjustments were made. I received my tag on Wednesday, September 23.