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Written by mstansberry on 02 Sep, 2004
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,…Read More
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?
Written by mstansberry on 07 Sep, 2004
It was a warm September evening on Jersey coast, perfect for casting to blues or bass in the suds. But I was not going to the beach. I had left my car on the side of the road, close to a bridge over the backwaters…Read More
It was a warm September evening on Jersey coast, perfect for casting to blues or bass in the suds. But I was not going to the beach. I had left my car on the side of the road, close to a bridge over the backwaters of the Shrewsbury River. On the grass in front of me, I had lain out my new float tube and flippers. I had never used a tube before, but the concept seemed self-explanatory back at Sports Authority. By the time I had figured out how to inflate it and attach the stupid flippers to my shoes, the sun had gone down over the Highlands.
I had been assigned to write a story on weakfish by the local fishing magazine. I should have been thrilled, since it was my first chance to write for an outdoors publication. I edited a business magazine nine-to-five, so this was a big break. Unfortunately, the weakfish run on the coast had been nonexistent this year, leaving few options for a guy without a boat or a clue. I had been landlocked for 25 years in Ohio, and this was my first summer in Jersey.
People crabbing from a bridge stared as I duck-stepped towards the bank of the river, float tube around my waist, pole in hand. They were not sure how to react, so I waved to reassure them that this was part of my plan, legal, and under control. The tide was out, exposing the stinking mudflats along the shore. I hopped down and backed in. Then I gave the thumbs up to the people on the bridge and paddled out into the current.
It took me about a minute to figure out that the slimy wisps that kept wrapping around my thighs were jellyfish and not seaweed. Maybe it was less than that. They were thick, like egg drop soup, like spaghetti around the tines of a fork. But they had not really started stinging yet. See, against the thick skin of my hands, the jellyfish would not have done a lot of damage. But reach back behind your knee. Do you feel how soft that is? Ok.
So there I was in the middle of the river, after dark, with a tiny flashlight strapped to my head that kept falling off. My legs were going numb from all of the jellyfish and I had already dropped my pole in the water once. I had a box of uncooperative sandworms and a floating jig head tied to a three-way rig with a two-ounce weight. I was living the good life.
It was slack tide; probably the best time to fish the river since lazy fish will not fight a 15-knot current. But it is not the best time to make ground in a float tube. So I threw out my line and started kicking down river. I worried about spooking the fish, so I kicked lightly. I started to feel really stupid at that point. Unfortunately that has never stopped me before, so I kept going.
After about an hour of perpetual exposure to jellyfish stings, I started going into toxic shock. My lips had gone numb, my hands were tingling, and my legs; let us just say that the jellyfish had started swimming up my shorts as I kicked. I was so engrossed in my own thoughts (how much the float tube had cost, how little I was getting paid to do this, how I would afford to eat this week since I had bought a float tube) that I never noticed the current picking up momentum.
Determined to get this first story, I ignored the fact that I had drifted for over an hour, without a bite.
At some point I decided enough was enough. I gave up and started kicking back up the river. It was like running on a treadmill. That is, if your treadmill was surrounded with jellyfish and you could not get off. I kicked as hard as I could for ten minutes and gained about a yard. The stupid feeling was back. I may have screamed.
It is private property up and down the banks of the river. There was no way to get out and walk. If I would have known the Sports Authority liberal return policy I might have popped the tube and just swam. Two hours later I had almost made it back to where I left my car. That is when I saw the police boat cruising with the spotlight, probably looking for some idiot in the river. If they had been there an hour earlier, I would have screamed for help. But at that point, I was too close to my car to just turn myself in and get fined, so I hid behind a dock until they left. I would have kissed the ground when I got on shore, but it was covered in goose droppings.
This is not an ad for Sports Authority, but they took the float tube back because I was an idiot and I was grateful. So grateful in fact that I bought a kayak with my store credit to continue my pursuit of weakfish. But that is another sad story for another time.
When you ask fishermen around the Raritan Bay about weakfish, they say "what weakfish?" No one needs to tell them that the fall run never came this year. With weakfish staying away from the traditional spots, such as Flynn's Knoll, Chapel Hill Channel, and…Read More
When you ask fishermen around the Raritan Bay about weakfish, they say "what weakfish?" No one needs to tell them that the fall run never came this year. With weakfish staying away from the traditional spots, such as Flynn's Knoll, Chapel Hill Channel, and the Navy Pier, anglers will need to turn to the rivers to chase this species.
Most weaks reach maturity at two years and spawn in backwaters and estuaries along the coast from May to October. They will migrate north in the spring, and then move southward again in the fall. Therefore, the weakfish population in New Jersey in any given year can depend on how hard the fish were hit to the south, in the Delaware and Chesapeake Bay areas.
According to Jim Uphoff, fisheries biologist for the state of MD, the catches in the Chesapeake this year have not been matching the stock assessments. "With rising fish stocks, catches will usually rise," says Uphoff. "Either people have stopped focusing on weakfish (which is unlikely) or some ecological phenomenon is effecting the catch rate."
Tom McCloy, Marine Fisheries Administrator for the NJ Department of Fish and Game says that it has been an atypical year for recreational weakfish. According to McCloy, catch rates are down coast wide. He attributes the spottiness of this year's run to variances in water temperature, an excess of freshwater in some areas, and other factors. "The traditional summer fishery was late this year in the Delaware Bay," says McCloy. "We would hope to start seeing them this fall when they head south again."
There are opportunities in the area for fishermen willing to take to the backwaters of the Shrewsbury and the Navesink Rivers this fall. Often times, access is limited to shore fishermen when it comes to rivers. A lot of the properties around the waterways are private, bridges can be difficult to fish from, and public accesses can be far from productive structure.
Unlike the stripers and juvenile blues that are cruising the backwaters this time of year, weakfish are easily spooked by boat traffic. It is best to get after these fish in the early mornings and evenings. If possible, anglers should try for these skittish fish during the week. While large boats can navigate the channels in the backwater, alternative fishing methods can be employed for a subtle approach and more success.
One way to get on top of the riverbed action is in a float tube. Because if its low profile and stealth, using a float tube can be effective in the slow moving backwater. The autumn water temperatures are as warm as they will be all year. You should start the drift upstream of the structure you want to fish. Also, have a location planned downstream for hauling out and walking back if the current is too strong to head back up the river. A mesh bag with a drawstring tied to the tube can serve as a creel. You will need both flippers and a life vest.
The drawback of the float tube is the lack of mobility. You can get closer to structure in the channels than shore fishermen, but covering a large stretch of water will take a lot of kicking. Also, some sort of wetsuit or other protective wear is recommended. This time of year the rivers are often full of jellyfish. They seem harmless, and probably wouldn't do much damage to the thicker skin on your hands. But imagine those tentacles wrapped around your thighs, catching in the soft patch of skin behind the knee. With the winds out of the northeast and Hurricane Isabel blowing these jellies into the backwater, you will need something to protect your vulnerable spots.
A kayak is a great way to get around in the rivers. You can put one on top of the car, launch from almost anywhere, and make great time to the fishing holes. Standard kayak paddles are fine if your vessel has a place to secure one while you fish. If not, a shorter paddle will be necessary, something you can fit inside the kayak. Landing larger fish can be tricky at first, but the weight of the kayak itself will help you tire them out.
You will notice more activity from the kayak. Being so close to the water is a far different experience from traditional fishing. Schools of peanut bunker swirl inches away from your paddle. You can hear the snappers popping the surface. Weakfish thrash in the grass to shake loose the grass shrimp. It is worth the experience in itself.
An effective rig for fishing these river bottoms is a floating jig head attached to a three-way swivel with 18 inches of 8lb. mono and a 1-2 ounce weight. Bait this rig with a sandworm, leaving plenty of tail to entice them. Drift this rig on the bottom, in the channel or on along its edges, where bait tends to stack up. Look for rips or irregular currents on the surface. These are good indications of structure below. If you pick up fish on the fish-finder, but can't seem to get any bites, switch to a lighter leader. Weakfish can be line-shy in clear water conditions.
Actively working the bait over structure will produce the most fish and keep you out of the snags. Lift the rod a few feet, and let it settle slowly. Keep your line tight, as weakfish like to hit baits on the way down. In addition to weakfish, you will pick up some bass. I picked up a number of school sized fish just south of the Rumson Bridge in Sea Bright.
Sometimes, sandworms can be hard to find. The stock in your local bait shop often comes from Maine, where they are dug. When the blueberry harvest is on, the same people who dig sandworms are busy picking berries. Also, storms such as Isabel can push the diggers off of the sites. Worms can also be expensive, running over five dollars a dozen. It's frustrating to lose your bait to the schools of snapper blues that roam the backwater this time of year. One solution is to keep your bait in the channel, where the smaller fish are less likely to be. In addition, white plastic grubs that have been soaked in shedder crab oil can be an effective, more durable alternative.
According to Joe Poulston of Jim's Bait Shop in Long Branch, the weakfish are more likely to bite within the hours before and after the tide change. "The current in the channel can get going to almost fifteen knots, and the fish like to hide behind structure," Poulston says. He suggests fishing the slack tide, when the fish will be able to stay in the current to feed. Also, at slack tide the presentation of the bait will be slower.
Even though the tiderunners didn't manage to make much of a showing this year, determined anglers can still manage to bag legal sized weaks for dinner by taking to the inshore waterways. And the stripers turning on in the rivers will keep things interesting. The rest of us can only hope that next spring, Cynoscion regalis will make a better showing.
The limit on blackfish will increase from one to eight on November 15, and no one is more eager for this to happen than blackfish expert and restaurant owner, Richard Wang. Wang has been fishing for blackfish since 1982, often supplementing his menu with his…Read More
The limit on blackfish will increase from one to eight on November 15, and no one is more eager for this to happen than blackfish expert and restaurant owner, Richard Wang. Wang has been fishing for blackfish since 1982, often supplementing his menu with his recreational catch. In the past, Wang had been able to charter boats year round, but with drastically fluctuating limits, the restaurateur has only been able to pursue his passion in the seasons allotted. He substitutes croakers, porgies, sea bass, and fluke for blackfish when the limit is down.
According to New Jersey marine fisheries biologist Peter Himchak, calculating bag limits is a difficult balancing act. The 14-inch size restriction allows the fish to reach a maximum reproductive capacity, while keeping the length low enough for anglers to be successful. In 1998, New Jersey and other states along the coast began managing blackfish, as the consensus from coast wide assessments reported that the stocks were down. At that time, New Jersey could have imposed a year-round, four fish limit, but pressure from charters and party boats pushed for higher bag limits as incentive to fish the fall season. Therefore, possession limits dropped to one fish throughout the summer to make up for the higher bag limits in the fall and winter. According to Himchak, the stocks have grown up as a result of the minimum length requirements, but numbers are still down. In order to make up the difference, the season was pushed back this year so high possession limits could be maintained.
The blackfish is a member of the wrasse family, found along the Atlantic coast from Nova Scotia to Georgia. The males are darker than the females, with dark gray to purple coloration. Females are a mottled tan with distinctively smaller heads. Typically, this species is found in rocky structure and around artificial reefs. According to Wang, blackfish in New Jersey only grow a quarter pound each year, which means that a 20-pound blackfish could be eighty years old. With this in mind, Wang throws back all fish over ten pounds. "I kiss them and then let them go," he says.
Blackfish are more territorial than most other game species and do not migrate throughout the year. The bite depends on water temperature and current. Anglers can fish a rock pile and catch a limit, and fish the same pile the next day and catch nothing. The perfect water temperature is 50 to 55 degrees. You can find smaller fish laying on top of each other in rocky crevices. Bigger fish (over 10 pounds) are solitary, hiding out alone in the deeper holes.
The prime fall bait for this species is green crab. Some local bait shops carry them year round, but most will start to stock the crabs as the blackfish season approaches. Green crabs can be rigged whole, hooked through the shell or the back legs. Also, crabs can be doctored to trigger more fish by crushing their shells, cutting them in half, removing the swimming fins or claws, or by peeling off their shells entirely. Green crabs can be kept alive in a refrigerator for up to two weeks. According to Wang, the key to keeping them lively is fresh wet newspaper and sand.
Blackfish won't hit a crab like a bluefish or a striper. They use their protractible mouths to pick up the bait. Detecting a hit can be difficult. Under ideal conditions, anglers should be able to feel the thick-bodied fish blocking the current before a hit. Also, big blackfish like to crush the crabs first with their chins, which often results in missed hits. Once hooked, blackfish tend to wrap the line around structure. Many anglers have found themselves stuck to the bottom, when moments earlier they had been fighting a fish. Once snagged, the best bet is to wait it out for the fish to free itself.
According to Captain Shawn Goode of Strike Zone charters in Highlands, the craggy bottom around Shrewsbury Rocks has consistently produced fish. He also fishes around Old Orchard Shoals Lighthouse. The water is 18 feet deep right next to the structure and can produce some big blackfish. Getting close to the lighthouse can be dangerous, so the key to fishing that area is boat control, keeping down current from the rocks. Another spot he recommends is Sandy Hook Reef, an artificial reef about a mile and a quarter off shore. It's mostly concrete rubble and there are three ships sunk there. Goode's choice for blackfish is Penn 940 reels and 6 1/2-foot rods with 20-pound test mono and a two-foot leader.
Joe Poulston of Jim's Bait Shop in Long Branch says that the Saint Alphonso jetty in Deal (off of Hathaway Ave.) is the best place to catch blackfish from shore. Anglers will need to cast as far as they can, straight out from the end of the jetty. The best bait from shore is a sand bug, Emerita talpoida. Dig for them at low tide with a garden trowel "Blackfish won't bite sand bugs from a boat," Poulston warns. "But from the jetty, they are a best bet."
This season, anglers lost a couple weeks of productive fishing. Hopefully this will pay off in the bigger fish recent stock assessments have promised. Only time will tell, as the season unfolds.