It seemed like Ol’ Man Winter was on a vacation this year as we had one of the mildest winters in recent history. Warm winters usually translate to an early jump start to fishing on all fronts. The main focus in April will be quite a few species actually, as striped bass begin to migrate northward along the coast, winter flounder are in the middle process of unearthing themselves from the mud to feed, waves of big chopper blues should be moving through the bays and blackfish season once again reopens on April 1st to April 30th with a four fish limit at a 15-inch minimum size. Don’t forget, any saltwater angler fishing in New Jersey must register at www.saltwaterregistry.nj.gov to be official.
Seems like every year now, larger stripers are moving into Raritan Bay earlier and earlier. Last year, there were 20 to 30-pound fish being caught at the end of April and early May. As of press time, there was already a large presence of adult bunker in the R-Bay, with gannets diving on them and all. They were stacked up in the shallows by Pebble Beach, Union Beach and Cliffwood Beach where the bulk of the early season striper activity should be localizing, especially for surfcasters. Boat anglers will be better served to work up in the outflows and flats of Morgan Creek and Keyport Harbor flats. There’s always a chance the big bay could rebound and become a serious winter flounder haven again as it was in the past, so its worth a shot to grind up the chum and get on a slick back on the flats. Bait up with mussels, clams sandworms and bloodworms on size 6 Chestertown hooks and see what’s down there. A big bonus this year could come in the form of chopper blues as the past three years big blue dogs of 6 to 15 pounds have been running through the bay waters in late April. Given that bunker schools are already around, this could mean some serious rod-bending activity early in the year. Bring plenty of old topwater poppers to toss in the bay, as well as rigging up for using chunk baits on the bottom.
Shark River holds the cards during April, in that it’s basically the epicenter of spring winter flounder fishing. Easily accessible hot spots include the concrete pier, the L-street dock and the Tennis Courts in Belmar, but boaters can work the channel edges of the ICW, bouncing worm baits through their chum slick to see who’s home. March was on fire for the flounder bite and April should be even more productive as the waters warm up into the 50’s. Flounder poundin will also be pretty steady in the Navesink and Shrewsbury Rivers, where spots like McClee’s will hold some flatties in the deep holes that comprise the area. As blackfish begin to migrate back inshore, be sure to toss some clams or fiddler crabs off the Shark River T-Jetty rocks on the north side. Plenty of tog hangout there in the springtime, and you may actually happen into a lone codfish or two as a few have been tricked up there in recent years. We may just see the bluefish move up into our waters early this year and gators could be patrolling the 20 to 40 foot depths off of Long Branch, Highlands and Spring Lake. Try trolling Stretch plugs or tube umbrella rigs (not shads unless you want to waste shad bodies). The first wave of big bass could very well also take up residence off the coast. Drop back bunker spoons and shad bar rigs and troll at a 3 knot pace, trolling around the Shrewsbury Rocks and any humps or ledges that dip from 1 to 5 feet off of Elberon, Manasquan and Asbury Park.
Winter flounder fishing should be explosive in the Barnegat Bay area during April as the water temps in early March were already at a balmy 50 degrees! That means perennial hot spots like the Oyster Creek Outflow, Island Heights docks, Seaside Park docks, the Route 37 bridge and the area between the BB and BI Buoys could all be all systems go. Bring plenty of chum and focus on the bright sunny days on the outgoing tides to get a bite going. Later in the month, look for the upper Barnegat Bay and Silver Bay to be the hot spot as flounder start heading toward the inlet. Spots like Dale’s Point, the Point Pleasant Canal outflows, and the Manasquan River will be firing through early May. If the pattern repeats, we could also be in for one heck of a bluefish run in Barnegat Bay again. Alligator blues of 10 to 18 pounds, fat and well fed, have been running every April the past few years and they are aggressive going after poppers, plugs, metals – anything you throw at them. You can follow the schools by watching the bird play chasing down the bait as it gets pushed to the surface with blues boiling underneath. Anywhere from the 40 marker to behind LBI to the Route 37 bridge and inside the Toms River have all been hot spots to find the blues. Schoolie stripers should be running full steam by now, as Graveling Point inside Great Bay was smokin’ hot in March and should continue on dishing up plenty of bass this month. Sandworms, bloodworms and clams are all top baits to toss for those scrappy linesiders that range from 18 to 26 inches. The first keeper stripers should also be making their way into our waters, patrolling the coast off Barnegat, Mantoloking, Lavallette and Bay Head. Look to troll Stretch plugs or if bunker schools are present, begin the “snag-n-drop” routine.
Last April, I was knee deep in cod on a few different trips. We started out by hitting the 30 to 40 mile wrecks to start in the 150 to 200 foot depths, and found some fish out there, but the bulk of the action last year was further inshore at the 15 to 20 mile wreck areas, especially at Shark River Reef where we boxed dozens of cod for the boat each time out. Most fish are in the 5 to 15-pound class, with a few whales up to 30 pounds on every other trip. Look to drop fresh clam baits on a three-hook dropper, and fix your hooks with large 5-inch red or orange curly tail grubs. Flo green and purple are also commonly used colors for cod. Catches are spiced up with some pollock, ling and blackfish as well. If you want to target big tog on those far reaching wrecks, be sure to bring some white legger crabs as they will attract both tog and cod. Though recent winters have been poor fishing for ling, the chew has seemingly moved to the spring months now and it’s a good bet to hit the Mud Hole wrecks in the 12 to 20 mile range of 120 to 200 feet of water. Drop down two bottom hooks resting on the seafloor and bait up with Berkley Gulp! 3-inch Swimmin’ Mullets in white or chartreuse, small 1-inch bits of clam and/or 3 to 4 inch bergall strips. Wait for the telltale raps of the ling and set the hook to bail ‘em into the boat.
I truly believe we are going to have one heck of a productive spring saltwater season in Jersey. Get out and test the waters. Don’t be late to the party!