by Frank Ruczynski
We're just hours away from the beginning of the 2012 striped bass season! I'm sure some anglers may argue that the 2011 striper season never really ended, but March 1 marks a new season for our inlets, back bays, and rivers and I have a feeling it's going to be a good one!
If you're like me, right about now is when you start feeling like a little kid on Christmas Eve. Your mind starts racing and you start wondering: what will the new season bring? Will this be the year that I catch the monster fish that I've been dreaming about? If that trophy cow takes the hook, will my equipment hold up? Anticipation and excitement grow at the thought of a new season and the endless possibilities it offers.
Fortunately, this winter was as mild as any in recent memory. Ocean water temperatures in South Jersey seldom, if ever, dipped below 40 degrees. The average water temperature for the month of February in Cape May is 37 degrees. By mid-March, the water temperature rises to an average of 42 degrees. Right now, just days before March 1, the National Oceanographic Data Center (NODC) is reporting a balmy 47 degrees! Warmer water should make for some great early-season action.
There are a couple of areas that offer striped bass action year round, but for the most part, fishing action is historically slow during the first-half of the month. The season's first keeper-sized stripers typically come from warm-water outflows via power plants. This year should be different though. Above-average water temps and a favorable long-range forecast could mean that the playing field is a little more even and I have a feeling those warm-waters outflows won't be the only game in town.
In South Jersey, we are blessed with an intricate system of bays, sounds, rivers, and creeks that run from Cape May Harbor up through Barnegat Bay. These large, shallow bodies of water warm quickly and are particularly productive during the spring months. Resident bass will use these flats as feeding stations as small crabs, spearing, minnows, and grass shrimp are plentiful in these waters year round. Ordinarily, the shallow flats begin to turn on as we get closer towards the end of March, but I'm fairly certain that some of those flats are already holding active fish.
This Wednesday night, I plan on continuing my tradition of heading out at midnight on March 1, weather permitting. Usually, I know the chances of catching a fish on the opening day are slim, but this season I feel like my chances have increased tenfold. After a little homework, I found that high tide will be at 1:45 AM and it looks like it's going to be a little breezy at the location I plan on fishing. Another look ahead shows prime conditions, favorable-evening high tides and daytime air temps into the 60's, beginning on March 6, just a couple of days before the full moon. Tides and weather always play a role in fishing, but they're even more significant during the beginning of the season.
Catching the first bass of the new season should be enough of a reward, however there are a handful of bait and tackle shops that have sweetened the pot by putting a bounty on the first keeper-sized striped bass of the year. Some of the contests are location based, while others include the entire state. Absecon Bay Sportsmen's Center offers some of the area's most lucrative prizes such as a $200 gift certificate for the first keeper-sized striper, $100 gift certificate for the second keeper bass, and $50 for the third linesider weighed in at the shop. Dave also anteed up a $100 gift certificate for the first bass over 20 pounds and another for the first striper over 30 pounds. That's a lot of clams!