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.
It's early November and I'm already tired of " Waiting for Striped Bass" – see last week's blog title. I continue to hear promising reports from Rhode Island and New York coastal waters, but those fish just don't seem to be in a hurry to move down into New Jersey waters. We've had some flashes, mostly a short-lived blitz of 20-pound stripers that happened right around Halloween, but for the most part, the 2016 fall run has been far from steady or predictable.
I decided it was time to shake things up a little. When I fish, I don't sit and wait for the fish - I go to them. I packed up my surf gear and headed north in hopes of kick starting the fall run. Armed with an arsenal of high-end surf rods, indestructible surf reels and hundreds of dollars in plugs, I teamed up with a few buddies to cover some ground in the central and northern portion of New Jersey. At 5 AM, Metallica was playing in the truck. The "Seek and Destroy" song seemed to set a perfect backdrop for our "battle plan."
Sunrise at Bradley Beach, NJ
Our plan was simple: fish sunrise and then spread out to find some action. The sunrise bite was nonexistent. We split up and scouted the oceanfront like gulls looking for meal. After a little driving, we spotted some bunker just out of casting range. The bunker seemed unbothered until three whales exploded out of the water. It was a magical experience. The way the whales erupted into the air with their gigantic mouths open gulping down bunker by the bucketful was truly an amazing spectacle.
We watched the whales play cat and mouse with the bunker for close to two hours without any sign of striped bass or bluefish. Once again, we decided to split up in hopes of finding some action. We started the morning just north of Belmar and drove through Asbury Park, Allenhurst, Deal, Long Branch and finally Monmouth Beach. The landscape is very much different than what I'm used to in South Jersey, but it definitely had a "fishy" feel to it. After much searching, we returned to the bunker pods and watched as the bunker flipped happily on the water's surface. We made a few more halfhearted casts as the morning slowly turned into afternoon. Feeling defeated, we packed up for the long ride home.
Sightseeing in Northern New Jersey
This was my second trip up north in the last ten days. The first trip was similar, but without the whale sightings and I mostly concentrated from Island State Beach Park north up to Mantoloking. The commute isn't much different than my normal South Jersey stops, but I just can't get used to being skunked. When I'm fishing my home waters, usually the back bays, I can always manage a few schoolies to make my trip seem a little more worthwhile.
Between the combination of my surf fishing skunks and continued poor fishing reports, I decided to return to my roots – South Jersey backwater fishing. Our back bays are hardly in full fall run striper mode, but there are always enough back bay linesiders to keep a smile on my face. I hit some of my local haunts just after a midnight high tide and found steady action right off the bat. The stripers I caught seemed like resident fish, mostly between 18 and 26 inches, but I did manage one 28-inch keeper. After the back-to-back surf skunks, I enjoyed catching those small stripers a little more than usual.
Home Sweet Home
The next night, I headed a little further south and was a little surprised to catch a few 12 to 15-inch bluefish and some 12 to 16-inch weakfish. Other than cooler air and water temperatures, it doesn't seem like much has changed in our local waters. Fishing during the first week of November sure felt a lot like fishing during the first week of September. I remember a time when things would turn on just after Labor Day with the mullet run, then around Columbus Day with the cooler weather, then around Halloween with daylight waning each day, now I'm thinking maybe by Thanksgiving?
As of this writing, 1:30 PM on Tuesday, November 11, coastal water temperatures in Cape May and Atlantic City are an identical 57 degrees. The weather forecast for the remainder of the week looks breezy and chilly with a real cold shot scheduled for the weekend. Maybe this colder air is what we need to get the stripers moving south?
Whatever happens, I'm looking forward to the coming weeks. At our house, fall equals family, fishing and football. My son, Jake, has off from school the next few days for the annual NJEA Convention and my dad is flying up from Texas this weekend. We're looking forward to some serious fishing time, but I'm starting to feel a little pressure. This same time last year, we had steady action with fish ranging from 26 to 42 inches - something has to give!
It's early, but this season's fall run seems to be shaping up as one of the best in the last few years. Just to the north, massive schools of big bluefish are working their way down the Jersey coast. Striped bass continue to show up in both good numbers and sizes. Whether you're a surfcaster, boater or backwater angler, it's time to hit the water – the stripers are here and they're hungry!
Fall Run Fun!
Weather and fishing conditions seem to be nearly perfect for an extended fall run. Mild November days and nights seem to be keeping our coastal water temperatures right around 60 degrees – some may consider 60 degrees a little on the warm side, but the fish don't seem to mind. A look at the ten-day forecast shows daytime highs in the mid to upper 60s for all of next week. The long-range forecast predicts more seasonable temperatures, but for the first time in a few years, it looks like we're going to ease into the winter season. Tons of bunker and other baitfish can be found out front, in the back bays and everywhere between. The variety of bait is also very impressive. The fish are here and they have no reason to leave!
I missed some fishing time as I tweaked something in my back and was laid up for close to a week. For a bunch of reasons, the timing couldn't have been worse. Fortunately, I'm feeling better now and I'm fishing around the clock trying to make up for lost time. In my experiences, adrenalin overloads from hooking into sizable striped bass are much more effective at killing pain than any prescription medications ordered by the doctor. Fishing has an odd way of curing any troubles.
Up and around again, I started with a night trip in the South Jersey backwaters. I found striped bass popping at my first stop and had a blast casting soft-plastic baits at them. What the little linesiders lacked in size, they made up for in numbers. At times, it seemed like every cast ended with an 18 to 26-inch striped bass. After I had my fun, I moved to another area and had similar action with small, but feisty stripers. Snapper bluefish, spike weakfish and summer flounder added to my catch - proving that water temperatures are still a little on the mild side.
Having fun with the little fish was just what I needed, but I couldn't pass up the reports of bigger fish coming from the north at Long Beach Island and Island Beach State Park. After debating on whether or not to make the trip north, I arrived at IBSP a little late, but walked the beach until I found a perfect cut between the sandbars. In the first few casts bass were swiping at my Daiwa SP Minnow. I landed a few good fish and dropped more than I'd like to admit. Even though I had a good day, I couldn't help wonder how many more fish I might have caught if I arrived before sunrise.
I went home and asked Jake if he'd like to get in on the action. His first experience plugging the surf came just a few weeks ago in which he was lucky enough to land a keeper-sized striper. I told him our odds wouldn't get much better as lots of fish were around and it seemed like the "stars were aligned" for a perfect trip.
Jake's first striper on a plug.
The next morning, we left extra early and arrived at IBSP about an hour before sunrise. As we gathered our gear and put our waders on, Jake looked up and said, "Dad you weren't kidding about the stars being aligned!" As luck would have it, Jupiter, Mars, Venus and the Moon were lined up almost perfectly. We both laughed for a minute before we hurried off towards the water.
As we hiked in over the dunes, you could smell bunker in the air. I told Jake this was going to be our day. We set up and started casting into the darkness. We fished for a good hour before the sun came up without a touch. Some doubt started creeping in and I wondered if yesterday's fish moved along.
As the sun came up, the tide started out and our luck was about to change. My SP Minnow got hammered and the fish went airborne. I thought I had a bluefish, but it turned out to be an acrobatic 32-inch striped bass. I had a few bass on the sand before Jake hooked up. With another good fish on, I looked over at Jake to tell him to come over, but his rod was already bent. The action was fast and furious! After a few minutes of back and forth, I landed my fish and headed over to help Jake. He battled the fish for at least five minutes. When I saw the big bass in the surf, I went nuts. The only thing better than catching good fish is having your kids catch one! He played it like a pro and slid his first sizable plug bass onto the beach.
Jake with his big bass and a proud papa!
The next half hour was a blur that seemed to last about 30 seconds. Jake and I got into a great bite with multiple fish over 40 inches. While Jake was unhooking his fish, I hooked into another mid-twenty pound bass and couldn't believe how great the bite was. I don't fish the surf often so trips like this would be extra memorable, especially with Jake getting on the action.
As quickly as the great bite started, it ended. We continued to work the cut and walked down to hit another fishy-looking area, but our casts came back untouched. It's funny how no matter how long you spend on the water a half hour stretch can make a day. At that moment, I looked at Jake and told him I didn't care if we didn't catch another fish all season – it would still be worth it!
With another fall run just around the corner, I think it's the perfect time to talk about our beloved striped bass. The plain truth is fishing for striped bass isn't nearly as good as it was just a few years ago. For many of us in South Jersey, the fall run almost seems like a dream now. I don't know about you, but I find myself driving a little further north every fall season to get in on the type of action I desire and even when I'm fortunate enough to I find it, the bite is usually short lived and unpredictable.
Heaven on Earth
As concerned anglers, the first thing we need to do is decide if we have a problem. Those booming striper years were great, but is it really supposed to be like that every season? While fishing for stripers may not be what it was a few years ago, it seems far from a crash. Our best science tells us there has been a slight drop in biomass numbers, but the Chesapeake's 2011 spawning year class is the 5th highest on record; this strong year class should mature by 2019 at the latest. I question much of our "best science" and usually feel more comfortable relying on my own eyes.
Before 2011, I felt comfortable with our seemingly modest two-fish bag limit and protected federal waters. Honestly, not that long ago, I wondered if we we're actually erring on the side of extreme conservation. That time passed when I saw the massacre of the 2011 fall season. I spent my days and nights fishing a little further north at Island Beach State Park (IBSP.) Clouds of sand eels had what seemed like every striper in the ocean off IBSP. The fishing action was unbelievable with as many 26 to 38-inch linesiders as you wanted. As word got out, the normally peaceful, natural beach turned into a traffic-jammed nightmare. Surfcasters were COMING DOWN from MONTUAK. Rods lined miles of beachfront; at times it was difficult to squeeze in anywhere along the park. As if that wasn't enough, you could walk on the boats lined up from Manasquan to Long Beach Island even on the weekdays. Everyone caught fish and many took home their limit including yours truly.
Limits for everyone!
By the time the holidays came and the bite died off, I sat back and reflected on the great fishing action. At first, I felt privileged to take part in such an amazing bite. If you could put that type of action in a bottle, I'd be happy for the rest of my years. Part of me began to wonder if I'd ever be fortunate enough to experience another fall run like that. Then, I started to wonder about how many fish were removed from the biomass that fall season. Hundreds, if not thousands, of fish were removed everyday for at least a month. How could this bode well for the future?
To me, the 2011 season at IBSP is a microcosm of the bigger coast-wide fishery. Whenever a fishery does well, it attracts attention. The better the fishing action, the higher the number of angler participation. Years ago, when striper fishing was poor, angler participation was low which allowed the fishery to gain some momentum. Today, angler participation seems to be at an all-time high and I'm concerned that a two-fish bag limit may actually be hurting the fishery. Other than a week or two here and there, my experiences tell me we're in trouble.
How do they stand a chance?
Personally, when I'm faced with a problem, I ask myself a few questions. First, how can I fix the problem? If I can't solve the problem, I'd like to make the situation a little better and if I cant figure that out, at the very least, I'll come up with a way to not allow the situation to get worse. If I can figure out the problem, I'll follow up with: how can we stop the problem from happening again? This seems reasonable to me.
I've come to the conclusion that fishing for striped bass could be better and I'm ready to do something about it. I attended the hearing in Galloway concerning the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) Draft Addendum IV to Amendment 6 to the Atlantic Striped Bass Interstate Fishery Management Plan. It was nice to run into a few old friends, but I was disappointed by the small turnout. We spoke about benchmarks, fishing mortality and things like the spawning stock biomass. After the presentation, the general consensus seemed in favor of cutting our total harvest by 25%. Several anglers preferred the selections in the Option B Section, some of which allow a one fish bag limit for the 2015 season. I'm going on record in favor of Option B1, which calls for a one fish bag limit and a 28-inch minimum size limit; this selection is expected to reduce the 2013 harvest by 31%.
It's not too late to be heard! You have a variety of options. For NJ anglers, there is a meeting on September 15 from 7 to 9 PM at Toms River Town Hall, L. M. Hirshblond Room, 33 Washington Street, Toms River, NJ. For more information call Russ Allen at (609) 748-2020. If you're from PA, you can attend a meeting on September 17 at 6 PM at the Silver Lake Nature Center, 1306 Bath Road, Bristol, PA. For more information, call Eric Levis at (717) 705-7806. If you cant make the meetings, public comment will be accepted until 5 PM on September 30, 2014. Forward comments to Mike Waine, Fishery Management Plan Coordinator, 1050 N. Highland Street, Suite A-N, Arlington, VA 22201 or you can fax Mike at (703) 842-0741, email at [email protected] or call (703) 842-0740.
Wow, what can you say about the lovely weather we had this weekend? The sad truth is that it's not looking much better as we head into the end of November. After today's 40-mph winds, a nor'easter is due to blast our coastline on Tuesday and continues into Wednesday, followed by another shot of hard northwest wind and more frigid temperatures. To top it off, the December long-range forecast looks to be filled with additional below-average air temperatures. If the current trend continues, I think the South Jersey fall run may come to an end before it ever really started. I hope I'm wrong, but it's not looking good.
I think most anglers would agree that it's been slow for those of us that fish from Long Beach Island to Cape May. About ten days ago, we had some strong blowout tides and things have been slow to recover ever since. I've been out day and night and while I'm finding some fish here and there, it's been far from what we've come to expect from our fall striper run. In areas where I'm used to catching five to ten bass in a few hours, I feel lucky to have two or three on the end of the line.
On the bright side, a little further to the north, boaters and surfcasters reported some better action. Earlier this week, anglers fishing around Island Beach State Park enjoyed some solid action. I, like many anglers, grew tired of waiting for the stripers to visit our area so I headed up to IBSP to get in on the hot bite.
With a tip from a friend, I walked on to the beach at 5 AM and had birds and stripers busting on sand eels in front of me for hours. I caught a bunch of fish in a short amount of time and enjoyed every moment of it. Does it get any better than watching the sunrise over the ocean with a bent rod and a school of hungry stripers in front of you? Not for me, I was in heaven! I caught most of my fish on metals and teasers, but needlefish plugs and Daiwa SP Minnows worked well, too.
First bass on my new Van Staal
By the next day, word of the great bite was out and most of the beach was shoulder to shoulder with surfcasters. Even with 100s of surfcasters on the beach, I still managed to put together a decent catch of solid striped bass. I thought to myself, this is what I've been waiting for!
Word of the hot bite spread quickly!
A return trip on Thursday morning saw more anglers and less fish. A stiff, east wind provided some beautiful white water, but it also cut into my casting distance. I felt lucky to land the one that I did. Since my last visit, the weather and fishing reports have gone downhill quickly.
A fall fatty, full of sand eels
Recently, one or two sources were laughed at for tossing the idea of, ‘The season might be over." out there. While I wouldn't go that far, I have to admit, I'm certainly concerned. A cold shot or two is normal for this time of year, but an extended cold period with a coastal storm mixed in could be a death blow. I sure hope my feeling is wrong; I was just starting to have fun.
With poor conditions for the weekend expected, I hit the South Jersey backwaters on Friday night as I thought it might be my last shot for any decent backwater action. I waited out the rain and hit a bunch of my favorite backwater fishing holes. Conditions were good, but I had to make a few moves before I found any action. I picked away at schoolie stripers during the falling tide and tagged a few more fish. You really have to work at it to put together any decent numbers of fish. I made the best of it and jigged up eight small stripers and drove home wondering if things were going to get much better from here on out? Over the last few season's some of our best action comes in December so I'm not giving up hope just yet.
A tagged fish right before release
My experience with tagging fish continues. I finished up my shipment of twenty lock-on tags and I'm trying the same number of spaghetti-style tags from the American Littoral Society. I've found the lock-on tags to be ten times more convenient. It's amazing how quickly you can apply a tag and release a fish with a little practice. The spaghetti-style tags require a little more effort, so once this batch is used, I'll be sticking with the lock-on tags. I'm still looking forward to receiving my first tag return.
Spaghetti-style tags from the ALS
Don't forget some of our local waters will receive a visit from the trout truck this week. I've included the stocking schedule below. For more information, please visit the NJDEP Division of Fish and Wildlife's website at http://www.njfishandwildlife.com.