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.
This year, I decided to spend most of the summer months concentrating on freshwater ponds and lakes in search of trophy largemouth bass, crappies and pickerel. I landed some real beauties and had a great time exploring new waters. Fishing stump fields, laydowns, lily pads and weed mats from my kayak was a blast, but I'm looking forward to breathing in some salty air, watching mullet spray through the waves and hooking into weakfish, summer flounder, bluefish and striped bass!
During the summer months, fishing along the coast is worthwhile, however I don't think it compares to fishing during the spring and fall seasons. When back bay water temperatures approach or exceed 80 degrees, many of the largest species head for the ocean and deeper, cooler waters. Throw in thousands of summer vacationers with their speed boats, sail boats and jet skis and you may understand my decision to spend most of the summer season inland on a quiet pond in the woods.
Summer Is Drifting Away
While our shore towns are still filled to capacity, I couldn't help myself – it's like a little voice in my head wouldn't stop until I went down to check out some of my favorite late-summer fishing holes. Wanting to avoid the masses, I planned accordingly. The weather and tides were perfect for a late-night backwater trip: a light west wind and air temperatures in the lower 60s with high tide slated for 1 AM. I planned to fish two hours before and two hours after high tide.
Our first stop was a small causeway bridge that is usually choked with baitfish. As soon as we walked up onto the bridge, we spotted a big, black cloud of peanut bunker. Snapper bluefish were tearing through the school, many of which weren't much bigger than the bait they were attacking. After a few casts in the bunker school, I walked up a little higher and spotted two, 28 to 30-inch striped bass working the surface of the shadow line. On the first cast, I missed the mark. The second cast got hammered, but somehow I missed the fish. The third cast would have been it if not for the knot that formed in my freshly spooled braid - the fish hit and as I set the hook the line broke at the knot. This is not how I planned on starting off my night!
I muttered to myself as I tied on another ¼-ounce jig and grabbed a bubblegum Zoom Super Fluke from my bag. I tossed a few more casts, but I blew my chance. As I walked down the bridge headed to the next location, I thought to myself, "I can't believe I blew it, but it sure was nice to see some fish at our first stop."
Our next stop would be a small marina where I usually find striped bass working over baitfish under dock lights. By the time I arrived, the incoming current had slowed down considerably and the snapper blues had the bait balls all to themselves. Over the years, I've noticed striped bass and weakfish seldom compete with the hoards of small bluefish – if stripers or weakfish are present, they'll usually set up below the snappers and clean up the leftovers. I worked high and low at the docks, but only came up with a couple snapper blues and a few half eaten Zooms.
At slack tide, we headed over to another small bridge and were a little surprised to see baitfish stacked on both sides of the bridge. Large schools of peanut bunker swarmed to the lights like moths to a flame. Watching thousands of baitfish circle under the lights is hypnotic. Unfortunately, other than a few snapper bluefish, action was slow. With so much bait present in our waters, it's easy to find bait balls, but not so easy to find bigger fish working them over.
Catching bait in the cast net doesn't get much easier.
We checked a few more likely areas before we found some active fish. The tide just started moving when we heard the telltale "pop" sound made by a surface feeding striped bass. We could hear the stripers feeding from a couple hundred yards down the Intracoastal Waterway. We pinpointed the sound to a well-lit pier that I call the fish bowl. Upon arrival, I noticed a large school of peanut bunker under the lights, but the stripers were only feeding on the stray baitfish that were swept past the dock pilings by the falling tide. Even though there were thousands of peanut bunker inches away, the stripers were keyed onto the small crabs and silversides that were carried by the tide. I made a few well-placed casts and landed a small striper.
This one was hungry!
To most, the catching aspect of fishing is always paramount. While I enjoy the catching as much as anyone, I find watching and learning about my quarry to be equally gratifying. Fishing under bridge or dock lights isn't much different than watching fish swim around in an aquarium. Seeing how and figuring out why fish behave as they do is a gigantic plus, especially for those other times when you can't see what's happening beneath the water's surface. The way I look at it, the time I invest learning about fish behavior will result in more fish on the end of my line.
The striper bite at the pier lasted about fifteen minutes. With late summer backwater temperatures hovering around 80 degrees, the fish are relatively lazy and usually only feed during the most opportune times – typically, the same type of behavior occurs when temperatures are at the lower end of the spectrum, too.
The final stop on our scouting trip would be a small bridge that usually lights up with action on an outgoing tide. It was close to 3 AM and by this time the outgoing current increased a great deal. Mullet, peanut bunker and silversides were holding up in the shallower water where the current was much slower. I watched as snapper bluefish and needlefish slashed through the bait balls. I made a few casts, but only came back with half-eaten soft-plastic baits.
A little frustrated, I thought about our prior stop at the pier and how the striped bass related to it. While the bridge was much larger than the pier, the set up wasn't much different: lights, current, baitfish and pilings. A few casts across the pilings and I was hooked into another summer schoolie striper. Once I figured out their location, I found steady action. The bass didn't want to fight the current, snapper bluefish, and needlefish for food; they decided to sit, almost effortlessly, beside and behind the pilings to pick off the easy meals the current provided.
While the fish we caught that night weren't very big, I learned a little more about fish behavior and the areas I fish. The big schools of baitfish aren't always the best place to fish? How many times do you read that in a book? In the few hours we fished, we covered a small area and saw lots of fish. I'll be down at least a couple times a week until things really start to heat up. If you have a chance, get down to the back bays and set up at a well-lit municipal pier or bridge – it's quite a show!
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.
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.
We're heading into late August and the tide is slowly turning. Those long, hot summer afternoons are slowly moderating as we continue to lose a minute or two of daylight every day. On June 20, sunrise took place at 5:34 AM and sunset at 8:28 PM. Today, the sun came up at 6:18 AM and set at 7:47 PM. Since the first day of summer, we've lost 44 minutes of daylight in the morning and 41 minutes in the evening for a total of an hour and 25 minutes. By the first day of autumn, we'll lose another hour and 20 minutes of daylight. If you're like me and prefer to fish at night, well, we're not losing anything, but gaining darkness and more productive fishing time.
Back Bay Sunset
I've spent countless hours plying the South Jersey backwaters and the late-summer/early-fall time period is one of my favorite times of the year. When I think of late-summer nights on the water, I think of peanut bunker flipping on the surface and the gamefish I'm searching for beneath them. At this time of year, trophy fish often seem few and far between; however, what the fish lack in size, they make up for in variety. There are so many possibilities on any given cast. The usual suspects such as striped bass, weakfish, summer flounder, and snapper bluefish provide most of the action; however there are enough speckled sea trout and red drumfish around to keep things interesting.
South Jersey Surprises
As enjoyable as the fishing action can be, the late-summer pattern can also be very frustrating for anglers. If you think about it for a minute, it makes sense that this time period would be one of the most difficult times to catch fish: the warm back-bay waters are boiling with a plethora of baitfish and there hasn't been any real trigger to put the gamefish into blitz mode. A single gamefish could swim through thousands of baitfish in just a few minutes; what are the odds that it will take your bait?
Most of the time, I prefer to fish with small jigs and soft-plastic baits, but there are occasions when my offerings go untouched. I've thrown small plugs, bucktails, and everything else in my bag to feeding fish with no results. That's when it's time to break out the cast net and wrangle up some live bait. Peanut bunker are usually quite easy to find. Keeping peanuts alive can be difficult, but I've experimented with some fresh-dead bunker and found they seem to work well threaded onto the same jigs that I use when I'm tossing soft-plastic baits. The weakfish really seem to love them. A fish-less night can be quickly turned around with just one well-placed toss of a cast net.
Tossing the Cast Net
The recent return of weakfish should make for some great late-season action. We've had nights when we've caught well over fifty weakies per night. While most of the weakfish are usually in the 12 to 18-inch range, we see enough fish in the mid-20-inch range to keep us entertained. Years ago, when weakfish stocks were strong, we caught them right through the Thanksgiving weekend. Barring any severe coastal storms, I expect some of the best action to occur in early October as blitzing weakfish will be gorging themselves before making their way towards the inlet and out to sea.
Unfortunately, keeping up with life has put a serious dent in my fishing time. I thought life would be a little easier as my children grew up, boy, was I wrong! Fun time with a rod in our hand has been replaced with car shopping and applying to colleges with my oldest son, tennis practice and school shopping with my daughter, and it's always an adventure trying to keep up with my 10-year-old son. We hit the local lakes and ponds from time to time and we always enjoy ourselves, but it's just not the same.
On the bright side, I'm taking care of business and school starts in two weeks! I'll miss the little ones, but my schedule will allow me much more free time and I can get back to doing what I love to do. I better get going; I can already hear those weakies calling my name.