From weakfish to summer flounder, stripers and more . . . here's the latest on what you can expect this season for our states' top five saltwater game fish! (May 2006)
Once again, I'm going to gaze into my somewhat clouded crystal ball to try and determine what the fishing prospects for the coming season will be! I say "clouded" because it's hard to determine exactly what the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) has laid on our heads in the way of more stringent regulations. It seems as if these fishery "managers" have little concern for what their horrible size and bag limits affect recreational fishermen in New Jersey, Maryland and Delaware.
At the same time, commercial interests get little in the way of more regulations, even though they're the ones causing the decline in many species along the coast. As in past years, we have to base our predictions on last year's results -- bad as they may be in a couple of instances. In addition, we will be optimistic that any bad numbers of fish were just a bump in the road and that the fishery will bounce back this season!
Keep in mind that weather has a great influence on the fishing picture. Last year we experienced a rash of washed-out weekends, resulting in limited fishing activity. In addition, water temperatures can control somewhat the number of fish that come our way. However, most migrations of animals, birds and fish remain on a predictable schedule.
Scientists tell us that the amount of light is the most determining factor as to when migrations take place during the year. Water temperature, heat and cold do hasten or delay migrations somewhat, but the amount of light each day remains exactly the same and is predictable down to the minute. Regardless of these roadblocks in out way, we'll keep that our predictions will be close to on target!
Let's start with what will probably be the most difficult species to predict: weakfish. Generally speaking, last year was a disaster for weakfish enthusiasts. What is amazing is that the ASMFC concluded that the rapid declines in weakfish stocks are a result of natural causes -- not of either recreational or commercial overfishing. Why, then, do they insist on lowering the bag limits on us recreational folks when we had nothing to do with it?
I've talked with many, many fishermen and had a difficult time finding any who believe that the decline in weakfish numbers is not manmade. Most anglers feel that after the small weakfish leave the bays in the fall, commercial interests somewhere along the line -- like off the coasts of North Carolina and Georgia -- gobble them up.
I hope that the 2006 season in Delaware Bay will be better, and think that by the time you read this, some larger weakfish will already be in the bay. They will be found around the lighthouses and in the shallows where sod banks and grass hold small baitfish and grass shrimp. Cast shedder crab and bloodworms, or bucktails tipped with crab or plastic worms around these areas. Of course, you can also tie into a striper now and then while using these tactics.
For those who prefer to fish closer inshore, anchoring and casting shedder crab in water as shallow as 5 feet can be productive at times. Look for dropoffs in front of sod banks or patches of grass that are just about showing at high tide.
On the Jersey side, places to try include off Beadon's Point near Fortescue, Egg Island Point and around the mouth of the Maurice River. These are always favorite spots for those participating in the popular Cumberland County Weakfish Contest, which is held each June.
When fishing in these shallower spots, the early morning hours and late afternoon can spell the difference between failure and success. Early in the year, you'll also see larger weakies hitting bucktails and crabs along the jetties at Cape May Point.
Starting around the first of July, what are called "summer weakfish" will show throughout the bay. This body of fish will continue to be around through the middle of October. All anglers are hoping that they will be of greater size than last year, when many were even smaller than the miniscule 13-inch minimum-size limit. These fish will be found in many spots from the mouth of the Cohansey River, down through the bay to the canal.
Some spots to look for them include the Middle Grounds, off Seabreeze, around the 32 and 34 buoys, the 6 buoy, the dropoffs in front of Fortescue, the Clubhouse, Egg Island Point, the 1 buoy in the Maurice River Cove and Bug Light.
In all of these instances, shedder crab will be the favorite bait, mainly because it tends to leave a chum slick that weakies can follow. Chicken is another bait getting used more each year, possibly because its cost is so much lower the prices charged for shedder crab.
Either way, just about any fish in the bay will hit either bait. This is both a blessing and a curse.
One strike against these baits is that croakers have a taste for these offerings as well, and often they'll get to your bait before any weakfish do. While on the subject of croakers, I have to say that if it weren't for these feisty fighters last season, many party, charter and private-boat anglers would have sailed back to their docks with empty coolers!
Surfcasters in the bay can expect to catch weakies when they are baiting with shedder crab. Using small floats helps keep your bait swinging around and attracting attention. Some surf locations that produce include Gandys Beach, Fortescue, East Point and Reeds Beach. Because many of these spots are shallow, a long cast will increase your chances of success.
The bright spot for weakfish last year in Jersey was Raritan Bay. Anglers are counting on a repeat performance this year, too. Some early weakfish already are in Raritan Bay, and more fish will arrive shortly. The hope is that the larger fish that showed last August will see fit to come back, because some were in the 6- to 10-pound range.
Fishing in Raritan Bay is a drifting proposition with either sandworms or peanut bunker (when available) as the prime attracters. Writer/guide Al Ristori notes that last fall was a great time to be on the water, with many weakfish limits of nice fish. The biggest problem, Ristori noted, was fighting off snapper blues.
It will be a fair year for weakfish anglers in Barnegat Bay and Great Bay as well. Weakfish will be in both of these bays by now, especially in the mouth of the Mullica River, in Grassy Channel and the shallows behind Little Beach. Around the mouth of Sheepshead Creek is also a likely location for action.
Turning to Delaware, I find that the fishing conditions generally mirror those across the bay in New Jersey. And that means that this summer, there will probably be lots more undersized weakfish around, just like last year, with some keeper-sized fish mixed in.
As in Jersey, the top bait is "peelers" -- another name for shedder crab -- plus chicken. Actually, Delaware anglers were using chicken long before it hit the Jersey scene. Some of the better locations to find weakfish right now include off Port Mahon, Brown Shoal, Broadkill and the sloughs that run parallel to the shipping channel.
In the lower part of the bay, anglers casting bucktails around the breakwater and off Roosevelt Inlet can expect some larger trout any day now. There should be more weakies entering the bay throughout the summer. Surfcasters often take weakfish from Indian River, north to the mouth of Delaware Bay. Strangely enough, weakies in the surf will hit bloodworms, along with peelers and mullet.
Delaware-based writer Eric Burnley says that weakfish should be in the Chesapeake by now, but not in as great a number as croakers will likely be. You'll find weakfish along the edges of dropoffs. Peelers are the prime baits to use throughout the season, which lasts throughout the summer and fall.
Striped bass fishing seems to be getting more popular each year, especially in New Jersey. Delaware Bay has produced some real lunkers in both the spring and fall seasons, with the party and charter boats finally getting in on this fine sport.
However, mostly small non-keeper-sized bass are on tap throughout the summer. The season has already been underway for a month or so and it's soon due to wind down until the fall run. Chunks of bunker and whole bunker heads are the favorite baits, with the heads taking the larger fish.
Along the coast and in the rips off Cape May should produce fine fishing into the early summer. Surfcasting is a big thing in New Jersey and all during the summer, some nice bass are taken from the undertow on clams. Try around inlets in the morning and late afternoon.
The Delaware striped bass fishery is similar to New Jersey's, especially in Delaware Bay. Favorite spots in both spring and early summer include Brown Shoal, Blake's Channel and along the edge of the shipping channel opposite the 32 and 34 buoys. Here, too, bunker will produce hits. But be sure and check out the latest regulations, since they will sometimes differ from those on the other side of the shipping channel!
Surf-fisherman can do well from one end of the state to the other, with the waters around Indian River Inlet being a special location for catching stripers.
Striped bass or rockfish are a big deal in Chesapeake Bay. This species has been a mainstay in this area for years. The spring fishery is already underway, and average-sized fish should be on the menu. Those anglers casting over the Susquehanna Flats can expect good fishing.
Throughout the middle portions of the bay, trolling and jigging anglers will likely enjoy a fine season. Peeler crab and clam snouts will be the fare for the river and inshore boaters. Bucktails, swimming and popping plugs will also produce. Stripers will often betray their presence by feeding on the surface, at which times surface plugs will put you into the action. Both ends of the day will produce more bass action than during the noon hours.
Charter boat operators will work out of many Maryland spots and either troll or bait-fish for striped bass. Some bass are available in the surf in the fall, from Ocean City down to the Virginia border.
This year should be another good one for blues throughout the three-state region. New Jersey bluefish are already providing lots of great fishing for party boaters day and night, from Barnegat Light north. Trolling is a top way to intercept wide-ranging bluefish all along the coast.
Surf-fishermen can expect good results, since last year produced quite an upsurge in the number of bluefish caught in the Long Beach Island Surf- fishing Tournament. The southern end of the Jersey coast will offer some good daytime trolling for blues and bait-fishing action as well.
In Delaware Bay, some big blues probably came along during the first part of this month, but then the bay will see lots of smaller blues in the 12- to 14-inch range. Often these fish will be found surface-feeding around the high-tide mark and will take bucktails and popping plugs. Otherwise, they'll hit baits intended for the weakfish and croakers in the bay. In the fall, you can expect slammer blues up to 15 pounds.
On the Delaware side, the same situation exists in Delaware Bay from one end to the other. Bluefish will stay around until the water temperature falls below 50 degrees. That's when they'll head south. Some blues are found in the backwaters inside of the Indian River Inlet, but they tend to be small fish, mostly snappers. Offshore trollers and bait-fishermen will do well all summer.
Maryland has some offshore action for trolling anglers throughout the summer. On the Chesapeake, trolling is an effective way to catch lots of bluefish. Bucktails and small spoons produce good results in the waters around the Bay Bridge all summer long. Likewise, anchoring and chumming with bunker often produces good fishing for blues up to 10 pounds.
Summer flounder, or fluke, are the most popular recreational fish in New Jersey -- and also the most heavily regulated. Party boats out of North Jersey ports do well all summer long, and good fishing should be underway now.
Barnegat Bay has a great fishery, and Great Bay will provide some fine catches, too. All the inland waterway areas behind Atlantic City, Sea Isle, Avalon will be full of small boaters seeking fluke. Unfortunately, if things shape up like last year, most of these flatfish will be undersized will have to be released.
In Delaware Bay, party and charter boats will drift Flounder Alley, a slough that runs inside the main shipping channel. Here, as in everywhere throughout the state, a minnow/squid combo or a large piece of shark, sea robin, mackerel or bunker will do the catching.
In Delaware, the Anchorage is especially noted for producing larger summer flounder. But this area is hard to fish except near the change of tides. This area is very deep. Brown Shoal and the cuts near the mouth of the bay can be counted on for good action.
One very popular offshore location is the Old Grounds, about 18 miles outside of the inlet. Boats visit this area daily from both Delaware and New Jersey. Be sure and take lots of rigs and he
avy sinkers, because the bottom is rock-filled.
Eric Burnley let us know that the Chesapeake Bay fluke fishery extends up to the Bay Bridge and that in this part of the fishing world, this species is not nearly as popular as stripers and bluefish. But in the back bays around the state Route 50 Bridge, it's a different story, since that whole bay is full of anglers seeking fluke.
Here, too, many of the fish will be below the legal limit. Be sure to check the latest regulations before going fishing. Those who bait-fish for fluke are often bothered by the area's tremendous schools of croakers. They seem able to enjoy any kind of bait, including minnows.
New Jersey fishermen should see another fine tuna season, starting around the first of July. Al Ristori notes that most of the fish-catching action comes through chunking efforts, and that a lot of school bluefin tuna can be expected this season. Hotspots to the north include Little Italy, the Mud Hole and Barnegat Ridge.
Party and charter boats run out of all the North Jersey ports. The season runs until November but is most popular during the warmer months. With the gas situation as it is, the price of getting even to the 30 Fathom Line is going to be much more costly these days.
To the south, the charter fleet will head for the canyons for yellowfin, longfin and bluefin tuna. It should be a good year if it parallels last year's success. Here, too, a lot of overnight chunking is done along with daytime trolling. The 70-mile or so run to the canyons has resulted in fewer trips, due to the hideous price of fuel. Weather, too, often is a consideration. Be sure to check so that you can enjoy the trip instead of enduring a backbreaking journey.
Many of Delaware's party boat fleets run out of Lewes and Indian River. Chunking is the most popular method of attracting tuna in Delaware, though some trolling takes place during the summer months as well. The Jack Spot is one popular tuna area for yellowfin, true albacore and bluefin tuna. Weather conditions should always be noted before heading well offshore.
Keep in mind that this is just an overview of the fishing this summer. For obtaining more detailed information, your best bet can be to consult area bait and tackle shops, boat captains and well-known fishermen. Let's hope that the bad results we experienced in many cases last year won't be repeated and that once again, fine fishing will be ours