Highlands Stories and Tips

Fishing The Raritan Bay

Fishing The Raritan Photo, Highlands, New Jersey

The area north of Sandy Hook is one of the best places to catch striped bass throughout the year. But during the hottest fishing months, the high spot between the channels called Flynn’s Knoll looks like a parking lot. The party boats are anchored up, brave lunatics in 15-foot rentals are bouncing in the swells, and weekend warriors are catching everybody’s lines in their props as they weave between the boats to try to find a spot. But after Labor Day the crowds tend to thin, just in time for the fall run.

The structure brings the fish, and the fish bring everybody else. Flynn’s Knoll breaks the raging current that runs through the channels around it. Lazy predators like striped bass wait for bait emptying out of the bay to be dumped over the hump. There are a lot of mussel and clam beds in the area as well; another natural bass attractant.

According to Russ Allen, principal fisheries biologist for the NJ Marine Fisheries Bureau, the population is healthy and large as it’s been in recent memory. There are a lot of year classes of fish that have come up very strong from the Chesapeake Bay and the Delaware River, and those year classes are adding enormous amounts of fish to the population.

Environmental conditions always make a big difference on anadromous fish (saltwater fish that spawn in rivers). "There used to be a pollution block in the Delaware River system, and that really put a damper on how these fish spawn," says Allen. "That’s been gone for the last ten to twelve years now, so those year classes are going to be really strong."

This water between Ambrose Channel and Sandy Hook has produced some seventy fish days for Captain Shawn Goode of Strike Zone Charters (Highlands, NJ) over the last few years. Many anglers attribute the rising catches to better common sense in the recreational fishery, better regulations, and better methods of releasing fish unharmed. Fishermen are a lot smarter about catch and release than they used to be.

The current in this area is very strong and can be extremely exhausting for bass being fought on light tackle. According to Goode, fishermen should use 25 to 35 pound test if they are planning on releasing the fish. "Everyone wants to use light tackle, since it’s more sporting," says Goode. "But if you want to release the bass, you can’t give them a beating on 12 pound test. Especially if you’re anchored and dragging them into the current. The Knoll just kills them. They don’t recover well."

Different water temperatures call for different tactics between the channels throughout the year. And fishermen will need to adapt and follow the fish to catch consistently. The fish tend to move into that area in the springtime as the migration moves north and the spawners move into the Hudson River. Also, migratory fish (immature females) come from the Delaware Bay into that area to hang out as long as the water temperature is comfortable. As the water warms, schools of bunker also enter the area and the predators follow the food. Historically, large numbers of bass stay in the area through May, June, and early July. Then they join up with the migratory stock and head north to Massachusetts. As water temperatures cool, the main run returns in September.

Early in the season, Goode likes to troll. The bass are sluggish and often won’t move to follow bait, so fishermen need to troll to cover more ground. While trolling Goode watches the fish finder, looking for lumps with the arches behind them. He uses Julian’s spoons because they have a single hook that swings on a swivel. Spoons that have fixed treble hooks can rip a fish’s mouth while trolling. If you take any pressure off you lose the fish.

"There’s a technique to trolling," says Goode "When you’ve got spoons you’ve got to let them work. Bigger spoons need to pump three times, go down, and come back up. They look like a crippled bunker. You’ve got to find the right speed." Goode admits that trolling isn’t for everyone. Some people hate it. Other people don’t have the right equipment to use wire line. A wire line set up consists of longer rods (minimum 7 feet) with hardened guides so the wire doesn’t cut right through them. The standard reel for wire line trolling is the Penn 113.

As the water warms up and the bass season gets into full swing, most boats switch to clams. Fresh shucked clams on fish finder rigs work best, first thing in the morning. Let your bait sink, set your reel on standby and hold on.

According to Goode, the key is to chum heavy. He likes to use frozen buckets of clam bellies, or bunker when they are around. The chum bucket is a five-gallon pail with weights to keep it on the bottom and one-inch holes drilled in it. The bucket has got to be on the bottom, which is why you need so much weight. This is especially true on Flynn’s Knoll where the current is really strong. Early in the spring, the water is colder so the bait doesn’t thaw out as fast. In June it thaws out quick, and with a strong current, it can be gone in a half-hour.

Don’t overfeed the fish, but also don’t let the bucket go empty, or else you might lose the fish to another slick "Try to find your own spot further out," Goode says. "If all these people are chumming, I’m going behind, down current where all the fish will get the first shot at my bait."

This time of year, most boats switch to sandworms. According to Goode, the fish know local worms and they will outfish the bait flown in from Maine. He recommends digging them up in Sandy Hook with a pitch fork. "At the lowest tide, you can get them out on the bay side, across from the Crows Nest."

The problem with counting on sandworms from local shops during the late summer season is availability. Two unrelated factors throw off the supply. First, the workers in Maine that dig sandworms are the same people that pick blueberries. When the blueberry harvest is underway in Maine, no one is digging worms. The second factor that affects supply is tropical storms and hurricanes, which often happen to coincide with this time of year. The giant surf resulting from these storms will push the diggers off of the flats.

Another late season favorite is eels. Nighttime is most productive for this bait. Goode uses a four foot leader with a 12 inch dropper off a three-way swivel. According to Goode, eels are the bass’s arch enemy and eat their eggs. That’s one of the reason’s they are such effective baits. A lot of people like to smack the heads of the eels against the boat before baiting the hook to keep them from fouling the line. Goode doesn’t understand why anyone would pay almost two dollars for a live eel and then immediately kill it though. He recommends smacking the body of the eel up against the boat and stunning it. This will cripple the eel to keep it from wrapping around the leader without actually killing it.

Eels are more productive later in the fall, when there aren’t as many chopper blues in the water. Bluefish will bite eels in half and won’t get hooked. This can get expensive. Goode recommends grabbing eels with a rag and hooking them through the right gill and out the right eye. This prevents them from twisting. If you hook them through both eyes the eels will wrap around the line.

Despite the migratory nature of striped bass, there are some fish that stay in the area. Because the population is so big and spread out, some residential fish stay all year. So what keeps a fish in an area? Food. Bass will hang out in an area where there are bunker all year or some other food source. They’re lazy and tend not to move too much. The big schools will move, but not all of them will go.

No matter what season it is, the area will continue to hold fish and fishermen as long as successful conservation efforts are maintained. But so many people are out there doing the same things. The most important keys to separating yourself from the pack are timing and boat position. Beat the fleet, get out before the other boats, or go out late. Also, find places just outside of the main cluster to set up where the current will take your bait to the fish first. But remember, there are plenty of fish in the area. Why else would everybody be there?

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