Well, Jersey certainly has an interesting situation regarding the summer flounder season. As it stands of this writing in early April, the regulations remain the same as last year, with a season spanning from May 21 to September 25, and a 5 fish bag limit at 18-inch minimum size. Now, that could all change tomorrow, or by the time you read this as politics are at play and it may change to a 3 fish limit at 19 inches, or it could very well shut completely down by July. Stay tuned for developments by next issue. Meantime, blackfish season is closed once again, but stripers, blues, winter flounder, and weakfish will easily fill that void. It’s time for the official kickoff to summer, with Memorial Day signaling in fun in the sun for the next four months. Get out and enjoy the saltwater, because there’s plenty to do.
Large schools of adult bunker were finning around the
back coves of Raritan Bay all throughout April, but the water temps were in the high 40’s which weren’t high enough to get the bass in the area to chase them down and feed. That’s all about to change this month as migratory pig bass of 20 to 40 pounds will infiltrate R-Bay and snack on the bunks. In recent years, the mouth of the bay at Reach Channel, Flynn’s Knoll and Swash Channel have all been spots where stripers congregate to feed on the bunker schools, as snag-n-drop tactics and topwater poppers have claimed fish. If fishing with bunker isn’t your gig, you can always opt to clam up some bass, setting a slick off of Cliffwood or Pebble beaches, or even in the Knoll as well, where stripers will eagerly gobble up an easy meal. Many times, clamming, as well as eel fishing, will work better at night time when bass are on a scent feed, especially in the Knoll and the Reach areas. As you read this, there has got to be a bluefish invasion going on right now somewhere in the bay. Head on out with your least expensive, most battered poppers and metals which you don’t mind losing and cast to the breaking schools as they terrorize bunker schools. Blues can be anywhere in the bay, as far back as Keyport to the Keansburg Pier to the Coast Guard station. Or if you really have a hankering to tangle with blues, simply drag some Stretch plugs behind the boat as you troll aimlessly through the bay waters. You’ll be jumping out of your seat with action.
Winter flounder fishing in the Shark River was a true highlight of April as the blackbacks finally opened up their mouths as the waters warmed up into the 50’s. Guys were fishing the L-Street pier as well as the Tennis Courts docks to cast bloodworms for pretty easy two fish limits. May is a good time to load up the boat with as many anglers as you can to be able to keep more flounder for the day. Those fish will be ready to nip on bloodworm, sandworm and clam baits, and may be pushing more out toward the inlet area as the month progresses. Jetty country in Asbury Park, Deal, Spring Lake and Elberon will be the epicenter of striped bass fishing as jetty jumpers will be chucking 3-ounce topwater poppers out to blitzing bass schools and boat anglers will be tucking in tight to the jetty tips to toss live bunker close to the rocks. Morning hours are best to find feeding bass off the jetty tips, and if your live bunker doesn’t get hit after a good 10 minute soak, head to the next jetty tip to see if anyone is home there. Those trolling will find plenty of life up off the Highlands Bridge and in the area of the Shrewsbury Rock. Work the 35 to 65 foot depths with chartreuse or white shad spreader bars, Stretch 25 plugs and Tony Maja bunker spoons, skirting around the green can and back inshore to see if packs of bass are hanging on the submarine glacial rock. Interestingly, bottom fishermen may have a shot at finding some red hake at spots like the Farms, 17 Fathoms and Cholera Bank, with a smattering of cod on those rock piles as well. Fluke anglers are best served to start in shallow in the 20 to 35 foot depths outside of Shark River Inlet and off Sandy Hook. Work the waters with rigs containing lots of flash with all the bells and whistles to get those slow moving flatfish to strike. Also, be sure to use the freshest of bait you can get your hands on which at this time of year is mackerel or bluefish strips, as early season fluke are sluggish to commit to the hook and you will need to be patient for the take. Once waters get up into the 60’s, fluke will then be on their usual aggressive mindset.
Summer flounder poundin’ is pretty much all about the back bays and rivers at the start of the season, and anywhere in the Manasquan River, Barnegat Bay and Great Bay will be stacked with early season flatfish. Popular Barnegat Bay hot spots include the ICW waterway within Oyster Creek Channel, and the old defunct Double Creek channel real estate, though you have to be careful not to run aground in the shoally waters there. If you can even find a way to tuck back behind LBI by the dike, many fluke are sunning themselves along those shallow 4 to 6 foot flats there, some of which can hit the 8-pound mark. The ICW and surrounding flatwaters are best plied with light 3/8 to ½-ounce white or white/chartreuse roundhead bucktails, tipped with the freshest bait strips available from mackerel or blues. 3-inch Berkley Gulp and Swimmin’ Minnows will also fill the bill if you can’t get fresh bait strips. In the Manasquan River, work the ICW channel back by the mouth of the canal and drift the strip to the Route 35 drawbridge, stitching drifts between channel edges to see where the packs of flatties are holing up. Moving onto bluefish, it’s anybody’s guess if they will move into Barnegat Bay and the Manasquan Inlet area in those incredible numbers and sizes as last year, but you had better be prepared for battle. Utilize heavy action 7-foot spinning rods rated for 30 to 50-pound and Penn 5500 reels or equivalent. Cast topwater poppers, metals and plugs with the treble hooks removed and switched with single hooks. Cast poppers and plugs in the backwaters around the Route 37 bridge, Toms River, 40 Marker and BI buoys in Barnegat Bay, and use metal lures like Ava 17 lures with green tails inside Manasquan Inlet as the metals will sink to the depth where blues are feeding and are better able to handle the running tides. Striper hounds will run the regular course of finding bunker schools anywhere from Bay Head down through IBSP to snag and drop live bunker to feeding bass. Also, don’t be afraid to work the Barnegat Inlet, drifting live bunker or chunks of bunker on fishfinder slide rigs and size 8/0 Octopus Circle hooks.
Cod fishing should be running strong by May, as they come in as close to 15 miles, but will be more prevalent on the wrecks that lie 20 to 50 miles offshore. Last May, the waters warmed up quickly and we had numerous cod biting at the Shark River Reef, with most in the 5 to 8-pound bracket, but a few steakers up to 30 pounds that milled around on the north side of the reef. 30 mile wrecks also held plenty of big cod in the 10 to 20-pound class, and all the fish were taken on fresh clam baits instead of jigs as spring cod are still coming out of their sluggish cold water strike mentality. The first reports of pelagic sharks should also be popping up as blue sharks and threshers will come first, followed by makos, browns and duskies. Look for the latter part of the month to see the first real waves of sharks to make their presence known. Grab plenty of bunker or mackerel chum and set up along the 20 to 30 fathom lines to intercept the predators as they move northward.