Here's the latest on where you'll find good action for weakfish and croakers on both sides of Delaware Bay. (July 2006)
When approached about writing this article, I knew it would be a problem. After all, one must consider that the past couple of years have been miserable concerning weakfish action on Delaware Bay. So there goes any history upon which we could base any clear thoughts or facts. How can anyone expect to give a favorable expectation when the past couple of years were a disaster for weakfish anglers? There's only one solution to the problem, and that's to be optimistic and hope for the best!
As anyone who fishes Delaware Bay from either the Delaware or New Jersey side knows, weakfishing has been terrible these past couple of years, despite a few days last fall when a smattering of trout appeared -- briefly. A few limits of sea trout were reported, but these were few and far between. In addition, many of these fish were not too far over the miniscule 13-inch limit.
During last season, there were a lot of undersized weakfish. In fact, this has been the case for the past couple of years. During the past two summers, Capt. Joe Ronketty, of the Bonanza II out of Fortescue, has had days when he had over 200 weakies come aboard, but with only two legal fish in the entire catch!
The hopes were that these smaller fish would return as bigger specimens the following year, but it never did happen. It was as if these fish were just swallowed up by the ocean.
I inquired about this situation to fisheries biologists in both states. Both Bruce Freeman (recently retired) of the New Jersey Marine Fisheries Bureau and Craig Shirey of the Delaware Fisheries Bureau told me that in all seriousness, they couldn't explain where this mass of weakfish met their Maker.
They speculate that the declining numbers of weakfish are probably due to natural predation by fish such as stripers or bluefish. They also state that the reason for the disappearance of these weakfish is the fault of neither commercial fishermen nor recreational anglers. If this is so, then why are recreational anglers possibly on target to get more restrictions on weakfish, when they weren't partly the cause of the declining numbers in the first place?
However, this explanation isn't perceived to be true by any fishermen I have contacted! Most anglers feel that the real reason for the terrible fishing in Delaware Bay is that these weakfish are being scooped up, first as they leave the mouth of Delaware Bay in the fall, and then further depleted by the nets of commercial fishermen off the coasts of Southern states, particularly North Carolina and Georgia.
Let's review the history of weakfish in Delaware Bay, to provide a general description that covers the bay as a whole. Back in the 1940s, bay fishermen were almost completely devoted to catching croakers. Then in the 1950s, croaker numbers had tailed off and fluke became the dominant species. During this time, there were some years when the porgy fishing was excellent and also years when blowfish came in so thick that using bait was a problem due to their interference.
During this period, and well into the 1950s, weakfish were plentiful in the bay, but their average length was only 12 or 13 inches. There were some larger specimens around, centered mostly around the jetties on both sides of the bay. The South Jetty of the Cape May Canal at Higbee's Beach was one spot where weakfish up to 6 pounds were occasionally taken by those anglers using live perch or floating bloodworms.
Otherwise, throughout the bay, the smaller fish were much more prevalent. Keep in mind that at this time, very fewer private boats had outboard motors of over 10 horsepower. Few fishermen ventured more than a couple of miles off the beach. To get good fishing, it wasn't necessary to head more than a mile offshore.
Folks fishing at that time did well catching weakfish on live grass shrimp. I well remember fishing just off the Villas in a small 14-foot boat, using grass shrimp that sold for the amazing sum of $1 a quart in Cape May. In those days, it wasn't hard to catch a few dozen weakfish, though not many were more than 12 inches in length.
This situation went on for many years, and no one even thought that weakfish could grow any larger. Maybe those monsters that showed up later were always available out around the lighthouses and in the lower bay, but few boats plied that area to find out. Small weakfish were common on both sides of the bay -- a situation that continued until the late 1970s, when "all of a sudden" the big, tiderunnner weakfish showed up. How these fish ranging up to 15 pounds had escaped fishermen's nets and lines for so long is a mystery. After all, fish of that size were probably 10 to 15 years old.
These weakfish ushered in the golden years of the weakfishing in Delaware Bay, and a fishing frenzy similar to the California Gold Rush took place. At that time, the average private fishing boats had increased to almost the size they are today. When these large weakfish were discovered around Brandywine Light, the Anchorage and Brown Shoal, everyone who could make this run did so. All the party and charter boat fleets from both sides of the bay congregated here, both day and night. Some nights, it seemed that a city was lighting up the middle of Delaware Bay.
In addition to recreational fisherman, netters from all over the bay converged on these areas and created real problems, as there were many conflicts. Netters would set their seines right in the midst of the drifting party boats and other recreational fishermen. It got to the point where in order to avoid some potentionally nasty conflicts, the New Jersey Marina Fisheries Bureau had to establish a triangle in that part of the bay, which limited access for both parties.
The fishing was truly out of this world! Anyone able to get a bucktail/plastic worm combo down to the bottom would likely fill the boat with these large weakfish. Actually, there were so many fish there that when you brought one to the surface, there would often be several others following it, sometimes in numbers that allowed them to be scooped up with a regular fish net.
These were breeding fish with the males following the hooked females. All females were heavily laden with roe and the males full of milt Unfortunately, this glut of fish that were easily caught brought out the worst in many anglers! Many sport fishermen took to loading up with these large fish to sell to friends and neighbors or hawk to area fish markets. Others secured a netting license and also got into the slaughter. This true bonanza of fishing made Delaware Bay a Mecca for weakfish anglers, and caused the town of Fortescue to adopt the motto, "The Weakfish Capital Of The World."
It also spawned a huge weakfish derby held out of the Cedar Creek in Mispillion, Delaware. The first
year of the tourney was 1979, when 100 boats vied for $25,000 in prizes in the First Annual World Championship Weakfish/Sea Trout Tournament. Sponsored by the Milford Chamber of Commerce, it ran for three alternate days during the week of May 19 and saw literally hundreds of weakfish brought into the weighing table. This popular tournament lasted for many years until it became evident that the lack of numbers of bigger weakfish could not support the program.
Some large weakfish were still to be found around the lighthouses and rockpiles every spring. Then around July, a mass of fish in the 14- to 18- inch bracket would appear, first in the lower bay and eventually all the way up to above Ship John. This was excellent for the party boat and charter boat fleet out of both states, as well as the hordes of small boaters. Weakfish were available in the deeper areas along the edge of the channel and inshore just a short distance off the beaches. This excellent weakfishing lasted for years until there was a general decline about five years ago.
Unfortunately, this downward slide continued, with the 2004 season being bad, and last year's season being the worst yet.
For instance, the yearly Cumberland County Weakfish Tournament, which did survive over the years, had the first of five prizes for weakfish go to a 10.34-pounder -- and that was the only hit the lucky angler had all day. The second-place fish was 8.04 pounds, while the third spot weighed only 1.47 pounds. The fourth- and fifth-place winners weighed even less. Keep in mind that was accomplished by a field of 100 boats working throughout the entire bay!
Where do we go from here? No place but up, let's hope! Maybe this will be the year when things turn around. Anglers from both Delaware and New Jersey who work the lighthouses with bucktails can expect to see some action during July. The lighthouses all along the edge of the shipping channel, which separate the jurisdiction of both states, always remain the source of some fine weakie action throughout the year.
Bucktails and plugs or chunks of shedder crab fished right around the base of these structures are usually very effective right now. During high tide, it is possible to float bloodworms on a bobber in amongst the rocks, with the best fishing results coming in the early morning and around dusk.
During the first week of July, the smaller "summer weakfish" should put in their appearance. As a rule, these fish range from 1 to 3 pounds, with a few larger specimens thrown in for good measure. It is possible to tangle with some nice fish if you toss a large chunk of shedder crab just off the sod banks and grassbeds that dot the shorelines of both states.
The top bait for weakfish remains shedder crab, or peelers, as they are known in the First State. You should always fish your bait on or somewhere near the bottom, since that's where most weakfish in Delaware Bay do their feeding. That's where they'll search for grass shrimp, mantis shrimp, and small crabs, especially those that are in the shedding stage. Bloodworms can be used as well, and even some of the substitutes such as Fishbites Bag O' Worms and Berkley Gulp! worms will attract sea trout.
Where are some of the top locations where these summer weakfish can be found?
According to well-known Delaware writer and fisherman Eric Burnley of Milton, there are always some weakfish feeding around the inner and outer walls off Lewes. Heading up the bay, the Coral Oyster Beds off Slaughter Beach are well within range of small-boat anglers out of Mispillion River. Of course, there's always the Mohawk Wreck that holds weakfish and probably lots of hung-up bucktails and other fishing rigs as well.
Then there are the reefs and rubble on the Delaware side, with the area in upper Blake's Channel being a fine spot, despite the heavy current. In fact, anywhere along the edge of the channel from the mouth of the bay, up to off Woodland Beach can be utilized for some good results. Likewise, fishing the sloughs running parallel with the channel are good bets anytime.
Turning to New Jersey, the jetties at Cape May will produce weakfish throughout the summer, but they are of the regular variety and not the tiderunners taken during the spring. Up the bay, the 20- and 60-foot sloughs see lots of fishing pressure, as does the entire Maurice River Cove up to the No. 1 buoy. To find weakfish, many small-boaters head for the waters around the EP Tower and the dropoff just west of it.
Out in front of Fortescue, you'll find weakies in the first and second dropoffs. And the holes near the No. 6 buoy are favorite weakie spots as well. Heading north, the Jersey side of the 35 buoy and around the 32 and 34 buoys will likely have many boats anchored there, often from Delaware ports as well as the Jersey marinas. There are still some places to the north that attract sea trout, especially later in the summer. These areas are off the Cohansey River and up as far as the Hope Creek Jetty. The farther you go up the bay where it narrows, the more you'll see Delaware and New Jersey boats sharing the same locations.
This good weakfish action will hopefully keep up until the middle of October. After that, these fish will head out of the bay and continue south. As of last year, Raritan Bay in North Jersey saw some good weakfishing, but we did not. It is hoped that this past spring, some of these fish made a left turn as they headed up the coast.
Meanwhile, if the weakfish population remains weak, the croaker population in Delaware Bay has gone just the opposite way. Back in the 1940s, croaker fishing was at its best, as noted earlier. Then it fell off to just about nothing for several years . . . until two years ago. At that time, there were loads of croakers, but most were only 7 to 9 inches in length. Then last year, these hardheads began averaging from 10 to 13 inches, with some larger fish in the 16- to 17-inch class mixed in.
Last year's comeback fishery provided party and charter boats out of both sides of the bay with something to catch for their fares. If it hadn't been for this invasion of good-sized croakers, last year would have been a disastrous season! While fishermen do not prize croakers like weakfish, they do recognize that we better learn to be content with what is sent our way each year. Naturally, we hope for good numbers of weakfish. However, croakers are fighting fish and good on the table, even though they're a bit more difficult to clean.
Croakers inhabit most of the same places as the weakfish, since they too like grass shrimp, small crabs and worms. They also must be fished for on the bottom. In addition to shedder crab, croakers will hit small pieces of bloodworms, clam and these new artificial baits like Bag O' Worms and Berkley Gulp!
Will croakers be back in good numbers this year? They should be here by now, and Bruce Freeman expects them to return in good numbers this season as well. Keep in mind, however, his caution that the croakers' normal top range is Chesapeake Bay; and that it takes an overflow from a great year in that bay to send them into our waters. What a year it could be if both the weakfish and croakers see the Delawa
re Bay as their home this summer! As it's about the time to experience this type of bay fishing, be optimistic and get out there to see for yourself. Let's hope it's just like the good old days of just a few years ago!