From Chesapeake Bay all the way up to Raritan Bay, here are six-plus places to wet your line for some of our summer's best weakfishing action!
By Ralph Knisell
Of all the misnomers put on fish, the weakfish probably has the worst. Far from being weak, this species puts up a fine, head-shaking fight when hooked on suitable tackle. Its name actually comes from the soft tissue of its mouth, which is prone to tear easily. Many a weakfish has been lost when an angler provides a little slack. A slack line allows any weakfish to shake the hook out of the inevitable tear in its soft mouth tissue.
A weakfish's appearance is likewise misleading, as it is sometimes called a sea trout. Even though they closely resemble trout, in reality weakfish are members of the drum or croaker family. Other species of this family include black and red drum, croaker, spot and northern kingfish. Weakfish are also called seatrout, gray trout and tiderunners.
These days, weakfish are on the smaller side, ranging from 2 to 3 pounds. Fortunately, there are specimens in the 6-pound category as well. The world record is a 19-pound, 2- ounce weakfish, which was caught in Delaware Bay by William Thomas. Thomas caught his big weakie back in 1989, a time when hefty tiderunners seemed to dominate the catch. Presently, very few fish have even come close to that size, yet in past years, 15- and 16-pounders were quite common.
Some years ago, the Delaware Bay held a tremendous number of weakfish in the 12- to 16-pound bracket, but they were netted heavily and sportsmen also added to the slaughter by taking excessive numbers of these big spawners. Weakfish range from central Florida to New England, with the prime schools being from Hatteras to Long Island Sound. Parts of the Chesapeake Bay, plus all of Delaware Bay and the Jersey coast, along with Long Island Sound, are famous for producing good numbers of weakfish each summer.
Last year was not one of the best for the famous Delaware Bay fishery, as weakfish failed to arrive in the number anticipated. According to New Jersey Marine Fisheries Bureau biologist Bruce Freeman, there was no apparent reason for the weakfish to bypass Delaware Bay. He was puzzled as to their low number.
When the weakfish are biting, you don't want to miss out on all of the angling action they provide. Photo by Ron Sinfelt
New Jersey and Delaware bait shops and boat launches, along with party and charter captains, all rely heavily on weakfish to make their summer a success. Party and charter boats run almost exclusively for weakfish during the summer and early fall seasons. The same goes for the boat rental liveries and ramps.
While flounder fishing has been good and croakers came back last year, the public generally relies on weakfish to count the year a success. Bait and tackle stores stock hooks, tackle and bait that are geared to catching weakfish.
First, let's take a look at what baits are best for weakfish. The prime bait, without a doubt, on the New Jersey and Delaware sides of the Delaware Bay is shedder crab. On the Jersey side it is called shedder crab, while on the Delaware side, south, the name is peeler. Crab is probably one of the most natural baits around and just about any fish that inhabits the bay will go for it.
The shell of a true shedder crab will be easy to pull off without any meat sticking to it. Unfortunately, some bait stores pass off "greenies" as shedders and they just don't do the job. You can't get all the bait out of them, especially the brown skin under the shell, the part of the crab that is probably the best weakfish attractant in the world.
Shedders are expensive, going for up to $1.50 per crab at many shops. You don't mind paying for a good shedder, but getting a "greenie" can be upsetting to say the least. An angler who knows how to cut up a shedder can get 12 baits out of a single, decent-sized crab. If you don't know the way to do it, swallow your pride and ask - it will save you money!
A shedder is the stage where a blue claw crab is about to shed its shell. When the shell is gone, the crab that emerges is completely soft and vulnerable and can be torn apart by any fish. A crab must shed many times a year in order to grow and all fish are always on the lookout for this activity.
One of the reasons that shedder crabs are especially effective is because they start to break up when placed in water. This creates a slick that acts like a chum pot. This is an added plus for Delaware Bay anglers, since the water is somewhat cloudy because of flushing tides and muddy tributaries. Notice that little puff of white when you put the bait in the water? That's the shedder doing the work for you.
When preparing your bait for the hook, always take as much of the shell off as possible. Leave just a hole where the leg was to pass the hook through. As we noted, shedder is expensive, but it's false economy to take cheaper bait if you want to catch weaks right now.
There are several other good baits that are in common use and we will get to them as we explore the various weakfish hotspots in Maryland, Delaware and New Jersey. One last word about baits: Anytime you can secure a small spot or peanut bunker, live-lining it is a sure way to get a larger weakfish in your cooler, regardless of where you are fishing.
So where are the best weakfish hotspots? First of all, we will examine Delaware Bay as it is bordered by New Jersey and Delaware and is vitally important to both. The dividing line between the states is the middle of the shipping channel up to Artificial Island, which is considered the top end of the bay.
One must keep in mind that often the two states have conflicting laws on the size, bag limits and even the seasons for taking many species. Be sure and consult the laws of both states and then "when in Rome, do as the Romans do." For instance, even if you come out of New Jersey and fish on the Delaware side of the bay, while you are there, Delaware's laws apply.
Along the shipping channel there are six lighthouses located on the shoals that line the channel. They are, starting to the north and heading toward the mouth of the bay: Ship John, Cross Ledge of the Elbow, the Abandoned Lighthouse (also known as the Oldhouse or Blockhouse), Miah Maull, Fourteen Foot and Brandywine. All except for the Fourteen-Foot Light are situated on the Jersey side of the channel.
These are favorite weakfish spots; the larger trout arrive here and hang in close to the structures. It is often good fishing, but it can be dangerous! The current runs like a millrace most of the time, and on one lighthouse, the Abandoned Light, there is a string of rocks that are covered at high water but exposed otherwise. It is always ad
visable to go out with someone experienced in fishing here before heading out alone. During the summer months, many of the charter and party boats from both sides of the bay night-fish under spotlights and do well here.
Whether night or day, bucktails and plastic worms will tempt fish to your hook. These lures must be fished deep and if you are not losing a lure now and then, you are not down deep enough. In addition, fishing shedder crab is always a good bet. A large bait placed on a 5/0 short-shanked hook is all you'll need once you get your bait down to the bottom.
Usually a lot of lead is required to hold bottom, so heaver than normal tackle must be employed. There are a couple of facts to keep in mind around the rocks. It is against the law to tie up to any working lighthouse and even when anchoring near them, you must be at least 50 feet away from the structure. Be careful of the cables that connect the automated lights to shore. Lots of anchors have had to be cut off when their flukes become caught in one of these cables.
Another class of good spots in the springtime is just the opposite. These are located in extremely shallow water, sometimes only as deep as 6 feet. The areas are right up against the beach and vary from 6 to 11 feet deep. These areas are located on both sides of the bay, but most contain some common elements to be considered good places to fish. First, each area must be relatively shallow and, second, it must be in front of some grass or sod banks along the beach. An open, sandy beach is not a place to catch weakies. The closer you get to grass or sod banks, the better. Large weaks, often up to 10 pounds, are roaming around here looking for small crabs, grass shrimp or minnows.
The best way to get in on the action is with light tackle, a 5/0 short-shanked hook loaded with shedder crab. As these areas are in shallow water, use as little weight as possible - often a couple of split shots will suffice. Here your bait need not be right on the bottom, but rather moving around 1 or 2 feet from it.
When weakfish hit in the shallows, they'll almost tear the rod out of your hands; there is no need to let them run, as they'll usually have the bait down deep in their guts before you know it. Many anglers use circle hooks in order to lessen the chance of killing an undersized fish. If you encounter too many small, bait-stealing fish, you'll have to move farther offshore.
Last year's Cumberland County Weakfish Tournament had all the winning seatrout being taken in one of these spots just north of Fortescue, with the largest fish being hooked in just 6 feet of water. A good tactic is to enter these shallow areas slowly with the motor toned way down. And when putting the anchor over, do it gently and keep the noise to a minimum all the time you are fishing.
Other weakfish hotspots include the Brown Shoal area in the lower bay off Delaware, as well as the rocks off Cape Henlopen. The fish here respond to bucktail-plastic worm combos. Your leadhead should be at least 3/4 ounce or better so that it stays on the bottom. Bucktailing is also the way to go on the jetties at Cape May and Cape May Point, plus the jetties at the end of the Cape May Canal.
In July the bay sees an influx of smaller weakfish in the 15- to 17-inch range. These make up the mainstay of the fishery through summer and early fall. Both sides of the bay depend on this mass of fish to provide the weakfishing that Delaware Bay has been noted for. These fish spread out throughout the bay, but most will be found in waters of 20 feet or more deep.
There are sloughs on the Jersey side that go out from the mouth of the Cohansey River, south to the mouth of the bay. These are known locally as the Dropoff, Flounder Alley, the Sixty-Foot and Twenty-Foot sloughs. Other inshore spots too numerous to mention abound throughout the area and are best found by talking with local fishermen. The same is evident on the Delaware side where Blakes Channel and other sloughs are best observed by consulting a marine chart. Fishermen from both sides of the bay share the lighthouses that we noted previously.
This area is fished generally with shedder crab, using as little sinker as needed to get to the bottom. Both top and bottom rigs and single long-leader hooks work well. Party and charter boats generally supply squid as bait, but knowledgeable anglers will buy some shedder and combine the two baits for much better fish-catching results. A bloodworm-squid combo is an effective offering as well, but still nothing beats plain old shedder crab.
It is often necessary to wait when weakfishing, as they tend to have a habit of biting when the spirit moves them. You may sit there for maybe an hour with only small bait stealers and the ever-present oyster crackers engulfing your bait. Then, as if turned on by some switch, the weaks will arrive, bite great for a while and shut off as quickly. While this can occur on any tide, the consensus of opinion by regular fishermen is that the slowdown and startup on both changes of tides is the best bet.
However, there are places where shedder is not the bait to use! The best example is Raritan Bay, where outdoor writer Don Kamienski tells us that shedder crab is practically unknown. "It's sand and sea worms exclusively here. Most anglers will place an entire worm on the hook, sometimes two," stated Kamienski.
He also noted that the weakfish of Raritan Bay are generally larger than in other bays. They really start to show up by mid-June, with the fishing peaking in July and August. Some of the top spots to find them include the Raritan Reach and Channel Buoy 7. Heavier tackle is often necessary at these spots, as the weakfish are frequently found in water 40 feet deep.
Grass shrimp is the bait that is popular in Barnegat Bay, from the waters inside Barnegat Inlet down to Great Bay. The trick is to find a dropoff or deep hole around the mouth of one of the creeks that empty into the bay, anchor up and chum slowly with live grass shrimp. When the weaks start entering the slick, slip a couple of shrimp on a thin wire hook and feed it back into the slick. A lot of shrimp are necessary, as a couple of quarts worth is probably the minimum required. Keep in mind that when the chumming ceases, so do the weakfish.
Great Bay is another weakfish mecca. At the mouth of the Mullica River, shedder crab is a sure thing, while the area known as Grassy Channel will produce weakfish for those anglers using shedder or bucktails tipped with crab. There are flats on the southeast side of the bay where trout respond to small bucktails and swimming plugs. These places are good only on high water because they are too shallow to fish from a boat otherwise.
The entire inland waterway from Cape May to Great Bay contains weakfish taking shedder crab plus bucktails worked around the mouths of creeks and points where the water swirls. Most of this action is limited to dawn and dusk hours, as the boat traffic seems to scare the weakfish off the bite.
In Maryland, weakfish take a back seat to striped bass, croakers, bluefish, spots and white perch. Nevertheless, they are to be found up to the Bay Bridge. Those anglers trying for other species take many weakies accidental
Peeler crabs fished over deep dropoffs and holes work well at enticing weakfish to bite. Weaks rarely arrive in any number before July. Look for spots around the mouth of the Patuxent, off Point Lookout and near Pocomoke Sound. Along Maryland's coastline the weaks are often mixed in with seabass and blues.
As we noted before, last year Delaware Bay produced below expectations, but we are truly optimistic that this season will see a comeback. Once again, Delaware Bay will resume its place as the "Weakfish Capital of the World."
Discover even more in our monthly magazine,
and have it delivered to your door!
Subscribe to Mid-Atlantic Game & Fish