January kicks off the boat show season timeframe of the year, but that doesn’t mean saltwater fishing is nonexistent. Quite the contrary, options abound in the salt this month. To start off, stripers can still be targeted in ocean waters, though the backwaters and bays are closed until March 1st, ocean fishing is wide open for bass. Blackfishing should really be hitting its stride this month, as should cod and pollock fishing on the shipwrecks. It’s always a good time to re-register for the free and mandatory Saltwater Registry program at http://www.nj.gov/dep/saltwaterregistry/ to be a legal saltwater angler in 2020. There are a ton of boat and outdoor expos this month and next, namely the NY Boat show and the Garden State Expo, giving you the perfect opportunity to hit the show circuit to replenish all your gear for the upcoming fishing season. Let’s get started with your targets this month.
Striper fishing came in surges during late November as waves of fish, quality fish in the 30 to 40-pound bracket, would push in and be caught for a day or two, and then push back out. Those schools could very well be moving through the coastline in January as they had been in recent years. Look for schools to be hanging off of Long Branch, Deal, Asbury Park, Spring Lake and the Highlands. Trolling had been working well, especially with Mojo rigs and Maja bunker spoons, but generally, in January, jigging works best as the main forage around is usually sand eels. Hogy Pro Tails, Tsunami Sand eels, Ava 27 jigs, Deadly Dicks and even paddletails from Storm or Tsunami will hang bass. Patrol around the coastline and look to mark schools of fish, pulling the engines out of gear and dropping jigs down. Hits can come anywhere in the water column, so prospect the whole area to see what depth they are feeding at. Down to blackfishing, depending on water temps, tog could be inshore or a bit further off. If temps are still in the low 50’s, then spots like the Sea Girt Reef, 17 Fathoms and the Farms could be holding plenty of tautog, mainly in depths of 75 to 100 feet of water. If inshore temps dip into the 40’s then blackfish will push further to the 100 to 150 foot depths near the Shark River Reef and other wrecks in the 5 to 20 mile range. Historically, there used to be a lights out ling fishery during the winter months, and who knows if it will bounce back this year but if it does, head out to the Mud Hole wrecks and rockpiles such as the Arundo, Oil Wreck, Farms, and the Lillian to drop fresh clams and Gulp! baits along the seafloor. Ling can range from a half pound up to 5 pounds or so on any given day and generally when you catch one fish you’ll catch 25 or more. Loaded coolers are usually the norm when ling are snappin’.
For blackfish, I have been having a lot of luck on the Axel Carlson Reef in late December and early January. Barges and low lying wrecks in 70 to 80 feet of water were hot. Though the regular one hook dropper rig will work for tog, try using tog jigs to trick up fish if the bite seems to be picky. The jigs lay flat on the seafloor and as the hook is directly attached to the leadhead, the bite is immediately transmitted to the rod tip for a quick hookset. Tip a 1 to 2-once jig, (try color combos like chartreuse, white/brown, orange, etc.) with a half green crabs, lancing the hook through the fourth leg socket and out the second socket to insure the bait stays on the hook. Drop the jig down and let it sit on the bottom. You will feel a scratch or two then a punch when the tog inhales the crab. Set the hook and hoist the fish out of any structure before he gets you snagged. Other tog hot spots will be the Garden State reefs, Klondike and the Manasquan reef. Striper fishing alongshore should still be productive as shorty bass were sticking tight to the shoreline last January and were able to be hooked on sand eel imitations again such as Tsunami sand eels and Ava jigs with a 2/0 bucktail teaser tied in front. Generally, this time of year there may also be sea herring or hickory shad in the waters, which can be some fun on light tackle and fly rods. More importantly, if the herring or shad are around, they could also usher in a shot at larger stripers to the area. Always have larger 2 to 3-ounce poppers on board to toss at breaking schools of bass, which generally surface feed during times of strong northwest winds alongshore.
It’s time to chase ghosts. Every start of the new year, anyone who still has their boat in the water will tell you they see bluefin tuna vaulting out of the water, sometimes within spitting distance of the beach. Generally, bluefin can be running through the waters anywhere from a mile off to 20 miles offshore, inhaling rainfish, herring or sand eel schools. The real key is to trick them into a bite, which can be ultra-frustrating watching BFT bomb out of the water and not hit anything you throw at them. Bring every possible size and shape of lure from Hogy Epoxy jigs to Hammered Diamond jigs to big stickbaits and poppers to toss at the schools. Though they may be feeding on 1-inch baits, sometimes a wildly dragged 8-inch popper or stickbait will trick them into an aggression strike. Likewise, you may need to scale down your leader and lure size to mimic sand eel or rainfish profiles. Bottom fishing can also be a worthwhile endeavor in January as cod, pollock and purple hake ranging anywhere from 5 to 40 pounds could be hanging around any of the wrecks that lay in the 20 to 50-mile range. Some perennial winter hot spots include the Cow Wreck, Resor Wreck, Corvallus, Winnecone and the Texas Tower. Simple fresh whole clam baits dropped down on size 6/0 baitholder hooks around and upon the structure piles should get bit by all species. It’s most definitely worth scheduling out a trip at least once to see if the bottom brawlers are on the bite.
We’ve got a few months of blustery, snowy weather to get through before the spring thaw. Don’t miss the boat and overlook the proper fishing that occurs during January. Set out with the right game plan and maximize your fishing time and success this month. Plus, it beats sitting on the couch!