by Frank Ruczynski
Well, another year in the books and I'm left wondering where did the time go? It seems like just a few weeks ago I was waiting for the fall run and now I'm already thinking of warmer temps and next season's first spring striped bass. Sure, I've had my fun with the local chain pickerel and state-stocked rainbow trout, but it's just not the same. With skim ice becoming more common each day, it's likely even my freshwater fishing opportunities are numbered. I have a feeling it's going to be a long winter!South Jersey Pickerel
While some anglers seem down about this season's striped bass run, there were some encouraging signs from other species. Summer flounder, otherwise known as fluke, made a good showing for much of the summer months. I didn't hear many complaints about flatfish as the 17.5-inch size limit seemed attainable and the eight days added onto the end of the season was a pleasant surprise. Jetty Fluke
Speaking of pleasant surprises, how about this year's weakfish run? This spring, weakfish reports flooded in from many locales and the solid action lasted well into the summer months. Areas that haven't seen decent weakfish action in years came alive again with fish and anglers. Some of our younger anglers were fortunate enough to experience a good weakfish bite for their very first time. The unexpected resurgence of weakfish was the highlight of my year. Hopefully, it was just the beginning of things to come in the next few years. I'm already thinking of spring tiderunners!Wonderful Weakfish
I can't forget to mention the appearance of redfish. I caught my first New Jersey redfish back in 2008. At the time, I knew it was possible, but highly unlikely to catch redfish in our waters. I noticed a trend last season as an above average number of redfish were caught, especially around Cape May County. The 2013 season brought even more reports of redfish and we weren't talking accidental catches; in some locations, you could successfully target them. In September, I made the trip to Cape May Point for red drum and I caught one and lost another. I'd say 100s of redfish were caught along our coast between late August and early December. If the trend continues, we're going to have a lot of fun next season!Cape May Point Red Drum
Going back through my log, I noticed my striped bass catches were a little off this season. March started off a little chilly and the weather rollercoaster just continued on from there. Some anglers believe the lack of striped bass has more to do with a decline in the stock, but I can't help but wonder how much our weather patterns have to do with it. This spring, we had cooler-than-average water temperatures with very little transition to summer temps. I'm not certain of the exact numbers, but it seemed like we went from 50-degree waters to 70-degree waters in a week's time.
The same could be said about the fall: I felt like we were too warm until a sharp drop brought water temps down dramatically. It seemed like temps went from 70s to 50s within a week and before we knew it, surf temps dove into the 40s. If I learned anything about fishing in our area over the last twenty years, I know that it's nearly impossible to pattern fish when weather conditions are severe. Maybe there aren't as many striped bass around as there were five or ten years ago, but the brutal weather patterns surely didn't help us much this year.
Overall, my yearly striped bass numbers were down, even though my numbers were on par per trip. I fished much less than usual as I find myself looking to hit homeruns more than singles these days. I only fished during windows which I considered to be good-to-prime conditions and my catch rate was very high. So my assessment of the season is somewhat skewed as every other year I fished in all types of conditions. I haven't figured out if I'm just getting older and wiser or older and softer. Either way, looking back and seeing that I made the best of the time I committed to fishing feels good.
So, I should be happy to think I'm on to something as I'm using the time I have on the water to the best of my ability, but somehow I'm still feeling a little empty. After a good portion of the season was over, I found out what was missing. While catch rates were good by only going out on the days and nights that offered the best fishing opportunities, I found I stopped learning. As you continue into the sport, the catching part isn't enough anymore. Looking back, I remember finding a new fishing hole or finding a great bite in the middle of nowhere, far more enjoyable than catching a bunch of fish in the same old holes. Don't get me wrong, I'm not going to stop pounding some of my favorite fishing holes, but I realized that I need to get out of my comfort zone every once in a while to increase my knowledge.
While I didn't learn much about striped bass, weakfish, bluefish, or summer flounder, I did learn a little about redfish and a lot about our freshwater snakeheads. I spent days searching for snakeheads and I found them in so many areas it blew my mind. I read much about snakeheads, but found very little useful information about catching them. I threw all kinds of lures and baits at them and they seemed uninterested 99% of the time. I landed a few and I got one good one, but I feel like I should have done much better. They better watch out next season!A Worthy Adversary
Recently, I've been hitting the local ponds and lakes and catching rainbow trout, largemouth bass, and chain pickerel. Fishing action has been good, but ice has been creeping in on some of my favorite venues. Chain pickerel should keep me busy through the winter months, even if I have to hit spillways to find open water. In my opinion, pickerel are one of the most underappreciated game fish in our local waters. If you feel the need to get out and bend a rod this winter, try for pickerel; they won't disappoint you. Winter Fun
I'm already looking forward to the 2014 season. I have lots of gear to go through, charts to study, and reading planned during the next few weeks. I hope everyone had a memorable 2013 fishing season and I wish you well for the New Year! Good Luck in 2014!