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.
This year, I decided to spend most of the summer months concentrating on freshwater ponds and lakes in search of trophy largemouth bass, crappies and pickerel. I landed some real beauties and had a great time exploring new waters. Fishing stump fields, laydowns, lily pads and weed mats from my kayak was a blast, but I'm looking forward to breathing in some salty air, watching mullet spray through the waves and hooking into weakfish, summer flounder, bluefish and striped bass!
During the summer months, fishing along the coast is worthwhile, however I don't think it compares to fishing during the spring and fall seasons. When back bay water temperatures approach or exceed 80 degrees, many of the largest species head for the ocean and deeper, cooler waters. Throw in thousands of summer vacationers with their speed boats, sail boats and jet skis and you may understand my decision to spend most of the summer season inland on a quiet pond in the woods.
Summer Is Drifting Away
While our shore towns are still filled to capacity, I couldn't help myself – it's like a little voice in my head wouldn't stop until I went down to check out some of my favorite late-summer fishing holes. Wanting to avoid the masses, I planned accordingly. The weather and tides were perfect for a late-night backwater trip: a light west wind and air temperatures in the lower 60s with high tide slated for 1 AM. I planned to fish two hours before and two hours after high tide.
Our first stop was a small causeway bridge that is usually choked with baitfish. As soon as we walked up onto the bridge, we spotted a big, black cloud of peanut bunker. Snapper bluefish were tearing through the school, many of which weren't much bigger than the bait they were attacking. After a few casts in the bunker school, I walked up a little higher and spotted two, 28 to 30-inch striped bass working the surface of the shadow line. On the first cast, I missed the mark. The second cast got hammered, but somehow I missed the fish. The third cast would have been it if not for the knot that formed in my freshly spooled braid - the fish hit and as I set the hook the line broke at the knot. This is not how I planned on starting off my night!
I muttered to myself as I tied on another ¼-ounce jig and grabbed a bubblegum Zoom Super Fluke from my bag. I tossed a few more casts, but I blew my chance. As I walked down the bridge headed to the next location, I thought to myself, "I can't believe I blew it, but it sure was nice to see some fish at our first stop."
Our next stop would be a small marina where I usually find striped bass working over baitfish under dock lights. By the time I arrived, the incoming current had slowed down considerably and the snapper blues had the bait balls all to themselves. Over the years, I've noticed striped bass and weakfish seldom compete with the hoards of small bluefish – if stripers or weakfish are present, they'll usually set up below the snappers and clean up the leftovers. I worked high and low at the docks, but only came up with a couple snapper blues and a few half eaten Zooms.
At slack tide, we headed over to another small bridge and were a little surprised to see baitfish stacked on both sides of the bridge. Large schools of peanut bunker swarmed to the lights like moths to a flame. Watching thousands of baitfish circle under the lights is hypnotic. Unfortunately, other than a few snapper bluefish, action was slow. With so much bait present in our waters, it's easy to find bait balls, but not so easy to find bigger fish working them over.
Catching bait in the cast net doesn't get much easier.
We checked a few more likely areas before we found some active fish. The tide just started moving when we heard the telltale "pop" sound made by a surface feeding striped bass. We could hear the stripers feeding from a couple hundred yards down the Intracoastal Waterway. We pinpointed the sound to a well-lit pier that I call the fish bowl. Upon arrival, I noticed a large school of peanut bunker under the lights, but the stripers were only feeding on the stray baitfish that were swept past the dock pilings by the falling tide. Even though there were thousands of peanut bunker inches away, the stripers were keyed onto the small crabs and silversides that were carried by the tide. I made a few well-placed casts and landed a small striper.
This one was hungry!
To most, the catching aspect of fishing is always paramount. While I enjoy the catching as much as anyone, I find watching and learning about my quarry to be equally gratifying. Fishing under bridge or dock lights isn't much different than watching fish swim around in an aquarium. Seeing how and figuring out why fish behave as they do is a gigantic plus, especially for those other times when you can't see what's happening beneath the water's surface. The way I look at it, the time I invest learning about fish behavior will result in more fish on the end of my line.
The striper bite at the pier lasted about fifteen minutes. With late summer backwater temperatures hovering around 80 degrees, the fish are relatively lazy and usually only feed during the most opportune times – typically, the same type of behavior occurs when temperatures are at the lower end of the spectrum, too.
The final stop on our scouting trip would be a small bridge that usually lights up with action on an outgoing tide. It was close to 3 AM and by this time the outgoing current increased a great deal. Mullet, peanut bunker and silversides were holding up in the shallower water where the current was much slower. I watched as snapper bluefish and needlefish slashed through the bait balls. I made a few casts, but only came back with half-eaten soft-plastic baits.
A little frustrated, I thought about our prior stop at the pier and how the striped bass related to it. While the bridge was much larger than the pier, the set up wasn't much different: lights, current, baitfish and pilings. A few casts across the pilings and I was hooked into another summer schoolie striper. Once I figured out their location, I found steady action. The bass didn't want to fight the current, snapper bluefish, and needlefish for food; they decided to sit, almost effortlessly, beside and behind the pilings to pick off the easy meals the current provided.
While the fish we caught that night weren't very big, I learned a little more about fish behavior and the areas I fish. The big schools of baitfish aren't always the best place to fish? How many times do you read that in a book? In the few hours we fished, we covered a small area and saw lots of fish. I'll be down at least a couple times a week until things really start to heat up. If you have a chance, get down to the back bays and set up at a well-lit municipal pier or bridge – it's quite a show!
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.
I love everything about spring in South Jersey. The sights, smells and sounds are nothing short of heavenly. Colorful flowers blend into a beautiful, bright, spring-green backdrop. The sweet smell of budding blooms fills the air with a delightful scent while the birds and frogs sing a lovely tune. It's as though all is right in the world.
Spring in South Jersey
As an avid angler, there are some other great sights, smell and sounds that make the spring season amazing. Some of the sights include the brilliant purple hues of a tiderunner weakfish at sunrise, slammer bluefish blitzing along an inlet jetty and a hefty, cow striped bass at the end of a bent rod. I find the smell of the salty marsh and fresh bunker oddly pleasant and perhaps the most satisfying sound on the earth: a screaming drag!
Our coastal waters are coming back to life and blossoming much like the acres of peach trees that surround my home. The month of May offers some of the best fishing opportunities of the year as a variety of large fish move into and out of our rivers, backwater estuaries, inlets and beachfront waters. Head east or west and you'll find a great striped bass bite - as the big breeding linesiders finish their mating rituals, I expect the fishing action to turn up a notch in the Cape May County area, especially as we head into next weekend's new moon stage. Big slammer bluefish have inundated our local waters and are wreaking havoc on fishing equipment – the tackle shops must love those big bluefish! Waves of big weakfish are showing from time to time and the summer flounder are here in good numbers – just three more weeks until the 2016 summer flounder season opens!
Tackle shops must love those big bluefish!
With so many fishing opportunities, I've been out early and often. To be honest, I'd prefer to catch big weakfish all day every day, but with so many other great fisheries, I find myself attempting to do it all. After years of fishing the area, I've learned it's best to plan my trips according to conditions. On days when the winds are light, you'll find me paddling the backwaters in my kayak looking for trophy tiderunners. The April run of spring weakfish coincided with a great stretch of calm, warm and stable weather.
Trophy Tiderunners Are Back!
When the wind picks up, presenting lightweight jigs in a strong current becomes extremely difficult. Depending on weather conditions, especially wind direction, I'll switch it up and target striped bass or bluefish. If the wind is over 20 MPH, I'll resort to staying closer to home and pond hopping for largemouth bass. Since I've decided to let conditions dictate my target species, I've noticed my trips are much more successful.
The recent steady dose of east wind certainly doesn't seems to be helping my backwater efforts – the onshore flow brings an influx of cold ocean water and the extra water usually creates poor water clarity. With high, cold, dirty water infiltrating the backwater sounds, the odds of finding willing weakfish drops to almost nil. Knowing this, I decided to change things up and fish for big bluefish. The first day of east wind was great; the big blues would hit just about anything. On the second day, the water temperature dropped a couple degrees and the bluefish bite became a little more specific – they preferred plugs fished towards the end of the tide. By the third day of east wind, it seemed like the blues would only hit bait. Planning for weather conditions and their likely effects on your target species will go a long way in making or breaking a trip. With a few more days of east wind in the forecast, I think my best bet is to fish with bunker or clams along the beachfront and along the Delaware Bay shores.
The big bluefish will give you a workout.
As soon as the weather pattern changes, I'll be back out on my kayak in search of weakfish. This year's run has been one of the best in many years. Waves of 8 to 10-pound weakfish are showing up in many of the perennial early-season hot spots. In the last few days, reports of big weakies have come from South Jersey to as far as New York. Typically, the month of May offers some of the best weakfish action of the year so I have high hopes for the coming weeks. I just hope the weather cooperates!
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!
Can you believe we had a few inches of snow on the ground just a week ago? Fortunately, last Saturday's snowfall didn't have a lasting effect on the fishing action. Since the snowfall, the Delaware River striped bass bite exploded, many of our freshwater ponds and lakes were stocked with hundreds of rainbow trout, largemouth bass put on the feedbag and the saltwater action is picking up as the season's first bluefish, weakfish, and summer flounder were reported this week. Everywhere you look things are blooming and coming back to life – it really is the most wonderful time of the year!
Pickerel in the Snow
With better weather and good fishing conditions, I can't spend enough time by the water. In the last week, I've fished the night tides for striped bass, kayaked the early-morning hours in search of weakfish, fished the local stocked lakes for rainbow trout and tried for largemouth bass and pickerel at the local farm ponds. Even though I've spent a great deal of time fishing, I feel like I just can't get enough. South Jersey residents are truly blessed to have so many great fishing opportunities so close to home.
Stable weather patterns and rising water temperatures are exactly what I like to see during the spring season. Coastal-water temperatures vary from 50.5 degrees in Atlantic City to 56.7 degrees in Cape May at the Ferry Jetty. Backwater temperatures are ranging from the mid 50s to the low 60s - depending on location and time of day. I don't want to jinx it, but the wind has finally backed off too. The long-range forecast is looking good so I expect the fishing action to continue to improve.
I'll start this week's report in the sweetwater. Jake and I decided to skip the trout day opener and hit our favorite venues throughout the week. With another truckload of trout stocked on Tuesday, April 12, there is certainly no shortage of fish. We caught a ton of rainbow trout on nickel/gold-colored Thomas Double Spinns. The double-bladed spinner flutters and falls a little slower than most other spinners, which make them the perfect selection for many of our shallow-water lakes and ponds.
Those Thomas Double Spinns Are Deadly!
While I haven't caught or seen any large, breeder trout yet this season, I did manage to make a special catch on Tuesday afternoon at Harrisonville Lake. One of the trout I caught came with a little piece of jewelry! This particular rainbow trout was jaw-tagged as part of the state's Hook-A-Winner Program – 1,000 trout are tagged and distributed throughout the state's waters each year. Winners must submit their name, address, fish tag number and catch location to the Pequest Trout Hatchery to receive an award certificate and patch.
Hook-A-Winner Rainbow Trout
With the recent stretch of warm, sunny days, I find myself looking for any excuse to stop by the water's edge. That lake on the way to the supermarket, the pond by the mall or the little farm pond across from my mother-in-laws house – you know, ten minute stops here and there just to wet a line. Lately, those little stops have been paying off as largemouth bass and big chain pickerel seem to be strapping on the feedbag. I'm on a Rapala Shadow Rap binge; both the Shadow Rap and the Shadow Rap Shad have been extremely effective recently – the pickerel just can't keep their mouths off them. The size of the fish at some of the local "puddles" will surprise you!
This Afternoon's Pit Stop
When I have a little more free time, I'm making the hour-long commute to fish the coastal backwaters. Nightshift trips have been worthwhile, as 20 to 30-inch striped bass seem to be just about everywhere. We've put up some numbers over the last few nights and had a lot of fun with the little linesiders. I tagged a few fish for the Littoral Society and look forward to learning more about the habits and migration patterns of our local back-bay bass.
Tagging Striped Bass
On calm mornings, you will find my plying the local creeks and skinny-water flats in my A.T.A.K. kayak for spring tiderunner weakfish. A few have been caught, but I've only come up with striped bass and bluefish so far. The new kayak continues to impress me; the performance on the water and stability is simply amazing. My sunrise kayak sessions seem almost surreal – now if I could only find a few willing weakfish.
Heaven on Earth
At least the bluefish are cooperating. Those bluefish seem to move in earlier each season. I have a feeling the yellow-eyed eating machines will be invading our waters in full force over the next few days. Hopefully, I can find a few weakfish before the big bluefish arrive in numbers and wreak havoc. I caught a handful of 6 to 8-pound blues the other morning while trying for weakfish. They really put a toll on my jigs and soft-plastic baits as I was unprepared for the toothy demons and didn't have any heavy leader material on my kayak – I won't make that mistake again.
This one made it to the kayak!
Whether you're a long-time angler or just beginning, it's a wonderful time to hit the water. With so many options, that old, familiar saying seems entirely appropriate – "So many fish, so little time." I'm going to make the most of the spring run and I hope you do too. Good luck on the water!
A couple weeks ago, I had high hopes to fish right through the winter months, but that's becoming increasingly difficult with each reinforcing shot of cold air. As I write this, the air temperature is in the mid 20s, the wind is blowing out of the northwest at 25 to 30 MPH, the lakes are freezing over and winter storm Jonas seems to have us in the crosshairs for the coming weekend. I'm as diehard as most other 40-year old anglers, but I think it's time to wrap it up – another season in the books.
Fortunately, the 2015 fishing season ended a lot better than it started. If you remember, last winter was especially frigid and "cabin fever" was at an all time high. Many of my normal early-season fishing routines were put off weeks because of unusually cold temperatures and ice-covered waterways. Looking back through my logs, I see we were walking on many of the iced-over ponds and lakes I usually fish during late-February into early-March. If I remember right, we endured one last shot of winter with a substantial snowstorm on the first day of spring.
The long, cold winter certainly took its toll on the first portion of spring, but by April, the ice melted and the fishing action slowly improved. After a few ice-out pickerel and crappie, we spent the first week of April chasing rainbow trout. Speaking of trout, I can't say enough about how great the trout fishing is in South Jersey – whether you're looking for quality or quantity, the state does a great job filling our lakes with lots of hungry rainbow trout. I've taken more trophy-sized stocked trout in the last few years than I thought was possible in a lifetime.
After the water warmed up a little, we hit the Delaware River a few times for striped bass. The "Big D" is usually on fire by April 10, but with below-average water temperatures, the stripers seemed a little less hungry than normal. We caught a bunch of small striped bass, but the cows were few and far between.
With the river action a little on the slow side, I decided to hit the back bays and thankfully found some decent striper action on the flats. The resident backwater striped bass seemed to provide a little more enjoyment this spring - I don't think the bite was any better than usual, but it sure felt good to have them bending my rod again after what seemed like a never-ending winter.
By late April, the fishing action exploded! If I could bottle a time to fish in South Jersey it would be the few weeks between late April and early May when freshwater and saltwater opportunities are amazing in South Jersey. As you might imagine, during this time of year, I'm in my glory and spend every free moment either on the water or by the water's edge. If conditions are good, I prefer to fish the back bays for striped bass, weakfish, bluefish and summer flounder, but if the wind is up, I'll usually stay closer to home and chase largemouth bass, trout, pickerel, snakeheads, crappies or bowfin.
I spent much of May paddling around the back bays in search of tiderunner weakfish, but all of my favorite weakfish holes were inundated with big bluefish. At times, the schools of big blues made fishing for anything else impossible. We've had similar bluefish runs, but these weren't the normal-sized (4 to 6-pound) bluefish. The big slammer blues (8 to 15 pounds) took over our backwaters and took a toll on my light-spinning gear. Not only did it seem like they were everywhere, but they hung around for close to a month. I usually don't target bluefish, but those big slammers were a blast! I remember most trips ending with tired arms and a big smile.
When a cast managed to get past the bluefish, summer flounder were quick to grab my jigs meant for weakfish. The fluke bite was great until the summer flounder season opened and the wind blew straight for what seemed like a month! It seems to happen almost every year - the best flounder action takes place from mid-April until mid-May and then the season opens a few days before the Memorial Day weekend circus comes to town. I miss the old days!
Once school let out, I spent most of my free time freshwater fishing with my son, Jake. Largemouth bass and big, toothy chain pickerel were our target. Summer days at the lake consisted of working top-water plugs and frogs over the pads – if things were slow, we'd fish rubber worms around the docks. We had some great days and Jake learned a great deal – he turned 14 years old and finally graduated from live bait. Many of our South Jersey ponds and lakes offer great top-water fishing opportunities over the summer months. If I didn't have such a passion for saltwater fishing, I'd freshwater fish a lot more often – those top-water explosions are awesome!
The dog days of summer kicked in around the end of July and lasted into August. Action at our local lakes slowed down and I was looking for a change of scenery. I decided to schedule a family camping trip at Parvin State Park. Largemouth bass were our target, but it turned out to be a panfish palooza. We had so much fun fishing, kayaking and camping at Parvin that we decided to work it into our seasonal routine.
Before we knew it summer was over, we flipped the calendar to September and the kids returned to school. I played around at Parvin a little more and fished the mullet run. The 2015 mullet run was decent, but rather short-lived. I had hopes of some redfish and southern sea trout, but I only came up with small stripers, short fluke and snapper bluefish. Steady and constant northeast winds took over towards the end of the month and ended the mullet run and my hopes prematurely.
October usually means striped bass, but summer-like coastal-water temperatures had things rather slow along the shore towns. I spent some more time playing with crappies and perch at Parvin before cashing in on the fall trout stocking. The weather was mild and the fish were hungry. If the stripers weren't going to cooperate, I'm glad I had such great freshwater fishing opportunities to fall back on.
By November, I wanted stripers. Even with the great freshwater action, I needed to get my fill of linsiders. The back bays were full of bait and I found small schools of stripers almost every night. Reports of some serious surf action came from a little north and were too good to pass up. November quickly turned into a striped blur – back bay stripers all night and daytime stripers in the surf. Warm weather and massive schools of adult and juvenile bunker made for a great fall run. After a couple bad fall runs, this push of striped bass was long overdue!
December offered more of the same as mild temperatures and hoards of baitfish kept the striped bass action going right up until a couple weeks ago. I spent most of December in the backwaters and had solid action on every single trip. It's been a few years since I've experienced a consistent bite like we had this year. It felt a little odd fishing the December nightshift in t-shirt, but I'd trade anything for a return to those days now.
2015 started slow, but ended with a bang. The big blues combined with a good fall run made up for the slow start. Having steady striper action right up until the end of the year should go a long way in helping many of us get through this winter. Even though I hoped to fish through the winter months, it will be nice to catch up on the things I put off to go fishing – maybe I'll even get a little ahead of schedule to free up some time for next spring. For now, it looks like I'll be trading in my fishing rod for snow shovel.
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!
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/.
Does it get any better than late summer - early fall in Cape May County? The seasonal crowds are long gone, daytime highs are usually around 80 degrees, water temperatures hover just a little above 70 degrees, you can fish while barefoot in shorts and a t-shirt and to top it all off, you never know what's going to end up on the end of your line.
Cape May Point
What started off as plans for a family camping trip in the Pine Barrens quickly turned into a motel stay in North Wildwood as I just couldn't pass up the unbelievably-low offseason rates. With summerlike weather forecast for the weekend, I figured we'd put off the camping trip until a little later in October and sneak in one more summer weekend. Fishing was fairly low on the family's priority list, but I knew we'd manage at least a little time on the water.
After bike rides on the boardwalk, sightseeing, a Monster Truck Show, and some time spent in the heated pool, we hit the beach. Our motel was right on Hereford Inlet, but the constant northeast wind made sitting on the beach a little uncomfortable. My trusty fishing experience kicked in and I decided we'd head south to Cape May Point where I figured the wind would be much less of a factor.
North Wildwood Surf
Fifteen minutes later, we parked the car right under the Cape May Point Lighthouse and headed over the dunes to the beach. It was like another planet as the ocean was flat, it felt twenty degrees warmer, and dolphins were jumping out of the water. We set up our beach chairs and blanket and were content with the world.
As the afternoon passed and the tide started coming in, I noticed a few birds working the nearby rips. I thought nothing of it as its common for small schools of snapper bluefish to feed on the plethora of baitfish in the area. I continued to watch as the birds were moving closer to the beach and growing in numbers. As luck would have it, a full-on feeding frenzy took place right in front of me and I didn't have my fishing gear!
The blitz lasted about twenty minutes, but it felt like an hour without a rod in my hand. As it turned out, we enjoyed an incredible day with some amazing scenery, but it could have been so much better if I could have made just a few casts! Most of the action seemed like snapper blues, but you never know what's going to show up when big schools of baitfish are present. With one more day of vacation and the forecast calling for a continued northeast blow, we'd have no choice but to return to the Point again and I'd make sure to pack my equipment this time.
We returned to the Point again on Sunday and experienced similar conditions, but the birds were gone. I know how blitzes work and the odds of repeating the prior day's action was probably close to one in a million. I figured I'd work the rock piles as I used to catch a ton of weakfish around them. I started with a ¼-ounce lead head and a bubblegum-colored Zoom Super Fluke. Low tide passed and the water just started to move. I worked the current seams at each rock pile and found tons of bluefish and a few small flatties. Right across from the lighthouse, I had something hit my Zoom hard and take a few runs before it shook the hook and left me questioning if I might have had one of the few redfish that seem to be showing up in better numbers each season. Soon after, I came to my senses and told myself I was silly to think I just lost a redfish.
As the tide continued in, the bluefish became so thick that my soft-plastic baits didn't stand a chance. Those little bluefish have a way of chomping off most of the bait without getting the hook. With only a small stock of lures packed, it was time to break out the cast net. After a few blind casts came back empty, I walked the Point jetties and found small pods of mullet in each pocket. Before long, I had more than enough bait in the bucket and it was time to have some fun.
I set up a rod for my son, Jake, and we started working the jetty pockets. Every cast ended in a strike. We caught tons of bluefish, a bunch of weakfish, croakers, kingfish, and a couple more summer flounder. Jake just turned twelve so it was a joy explaining why the fish were in the areas they were and as the day continued on I had him showing me where the fish would be holding. I didn't think it could get any better.
Jake with a Weakfish
Believe it or not, catching a bunch of 12 to 15-inch fish was a lot of fun on my 6'8" light-duty G.Loomis NRX and Shimano Stella 3000; even the small blues pull a little drag. After I had my fill of snapper blues, I figured I'd try throwing a lively mullet into the hole where I lost a larger fish earlier in the afternoon.
Soon after my bait hit the water, I felt the snappers chomping at the tail so I let it sink and worked what I'm assuming was half a mullet back along the current seam towards the rock pile. Right before my retrieve was complete I got whacked and my drag started peeling. By this time, the tide had risen considerably and it probably wasn't in my best interest to be fishing on the rocks barefooted. The fish on the end of the line took me around the tip of the jetty and I was having problems maneuvering on the wet rocks. After a few good runs, I gained control and saw the fish surface just a few feet away from the rock pile: it was a redfish! I didn't want to chance losing it on the rocks, so I walked it down to the pocket and landed it on the beach.
I picked up the 25-inch red and admired its beauty. The copper-colored drumfish had a distinct black dot and a brilliant blue tail. I've caught redfish in New Jersey before, but it's always special to cross paths with this great game fish. They put up a great battle, are pleasing to look at, and taste great on the dinner table. After a few pictures, I couldn't help but to think it was a redfish that I lost earlier in the day.
New Jersey regulations on red drum are one fish per day between 18 and 27 inches with no closed season. You read that right, if you're fortunate enough to catch a 50-inch red drum, you cannot keep it! I guess the state record is safe. While the regulations might seem tight, I believe they are one of the main reasons we're beginning to see reds return to our waters. Reports of redfish are increasing each season and it's not just in Cape May County. Just in the last few days, I heard reports of multiple redfish catches in Long Beach Island waters.
Looking back, we managed to squeeze a week's worth of fun into a three-day weekend. The wife and kids had a great time and everything worked out perfectly; well, I guess I could have had my rod with me during the blitz, but the redfish helped me get over that. Our summer definitely went out with a bang!