Mid-Atlantic 2008 Saltwater Forecast

Mid-Atlantic 2008 Saltwater Forecast

What's in store for anglers this season when it comes to battling it out with stripers, bluefish, summer flounder and more? Here's the latest! (May 2008)

As we move into the summertime fishery along the Maryland, Delaware and New Jersey coasts, recreational anglers can anticipate more fine fishing for four of their five favorite game fish species -- tuna, bluefish, weakfish and striped bass.

It's reasonable to assume they'll provide many memorable days this season, with great potential for both boat anglers and surf-casters.

The only depressing sight on the horizon concerns the summer flounder, popularly called fluke throughout much of its range. Ironically, this situation is not a lack of summer flounder, but drastically reduced allocations for the recreational fishery in 2008 -- thanks to the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) and the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC).

This problem has grown exponentially over the past 14 years, as size limits have increased. Recreational anglers must catch more undersized flounder in their efforts to obtain legal-sized fish. The reality is that at minimum, there's an 8 percent mortality of released fish.

The last two seasons, my wife June and I gave up fishing in many of our favorite bay and river waters since it was virtually impossible to land keeper-sized fluke.

In 70 years of fishing, I've also caught literally thousands of summer flounder from the surf. My biggest measured 21 inches and weighed 3 1/2 pounds.

Fortunately, recreational anglers have four popular species that will provide good fishing as we move into the peak season in 2008. Let's start with the biggest of the lot.

TUNA
Many veteran anglers felt that 2007 provided the finest fishing in years for yellowfin tuna and long-finned albacore. This fishing occurs primarily in the canyons, along the edge of the Continental Shelf.

Most of the boats from Jersey ports scored in the Hudson, Toms, Carteret and Lindenkohl canyons.

The Delaware and Maryland based fleets concentrated their efforts at the Wilmington and Baltimore canyons, while some boats headed as far south as Washington Canyon.

Some boaters ventured to canyon country as early as late May. There they found the temperature breaks where forage congregated, and in turn, there were large quantities of both albacore and yellowfin tuna, the latter often topping the hundred-pound mark.

Also providing excitement were occasional bigeye tuna, often in the 150- to 200-pound class.

At night, a bonus species for the tuna seekers are broadbill swordfish, nominal numbers of which will inhale deep-drifted baits intended for tuna. For the most part, these swordfish will range from 75 to 150 pounds.

During daylight hours, dolphin will often invade the chum-lines as well, providing another bonus catch.

The bulk of the fleets fishing the various canyons will chum during the day and at night with ground menhaden and chunks of butterfish. The chum regularly attracts fish feeding near the surface.

Skippers frequently note schools of tuna and albacore anywhere from 50 to 150 feet deep. Often these fish won't respond to chum. It's then necessary to use 8- to 16-ounce sinkers to take the baits down to where the tuna are feeding on squid.

Boaters who troll also account for many tuna, although these days, the high fuel costs will deter many anglers from using this technique.

The bonus when trolling, however, is always the chance of a shot at white marlin.

The most disappointing tuna fishing was the inshore fishery that once provided exciting action with school bluefin tuna. Boats sailing from Indian River and Ocean City inlets scored early last summer along the 30 Fathom Curve.

Summer flounder fishermen continue to face more stringent regulations each season in their pursuit of their favorite game fish.
Photo by Milt Rosko.

But very restrictive regulations, with a one-fish bag limit, discouraged many anglers from seeking this fine game fish -- as did the depleted population.

BLUEFISH
Bluefish are cyclical, and several times over the years we've experienced times when it was nearly impossible to catch one.

Fortunately, that's hasn't been the case in recent years, with the population comprised of a mix ranging from the recently hatched snapper blues to huge numbers of "alligators" often topping the 15-pound mark. Importantly, there were plenty of all sizes of bluefish in between, which bodes well for 2008 and the years ahead.

Bluefish will usually arrive off the Maryland and Delaware coasts during May. When the lilacs are blooming, the fishing is often fast and furious. During the early season, blues will regularly raid the beaches from Chincoteague to Lewes, where they'll decimate schools of menhaden, which are also migrating.

Blues that are migrating offshore are concentrating on a different kind of forage, specifically schools of Atlantic mackerel, also migrating to their summer quarters off Canada.

For a few weeks, anglers will grow arm-weary at Fenwick Shoal, the Sugar Lump and myriad lumps and ridges scattered just a few miles offshore, since there's often schools of herring and sand eels to satisfy the ravenous appetites of the hungry blues.

While the main schools move north, some will settle in as resident fish, choosing to spend the summer in local waters. Those heading north dally at the mouth of Delaware Bay, continue north while stopping at such renowned Jersey hotspots as Atlantic City Ridge, Barnegat Ridge, Manasquan Ridge, the Klondike, the Mud Buoy and 17 Fathoms. Many bluefish will also invade Raritan Bay, but the major schools will head east off Long Island and wind up in New England waters for the summer.

But plenty of blues will still decide to summer in Mid-Atlantic waters, where they provide both boaters and surfcasters with fine action. The boating fraternity brings into play a variety of tech

niques, including trolling, chumming, bottom-fishing, and jigging. It's all fun, as blues are always vicious and most always hungry.

Along the surf, schools of bluefish will raid the beaches at irregular intervals, so patience is an important consideration. Local fish traveling along the surf are often taken by fishing a mullet rig, with a cork float suspending the bait just off the bottom.

But the real fun fishing comes later in the summer and early fall when mullet, menhaden, bay anchovies and other small forage species vacate the bays and rivers. It's then that bluefish travel in wolf packs, and it's not unusual to see them slashing through the bait schools as they feed. It's definitely the most exciting time to be surf-fishing.

SUMMER FLOUNDER
Ah, the summer flounder, what a fine fish! If June and I were to vote on our favorite species for both catching and eating, it would have to be the summer flounder or fluke. We've enjoyed catching these tough flatfish all of our lives.

But in 2008, we'll have to concentrate and do things very differently from the past. To target those 14- to 17-inch flatfish, it's important that anglers simply forget everything they've done in the past. With larger size limits all along the coast, it's important to target legal-sized fish and whenever possible, to leave the smaller ones alone.

This means two things, both of which we've been practicing the last couple of seasons while boat-fishing: We avoid the bays, rivers and inshore sandy bottom areas frequented by the small flounder.

Instead, we concentrate our fishing efforts around rocky bottom, ridges, wrecks and the myriad artificial reefs located just a few miles from shore along the Maryland, Delaware and Jersey coasts. This is the type of bottom that holds big forage -- such as small scup, sea bass, bergalls, squid, herring, crabs and even young lobster -- on which the bigger summer flounder feed.

Next to come into play are big lures and big baits. Forget the small strip of squid or minnow baits. Instead, choose small live snapper blues, spot and small croaker or menhaden.

But plenty of blues will still decide to summer in Mid-Atlantic waters, where they provide both boaters and surfcasters with fine action.

Instead of a sinker, substitute a chromed ball or torpedo-shaped jig or a leadhead bucktail jig. I place an Owner stinger hook onto the hook of the jig and as bait, use an 8- to 10-inch strip of squid, or strip of salmon belly, dogfish or sea robin.

To avoid snags while drifting along over the rough bottom, keep your line as nearly vertical as possible. Twitching the rod tip causes the rig to raise a few inches off the bottom and flutter back down, with both the jig and live bait moving along enticingly.

WEAKFISH
During spring, weakfish migrate into the waters of Chesapeake Bay and its many tributaries and practically every major bay along the middle Atlantic coast, such as Delaware and Raritan. The same holds true of the rivers, such as Indian River in Delaware and the Manasquan, Shark and Shrewsbury rivers in Jersey.

All of these waterways will have populations of weakfish in residence this season. Just when they're going to arrive -- and how long they will stay -- are another question.

Weakfish will respond to a wide variety of small soft-plastic swim shad, rattle plugs, and leadhead jigs.

They'll readily take soft crab bait drifted along the bottom, or a strip of squid.

Delaware Bay, once the "Weakfish Capital of the World," continues to experience less-than-stellar weakfish angling. Interestingly, bays to the north of Delaware, particularly Raritan Bay, have been experiencing better than usual weakfish action.

No one seems to know why Delaware Bay's fishery is on a down cycle, but maybe this will be the year for a weakfish revival!

STRIPED BASS
Last season was another banner year for catching striped bass, with a fine run of big fish in the Chesapeake Bay during the spring, and many returning again in the fall.

In the northern sector of their range, the forecast for spring 2008 will in large part be determined by the type of winter we experience.

If subfreezing temperatures prevail, locking many bays and rivers including the Hudson River in ice, the striper movement will be curtailed. The striper population in the Delaware and Hudson rivers doesn't begin to vacate those waters until after the spawn takes place, usually in April through May.

The Hudson striper population provides the first major influx of bass into Raritan and Sandy Hook bays. The bass will arrive just as the huge schools of menhaden appear in the same waters from their wintertime haunts, intent on spawning.

These adult bunker provide forage for the stripers. Many of these bass will stay in the Jersey bays to feed heavily on the menhaden.

Some stripers stay in these waters and the nearby surf throughout the summer. Others move north along Long Island, and then northward to summer in New England waters.

Chumming with crushed clams and baiting with half a surf clam results in many fine catches each spring. Trolling with bunker spoons, large subsurface swimming plugs and soft-plastic swim shad, either single or behind an umbrella rig, is still another technique to use wherever big stripers are found.

Personally, my major concern with striped bass is that current regulations require the return of undersized fish, while forcing recreational anglers to retain large fish.

Inasmuch as there's such a major concentration of forage in the bays, the bass tend to stay in those fertile waters as opposed to taking up residence in the surf during the summer.

The jetties and surf of all three states provide nominal fishing in summer, but the major action comes during the spring and fall migrations -- with peak action in the fall, when the forage base vacates bay waters and migrates south along the surf.

Personally, my major concern with the striped bass is that current regulations require the return of undersized fish, while forcing recreational anglers to retain large fish.

This, along with the horrific tournaments that in some cases require killing two fish in order to post a score -- for example, a 33-pound bass and a 41-pound bass result in a combined score of 74 points.

These are the very fish that should be released, since they're our spawning stock.

As we move into 2008, my wife June and I look forward to enthusiastically enjoying what we call "our contemplative pastime."

There'll be peaks and valleys, but if you put in the time on the beach or in a boat, you'll find a sufficient amount of our favorite five game fish species to satisfy your angling appetite in the season ahead.

Tuna

Yellowfin tuna and albacore are found off the Atlantic, Gulf and Pacific coasts. Off our coast, they'll frequent the waters along the Continental Shelf and its many canyons during the summer months.

Most of the action will take place some 80 to 90 miles offshore over the Continental Shelf and canyons. Concentrate your efforts along temperature breaklines of the Gulf Stream.

Chum with chunks of butterfish at night. Bait your hooks with sardines or squid. Drift baits back in the chum line, but also dead-stick a bait from 50 to 150 feet down. Some of the tunas will be down deep.

Last season was outstanding for those anglers seeking albacore and yellowfin tuna along the canyons. Unfortunately, fishing for bluefin tuna was abysmal. Worldwide demand for tuna overall is hurting stocks.

Bluefish

Bluefish range all along the Atlantic Coast down to Florida waters. The biggest concentration of blues, and the biggest specimens as well, make their summer homes off the Mid-Atlantic and New York coastline.

Large schools of blues will take up residence on ridges, humps, wrecks and so on. Most of the best fishing takes place from 5 to 25 miles off the beach, though shoreline fishing can be excellent at times.

Troll or chum in open ocean waters, or drift baits along the bottom over ridges and wrecks. Don't forget bottom-bouncing diamond jigs as well. Surf-casters can do well by dead-sticking clams or casting plugs.

The bluefish population has stabilized over the last few years, but it is still at or near all-time highs. Bag limits continue to be liberal, and recreational interest in catching bluefish results in lots of business.

Summer Flounder

Summer flounder, or fluke, are caught from South Carolina north to Maine. The best fishing occurs from Maryland to New York during the summer months. Summer flounder are one of the most-sought species.

Avoid back-bay areas, where smaller summer flounder will be more numerous. Look to fish in waters over 30 feet deep and around/over rocky structure, wrecks and natural ridges.

Use big, live baits like spot, bergalls or snapper blues. Instead of sinkers, chrome-ball jigs or leadhead jigs will get your bait down where it needs to be. Add an 8-inch strip of squid to entice bites from big summer flounder.

The inept manner in which summer flounder stocks are being managed is criminal. Millions of smaller fish die each season due to high minimum size limits, which cause many fish to be thrown back.

Weakfish

Weakfish populate warm coastal waters from Florida to Cape Cod. The bulk of the population will be found from Virginia to New York during the peak summer months. Bay fishing is where it's at most often.

Any back-bay area or river inlet -- from Chesapeake Bay, Indian River, Delaware Bay, Great Bay, all the way up to Raritan Bay -- will offer prime-time action. Look for slight bottom variations and other structure.

Shedder crab and grass shrimp are top baits. Use only enough weight to keep your offerings on or very near the bottom, as that's where the weakies will be. Light lines and light tackle are the way to go.

Unpredictable might best describe how fishing for weakfish has been over the last five years or so. Old hotspots in Chesapeake and Delaware bays sometimes still produce, but not like in years past.

Striped Bass

Striped bass are found along inshore waters from Florida to Maine. After spawning in the bays, they'll move out into open ocean on the beaches and slightly offshore over productive feeding areas.

Chesapeake, Delaware and Raritan bays will provide fine striper fishing during the spring. Don't forget surf-fishing and structure angling for striped bass during the summer months. Night-fishing is also good.

Natural baits prove best in the spring and early season, while live bait (like menhaden) or jigs, plugs and soft-plastics (like Swim Shad) are effective offerings once the season progresses. Don't forget clams!

Striped bass fishing is another bright spot (like bluefish) in the recreational arena. Lots of big fish and different year-classes bode well for the future. Circle hooks are a big plus to releasing stripers.

Illustrations courtesy of Sport Fish of the Atlantic - Vic Dunaway.

Magazine Cover

GET THE MAGAZINE Subscribe & Save

Temporary Price Reduction

SUBSCRIBE NOW

Give a Gift   |   Subscriber Services

PREVIEW THIS MONTH'S ISSUE

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Get the top Game & Fish stories delivered right to your inbox every week.