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, 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!
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.