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Frank Ruczynski

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.

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June 18, 2015

Sometimes It's More Than Fishing

by Frank Ruczynski

There isn't much I enjoy more than fishing. It's fair to say that I like catching a lot more than fishing, but as I grow older, the fishing experience has turned into much more than casting and catching. More times than not, I believe most of us measure our fishing success strictly by the size and number of the fish caught per trip. While catching should never be underestimated, I thought it would be nice to share some of the other unforgettable sights, smells and sounds that add to the fishing experience.

A Foggy Fall Morning at Lake Lenape

It wasn't long ago that I measured the value of each fishing trip only by results. My goal was to catch as many fish as I could on each and every trip. I guess I looked at fishing as a game in which winning could only be achieved by topping my personal best. By pushing myself, I learned and accomplished a great deal, but looking back, it was a lot more business than pleasure. If I caught sixty-two striped bass one night, I wanted sixty-three the next. I remember beaching a 36-inch weakfish and instead of enjoying the fish and the moment, I rushed back into the water in hopes of a 37-inch weakfish. I'm sure I could have enjoyed those trips and catches a lot more, but I wonder if I would have learned as much?

I don't want to send the wrong message here - I will never be of the, "If I catch a fish, I catch a fish," ilk, but I'm learning there is much more to fishing than catching fish. Years ago, I remember reading something concerning the "Stages of a Fisherman." It went something like:

Stage 1 – I want to catch a fish!
Stage 2 – I want to catch a lot of fish!
Stage 3 – I want to catch big fish!
Stage 4 – I'm just happy to be fishing.
Stage 5 – I want to share my passion and knowledge of fishing with others.

When I read the article, I thought to myself, "There will never be a time when I'll just be happy to be fishing." Today, when I think of this article, it seems spot on. I am happy just to be fishing and there is little that brings me more joy than sharing the sport of fishing with my family and friends.

Looking back, there is much more to fishing than casting a line and catching fish. The sky, sunrises and sunsets immediately come to mind – the beautiful yellow, orange, red, pink and purple colors are mirrored and twice as stunning on the water. I guess most would think one wouldn't be as likely to experience great views at night in complete darkness, but that's simply not true. If you've never seen a super-sized, orange full moon come up over the horizon, you're missing out! It appears like something out of a Star Wars movie as the moon seems ten-times larger than normal and the reflection off the water magnifies the experience. I can't tell you how many shooting stars and meteor showers I've witnessed over the years – many light up the night as bright, green fireballs streaks across the sky.

Sunrise from the North Wildwood Rock Pile

Have you heard of phosphorescence? If not, it is described as a bioluminescence of organisms in the surface layers of the sea – small organisms light up or glow when stimulated by mechanical irritation, such as the movement of water. The glowing organisms create unbelievable nighttime landscapes. Waves, wind, current and fish movement are just a few of the triggers to bioluminescence. Anglers sometimes refer to this as "fire in the water." While catch rates may suffer some during these occurrences, the visuals are nothing short of amazing.

Many of us enjoy viewing wildlife, but when you're out fishing, you not only get to view nature, you interact with it! I've had my share of memorable experiences with wildlife. One night, what I thought was a small dog following me down the beach turned out to be a very friendly and hungry fox - I have a 100 other fox stories. On another trip, a curious skunk followed me onto the bridge and decided to watch me fish for a while. In Stone Harbor, I decided to fish a few backwater docks for weakfish when something popped its head out of the water and barked at me. A few seconds later, another otter approached from the back of the dock and didn't seem happy about my trespassing on "their" dock. The "cute" otters didn't seem so cute when I was corned on the end of the dock at 2 AM. After a few minutes of back and forth, I pushed through and went on to tell the story to my pal that was up fishing on the bridge. When we returned to the dock the two otters were on their backs cuddled up in the middle of the dock and he just laughed at me. I didn't both to argue. I have stories about dolphins, whales, sharks, turtles, deer, birds, insects, snakes and all kinds of other animals that helped make my fishing trips more memorable and enjoyable.

This mountain deer greeted us on the way to the pond.

This week's blog topic came to mind after an experience I had with the family while fishing over the weekend. On Saturday, we drove to Avis Mill Pond otherwise known as Camp Crockett. My son, Jake, and I were planning to fish while my wife took a few photographs and relaxed by the water. We never catch much at the pond, but the surrounding wildflowers and wildlife makes the trip worthwhile.

Jake and I decided to start in the small lagoon on the backside of the spillway. I made a cast or two before I noticed what looked like a dead owl in the water. A few seconds later, the owl's head moved and it looked over at me. Of all the animals I've seen and photographed over the years, I've yet to come across a great horned owl – their loud hooting has woken me up on cold winter nights, but viewing them after midnight high in our pine trees is nearly impossible. This was my chance. The circumstances weren't exactly what I hoped for as I could tell something was wrong with this owl.

I spent a few minutes watching the owl before I made the decision that it needed immediate assistance. I wasn't sure if it was tangled in fishing line, exhausted from trying to climb out of the water or ill. I made the decision to help in any way I could. I grabbed a stick and got into the water. Surprisingly, the owl grabbed onto the stick and I got him into shallow water. My next step was to grab the owl and place it onto land. The poor bird was so exhausted it didn't put up much of a fight. I carried it over to the bank that we were fishing from and laid it up against a branch as it was to weak to hold it's head up. My wife and I made a bunch of phone calls to state and county wildlife agencies, but answering machines are far more likely than reaching a real person, especially on a Saturday afternoon. After a bunch of calls and voice messages, we received a call back from the Salem County Animal Control. Ned would be out in an hour and rendezvous with a wildlife rehabilitation center a little later that evening.

Great Horned Owl

Waiting for Animal Control seemed like forever as we watched the owl struggle to stay alive. At times, it perked up some and then would sit with its head down. When I carried the owl to the road to wait for help, it looked at me with its big eyes and let out a few faint hoots. It was a moment I'll never forget. A few minutes later, Ned from Animal Control showed up and placed the owl into a carrier for transport. I knew the owl's chance at survival was slim, but we thanked Ned and wished our feathered friend the best.

Ned is far more than a dog catcher.

I called the rehabilitation center a couple days later and they told me the owl didn't make it. I was sad at first, but then thought about the people that were willing to go to great lengths to help injured animals. We did all we could do and I guess that's all anyone can hope for.

Our experience with the owl was just one of many we encountered because we were out fishing. When we talk about great times on and near the water, the first thing that usually comes to mind is a memorable catch. Stories of huge fish have been told for centuries and I'm sure we've all heard and told our share of "epic" catches. I think it would be interesting to hear some of the other things that make your fishing experiences great. Please feel free to share any of your own stories in the comments box below.

June 09, 2015

NJ Skillful Angler Recognition Program

by Frank Ruczynski

I thought it would be a good idea to talk about some of the fishing programs offered by the state of New Jersey. Believe it or not, the Division of Fish and Wildlife wants to make our fishing adventures as enjoyable as possible. I'm going to revisit the new and improved Skillful Angler Recognition Program along with a few other great programs that should get your attention.

In an attempt to broaden interest, the Division of Fish and Wildlife revamped last year's Skillful Angler Awards Program and changed the name to the Skillful Angler Recognition Program. The new program offers anglers everything the old program offered and a lot more. The three main divisions remain the same (Adult, Junior, and Catch and Release) but now there are a bunch of new categories offered to anglers.

The new catagories include:

Specialist Angler – catch five qualifying fish of the same species within one year
Master Angler – catch five qualifying fish of different species (saltwater and/or freshwater) within one year
Elite Angler – catch ten or more qualifying fish of different species (saltwater and/or freshwater) within one year
First Fish – catch your first fish of any species

Freshwater Slams
Trout Slam – catch one each of a qualifying rainbow, brook amd brown trout within one year
Bass Slam – catch one each of a qualifying small and largemouth within one year
Panfish Slam – catch one each of a qualifying sunfish, crappie and yellow perch within one year

Saltwater Slams
Inshore Slam I – catch one each of a qualifying striped bass, bluefish and fluke within one year
Inshore Slam II – catch one each of a qualifying black sea bass, tautog and weakfish within one year
Offshore Pelagics Slam – catch one each of a qualifying bluefin tuna, bigeye tuna, yellowfin tuna and dolphin within one year
Marlin Slam – catch one each of a qualifying whaite and blue marlin within one year

Minimum Size Requirements

Anglers that meet the required criteria will be awarded a certificate suitable for framing, but the state also receives valuable information from each participating angler. Information such as a fish's length, weight, girth, and location should help us understand our fisheries a little better. At the end of the year, the winner of each category will receive a customized certificate to commemorate their achievement as the best of New Jersey's Skillful Anglers.

Skillful Angler Recognition Program Certificates

I like the new format and think the program is heading in the right direction. I often hear my surf-fishing buddies talk about citation fish from Virginia and North Carolina, but few participate or even know that their home state of New Jersey has its own program. According to the state, the program started in 1983 and began with thirty-one applicants. Last year, the program received fifty-three applications. I think the program deserves more attention. The size limits set by the state are attainable, the information gathered helps everyone, and we're paying for this program so we might as well use it. Applications can be printed online at

Current Leaderboard

Another perk offered by the state is a program called Free Fishing Days. The first of the two Free Fishing days takes place this Saturday, June 13. It's a great time of year to introduce a family member or friend to freshwater fishing in New Jersey. The second Free Fishing Day takes place on October 17, 2015. The October date was chosen to allow the public to take advantage of the state's great fall trout fishing opportunities.

The Hook-A-Winner Program has been in place since 1998. The state jaw tags trout before stocking them into our waterways. If you are lucky or skilled enough to catch a tagged trout and send in your contact information, you'll receive a certificate and an award patch. I like this program and wish the state would consider tagging other species of stocked fish.

Hook-A-Winner Patch

Hook-A-Winner Certificate

Speaking of stocked fish – it's not all about the trout! The Division of Fish and Wildlife stocks many warm-water fish throughout the state. Muskellunge, northern pike, tiger muskellunge, walleye, hybrid striped bass, smallmouth bass, largemouth bass, landlocked salmon, channel catfish, black crappie, sunfish, and brown bullhead catfish are placed into New Jersey waters. The Hackettstown Hatchery distributes over 2,5000,000 fish each year! A breakdown of stocked waters seems heavily skewed to the north and I'll make sure to bring that up at the next fisheries meeting. Fishing in South Jersey is great, but I'd like to see us get a little bigger piece of the pie.

Another worthwhile program is Hooked On Fishing – Not On Drugs (HOFNOD.) Big-hearted volunteers are trained and certified by state workers to offer neighborhood-fishing programs to school-aged children. My wife and I took the certification class last fall and hope to start our own group soon. The state provides informative materials and fishing supplies to program leaders to get kids interested in fishing instead of drugs. The people we met at the training class were great and I admire each one of them. Robert Johnson and Joe Haase are actively running HOFNOD programs in South Jersey and doing a great job. People like this are a true asset to the community. The weekly meetings offer many interesting adventures for the kids to get excited about and to top it off, the classes and field trips are free!

The Fishing Fun Photo Contest is another program that is rarely talked about. The program was put into place to encourage children between the ages of 6 to 15 years old to have fun fishing. The state awards prizes to the top three places in several categories. Winning entrants are honored at the Pequest Trout Hatchery and Natural Resource Center on the opening day of trout season.

As anglers and residents of New Jersey our tax dollars fund these programs so we might as well get our monies worth out of them. Do yourself a favor and pick up a copy of the New Jersey Freshwater and/or Marine Digest and familiarize yourself with some of the great opportunities available to us. For more information on New Jersey fishing programs, please visit the Division of Fish and Wildlife's homepage at

June 01, 2015

Gone with the Wind

by Frank Ruczynski

After a long, cold winter, I was looking forward to spring and summer a little more than usual this season. Spring started a little later than I hoped, but I enjoyed a few weeks of good weather conditions and great fishing action. The late-April into mid-May time period provided ideal conditions and a great bite. Life was good. Then came the wind - the dreaded south wind!

I can pinpoint those relentless southerlies to the day - as luck would have it, the same day the 2015 summer flounder season opened: Friday, May 22. It's like someone flipped a switch and the fan has been blowing ever since. The strong south wind has taken a toll on our local fishing. To start, our coastal water temperature plummeted. The NOAA monitoring station in Atlantic City is currently reporting a water temperature of 55.4 degrees – anyone for a swim? Stained, weed-filled water greeted me at the inlet rock piles and drifting for flatfish with 20 to 25-MPH winds is rarely productive or enjoyable.

Returning from a south-wind skunk

As I write this, thunderstorms are moving through. Storm fronts like this usually signify a changing weather pattern. A look at the forecast shows a little more of an easterly pattern. Hopefully, the water temperature comes up a few degrees and stabilizes so we can enjoy what's left of the spring run. I like summer, but I'm not ready to make the switch just yet.

Ok, enough complaining about the weather. While conditions aren't making it easy, there are still plenty of fish to be had. Reports of large, post-spawn striped bass, big bluefish and keeper-sized summer flounder came from many of our local tackle shops this week. Most of the striped bass action seems to be happening out front, especially near the inlet rock piles. Big bluefish are still around and over the last two weeks, numbers of 1 to 3-pound blues moved into our waters. The best summer flounder action seems to be coming from our backwaters. I'm hoping the below-average water temps keep the flatties in the back a little longer this season. It seems the best push of weakfish went a little further north this season, but anglers fishing back-bay structure and the inlet jetties found a few 5 to 7-pound trout. Over the last few days, I heard some decent kingfish reports coming from surfcasters fishing between Ocean City and Wildwood.

The bluefish don't mind the wind.

With questionable coastal forecasts, it's been a lot easier for me to stay close to home and take advantage of the spring freshwater action. While I wouldn't trade stripers and weakfish for largemouth bass and pickerel, the freshwater action is a lot better than casting into a 20-MPH wind and catching weeds. To be honest, the wind has even made my sweet-water fishing a little more difficult than I'm used to. Fortunately, I'm surrounded by a bunch of lakes and ponds and I can always find a place to hide from the wind.

Staying close to home has a bunch of advantages, but the biggest plus is that I can usually fish with my son, Jake. A little part of me misses the saltwater scene, but nothing can top watching my son fall in love with the outdoors. Some days we make trips to our favorite neighborhood lakes and ponds while others we set off to explore new waters. I enjoy casting top-water plugs to largemouth bass and pickerel while Jake is still learning new fish-catching techniques – lately he's been catching on weightless soft-plastic baits.

Who has the bigger mouth?

Once school lets out, I plan on getting Jake a little salty. He made his first few backwater kayak trips with me earlier this season and is dying to get back out there. Maybe the weather will cooperate a little more by then, but even if it doesn't, we'll find a way to make memories.

I'll always remember our days doubled up in the lily pads!
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