The official kickoff to the summer season! Without a doubt, May brings with it not only true promise to score the first saltwater fish of the year much like April but to get in deep and tangle with some of the best fishing of the year. Two fisheries really highlight the month – the reopening of the summer flounder season and the pinnacle of the spring striper run. Filling in the blanks are a bunch of other pursuits such as back bay bluefishing, winter flounder poundin, wreck fishing and even a shot at some weakfish. Basically, everything in the ocean is on tap to catch. Black sea bass season reopens on May 15th with a 10 fish bag limit at a 12.5 inch minimum size limit. We’ve just started the annual summer season with Memorial Day weekend upon us. There’s no better way to celebrate than firing up the engines, buying all the bait, and heading to the beach to enjoy the spoils of saltwater fishing!
March and April showed scores of schoolie stripers inside the bay, with legions of anglers catching well into the double digits in the early season in spots like Keansburg, Keyport and Morgan Creek where the waters were shallow and the bite was hot. As we enter May, bass should be everywhere and anywhere inside the bay as they migrate up and down from the Hudson River spawning grounds. Last year, the hot spot was between the channels by the 9 and 10 buoys as well as off the Ammo Pier. The hot new way to troll is with Mojo ball rigs which have evolved considerably with bullet shaped heads and more trailer options. Go with a pair of 24 ounce and 16 ounce rigs in white or chartreuse and drag them off the flat line gunwales while simultaneously pulling shad bar rigs on the side gunwales. Of course, you can always search out the bunker schools and either snag-n-drop or chunk fresh bunker back to waiting bass, but be on the lookout for chopper blues as they should be infiltrating the bay waters en masse by May. Blue dogs can be caught on the chunk but they are far more fun when tempting them up with surface poppers to see them blitzkrieg and blow em up. Opening day fluke hounds are looking to focus on the shallower areas of the bay, especially off the Ammo Pier, the Coast Guard Station and back by the Highlands Bridge.
Various rocky structures along the northern coast attract striped bass with frequency during the spring run. The Elberon Rocks, Long Branch rockpiles, Shrewsbury Rocks, Klondike and Rattlesnake areas offer submarine hangouts for migrating bass to feed and stage an ambush, while the rock jetties off of Spring Lake, Asbury Park and Deal hold bass tight to the beach. Spring run stripers hold to the area due to the presence of mossbunker schools and in most cases, if you find the bunker, you will find the bass. Topwater poppers, snag-n-drop tactics, and trolling shad bars and bunker spoons are top techniques to land linesiders of 20 to 50 pounds. There’s still a good shot at cleaning up on winter flounder inside of Shark River, the Navesink and Shrewsbury Rivers. Set up with two clam chum logs out on each side of the boat and work the outgoing tides with clam, sandworm and bloodworm baits to trick up any remaining flounder in the area. The other flatfish, aka summer flounder, will no doubt be headlining the target species for most anglers. Fluke at this time are exiting the back rivers and bays and setting up into the nearshore ocean habitats now, stacking up on ledge, edges and humps that sit in the 30 to 50 foot depths. All you really have to do is find a change in depth that can range from 1 or 2 foot or even better 5 to 6 foot, as fluke will hang on the downtide side of the ledge to suck down any baitfish or forage that flies by with the current. Early season fluke are more keying in on scent than action and anglers using fresh baits such as bluefish, mackerel or sea robin strips are bound to tally up more fish than others. Drift on a bucktail hair, three-way swivel rig and tip the hook with one long thin strip of bait, topping it off with a fresh spearing or sand eel. The Long Branch lumps, Sandy Hook Reef and Klondike are all prominent fluke spots with various changes in depth.the warm sun rays of the shallows.
Fluke til ya puke, that’s the early season motto, especially in the Manasquan River where flatties are stacked from the inlet to the drawbridge to the canal north outflow. ICW channels will be prime hunting grounds as depths slide off from 5 to 18 foot in the Squan River. Both incoming and outgoing tides should produce, but when the waters hit the 65 degree mark and greater on the outgoing is when the bite usually fires off in late May. Small light 3/8 to ½-ounce bucktails will work magic in the shallower waters. Bounce them with a strip of fresh bluefish or mackerel, or if you can’t obtain any, lance on a 3 to 4-inch Berkley Gulp! Swimmin Minnow in white or chartreuse. Barnegat Bay’s Oyster Creek channel will also be the main focus for flukesters, as well as potholes and cuts between the BB and BI Buoy markers. There’s always a slight chance you might happen into some weakfish in Barnegat Bay. Try tossing Pink 5-3/4 inch Fin-S fish in the predawn hours outside of Oyster Creek as tiderunners of 6 to 10 pounds could be hiding in the shadows. Big time bluefishing is expected inside the Barnegat Bay, Silver Bay and Squan River. Keep your eyes peeled for bombastic explosions of blues breaking the water surface as they destroy bait schools. Visual confirmation of blitzing schools is easy enough, but be prepared with poppers and metals to toss at the blues, and always, always, switch out any treble hooks with single hooks lest you have a good shot at having that frantic blue twist and turn the treble hook into your hands. Believe me, it happens more than not.
The first signs of bluefin tuna usually appear near the end of the month as perennial hot spots such as the Chicken Canyon, Monster Ledge and Texas Tower attract BFT of 30 to 200 pounds and all sizes in between. Break out the blue/white Islander and Joe Shute lures, Sidetracker spreader bars, cedar plugs and even Orca poppers if you happen upon breaking schools of bluefin. Mako and thresher sharks should also begin to show along the 20 and 30 fathom lines, all depending on the water temps reaching the 64 degree mark and higher. Bottom brawlers can have a ball targeting the 30 to 50 mile wrecks in attempt to clam up some steaker cod, while hardcore bottom pounders will look for the 300 to 400 foot depths on the canyon shelf to search out golden tilefish.
CATCH AND RELEASE STRIPERS
One major point I’d like to note during the spring striper run and that is the importance of practicing of catch and release of all big bass. Science has come in that striper stocks are on the decline from relentless pressure by both the commercial and recreational sectors. When bass fishing with bait, always use circle hooks. When boating a bass, either unhook it at boat side or net it then quickly unhook and release it back within a minute or less. Any pictures posing with the fish should be taken immediately and while holding the fish horizontally supporting its belly. And though not mandatory, I generally recommend releasing any fish over 36 inches, and keeping only one fish for the dinner table. Do your best to protect the stripers, lest we have none left to pursue.
Enjoy the start of summer, it’s been a long time coming!