As we round the corner on 2018 into 2019, let’s start off by stating the regulations in place for Jersey saltwater anglers as of January 1st. Striped bass fishing is closed in the back bays until March 1st as is all winter flounder fishing. Blackfish season runs from January 1st to February 28th with a 4 fish limit at 15-inch minimum size, then closes on March 1st. Black sea bass season is closed. The bulk of January saltwater fishing will most probably gravitate around wrecks and reefs for bottomfishing, so know that cod has a 21-inch minimum size and no bag limit, Pollock with a 19-inch minimum size and no bag, ling has no bag or size limit and porgy fishing regs are set at a 50 fish bag and 9-inch minimum size. As well, don’t forget to register for the free Saltwater Registry program at http://www.nj.gov/dep/saltwaterregistry/ to be a legal saltwater angler in 2019. Phew! That’s the rundown on what you can legally target at the start of the year, so there’s more than enough ample options to get out on the salt and wet a line to put some fish in the cooler.
If last January was any indicator, blackfishing could really be on fire this month as tautog were chomping on green crabs and whiteleggers all month the previous year. Water temps in January can be as high as the low 50’s and as low as the low 40’s all depending on the weather patterns, which as I sit here writing this in November, I have no crystal ball to accurately predict. However, if the temps are on the higher side, tog should be hanging roughly in the 5 to 10 mile range in 65 to 80 feet of water at spots such as the Sea Girt Reef, Sandy Hook Reef, 17 Fathoms, Farms, Klondike. If water temps dip down, tog will move further offshore to find warmer water down near the sea floor, and that means working the 80 to 120 foot depths in spots at the Mud Hole or out at the Shark River Reef 15 miles offshore. Braided line on the reel is a must when targeting tog at deeper depths as the bite is quick, speedy and sharp and you need to have minimal stretch in the line to effectively feel the bite, then plant the hook into the maw of the blackfish. Historically, the largest of tautog seem to chew in January, and it’s advised to prepare with trophy type tackle to handle fish that can breach the 10-pound mark. Set up with a 7-foot medium to heavy power, moderate to fast action rod and match with a Shimano Torium 20 class reel. Utilize larger 5/0 Gamakatsu Octopus hooks on your rigs to effectively hide inside a whole white legger or green crab. Though blackfish will be the top game in town, don’t overlook the possibility of finding striped bass still hanging in the area as last year, the run lasted well into the month. Troll with shad bars or umbrella tube rigs or if you find the schools marking, drop down Hogy harness jigs or Tsunami sand eel lures letting them hit the bottom, then reeling up at a moderate pace.
It’s a good bet that blackfish will also be number one on the hit list in this area of coast. There’s been a new addition to the reef sites around here, in the form of the Manasquan Reef which now lays approximately a mile out of the Manasquan Inlet. The low lying rubble field will provide plenty of cover for tog to hang in around and about. Other tried and true proven sites include the Axel Carlson Reef and Garden State North and South reefs. Remnant schools of stripers will be patrolling the waters anywhere from Bay Head down through Island Beach State park and during January, a good bet is to run around and try to mark the bait or bass schools on the fishfinder before you drop metal jigs or rubber baits to jig them up. If you do mark fish, also try to drop back Mojo ball rigs and shad bars trolling in a figure 8 pattern in and around the schools to get a knockdown. While this may sound a little crazy, there’s always a chance that bluefin tuna will be hanging along the coast, and it all depends if we have the baitfish schools sticking in the local waters in the form of sand eels, herring, mackerel or bunker. In January’s past, 50 to 250-pound bluefin have come busting through the waters from right past the breaking waves out to 4 or 5 miles as they explode on bait schools. You can try and run and gun with them, casting heavy duty top-water poppers or butterfly jigs, or you can try and troll for them with blue and white Islander or Joe Shute skirts with rigged ballyhoo. Its always a crapshoot to get them to bite, but if you do, it will be well worth the effort.
I remember running offshore last January to some 30 to 40 mile wrecks, setting up on anchor on pinpointed little spots to pull on codfish in the 5 to 15 pound class, with the chance of cherrypicking one or two over the 20-pound mark. The key is to find out of the way wrecks that in most probability haven’t been fished in quite some time and to target those out of the way structures to find packs of cod. Best baits for cod include fresh clams as well as Berkley Gulp! 6-inch grubs. On those mid-shore wrecks you will also find scores of pollock cruising above which are eager to beeline straight for a hammered diamond jig reeled up at a quick pace. Offshore wreck fishing is truly a diamond in the rough when the snowy weather is upon us as the groundfish not only provide something fun to target in an arm-wrenching, rod bending fashion, but most offshore bottomfish are absolutely succulent in the frying pan. Be sure to bundle up big time and be prepared with some proper Grundens bibs to keep you dry and for protection from the winds, a pair of fleece lined Glacier Gloves, Xtra Tuf neoprene deck boots and a Grundens outer shell for upper body protection. As well, wrap up with the usual sock hat, polarized sunglasses, thermal underwear and double layers of wool socks to keep you dressed for comfort. Bottomfishing is a blast during the frigid winter months, but the payoff is well worth the choice to head into the briny when its freezing out!