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Frank Ruczynski

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.

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November 23, 2015

A Tale of Two Striped Bass Seasons: North Versus South Jersey

by Frank Ruczynski

For some of us, striped bass season is in full swing, yet many of New Jersey's southernmost anglers are left wondering when or if the striped bass season will begin at all. By many accounts, reports of striped bass and bluefish from New York to Long Beach Island (LBI) have been outstanding, while anglers fishing south of Atlantic City are left questioning the health of the fishery. This pattern seems to be more of a reoccurring trend than an anomaly and I think it's about time we addressed it.

Is it time to worry or should South Jersey anglers remain patient and hope the big schools of striped bass eventually make their way towards Cape May? As a longtime South Jersey angler, I can tell you for certain things aren't like they used to be. Stop waiting for the fish and do yourself a favor - migrate north!

Over the last few fall seasons, it's almost like the Garden State Parkway exits could be used as a striped-bass meter in which the exit numbers equate your chances at landing decent-sized striped bass: Exit 0 down in Cape May, Exit 38 to Atlantic City, Exit 63 at LBI, Exit 82 takes you to Island Beach State Park and Exit 100 will put you into the Asbury Park area. From LBI to the north, most anglers are happy catching 20 to 30-pound striped bass, while most South Jersey anglers are happy catching 20 to 30-inch stripers. About 50 to 80 miles separates world-class striped bass fishing versus dogfish city.

In my own experiences, I have spent less than 5% of my fishing time north of LBI, yet over the last five years many of my best catching trips, in both numbers and sizes, have taken place to the north. I grew up fishing just about every nook and cranny of South Jersey and I've grown to love and appreciate all that the area has to offer, but the fall runs just aren't cutting it anymore. My familiarity with the local waters keeps me coming back in hopes of finding the action that I once knew, but I consider myself lucky to have a handful of memorable trips per season. I'm beginning to question my want to fish south of LBI at all.

I joke with many of my northern friends, "Anything north of LBI is New York to me." There seems to be an imaginary line that cuts along the Route 72 Causeway in which the state transforms into a completely different and unfamiliar area, especially along the coast. Rooting interest for professional sports teams change from Philly-based teams to NJ/NY teams; hoagies are called subs; minnows are referred to as killies and most importantly the coastline changes. If you look at a map of New Jersey, Barnegat Inlet and to the south is the point where the coastline begins to recede towards the west. This one feature alone could be enough to explain the difference in fishing action results for North and South Jersey anglers.

While geographical features cannot be underestimated, there are many more questions to ask – many of which I'm not sure anyone can answer. Are the big schools of striped bass currently off our northern/central coast Hudson or Raritan Bay fish? How many of them actually retreat northward back into deep-water holes to wait out the winter months? Do most of the fish continue south from Barnegat Inlet and follow a straight line south and stay miles off the South Jersey Coast? What happened to the Delaware Bay fishery? Is climate change and warming ocean waters to blame? Despite lots of research and our best science, many of us are left with more questions than answers.

My thoughts on the subject are relatively simple. The range of striped bass is clearly shrinking due to a dwindling biomass. Much like the weakfish, I witnessed the best fishing action move a few inlets north almost every season – it started in the Delaware Bay, moved up and around Cape May and before you know it, most of the South Jersey coast loses another solid fishery. I watched the weakfish collapse happen and denied it at the time, mostly because I was catching some of the largest weakfish of my lifetime – albeit in a smaller area and a little further north than I was used to fishing. Sounds familiar right?

With all that said, I've had a lot of fun with the striped bass this fall. The northern fishery is as good as it's been in years and I'm finding good numbers of smaller striped bass in a lot of my backwater holes. However, I cannot ignore the fact that fishing in South Jersey has been dismal. My range used to consist of Atlantic City to Cape May. Lately, I find myself fishing from Avalon to Seaside Park, but my trips south of Ocean City have been few and far between. I haven't completely given up as I plan on fishing south tonight. I'm trying to keep hope alive, but it's becoming increasingly difficult.

At this point, it would almost be some type of small miracle if the striped bass moved down into our neighborhood just in time for the holiday season. It wouldn't be the first time South Jersey fishing lit up after the Thanksgiving holiday - some years the action lasted well into the New Year. Regardless, I'd like to wish everyone a great Thanksgiving. Enjoy time with your family and friends and if you can do it on the water that's even better. It's time for me to go chase some linesiders.

November 12, 2015

Fall Run Fun

by Frank Ruczynski

It's early, but this season's fall run seems to be shaping up as one of the best in the last few years. Just to the north, massive schools of big bluefish are working their way down the Jersey coast. Striped bass continue to show up in both good numbers and sizes. Whether you're a surfcaster, boater or backwater angler, it's time to hit the water – the stripers are here and they're hungry!


Fall Run Fun!

Weather and fishing conditions seem to be nearly perfect for an extended fall run. Mild November days and nights seem to be keeping our coastal water temperatures right around 60 degrees – some may consider 60 degrees a little on the warm side, but the fish don't seem to mind. A look at the ten-day forecast shows daytime highs in the mid to upper 60s for all of next week. The long-range forecast predicts more seasonable temperatures, but for the first time in a few years, it looks like we're going to ease into the winter season. Tons of bunker and other baitfish can be found out front, in the back bays and everywhere between. The variety of bait is also very impressive. The fish are here and they have no reason to leave!

I missed some fishing time as I tweaked something in my back and was laid up for close to a week. For a bunch of reasons, the timing couldn't have been worse. Fortunately, I'm feeling better now and I'm fishing around the clock trying to make up for lost time. In my experiences, adrenalin overloads from hooking into sizable striped bass are much more effective at killing pain than any prescription medications ordered by the doctor. Fishing has an odd way of curing any troubles.

Up and around again, I started with a night trip in the South Jersey backwaters. I found striped bass popping at my first stop and had a blast casting soft-plastic baits at them. What the little linesiders lacked in size, they made up for in numbers. At times, it seemed like every cast ended with an 18 to 26-inch striped bass. After I had my fun, I moved to another area and had similar action with small, but feisty stripers. Snapper bluefish, spike weakfish and summer flounder added to my catch - proving that water temperatures are still a little on the mild side.

Having fun with the little fish was just what I needed, but I couldn't pass up the reports of bigger fish coming from the north at Long Beach Island and Island Beach State Park. After debating on whether or not to make the trip north, I arrived at IBSP a little late, but walked the beach until I found a perfect cut between the sandbars. In the first few casts bass were swiping at my Daiwa SP Minnow. I landed a few good fish and dropped more than I'd like to admit. Even though I had a good day, I couldn't help wonder how many more fish I might have caught if I arrived before sunrise.

I went home and asked Jake if he'd like to get in on the action. His first experience plugging the surf came just a few weeks ago in which he was lucky enough to land a keeper-sized striper. I told him our odds wouldn't get much better as lots of fish were around and it seemed like the "stars were aligned" for a perfect trip.


Jake's first striper on a plug.

The next morning, we left extra early and arrived at IBSP about an hour before sunrise. As we gathered our gear and put our waders on, Jake looked up and said, "Dad you weren't kidding about the stars being aligned!" As luck would have it, Jupiter, Mars, Venus and the Moon were lined up almost perfectly. We both laughed for a minute before we hurried off towards the water.

As we hiked in over the dunes, you could smell bunker in the air. I told Jake this was going to be our day. We set up and started casting into the darkness. We fished for a good hour before the sun came up without a touch. Some doubt started creeping in and I wondered if yesterday's fish moved along.

As the sun came up, the tide started out and our luck was about to change. My SP Minnow got hammered and the fish went airborne. I thought I had a bluefish, but it turned out to be an acrobatic 32-inch striped bass. I had a few bass on the sand before Jake hooked up. With another good fish on, I looked over at Jake to tell him to come over, but his rod was already bent. The action was fast and furious! After a few minutes of back and forth, I landed my fish and headed over to help Jake. He battled the fish for at least five minutes. When I saw the big bass in the surf, I went nuts. The only thing better than catching good fish is having your kids catch one! He played it like a pro and slid his first sizable plug bass onto the beach.


Jake with his big bass and a proud papa!

The next half hour was a blur that seemed to last about 30 seconds. Jake and I got into a great bite with multiple fish over 40 inches. While Jake was unhooking his fish, I hooked into another mid-twenty pound bass and couldn't believe how great the bite was. I don't fish the surf often so trips like this would be extra memorable, especially with Jake getting on the action.



As quickly as the great bite started, it ended. We continued to work the cut and walked down to hit another fishy-looking area, but our casts came back untouched. It's funny how no matter how long you spend on the water a half hour stretch can make a day. At that moment, I looked at Jake and told him I didn't care if we didn't catch another fish all season – it would still be worth it!


Unforgettable morning in the IBSP surf!

November 02, 2015

Earning Your Stripes

by Frank Ruczynski

It's that wonderful time of year when schools of striped bass return to our coastal waters in numbers. Over the weekend, reports of striped bass came from our oceanfront beaches, inlets and backwater sounds. Fishing for striped bass may not be as easy as it was just a few short years ago, but there are some great opportunities available for those willing to put in a little time.

Over the last few fall seasons, figuring out striped bass staging/feeding patterns seemed a little more difficult then it used to be. I think it's fair to blame at least some of the problem on the fact that there seems to be less striped bass around than there were a few years ago. I believe another factor is the weather - the last few fall seasons we went from one extreme to the other – extremely-high water temperatures in October were followed by a coastal storm or two and a frigid crash in November. Big swings in weather patterns and temperature changes usually don't bode well for fishing action in general, especially pattern-oriented anglers.

So far, this season seems different. We battled through an early coastal storm and now the water temperatures seem to be dropping gradually – perfect conditions for predictable fishing patterns. I couldn't help but smile when looking at the long-range forecast – it looks that good! This week promises daytime highs in the low to mid 70s with an average cooling trend continuing right through early December. It looks like the table is set for a good fall run!


We're off to a good start!

With perfect weather conditions and so many opportunities available to us, it can be a hectic time of year for outdoor enthusiasts. I'm splitting time between freshwater fishing, saltwater fishing, kayaking, hiking and hunting and I love every minute of it! The recent freshwater rainbow trout action was some of the best I've ever experienced. I'm fairly new to hunting, but Jake and I had an incredible morning last Saturday, October 31, at Peaslee Wildlife Management Area's Youth Pheasant Day Event – he aimed a shotgun while I aimed a camera.


The boys had a great morning at Peaslee WMA!

Even with so much going on, I have a feeling that it's about time to make the fulltime switch over to striped bass. During my recent backwater trips, I've experienced fast-paced action with schoolie-sized striped bass – numbers seem far better than I've seen in at least the last five years. Keeper-sized fish (28 inches or better) are a little more difficult to come by, but chances are with a little more effort, you'll find a few fish for the table.


This one made the mark, but we practiced catch and release.

What the little linesiders lack in size, they make up for in action and predictability. An average trip consists of about fifteen to twenty stripers between 18 and 28 inches. Tagging the short stripers also adds to my enjoyment. It's not the good old days, but it does seem promising, especially after some very dismal fall runs. My best action seems to be happening at night and away from the inlets and any dredging or beach replenishments projects. I expect the inlet areas to pick up soon, but the backcountry action has been on fire. Schools of peanut bunker, hoards of silversides and some leftover pods of mullet should keep things interesting well into December.


Tagging short stripers and a few summer flounder add to the experience.


It looks like I have lots of paperwork to catch up on.

I've fished a bunch of areas from as far north as Island Beach State Park to the south down in Cape May and many of the areas in between. The best action seems to be taking place a little to the north. The backwaters of Barnegat Bay to about Avalon seem to be providing the best action – there are fish behind Stone Harbor, Wildwood and Cape May, but it's just not the same. The run usually seems a little later down in the southernmost portion of our area so I'm not too concerned yet.


Julia caught this micro-sized bass behind Stone Harbor.

I've witnessed feeding stations set up at places such as bridges, piers, docks, creek mouths and shell beds – watching striped bass, even schoolie striped bass, feed on top-water baits never gets old! By concentrating on these types of areas, your production should improve, especially if you fish during a high outgoing tide. My go-to bubblegum-colored soft plastics on ¼ to ½-ounce jig heads haven't let me down, but there were a few nights the little bass were picky and preferred a 1/8-ounce jig with a natural-colored soft plastic bait – dark top/light bottom baits work well.


Jake had his hands full with this backwater striper.

I'm hoping that the recent back-bay action is just a precursor to a great fall run. It sounds like a fresh body of fish just moved down from New York/North Jersey into the northern portion of our area (IBSP) so action should continue to improve as we progress further into November. Fishing for stripers may not be as easy as it was ten years ago, but it might not be as bad as some of us thought either. I'm anticipating a striped bass season to remember!
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