Weakfish – What are the chances,…
by Rich Troxler
I haven’t been around much lately since the holidays, mostly due to work constraints and a blown motherboard on my computer. I wound up buying a new PC and have been spending some time recovering data off of the hard drives in my blown PC. While doing so I came upon this post that I had written a while back, and although it’s a bit early yet, it looks like we may be headed for an early spring. And when the appropriate time actually does come, I probably won’t be able to find this when needed, so here it is.
It’s no secret that weakfish have not been around in decent numbers for the past several years. History has shown that weakfish are very prone to extreme cycles of abundance, and over-fishing does not necessarily appear to be part of the equation as to why this happens. There is a whole lot going on in their eco-system that we do not understand that may account for this phenomenon, and I won’t pretend to have the answers.
Regardless of the cause, during their down cycles there are usually some weakfish around for those who chose to pursue them. With that in mind, here are my thoughts on how I approach catching weakfish, when there appears to be no weakfish to catch. Again, I base the following on my own personal experience, so consider any similarities between what I state, and what others may say as consensus, the only true thing we have to go on in terms of knowledge, where fishing is concerned.
Prime time – breeders and summer weaks
I, and probably everybody who fishes for them, break the weakfish season down into two classes of fish (or seasons). The first class of fish to hit waters in my area (Long Island) are the larger breeders. These are fish that come into the bays to breed. This happens, for the most part, somewhere in May, with the second week in May being my general rule of thumb for when I start looking in earnest. For these fish, like bass, I tend to favor outgoing tide, especially in mid-May. I feel that the same outgoing warm water dynamic that fuels the bass bite, does the same for the weakfish bite.
Again, this is a rule of thumb and I am aware that weakfish frequently show up in nets in April, but I’m talking about the major body of fish here. It most probably happens earlier in the area south of Long Island, and later the more north you go. Regardless, when the breeders are done breeding, they begin to work their way towards the inlets and most are usually gone from the bays, in this area, by the end of June. Again, this is my rule of thumb. They are fish and they do what they want. I’ve caught big weakfish in the bay in July, I just don’t hang my hat on it.
The second class of weakfish is referred to as summer weaks. Like the name implies, these are the weakfish that show up in late spring and stick around for the summer, putting on inches on the abundant forage that the bays have to offer. These fish are much smaller than the breeders, with some years it being difficult to catch one over the 16” size limit. Some years, they average 16” and over and catching a couple for the table is easy. One never knows from year to year. The summer weaks appear to be more numerous than the breeders, but I think that this is just due to the fact that they are in the area longer. Also, many times the summer weaks are here in numbers, right under our noses, and we are not paying attention to their presence
Consider them a target of opportunity
For the most part, any concentrated effort I put toward catching weakfish, is done sometime in May and very early June, when the breeders are in town. Nothing like a teen size weakie to get the old heart pumping LOL. This is strictly a bay fishing op for me. Regardless of the cycle they may be in, there are certain places that I look and fish for several nights during this period, just to keep myself honest. The rest of that time I am typically fishing for bass, but I still keep weakfish on my radar while doing it.
At this time of the year, the baits that bass and weaks feed on are almost identical, and the bites can sometimes be happening side-by-side. Other times, it’s completely different baits in the same locale, or the same bait in near, but different locales. This is what makes them such a challenge at times. But there are still differences in habit that can give you an edge when searching them out.
Know the sights, signs and the sounds
An example of the aforementioned side-by-side bite would be Alberto Knie’s 40 something record bass on (8 lb?) test line, while fishing for weaks in the Shinnecock Canal some years back. But the reverse can also happen, and this is what I mean by knowing the sights, signs and sounds, or keeping your radar up for weakfish. In less confined areas, I find that weakfish, particularly large weakfish, will sometimes be far more apt to venture into areas that bass are less comfortable in, this being skinny water. They will often run the flats adjacent to a channel, while the bass will stay near the channel edges.
I’ve been standing on the edge of a sandbar at night, fishing for bass on some piece of structure in a channel, and have had weakfish make strafing runs behind me, often right against the shore. You might confuse them with bass, but they won’t hit what you’re throwing for bass, at least rarely anyway. But tie on a tiny profile for small white bait, or better yet a teaser ahead of your plug that imitates grass shrimp, and you might find yourself tight to a 12 lb weakfish.
When weakfish are running the shallows, they don’t sound like bass feeding. They sound almost like hickory shad. Small little sucking, sometimes slurping, sometimes a pop, sometimes a combo of the preceding with a surface splash, but not at all like a bass. They can get loud on a calm night, but with none of the resounding happy slappy’s of a bass. You know something is feeding, you just don’t know what, so assume it is weakfish and adjust your strategy accordingly.
Ever wonder why they’re referred to as green-eyes. Well, yeah, they have green eyes, but here is something to consider when looking for weakies around some of their traditional early haunts (i.e. deep in the bays). If you happen to be standing on a dock or pier some night, that has lights on it, particularly those that shine into the bay, keep YOUR eyes peeled for a flash of green coming from the water. A number of years ago I had several interesting experiences that told me that weaks ( and fish in general) may perceive more about our world than we would care to admit.
Many years back and some time in spring, during a dredging of the Shinnecock inlet (sand and water pumped onto west side), they had a bank of bright sodium lights shining off into the water, where the water was being pumped. It made this great current that I had to check out. As I’m standing on the shore looking out onto the water, I kept seeing these green and yellow dots of light. I’d like to say that I instantly knew what this was, but the truth is it took a little while for what I was seeing to sink into my burnt out brain.
I was seeing weakfish and bass, and apparently from where I was standing in front of the lights, casting a shadow, they could also see me. I took this lesson to heart and have seen it repeated many times where weaks are concerned. It is a very weird experience to be standing on a lit dock, with scads of bait milling nervously around in the light, and look down in the water, and see a green eye flash at you for a second, before disappearing into the dark water.
THIS is a sight that will tell you that weakfish are in the area. They will work a shadow line just like a bass will. But they will also run bait up into shallows that bass are generally fearful to tread. And they will actively feed on the surface, but sound very unlike a bass when they do. They can and will also feed deep, but we will have to leave those that do, to the boat guys, at least for the most part.
Best baits - small profiles to long-a or larger
So what should your strategy be? I guess this comes down to your experience level, and I don’t mean this to sound condescending here. As a general rule of thumb, nobody in the past thirty some odd years that I have been fishing has ever gone broke fishing small profiles for weakfish. The old stand by jelly worms on a small lead head, or those pink shrimp bodies that I haven’t used in years, oh yeah, Salty Dogs are what they are called, whatever, they are suckers for these small profiles. During the last up-cycle, about 8-10 years back, when they popped up out of nowhere, it was easy business catching a “limit” in 20 minutes using nothing more than a 1/4 ounce shad head fitted with a 4” fin-s body in grey/white.
Then other times, in more recent years, there were certain circumstances that required a much bigger profile to get their attention. The memory that I am referencing came about 5 years back. That night in May, I was out looking for bass around the west end bays of Long Island. I was standing above the water, looking down (yeah, was up top of a bridge), when I noticed a large school of squid move into the light. It was a clam night, so it was like looking into an aquarium, one of the things that I have come to appreciate from that form of fishing.
I watched them for a while, moving in unison, and after a time my ears started picking up the unmistakable sound of fish feeding in the distance. It was coming from the south side of the channel leading up to where I was standing. I ran back to my truck, swapped rods and tied on a small shad head/fin-s. I ran out to the second point and started firing casts toward the swirls I saw appearing, courtesy of the light provided by the quarter moon. Frustration mounted as my casts went unrewarded.
Remembering the squid I had seen a short time earlier, I tied on a squid “popper” that I had won at as part of a raffle. Now, I generally don’t fish days, so poppers are kinda lost on me, but I tied it on anyway. I cast it out, but did not pop it. Instead, I did what some old-timers do to “pencil” type poppers, and just dragged it across the surface in short bursts. Drag and wait, drag and wait. Well I didn’t have to wait long. I hooked up almost immediately and before long I was dragging a long fanged green-eye of 13 lbs up on the sod bank. One more would follow before they moved off.
While the above story may be of interest, from a bait/profile standpoint, it is strictly meant to illustrate a point about bait profiles when pursuing weakfish. The big weaks of spring may hit anything, from grass shrimp imitations to large baits, if large is on the menu, but the smaller summer weaks are usually caught on small profiles.
One more interesting story
The big weaks of spring come into the bay to breed. They are hungry before, and they are hungry after, but when the moment comes to seal the deal with the opposite sex, they will ABSOLUTELY not hit ANYTHING. This was clearly illustrated to me one night, at one of my favorite weakfishing spots. I arrived when the tide was about halfway out and walked to a spot that was on the north side of the bay. I was above (yeah, do the math again) the water looking down into about 7-8 feet of clear, calm moving water. There were so many teen size weaks facing into the tide, I almost crapped my pants LOL.
I was already rigged for weaks with a small shad-head and fin-s body, so I lobbed off a cast designed to intercept the body of fish beneath me. I crossed my shad-head right in front of a beautiful teen-sized weak. It didn’t even track the motion of my bait! Stunned, I made repeated casts to this amazing body of fish, all ignored. I even bumped my shad-head into a fish, just to see what it would do. It bolted a few feet to the side and then took up position in the line up again. As I was intending to fish weakfish, my selection of baits was somewhat limited to those tried and true profiles of the past. I tried them to no avail.
After about an hour of complete humiliation, I decided to go with the big guns. I remembered the worm digging days of my long lost youth and decided to walk back to my truck, to get my shovel. Youth would repeat itself and my efforts would prevail, at least this is what I thought. If nothing else, fisher-persons are eternal optimists LOL. The tide was down enough so that I could access the gravely sand that sand worms preferred. A few turns of rock and several shovel-fulls later, I had 3 decent sized sand worms in the bucket.
I returned to my position above the mass of giant weakfish and lobbed a whole, un-weighted, sand worm, impaled on a 4/0 Gami bait holder, into the tide. I waited for the hit that never came. Several more casts, the same result. I swam this worm right in front of their faces, only to watch them move aside to let it pass. AAAAHHHHH, frustration was not the word, so I left for home, talking to myself all the way. The short version is this, when they’re actually breeding, you can’t catch them with anything other than a spear, or maybe dynamite LOL.
So once again, there you have it. Spring is almost upon us, and with it, maybe the start of another up-cycle for weakfish. I don’t hold my breath waiting for them, but you never know when they will just bust out. Even if they don’t, there are always some out there to catch. If you catch a big female in spring (bloated belly, or give a squeeze to check) feel free to revive her and turn her back. Better to keep a few small summer weaks when they show, at least IMHO.
Cross your fingers for a mild, STABLE, spring season.