by Frank Ruczynski
Reports of weakfish are pouring in from as far south as Delaware and to the north up in New York waters. Fortunately, it seems like we're right in the middle of the resurgence as our local waters are exploding with weakfish action, especially from Cape May to Barnegat Bay. Many of the speckled beauties are on the small side, but some better-sized fish moved in recently. I'm not ready to call it a comeback, but it's beginning to feel like the good old days when weakfish were common in our waters.It's good to see these beautiful fish around in numbers again!
After years of decline, there are signs that weakfish could be making a comeback. We had some promising runs between 2010 and 2012, but the action tailed off a little between 2013 and 2015. The 2016 season started with a great spring run as big weakfish were found in some areas that haven't surrendered numbers of tiderunners in more than a decade. This spring, I found better numbers and sizes of weakfish than I've witnessed in at least eight to ten years. With limited fishing pressure and daily bag limits at one fish per person, per day, it is reasonable to think that many of those large weakfish spawned successfully.
In my opinion, no one can predict the future of a fishery. With so many variables, predicting fish stocks is nearly impossible. Weakfish seem to have a boom-to-bust history that cannot be easily explained. The best we can do is continue research, watch trends and hope to learn from our observations. As anglers, we tend to base the health of a fishery on our catch rates. I believe catch rate numbers are about as useful as any other factor, but not always a determining factor in the overall health of a fishery. For example, I've noted better catch trends during warmer-than-average years with little rainfall. Most of my fishing time is spent in the South Jersey back bays where factors such as freshwater influence, water clarity and water temperature can have a huge bearing on my success. If we have a particularly cold winter, cool summer, frequent coastal storms or a lot of rain, my catch rate may be down due to the conditions rather than a lack of fish. The weakfish bite seems a little more susceptible to poor conditions than other fish like striped bass and bluefish – I think that's one of the reasons I enjoy catching them so much. In the big picture, I understand my observations are miniscule, but it's all I have and it works for me.
Enough with the theories and opinions, lets talk about the great fishing action. After spending much of summer in the sweetwater chasing largemouth bass, it sure felt good to return to saltwater action. On my first trip, I wasn't expecting much, but found some decent striped bass action. Since that early-August trip, I've been out often and the weakfish bite has been outstanding. The bite has been so good that I've been out almost every night – I'm thrilled to see so many fish around again!The fanged fish are back!
We refer to the late-season run of weakfish as the summer spikes. The little spike weakfish seem to be showing up everywhere. The small 8 to 16-inch weakfish used to show in good numbers every August and gorge themselves on the bait balls that flood our estuaries each season. The young, one to two-year-old weakfish would stay in our backwaters until late October/early November before migrating to their offshore wintering grounds. Many anglers question the whereabouts of these fish after their first year or two in our waters and for good reason – there have been many years in which we've had tremendous numbers of spike weakfish leave our waters never to be seen again. Where do these weakfish end up? Some believe they end up as bycatch in Carolina shrimp trawls while others claim some type of natural predation. I'm not certain what happens to these fish, but I'm sure the two factors mentioned above take their toll on the fishery.
Not only are the summer spikes back, some bigger weakfish are showing too! On my last few trips, I caught a bunch of spikes and some larger, headshaking weakfish between 22 and 25 inches. The big weakfish are ripping through massive schools of peanuts bunker and silversides. Topwater weakfish action usually involves a swipe and a small dimple or swirl on the water's surface, but they've been blowing through the bait balls and exploding on the water's surface. I pride myself on recognizing specific patterns and I've rarely witnessed weakfish attack baitfish on the surface so aggressively. Much to my enjoyment, they are attacking my jigs and soft-plastic baits with the same reckless abandon. I'm usually pretty quick to set the hook, but they have been inhaling baits.
I'm not certain if this is the beginning of a great comeback story or just a little bright spot in the downward cycle, but whatever the case, I'm going to ride this run until the end. The September full moon bite was amazing and I can't wait to get back out there. With summer flounder season coming to a close on September 25 and striper season still a few weeks away, this year's run of spike weakfish should fill in nicely. This head-shaker was a blast on light tackle!