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.
There are not many things I enjoy more than catching weakfish during the night tides. After many years of tough fishing, it's great to have the weakies back again! My nights have been filled with solid strikes, bent rods, lots of croaking/drumming and some awesome drag pulling, headshaking battles. This year's weakfish run continues to be one of my best seasons in close to a decade.
I love it when they talk to me!
Over the last few weeks, I've experienced a consistent bite that just seems to be getting better. The speckled beauties are showing up in good numbers and sizes in many of their old haunts. While I enjoy catching the spike weakfish this time of year, the bigger weakfish are a welcome unexpected bonus. Since September's full moon, schools of 20 to 26-inch weakfish have been mixed in with the spike weakfish. These fish filled in nicely as we transitioned from the recent closure of the summer flounder season to the beginning of the striped bass fall run. Weakfish anglers tend to keep to themselves more than most so I guess it's not surprising that even though weakfish reports are picking up, they aren't quite on par with what I'm experiencing on the water.
This 25-inch weakfish slammed a bubblegum-colored Zoom Super Fluke
Did you even wonder why most weakfish sharpies are so tight lipped? While most of us enjoy a little elbow space, it's mostly due to the fact that when the fishing action is good, weakfish are among the most predictable fish that swim in the ocean. This may sound pretentious, but I've spent twenty-five years chasing weakfish and I think I know where these fish will be before they do. It may be hard to believe, but I'd wager that ten years from now, I could set up on a particular rock, on a specific day, time, tide stage and not only catch weakfish, but probably predict the size within a few inches – however, the wager would have to be rather sizable for me to give up such a predictable location. It may come as a surprise to some, but when weakfish are around in good numbers, they are almost as predictable as the sun rising each morning.
I'll never tell!
To break it down even more, weakfish not only tend to have seasonal habits, but they tend to feed on the same tide stage night after night. The old saying, "You could set your watch to the bite," couldn't be more true. High and low tides change about fifty minutes a day so if I had a good bite from 11 PM to 1 AM on an outgoing tide, chances are the next night the bite would take place from 11:50 PM to 1:50 AM. Lately, the fish seem to be most active during the last few hours of the outgoing tide, but each location has it's own windows of opportunity depending on bait, structure and current. Time spent learning weakfish habits will pay off for years to come.
20 years later - same place, same tide, same bait, same result!
Unfortunately, it looks like my weakfish train might be coming to a screeching halt. The recent northeast wind and rain is a real bite killer. I think we could withstand a couple days of coastal flooding, but with constant 20 to 30-MPH NE winds combined with an influx of freshwater into our back bays, things aren't looking good in the near future. With talk of Hurricane Matthew working its way up the east coast early next week, things aren't looking great in the long-range forecast either. Events like these combined with tomorrow night's new moon have a way of flushing our back bays prematurely – say goodbye to the mullet!
Coastal storms and mullet runs seem to occur at the same time each year.
I don't give up easily so I'll be trying for weakfish as soon as the weather breaks. Weakfish seem to be a little more sensitive to weather and water conditions than most other fish so I'm hoping that Hurricane Matthew tracks east and heads out to open water or it could be a long two weeks. If the hurricane brings more coastal flooding and wind, it may take a while for our waters to clean up. If this scenario plays out, it will likely be time to switch from weakfish to striped bass.
In the meantime, it's probably a good time to get back to some sweetwater action. Our ponds and lakes should benefit from the heavy rain. Some of our local waters were as low as I've seen them in a long time. I've spent most of my free time chasing weakfish, but when I did stop at my local fishing holes, action seemed to be on the slow side – little largemouth bass and a few small pickerel. Hopefully, the cooler weather and extra water trigger some better action. I'm looking forward to spending October mornings and afternoons in my kayak chasing largemouth bass, crappie, pickerel, perch and rainbow trout.
Reports of weakfish are pouring in from as far south as Delaware and to the north up in New York waters. Fortunately, it seems like we're right in the middle of the resurgence as our local waters are exploding with weakfish action, especially from Cape May to Barnegat Bay. Many of the speckled beauties are on the small side, but some better-sized fish moved in recently. I'm not ready to call it a comeback, but it's beginning to feel like the good old days when weakfish were common in our waters.
It's good to see these beautiful fish around in numbers again!
After years of decline, there are signs that weakfish could be making a comeback. We had some promising runs between 2010 and 2012, but the action tailed off a little between 2013 and 2015. The 2016 season started with a great spring run as big weakfish were found in some areas that haven't surrendered numbers of tiderunners in more than a decade. This spring, I found better numbers and sizes of weakfish than I've witnessed in at least eight to ten years. With limited fishing pressure and daily bag limits at one fish per person, per day, it is reasonable to think that many of those large weakfish spawned successfully.
In my opinion, no one can predict the future of a fishery. With so many variables, predicting fish stocks is nearly impossible. Weakfish seem to have a boom-to-bust history that cannot be easily explained. The best we can do is continue research, watch trends and hope to learn from our observations. As anglers, we tend to base the health of a fishery on our catch rates. I believe catch rate numbers are about as useful as any other factor, but not always a determining factor in the overall health of a fishery. For example, I've noted better catch trends during warmer-than-average years with little rainfall. Most of my fishing time is spent in the South Jersey back bays where factors such as freshwater influence, water clarity and water temperature can have a huge bearing on my success. If we have a particularly cold winter, cool summer, frequent coastal storms or a lot of rain, my catch rate may be down due to the conditions rather than a lack of fish. The weakfish bite seems a little more susceptible to poor conditions than other fish like striped bass and bluefish – I think that's one of the reasons I enjoy catching them so much. In the big picture, I understand my observations are miniscule, but it's all I have and it works for me.
Enough with the theories and opinions, lets talk about the great fishing action. After spending much of summer in the sweetwater chasing largemouth bass, it sure felt good to return to saltwater action. On my first trip, I wasn't expecting much, but found some decent striped bass action. Since that early-August trip, I've been out often and the weakfish bite has been outstanding. The bite has been so good that I've been out almost every night – I'm thrilled to see so many fish around again!
The fanged fish are back!
We refer to the late-season run of weakfish as the summer spikes. The little spike weakfish seem to be showing up everywhere. The small 8 to 16-inch weakfish used to show in good numbers every August and gorge themselves on the bait balls that flood our estuaries each season. The young, one to two-year-old weakfish would stay in our backwaters until late October/early November before migrating to their offshore wintering grounds. Many anglers question the whereabouts of these fish after their first year or two in our waters and for good reason – there have been many years in which we've had tremendous numbers of spike weakfish leave our waters never to be seen again. Where do these weakfish end up? Some believe they end up as bycatch in Carolina shrimp trawls while others claim some type of natural predation. I'm not certain what happens to these fish, but I'm sure the two factors mentioned above take their toll on the fishery.
Not only are the summer spikes back, some bigger weakfish are showing too! On my last few trips, I caught a bunch of spikes and some larger, headshaking weakfish between 22 and 25 inches. The big weakfish are ripping through massive schools of peanuts bunker and silversides. Topwater weakfish action usually involves a swipe and a small dimple or swirl on the water's surface, but they've been blowing through the bait balls and exploding on the water's surface. I pride myself on recognizing specific patterns and I've rarely witnessed weakfish attack baitfish on the surface so aggressively. Much to my enjoyment, they are attacking my jigs and soft-plastic baits with the same reckless abandon.
I'm usually pretty quick to set the hook, but they have been inhaling baits.
I'm not certain if this is the beginning of a great comeback story or just a little bright spot in the downward cycle, but whatever the case, I'm going to ride this run until the end. The September full moon bite was amazing and I can't wait to get back out there. With summer flounder season coming to a close on September 25 and striper season still a few weeks away, this year's run of spike weakfish should fill in nicely.
I can almost hear the buses rolling down the road. In our neighborhood, school starts in two days on Tuesday, September 6. Our kids will be back to the daily grind of getting up early, shuffling from class to class and coming home with plenty of homework. Sounds like fun right? Not to me, I dreaded the first day of school. As a boy, I was always outside; I played sports, fished or hunted until I needed to eat or sleep. After a summer of outdoor fun, I felt like going back to school was the equivalent of a nine-month jail sentence.
According to today's youth, most schools are much more user friendly. It seems like many of the "walls" have been broken down over the years – for better or worse. Sadly, it seems like time spent outdoors is not high on list of most educational institutions. I'm not sure why administrators don't put more emphasis on learning outside of the school building – perhaps a few more walls still need to be broken down?
Fortunately, there are a few programs that offer outdoor learning to children (and adults in some cases) outside of school buildings. Our community offers programs such as guided nature walks, kids fishing contest, bird walks, kayaking and canoeing trips, Nature Tots program, Hooked on Fishing – Not On Drugs (HOFNOD) meetings and a bunch of other free outdoor learning experiences.
Over the years, my family enjoyed many of the community-based outdoor programs. I grew up on Wilson Lake which in now usually referred to as Scotland Run Park. The cedar-lined lake is a great place to cast a line, view wildlife, kayak and learn about the outdoors. Jill Taylor, the Senior Park Naturalist, can usually be found in the Nature Center and is a wealth of information. If you're wondering if your community has similar opportunities, try contacting your county's Park and Recreation Committee.
Last weekend, I had the pleasure of attending a Hooked On Fishing – Not On Drugs Kids Fishing Tournament at Corson Park in Millville, NJ. The contest was open to a couple of local HOFNOD groups and the public. Joe Haase leads one of the groups and planned on stocking and tagging some fish before the big event. I met Joe a couple of years ago at a HOFNOD training class – he's a great guy and is always looking for new and exciting ways to keep the kids interested in outdoor learning activities.
The fish stocking and tagging went off without a hitch. In just a few minutes, the kids and adult volunteers had the fish tagging process down to a science. I worked the camera as the group completed tagging and stocking the fish into the lake with machine-like efficacy. I was thoroughly impressed by the entire process. Even the younger kids seemed incredibly capable.
A Tagged Sunfish Ready for Release
Soon after the fish were released, the fishing tournament started. The kids went all in and fished hard for a solid two hours. I walked around the lake and watched as families fished together, kids helped each other out and everyone caught fish. It was a beautiful day and everyone seemed to have a great time. During the two-hour tournament, I didn't see one child lose interest in fishing. This morning was full of sunshine, fish and smiles!
After the final horn, the kids met up and had lunch. Hot dogs, chips and water bottles were given out to each participate and their families. Winners were announced and given tackle boxes, trophies and rod and reel combos. I was especially proud of my own son, Jake, as he caught a ton of fish and helped out with the younger anglers.
That's My Boy!
Having experienced this event first hand made me want to start my own group even more. My wife and I have gone back and forth with some ideas, but it's not easy to get things off the ground. I have a great respect for people like Joe Haase – he put a lot of blood, sweat and tears into his group and asks for nothing in return. The kids had a great time because a few big-hearted adults volunteered their time to make it happen - these people are an asset to our community.
If you're looking for something to do with your kids this weekend, I'd like to suggest a visit to New Jersey's Annual Wild Outdoor Expo. The big event is happening this Saturday and Sunday, September 10 and 11 from 10 AM to 5 PM – rain or shine. Admission and parking are FREE! Some of the activities include: fishing, kayaking, shooting sports, camping skills, hiking, rock climbing, compass navigation and wildlife watching. Programs will include fish and wildlife conservation, reptile and raptors, sporting and tracking dogs, historical reenactments, SCUBA dives, nature photography and much more. It sounds like a great way for our kids to unwind after their first week back in the big house.