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.
Can you believe we're halfway through the 2016 fishing season? The first six months flew by, but not without some decent catches. A mild winter and early spring gave way to a dreary and cool May followed by an average June. According to my logs, fishing action was average to above average. The first half of the 2016 fishing season is off to a good start!
I started the year plying the local sweetwater venues. Chain pickerel, crappie and yellow perch accounted for the little action I had in January. There seemed to be just enough snow and cold air to keep the fishing action to a minimum, but after the prior two years of bone-chilling winter weather, it was great to be fishing open water again. January fishing was a little on the slow side, but I was fishing and catching so I'm leaning towards above average.
My son, Jake, started February off with a bang. After a slow day at the crappie pond, I decided to catch up on chores while Jake walked down to our lake to give it his best. About ten minutes after he left the house, I received a phone call asking me to come down to see the largemouth bass he just caught. It was a good fish, especially for early February. As the month progressed, fishing action picked up and we experienced a solid crappie bite. February is usually my toughest month – between winter storms and cabin fever, I'm always glad to flip the calendar to March. All things considered, I have to say February was a little better than average.
February Bonus Bass!
March ushered in warmer weather and some great fishing opportunities. Looking back, I see myself on March 8, 2016 fishing from my Tarpon 120 in shorts and a t-shirt. The next day, Jake and I returned to catch a bunch of crappie and pickerel in 70-degree temperatures. As March continued, we fished Rapala Shadow Raps and caught tons of largemouth bass and pickerel. By mid-March, it was time to hit the coastal backwaters where I found better striped bass action than I've seen in years. March can be hit or miss, but this year was a definite hit - clearly above average.
Spring Striped Bass
Fishing in April was amazing! Freshwater action was great and the South Jersey back bays were full of life. The local lakes and ponds offered largemouth bass, chain pickerel, yellow perch, crappies and tons of freshly stocked rainbow trout. Summer flounder, tiderunner weakfish and an insane amount of big bluefish joined the striped bass in our coastal waters. Once I found the weakfish, it was difficult to fish for anything else. It was great to see so many large weakfish around again! The last few years were promising, but most of the fish were in the 3 to 6 pound class. This spring, there was a good showing of 8 to 12 pound weakfish – I was in heaven! Towards the end of the month, a steady coastal flow began, dropped backwater temps and killed the great bite. Despite the late-April east winds, fishing action was well-above average.
Tiderunner weakfish made my spring!
May is usually my favorite time to fish. I wait all year for the month of May. This year I was thoroughly disappointed. A seemingly unending east wind made for poor fishing conditions for the first three weeks of the month. Backwater fishing action suffered the most as water temps dropped and then held steady in the mid 50s. Striped bass and bluefish didn't seem to mind the constant east wind and flood tides, but the weakfish and summer flounder bite took a nosedive. Because of the poor conditions, I spent more time freshwater fishing than usual. Fortunately, the easterly flow didn't hurt the largemouth bass bite. While fishing for largemouth bass, I caught a few monster chain pickerel. The weather and water temps moderated towards the end of the month, but I never found the kind of action I experienced in April. Fishing in May was worthwhile, but not the great action I look forward to every year – definitely below average.
Great freshwater action almost made up for poor conditions along the coast.
Thankfully, the weather and fishing action returned to normal in June. A few tries for flatfish ended with a decent amount of 17-inch flatfish, but I was still left feeling a little salty about missed opportunities in May and releasing 20 to 24-inch summer flounder in April. Smaller summer weakfish showed in Cape May County so I'm hoping they hang around for the next few months. After spending a little more time fishing the sweetwater ponds and lakes in May, I found a decent largemouth bass bite and had more fun freshwater fishing than I've had in years. In just the last few days, it seems like the pattern changed again and I may have to start fishing the nightshift to find any decent action. Overall, June's fishing action was average.
I'm hoping to find more bass like this one this summer.
The long, hot summer months can make for some difficult fishing. While I enjoy summer fishing, a part of me is already looking forward to cooler weather and good fishing action. I'm hoping for a repeat of the 2015 fall run. I'm excited to see what the rest of the 2016 fishing season has to offer. Please feel free to share your halftime report below in the comments section.
I wait all year for the month of May. I pictured myself drifting along in my kayak and catching fish after fish on warm, sunny days. That doesn't seem to be the case this year. Dreary days with a chilly east wind seem to be the new normal. It's a backwater angler's worst nightmare. Dealing with a lack of sunshine and its non-warming effects on the backwater flats is one thing, but the relentless east wind that continues to push colder ocean water into our backwaters is a real mood killer.
High, cold and dirty water is never good for a flatfish bite.
It's hard to believe that our backwater temperatures increased just a few degrees since late March. As of this writing, the Atlantic City monitoring station is reporting 57 degrees while the Cape May station checks in at 61 degrees. Full moon tides and winds from the east have backwater temperatures in the mid to high 50s. During a normal May, I'd expect some back bay locales to be as much as 10 to 15 degrees higher than ocean temperatures. A steady 58 degrees seems to be a good all-around number for dependable action with most species. Unfortunately, we've been stuck in the mid 50's for most of the last two months.
On a brighter note, it looks like we're about to bust out of the current trend. The local forecast for the next few weeks have highs in the 70s and 80s – one outlet is even forecasting 90s later this week! Fortunately, there are plenty of fish around and an increase in water temperatures should really get things going. Maybe I should start looking forward to June from now on?
Despite the crummy weather pattern, fishing action has been pretty good. Big bluefish seem to be the main attraction. The big slammers can be found in our backwater sounds, inlets and along the beachfront. The blues are a blast on just about any type of gear as some of the yellow-eyed eating machines are pushing 15 to 20 pounds! Top-water plugs, metals, jigs and cut baits seem to be working well – those big bluefish usually aren't picky. The cooler water temperatures may help keep them around a little longer than normal.
Big Blues for Everyone!
Weakfish action has been decent. While the action is certainly not widespread, anglers willing to put in the time have been rewarded with some impressive catches. Much of the action has been in the backwater sounds, but I expect the inlet rock piles to turn on as soon as the weather warms up. With subpar water temperatures, the tiderunner bite has been a little more particular. My best experiences have been during an hour window on either side of low tide when the current is relatively slow and the water temperature is at its highest. It's been great to see so many large weakfish around again!
I can't get enough of those big yellow-mouthed tiderunners!
Striped bass action has been good in the area although not as predictable as the bluefish. There are plenty of schoolie striped bass in the backwaters. Some better-sized bass are staging around the inlet rock piles as they prepare to head north on their summer migration. With the passing of May's full moon on Saturday, May 21, I expect the striper bite to pick up as we head into the Memorial Day weekend. Hopefully, the lower water temperatures will keep them from moving along too quickly.
Jake got a bunch of small stripers while searching for weakfish.
I haven't been out much in the last week. A case of bronchitis took its toll on me and kept me laid up over the weekend. Thankfully, I'm beginning to feel a little better and hoping to get out sometime later this week. I'd usually be kicking myself for missing out on the summer flounder opener, but the lousy weather took a little of the sting away. Some flatfish were caught, but by most accounts, it was a slow weekend.
Earlier this season, summer flounder were stacked in many of my favorite weakfish holes. I noticed the bite slowed down since the influx of cooler ocean water took its toll and dropped backwater temperatures a few degrees. If we can string together a few sunny days, I'm sure the flatfish will begin to cooperate. I can't wait to put a few fresh flounder fillets on the grill.
I can't wait to get back out there!
Between the poor weather conditions and not feeling well, I did manage to hit a few of my favorite freshwater lakes. Usually, the month of May offers some unbelievable largemouth bass fishing opportunities, but it's been tough so far. I'm assuming we're a week or two behind now, at least as far as water temperatures are concerned, and the bite will pick up shortly. I hooked one decent largemouth, but I have a feeling most of the big girls are still sitting on their beds.
Hoping to find a few more like this in the coming weeks.
I'm beginning to feel a little like a broken record, "Next week has to be better." Whatever Mother Nature throws at us, God knows I'll be out there trying my best. Looking back, I'm having a pretty good year despite the less than ideal weather conditions. Imagine how good it could be if we could string together a few days of pleasant weather? The holiday weekend would be a great time to get things back on track. Good luck and stay safe.
South Jersey fishing action is off the charts! Striped bass, big bluefish, drumfish, tiderunner weakfish and summer flounder are here and they're hungry! While largemouth bass, chain pickerel, and truckloads of rainbow trout are making headlines at many of our local freshwater venues. Whether you choose saltwater or sweetwater is up to you, but it's time to get out there - fishing in South Jersey is as good as it gets!
From the rivers to the bays and along the beachfront, striped bass have us surrounded! Delaware River anglers reported one of the best spring striper runs in years, with numbers of quality fish taken on bait and plugs. With the recent passing of the late-April full moon, the big girls should be heading south and out of the river soon. The resident backwater bass are a little smaller, but they can be found in good numbers. The oceanfront bite is just starting to heat up and should continue to improve as the breeding stock pours out of the Delaware River, makes the U-turn and heads north for cooler waters. I have a feeling the action down along the Cape May beaches is really going to heat up as we head into the month of May.
News of the bluefish invasion is second only to the almighty striper. Even if you think bluefish aren't your thing, it's difficult not to enjoy this kind of action. Over the last few years, we've been spoiled by an amazing run of gigantic bluefish. The slammers are accessible to just about everyone as they can be found almost everywhere. A heavy leader is usually required when playing with the toothy beasts, but they are a real blast on light tackle – your drag will definitely be tested!
The big bluefish are a blast!
Anglers fishing with fresh clam reported the season's first black drumfish. The big boomers are a blast from the surf! I expect the drumfish action to pick up through May and peak right around the next full moon stage on May 21, 2016.
Tiderunner weakfish are back! I've been out early and often looking for my fanged friends. My first few trips were a little discouraging as I had just about everything except weakfish, but when I did find them, it was awesome! After paddling around a few spots, I found a solid bite with weakfish in the 8 to 10 pound range! It's been a few years since we had fish of this size around. Many of the weakfish I caught were large females and full of eggs. The big girls were inhaling my jigs - unfortunately, one of the big girls took my jig deep in the gill and I couldn't revive her. I'll be out chasing tiderunners for at least the next month so expect more details in next week's report.
A beautiful 10.46-pound true tiderunner weakfish.
While searching for tiderunners, I found the mother load of summer flounder. Most of the big flatties were over the legal 18-inch size minimum, but about a month early. It sure is difficult releasing keeper-sized fluke! I wonder how many South Jersey anglers know what they're missing out on? Our best time for backwater summer flounder action is now and we have to throw them back. By the time the season opens on Saturday, May 21, many of the larger flatfish will be moving out of the inlets in search of cooler ocean waters. Meanwhile, Delaware's 2016 summer flounder regulations are as follows; four fish daily, 16-inch minimum size and the no closed season!
Flatties are here and they're hungry!
While I wasn't targeting summer flounder, I have to admit, they were a welcome bycatch. The big flatties absolutely crushed my jigs. While pink soft-plastics are my "go-to" bait for backwater striped bass and weakfish, I feel like I catch many more fluke on a white bucktail and a long strip of fresh meat. I couldn't help to think about how much better the bite might be if I was actually targeting them.
Fluke have a reputation as a food fish, but they offer game fish qualities as well, especially on light tackle. I find summer flounder to be quite interesting - they are so much different than most of the other species in our waters. The flatfish move, feed and fight so much differently than most other finfish. Maybe they'd get a little more respect if they didn't taste so good.
When I'm not fishing along the coast, I'm enjoying great action close to home. I'm surrounded by trout-stocked waters and find myself spending an hour here and there at the local lakes and ponds. The rainbow trout provide steady action and make for a great meal when baked in foil. The hatchery trucks will be delivering another load of trout this week so they'll be plenty for everyone.
This beautiful rainbow trout is destined for the dinner plate.
My son, Jake, has developed a case of largemouth bass fever. He has been out daily and just can't get enough. The bass bite has been steady, but the fish are starting their spawning rituals so expect some tough fishing over the next few weeks. It's difficult for me to do it all so I'll catch up with the bigmouth bass when the saltwater action slows down.
Chunky largemouth are super aggressive before the spawn.
The next few weeks offer some of the best fishing our area has to offer. Many anglers wait all year for the variety of fishing opportunities available through the month of May. Fishing action blooms much like our landscape – one day nothing and the next flowers, shrubs and trees are in full colors. Much like the colorful blooms, the fish won't be around for long so get out and enjoy the action while you can!
It's official: I'm in a slump. It happens almost every year, usually between the last week of July and first week of August. I used to fight it, but I've accepted it's a difficult time to fish most of our local waterways. I call it a summer slowdown. Most days, air temperatures range from 90 to 95 degrees and the fishing action just isn't what it used to be. This time of year, I'd much rather be in the water than on the water.
Over the last few days, our great freshwater bite really slowed down. Areas that yielded decent-sized fish since April have all but dried up. On our last trip, we caught a bunch of bass, but none over 14 inches – many weren't much bigger than the baits we used to tempt them. I don't expect an improvement in the near future as a glance at the long-range weather forecast looks like we'll be in the 90s for at least the next week. Well, it was fun while it lasted, but I guess it's time for me to make the change to the night shift.
Other than a few beach trips with the family, I've been away from the saltwater scene for a few weeks. You think I would have learned to bring a rod and reel after my last encounter with the sharks? As luck would have it, we returned to the same spot on the beach and instead of sharks working over large bunker schools, this time it was birds working over schools of peanut bunker and snapper bluefish. I felt like the yappy birds were laughing at me, but it was good to see some signs of life. In my experiences, the back bay and surf bite usually drops off during the dog days, but the summer night bite can be lots of fun.
According to reports, the summer flounder action is starting to heat up on our wreck and reef sites. While short fluke seem to inundate our shallow backwaters, the bigger flatfish usually head for cooler, deeper waters as we head into August. I don't fish on party/head boats often, but I usually manage a trip or two each summer for some deep-water fluke. I'm looking forward to a trip in the next few weeks.
Speaking of summer flounder, I was recently contacted by NBC 4 New York's reporter, Brian Thompson, regarding one of my YouTube fluke videos. Brian was reporting on more looming fluke cuts and wanted to use some of my underwater video footage for his spot on the evening news. I was happy to oblige, but I'm not happy to hear about more cuts to our summer flounder quota. According to sources, the latest scientific assessments are calling for a 43-percent reduction in next year's catches. A 43-percent reduction could mean an even shorter season, higher minimum-size limits and a smaller daily bag limit. Legislators may attempt to loosen the noose a little by spreading the reduction out over a few years, but either way, things are not looking good for flounder-pounders or the businesses that depend on the summer fishery. I'll keep current with the situation and update my blog accordingly.
NBC 4 Summer Flounder Cuts
In other news, according to the NJDEP Fish and Wildlife's web site, the Striped Bass Bonus Program will reopen on Tuesday, September 1, 2015. The party/charter boat facet of the program will also be reinstated. Applications for individuals, as well as party/charter boats, are now being accepted. Former 2015 permit holders will automatically receive a new permit prior to the September reopening. Striped Bass Bonus Program participants will be allowed to harvest one striped bass between 24 and 28 inches. If you've been around as long as I have we used to call this a "slot fish." The SBBP uses the New Jersey commercial harvest quota of 215,912 pounds. If that SBBP surpasses the commercial quota, reductions will be made to the program in 2016. To review, the New Jersey recreational striped bass regulations are as follows: one fish at 28 inches to less than 43 inches and one fish greater than 43 inches. Striped Bass Bonus Program permit holders can keep an additional fish between 24 and 28 inches.
The reopening of the Striped Bass Bonus Program (SBBP) will be at least slightly controversial. Many anglers feel like the striped bass stocks are in decline and the State of New Jersey may have already pushed a little too far with their choice of a two-fish daily bag limit, especially when many of the migration states decided to drop to a one fish bag limit. In my opinion, the state is doing little to protect our striped bass stocks. When you add the new SBBP "slot fish" to the state's striped bass daily possession regulations, only striped bass measuring less than 24 inches are protected. In what could be a critical time to determine the future of the striped bass stocks do we really want to continue keeping three fish of various sizes per day?
I think I'm going to see how the fall run pans out and make my own regs this season – within the legal-limit options of course. To be honest, I miss the "slot limit" fish as the little stripers were tasty, easy to clean and fairly easy to catch in the South Jersey backwaters I frequent. However, if I don't see some improvements during the fall run, I'm not sure those little striped bass will taste as good as I remember.
It's difficult to put the recent bluefish invasion into words. I've been fishing for close to thirty years and I've never seen anything like it. Spring backwater bluefish runs happen most years, but these weren't the average 4 to 6-pound racers we see each season. Over the last two weeks, an exceptional amount of drag-burning, tackle-testing, voracious 8 to 18-pound bluefish have taken over our waters. The big blues were so thick in many locations that it made fishing for any other species nearly impossible.
Back Bay Brutes
Up until this season, I considered bluefish an unwanted by-catch while in search of spring stripers and tiderunner weakfish. Most of the time, the blues were half the size of the stripers and weakfish I was fishing for and those yellow-eyed eating machines have a way of ripping through my jigs and soft-plastic supplies like no other. Catching a bluefish or two was enjoyable, but after landing a few and losing a fair share of lead-head jigs and soft-plastic baits, I wanted to get back to chasing striped bass and weakfish.
Releasing Another Big Bluefish
This season is different. Although I'm certainly not happy about the lack of weakfish, the big blues offer an incredible battle on light tackle. My Shimano Stella 3000 drag reached notes I've never heard while my light-duty G-Loomis NRX rod got a serious workout!
With so many large bluefish in our waters, it makes great fishing opportunities available to everyone. I spent a lot of time fishing in my kayak, but the backwater bridges, piers, and sod banks were just as worthwhile. The inlet rock hoppers and beachfront surfcasters even got in on the great action. Most days, it didn't matter what you threw at the big blues: bunker chunks, plugs, metals, soft-plastic baits, bucktails and just about anything else pulled through the water would likely attract the attention of nearby blues.
The big blues kept surfcasters busy for weeks!
The only con to this spring's unprecedented bluefish run is the lack of weakfish at my regular stops. Some of these locales have put out weakfish year after year for decades and I couldn't tempt a single one. I have been fishing a lot more during the day which I'm certain has at least a little relevance in my poor showing. Just recently, it seems as though a few more weakfish have been reported, especially around the inlet rock piles, so I'm not giving up yet.
On the bright side, an added bonus to fishing during the day is the tremendous amount of summer flounder taking my jig meant for weakfish. When I manage to get past the bluefish and down to the bottom, the flatfish are quick to take a hook. I've played catch and release with more sizable flatfish already this season than I have in the last five together. Big fluke are lined up along the channel edges and hungry. My best catches came in 12 to 15 feet of water this week. Opening day should be a good one; Friday, May 22 can't come soon enough!
It isn't easy letting big summer flounder go!
With so much great action happening in our backwaters, I figured it was a great time to get my son, Jake, out for his first saltwater kayaking trip. Safety is always of utmost importance and I didn't take the decision of bringing my 13-year-old son lightly. Calm wind and a well-planned tide made for a great first trip. Jake handled the kayak like a pro and was attentive to his surroundings at all times. Soon after we drifted out to the fishing grounds, Jake's rod was bent. We had a great time and have already been out two more times. There's not much better than making memories with your kids!
This kid gets it!
One final note: on Saturday, May 16, I had the pleasure of attending a Heroes On the Water (HOW) Event at Scotland Run Park on Wilson Lake as a volunteer fishing guide. The HOW's mission is to empower our Nation's warriors by rehabilitating kayak fishing outings that are physically and mentally therapeutic through their nationwide community of volunteer and donors. I heard great things about the program and having grown up on the lake, I figured it was the perfect opportunity to check it out for myself. I arrived a little before 7 AM and there was already a good crowd of volunteers busy prepping for the day. Everything was top notch: the volunteers were knowledgeable and helpful, the kayaks, life vests and fishing equipment were of high quality, and I can't forget to mention the great donuts, coffee and lunch. As it turned out, we ended up with more volunteers than veterans, but I have a feeling that had more to do with the questionable weather forecast – we did get caught in a downpour, but it only lasted a few minutes. Fishing action was a little slow, but there were a few largemouth bass, pickerel, and crappies caught. I had the chance to talk to a few veterans and it was great to see them enjoying themselves on the water. It was a great time and I will be volunteering again for any of their Southern Jersey outings. For more information on the Heroes On the Water program, please visit www.heroesonthewater.org/chapters/new-jersey-chapter/.
As coastal anglers, it's safe to say that most of us are anticipating a great fall run, but why rush it? The truth is, many of the summer species remain in our waters and will continue to hang around for at least another month. No matter how much we want the striped bass run to begin, it's at the very least, a solid month away. Sure, the mullet are beginning to make their way towards the inlets, but for every striped bass chasing those mullet, there are a 1000 snapper bluefish. With a little over a week left in the summer flounder season and a solid showing of 12 to 26-inch weakfish, I'm not in any rush to say goodbye to the summer season.
A late-summer sunrise over Cape May Harbor
I hope anglers plan on taking advantage of the unexpected, extra eight days added to this year's summer flounder season. It's rare to receive bonus time on any type of species, so I'm looking forward to at least another trip or two. Flatfish action remains good at many of the local wreck and reef sites. For those of us that are old enough to remember a time before summer flounder had a season, we know that those wrecks and reefs hold fluke well into October. Ocean conditions look a little sporty for much of the week, but the forecasters are expecting calmer seas by the weekend. If the weather prediction is right, I may spend the next few days live-lining some mullet around some of my favorite inlet rock piles. Those big flatties love mullet! I'm hoping to be back out on the wrecks and reefs by Friday or Saturday.
The party boat fun isn't over yet!
Once I'm done with the flatfish, I would be a fool not to take advantage of some of the best weakfish action of the season. Late-September and October nights offer incredible weakfish action. Our backwaters are chock-full of peanut bunker, spearing, and mullet and those speckled beauties are hot on their tails. Most seasons, the late-summer/early-fall push of weakfish run on the small side, but over the last few seasons, numbers of 3 to 5-pound weakfish seem to be increasing steadily. If we happen to find some decent striper action while targeting weakies and I'm certain we will, no one will be complaining.
I spent last Tuesday, September 10, enjoying a summer day at Hereford Inlet. I did some scouting around and everything I experienced felt like summer. I fished a few of my favorite fishing holes and caught tons of small spot, sea robins, sea bass, bluefish, and kingfish. I took in a little sun and enjoyed a few hours boogie-boarding in the 75-degree surf. The day was incredibly enjoyable as fishing action was great, even if they were on the small side. There were quite a few anglers out and about and most seemed content with the small bluefish and kingfish they were catching.
A Hereford Inlet kingfish
On the way home, I stopped in a few of the local bait and tackle shops and heard some talk about mullet. Since my visit a few days ago, talk about mullet has increased and should continue to do so as we approach the full moon on September 19. With a cold front passing today and a little NE wind forecast for tomorrow, things could get interesting along our inlet jetties. As great as all this sounds, we can't ignore the fact that water temperatures are above 70 degrees along much of our coastline. I'm sure some resident bass will take advantage of the departing mullet, but I seriously doubt that we'll be experiencing any monumental fishing action in our area. In my opinion, most of the mullet leave a little too early to expect any real widespread striper action. There was a time when a September mullet run meant something in our area, but it's been years since we've seen newsworthy striped bass action in September. If only those mullet could hang around into October and November, then, we'd have something to talk about.
Honestly, I don't blame anyone for looking forward to the fall run, especially after last season's unforgettable Super-storm Sandy. Many anglers, including yours truly, hung up the gear after Sandy and the nor'easters that followed. A fall without fishing just didn't feel right, but I felt lucky as missing a fall's fishing run was minuscule when compared to some of the devastation others had to endure. Just days before Sandy rolled through, we were into an incredible weakfish bite. After the storm hit, fishing was the furthest thing from my mind as I watched friends struggle to get their lives back in order.
Mornings we all dream about
Looking back, not fishing last fall has allowed me to appreciate the sport I cherish much more. I find myself enjoying each fishing trip, even if the results aren't impressive. Thoughts of blitz-type fishing with schools of bass and blues on mullet, peanut bunker, or sand eels is every anglers dream. My heart rate increases just thinking about it, but as much as I'm looking forward to the fall run, I'm going to enjoy every bit of summer that I can!
Summer flounder action is heating up along our reef and wreck sites! Fishing reports are pouring in from all over as bottom-bouncing anglers fill their fish boxes with tasty fillets. The season has been extended an extra eight days until September 24, so there's still plenty of time to plan a trip or two. With a little luck and some decent weather, the last few weeks of the 2013 summer flounder season could be magical.
As a backwater angler, I take a little time away from the saltwater scene during most of July and August. The fishing action generally seems to be a little slower and to tell you the truth, the thought of beach-going crowds makes me cringe. Usually, local freshwater action holds my interest, but I needed an escape from largemouth bass and lily pads.
Salty air and a trip on a head boat to fish over some rough bottom is just what I needed. Believe it or not, I have a lot of fond memories about fishing along the party boat rails. It's been a couple of years since I fished on a head boat, but the Cape May-based Porgy IV came to mind as I feel like Captain Paul is one of the best in the business.
My buddy, Dave, and I agreed to head out on Friday, August 16 as the weather and ocean conditions looked superb. We arrived in Cape May at 6:30 AM and were a little surprised to see so many anglers already lined up, especially in the bow and stern. When we were a little younger, we would put our rods on the boat around midnight and fish the back bays until sunrise, but we're a little older and softer now. We grabbed our gear and set up on the starboard side just a few feet from the stern.
Early-morning full boat
With our rods tied to the rail, we walked over to the Lobster House and ordered breakfast. The eggs, toast, potatoes, and orange juice hit the spot. I've had breakfast at all the local eateries, but the Lobster House's Luncheonette gets my vote. After our meal, we walked across the street to Jim's Bait and Tackle to pick up a few rigs and some ice for our cooler. Before we knew it, it was closing in on 8 AM, the boat was full, and we could hear the roar of the engine.
Rigged and ready
When we fish for fluke with Captain Paul, we're used to making a hard right at the inlet with a south heading set for the Old Grounds, but on this day, we headed almost straight east to fish what I assume was the Cape May Reef – head-boat captains never seem to like talking about their fishing spots. With word of good fishing action at the Wildwood and Cape May reef sites, I wasn't too surprised that we headed east – if nothing else, at least the ride was a little shorter.
As Cape May slowly disappeared along the horizon, we double checked our rigs and shared a few fishing stories with some of the other patrons while the mates collected fares and prepared bait for our day on the water. I always enjoy watching the old-timers break out their secret rigs and magic baits. Everyone was pleasant and a joy to be around; it was a good crowd.
Well-prepared bait boats
When we approached the fishing grounds, we could make out what looked like a small city. It turned out to be a fleet of boats that were already into a good pull of flatties. Our captain decided to fish alone, just a little south of the fleet. The boat provided an ample amount of squid, fluke belly, and mackerel strips to bait our hooks. I dropped my green, mylar rig down to the bottom and was into fluke right from the first drop. We caught so many short fluke, I wondered if a keeper-sized flatfish would ever get a shot at our baits. I saw a few other patrons land keepers, but I was stuck in shortyville. The action was great, but reeling up 8-ounces of lead and 16 to 17-inch fluke from the depths soon began to feel like work.
A few drifts and about a dozen throwbacks later, I finally had a better fish on. I got it about halfway up before it shook the hook. About ten minutes later, I had another solid take and put a near 20-inch fluke in the net. I continued to catch a bunch of short flatfish as I watched most of the boat pick away at keepers.
Finally a keeper!
Dave was busy with throwbacks for most of the morning. Right around lunchtime, he set the hook on what looked like a monster. After a well-spirited battle, we saw a belly-hooked, 20-inch flatfish on the surface. It wasn't the doormat we were hoping for, but it was another solid keeper. We played the throwback game for a little longer before Dave nailed two keepers on back-to-back drops on our last drift of the day.
Dave with a pair of his three keepers
When the final horn sounded most of the patrons had a flattie or two. I think high hook had four, but I'm not sure if that was a catch made by a couple of anglers. I didn't see any true doormats, but most of the keepers were thick 20-inch fish and the pool winner was pushing 5 pounds.
Our box of flatties
The mates made the rounds looking for pool fish, but we didn't have any quality fish to challenge the 5-pounder that was already on the hook. A few others were close and as it turned out, one was so close that two anglers split the pool money.
We drug our cooler to the cleaning table and watched as the mates filleted flounder after flounder. It's been a while since I had someone clean fish for me and it was a real treat. The guys were good and made quick work of the flatfish.
Looking back, there was nothing truly memorable about this trip, yet I found it incredibly enjoyable. My catch was far from spectacular; Dave did a little better, but we've experienced 100s of trips with better action. I guess part of it was the incredible weather and ocean conditions: air temps were about 75 degrees with a light breeze and wave heights were never more than two feet. The patrons came from all walks of life; yet, we got along like we knew each other for years. Tangles were at a minimum, even with a full boat, so it seemed like everyone knew at least enough to not ruin anyone's trip. Everyone was there to have a good time and that's just what we did. I have a feeling I'll be back out on the big boat again later this week.
It's a great time to be an angler in South Jersey! The month of May offers some of the best fishing opportunities in our area. The last few days/weeks have been a blur as I've spent every free minute fishing the local ponds, lakes, backwaters, inlets, and rock piles. I've been trying to do it all, but I just can't keep up with all of the fishing opportunities that are available in our area now.
Trout fishing is a tradition in our family. We used to get up early and fish with the masses on opening day, but the in-season weekday stockings are just so much more enjoyable. Even though I have monster striped bass and tiderunner weakfish on my mind, I make time to hit the trout pond at least a few times each spring. Every year, I let the boys take a day off from school to go trout fishing. Frankie had a high-school tennis match, so Jake had my undivided attention. We got to the pond soon after the hatchery truck stopped by and we were into fish right away. We had an incredible day that ended with Jake taking his first limit of rainbow trout. The smile on his face makes it all worthwhile!
Jake's Limit of Rainbow Trout
As usual, most of my time has been spent in the back bays chasing striped bass and weakfish. The skinny-water bite has been steady and for the most part, predictable. The falling tide has been action-packed as the bass have been active during the beginning and middle of the outgoing tide; while the weakfish show up a little later towards low water. The fish I've been catching haven't been anything to brag about, but the action has been steady and I'm enamored with the amount of 12 to 20-inch weakfish that have invaded our backwaters. Those back-bay beauties seem to be around in better numbers than I've seen in the last five years.
Back Bay Beauty
On Tuesday night, I was lucky enough to catch a tagged striped bass. This particular tag was from the American Littoral Society. I called in the tag number on Wednesday morning and I can't wait to hear back from them. I've been fortunate enough to catch a bunch of tagged fish over the years and it's always a pleasure to learn more about the fish we pursue. The location and date of the tag are always interesting, but it's also worthy of note to see how much the fish has grown. The prizes and certificates offered by the tagging agencies are also an added bonus.
Tagged Fish Prizes
We're just hours away from the 2012 summer flounder season. The flatfish have become much more aggressive over the last few days. We're starting to catch them regularly at night, so I'd imagine the daytime bite has to be very good. I have a trip planned on Monday, so I'll have some more information to share in my next blog entry. I'm glad the season opens in a few short hours; it's been tough playing catch and release with those hefty flatfish.
Thanks to a little prodding from my pals, I finally pulled myself away from the backwaters and spent a day on the rock pile. We fished a popular, Cape May jetty on a very windy day and managed to score a few striped bass. Action was far from fast and furious; nevertheless, we did catch a few decent linesiders on plugs. Dark-colored Bombers are a favorite at this location, although we caught most of our fish on Yo-Zuri Mag Darters. I didn't give up on my Bombers easily, but I ultimately gave in and tied on a Mag Darter after some more prodding by my buddy, Rob; after all, he already had a few fish under his belt. Just a few casts later and I was into a decent striper.
Jetty Bass with Rob Woolfort
With so much going on, I haven't spent much time with my feet in the sand. Up until recently, surf-fishing reports seemed rather inconsistent. Just over the last few days, I've heard about some real monsters coming out of the Delaware Bay and up along the Cape May beachfront. A long-time friend, John Jones and his son Jimmy were fishing clams at a well-known hot spot on Thursday evening when one of the rods doubled over. After a well-spirited battle, Jimmy slid the 44-inch, 33-pound cow up onto the beach. This weekend's full-moon tides should keep the big girls on the move. I have my 11-foot Lami's all rigged; I know where I'll be on Sunday morning!
I woke up this morning and flipped the page on my calendar; it's hard to believe that we're just entering the month of April. Since my last blog entry, I've logged a ton of hours on the water and lipped quite a few striped bass. Friends and family have joined in the fun and we've already had some memorable trips. I feel like we're halfway through the spring-fishing season, when in reality it's only just begun!
Over the last two weeks, the fishing action has really picked up. Local anglers are catching good numbers of striped bass in the back bays, rivers, inlets, and out front in the surf. Action has been far from consistent, but we're still well ahead of schedule.
Believe it or not striped bass aren't the only game in town. Bluefish and summer flounder are here and they're hungry. Bluefish showed up out front last week and a few have pushed into the backwaters over the last few days. Summer flounder invaded the inlets about a week ago and seem to be around in good numbers, especially at the perennial early-season hot spots. A good friend has been nailing flatties behind Seven-Mile Island all week while tossing jigs for striped bass. I saw my first flatfish the other night when my buddy, Rob, landed one while we were fishing for stripers; if they're biting at night, you know they're aggressive. May 5 seems so far away!
My buddies and I have been spending a great deal of time fishing in the shallow backwaters. Even though we've managed to put together some good catches, finding any type of pattern has been difficult. Things were just about to get interesting when adult bunker moved into the Great Egg Harbor Bay last week and then a strong cold front with gusty northwest winds sent them packing. Just when we begin to think that we've got the bite figured out, the fish throw us a changeup.
The nightshift bass bite has been productive, although most of the fish have been on the short-side of the 28-inch-legal-size limit. We've been tossing soft-plastic baits on ¼ to ½-ounce jig heads with good results. One night, the fish will be blowing up on grass shrimp and spearing and inhaling our soft-plastic baits and the next they're on the bottom and only halfheartedly striking our jigs. While it seems that we can't keep a bite at one location for more than a night or two, I have noticed that our best action usually takes place on either side of high water.
I've had my fun with the little fish, but it's time to switch gears. It's time to start chasing some better fish. The bite on the Delaware River is picking up and the big girls are moving in to do their thing. This week, I'll dust off the big rods and make a trip to my river hot spots. After a few trips tossing bloodworms along the riverbanks, I'll switch over to chunking bunker and clams along the bay shores and down around Cape May Point. By month's end, I'll be back out front looking for bass busting on bunker.
I'm a back-bay skinny-water angler by nature, but I'll be making the rounds over the next few weeks. Fishing opportunities seem endless as our waters become inundated with striped bass, summer flounder, and bluefish; a stray weakfish would be nice too. It's hard to do it all, but I'm going to try my best to spend as much time as I can on the water this season. If the bite gets real good, eat, sleep, fish will turn into fish, fish, fish!