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.
September is a transitional month that marks the end of the summer season and the start of autumn. Despite warm ocean temperatures, cool nights and dwindling daylight hours trigger the beginning of the fall migration. Hoards of baitfish move out of our backwater creeks and channels towards the inlet and out along the beachfront. Most seasons, mullet are one of the first species of baitfish to begin their fall migration and this year they seem to be moving out right on cue.
The mullet run is in full swing!
Timing the mullet migration isn't usually difficult. Mullet begin moving out of our back bays sometime between the end of August and the beginning of September. If calm and stable weather patterns are present, full and new moon phases usually get the mullet moving. This year's September new moon phase took place on Sunday, September 13 and the mullet responded accordingly. I spent the last few days fishing the coast from as far north as Island Beach State Park (IBSP) and to the south at Cape May Point – numbers of mullet were present at almost every jetty pocket along the way. The mullet should remain staged along our beachfront at least until the next full moon, which occurs this Sunday, September 27.
Inlets are a great place to find mullet.
Unfortunately, the recent onshore flow caused by a slow-moving, low-pressure system just off the Carolinas could make spotting any mullet difficult for the foreseeable future. Building seas and an increasing northeast wind will make conditions along our beachfront especially difficult this weekend as northeast winds are forecast to reach 20 to 30 MPH. I have a feeling this coastal storm will end the 2015 mullet run a little prematurely. I hope I'm wrong, but slow-moving, poorly timed coastal storms have a way of killing even the best of runs.
While I'm a little disappointed with the weekend forecast, I'm sure glad I spent the last few days chasing mullet in the surf. I don't know what it is about cast netting bait that I find so enjoyable, but I always feel like a little kid when I'm catching bait – at least until the next day when knee and shoulder pain bring me back to reality.
On a recent trip up to IBSP, balls of small bay anchovies, also known as rain bait, greeted us as soon as we made our way over the dunes. Diving gulls and balls of baitfish under attack really get the blood pumping. I spent a few hours casting into the melee, but only found snapper bluefish, mostly between 8 and 12 inches. The action and environment were great, but I had hopes for some bigger fish.
After playing with the tiny bluefish, we drove south to the inlet jetty. As expected the jetty looked like a small parking lot as cast netters were lined up in search of mullet. I watched as men threw their nets into the jetty pocket and along the inside of the inlet jetty with varied results. I decided to keep my net in the truck, as the amount of netters seemed to outnumber the amount of mullet. A few cast netters filled up while others came back empty time and time again. We fished our way back up the beach and caught a few more snappers before we packed it up for the day. It wasn't a great catching day, but it was a start.
Inlet Jetty Parking Lot
I decided to look for mullet again on Tuesday, September 22. Conditions were far from perfect, but the forecast seemed to be going downhill right through the upcoming weekend. With flood tides and a brisk 15 to 20 MPH northeast wind, I figured Cape May Point would offer the best conditions for fishing and cast netting mullet. As soon as I made my way over the dune, I felt the wind at my back and saw schools of mullet along the beach. I ran down to the beach and loaded up on mullet. The surf was a little higher than normal, but the mullet schools were packed between what's left of the small groins.
When conditions are right, it doesn't take long to fill the bait bucket.
After a few successful tosses of the cast net, I decided to live line a few mullet. Snapper bluefish, skates and tiny sea bass quickly attacked my baits. The snappers would bite the tail off and then the skates and sea bass would finish off the rest. A lone 16-inch summer flounder was my "catch of the day." I had hopes for a possible redfish, weakfish, striped bass or doormat fluke, but I didn't see or hear of much other than snapper blues. With my fill of small blues, I decided to put the rods down and go have some more fun with the cast net.
As high tide approached, the mullet were a little more difficult to spot in the big water, but they were thick – even my blind throws were coming back with a dozen or more mullet per throw. It didn't take long to fill a bait bucket with lively, 3 to 7-inch mullet. My bycatch consisted of mole and calico crabs, a couple snapper blues and a bunch of small 10 to 12-inch striped bass.
Cast Net Striper
With my fill of snapper bluefish and a bucketful of mullet, I headed for home. After the hour ride home, I took the bucket of mullet out back to my fish-cleaning table to sort and package for the freezer. The sizes of mullet varied a little more than I'm used to, about 3 to 7 inches. Usually, the mullet are a little more uniformed in size - between 4 and 6 inches. For live or frozen bait, I prefer fishing whole 4 to 5-inch mullet, but the 3-inch mullet should be perfect for the backwaters. I cut the 6-inch and larger baits into chunks for later use. In total, I bagged about twelve dozen, which should get me through most of the fall.
Rinsed and Ready to Pack for Freezing
In closing, I'd like to note that Cape May Point should not be overlooked when searching for mullet. Years ago, Hereford Inlet was my go-to mullet stop, but Cape May has provided a much more consistent catch over the last few seasons. If you think about it, it makes sense that the mullet would stage at the southernmost portion of our state before heading south for the colder months. If you plan on fishing this weekend, the west side of Cape May Point should offer an escape from the wind. I'd also like to take a moment to remind fellow cast netters to be responsible and only take what you need for bait. Let's hope this coastal storm doesn't hang around too long so we can get back on track.
September in South Jersey offers many things, but great fishing action isn't high on the list. Brilliant, sunny days and refreshing, cool nights stir thoughts of great fishing action and the fall run. The backwater creeks and sounds are filled with mullet, peanut bunker, silversides and a plethora of other young-of-the-year species. What more could you ask for?
To start, how about some cooler water temperatures? As of this writing, the coastal water temperature in Atlantic City is 72 degrees while Cape May's monitoring station checked in at balmy 76 degrees. With daytime air temperatures forecasted to be in the mid 80s for most of the upcoming week, I don't expect our water temps to drop anytime soon. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but the bulk of the migratory fish are well to the north and if recent trends continue, we're at least a month away, maybe two.
I spent most of last week plying the waters of Cape May County. After a long summer of freshwater fishing, it sure felt good to taste the salt again. Backwater creeks, bridge pilings, fishing piers, shell beds and rock piles – this is where I belong. I started my scouting trip at some of my favorite bait holes and I wasn't disappointed. Peanut bunker was thick at each of my stops. With one toss of the net, I had more bait than I needed for the night. Equipped with live bait and a good outgoing tide, I fished a few bridges without much luck. Small sea bass, snapper bluefish and dogfish wouldn't leave my live baits alone. I switched over to a jig and soft-plastic bait and had to work for a few small striped bass. The action wasn't bad, but with so much bait around, I had high hopes.
The next morning, I drove around in search of mullet. My first few stops came up empty, but I found some good pods way in the back. After a few throws, I had enough mullet and decided to try the Cape May Point rock piles. Action was slow as it was tough to keep bait in the water – the crabs and snapper blues were relentless. I walked the beaches, but only found more of the same.
Searching for Mullet
I fell into the trap – the September in South Jersey trap. You'd think after all these years I'd know better. If you're a South Jersey angler, I'm sure you know what I'm talking about: baitfish all over, the first push of cool nights, social media reports from our northern buddies holding big striped bass – you want the fall run so bad you can taste it, but it's just not happening down here yet. I can remember a time when September offered great striped bass fishing, but the last few years just haven't been the same. I believe the summer-to-fall-fishing transition begins in our area right around Columbus Day weekend. Until then, it's probably best if you fish strictly at night or just enjoy the summer species while they're here. If you just can't wait to get in on the action, a road trip up to Montauk may be in order.
9/9/15 South Jersey Summer Striper
Ok, enough with what's not happening. As mentioned above, the weather is glorious, crowds are gone, baitfish are everywhere and there's still plenty of worthwhile summer-fishing opportunities. Summer flounder season remains open until September 26, 2015. Those big flatfish love mullet and we still have two weeks to bring home some fresh fluke fillets. Snapper bluefish are all over and offer steady action. With a little effort, you could fill a cooler with panfish such as kingfish, croakers, and spot. Late-season crabbing usually provides some of the best action of the year. Freshwater fishing action is also good, especially for largemouth bass and crappies.
We have a lot to look forward to in the coming weeks. Striped bass and big bluefish are the big draw, but freshwater trout fishing should not be overlooked. I miss the big brookies the Division used to stock, but the big rainbows will be fun, too. Approximately 20,000 two-year old rainbow trout, averaging between 14 to 22 inches and 1.5 pounds to 8 pounds, will be stocked into our streams, rivers, ponds and lakes starting on October 13, 2015. Grab some spinners - those big trout are a lot of fun!
2014 Fall Rainbow Trout
Over the next few weeks, I look forward to chasing redfish at Cape May Point. I heard a few more reports of red drum this week and expect the catches to increase as we head towards the end of the month. Hopefully, a few speckled sea trout will show up too.
After last week's trip, I've learned to appreciate what we have, even if the fishing action is a little slow. The weather, water and coastal landscape is beautiful and there is no place I'd rather be.
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!