With such a mild winter (well at least as of early February), you can bet that the spring fishing season will hit us early as water temperatures had barely fallen below 43 degrees in many back bay and ocean areas. Oh yes, March may bring us early madness on all fishing fronts, especially in the backwaters as the striped bass season reopens on March 1st. As of now, striper regs still call for a two fish limit, one between 28 and 43 inches and one over 43 inches. Winter flounder that have stuck it out in the back should really be warming up with sunny days and get right on the chew. A two fish bag and 12-inch minimum size still applies for the flatties. No doubt, March is a month of awakening. Look for fishing to be up and running immediately as the calendar turns.
Every year, and usually in March, word of the first shore and boat caught stripers from Raritan Bay comes trickling into tackle shops. As the Shrewsbury and Navesink river systems held resident bass through the winter, warming water temps spark them to filter out of the rivers and set up on the flats of Raritan Bay in such areas like Cliffwood Beach, Pebble Beach, Keansburg and Port Monmouth. Boat anglers who are ahead of the game with vessels already in their slips, will motor on out to the general flat areas and set up anchor in 6 to 12 feet of water, dropping down two chum pots filled with clams to draw stripers to the feed. Small 3/0 Baitholder hooks can me lanced with sandworms, bloodworms and clam bits to target shorty bass in the 23 to 27-inch range, with a few straggler keepers of 28 to 32-inches. Now here’s something to think about. I’ve mentioned it in previous columns, but there used to be a red hot winter flounder fishery in Raritan Bay, especially in the early spring when flatties would stack up at spots like Morgan Creek, Keyport and Romer Shoal. Though the past decade or so has been unproductive to say the least, I did hear that last year flounder were hanging around in R-Bay, which means this spring, any hardcore anglers putting in time to target them could very well be surprised with a torrid bite. Its always worth a shot. Bring some heavy clam chum to soak and attract fish to the baits, set up in shallows of 5 to 10 feet and work the pots heavy, spilling out chum frequently. Bits of sandworms, bloodworms or clams will get bitten. Move around if you get blanked after an hour or so and try to find where the packs may be hanging. If you do find them, call me!
I’m going to put it out there first for reports. Ling, there I said it. The ling fishing this winter has been lights out legendary, reminiscent of a decade ago as full coolers were the norm with high hooks in the 40 to 60 fish range per angler. There were days this January where I saw people simply stop fishing as they had enough ling to fill up the fridge for months. Mud Hole wrecks such as the Arundo and Oil Wreck produced big time, but the mass of fish all seemed to stick around the rock rubble areas at the Farms and 17 Fathoms off of the Highlands. A trick to keep in your backpocket is in substitution of fresh clam baits, try out Fishbites, breaking off 1-inch strips and lancing them on the hook. The Fishbites will stay on the hook for 20 plus fish before being needed to rebait. Shark River flounder pounders should see an immediate impact as unusually warm winter temps may just have the blackbaks snappin’ on opening day. Shore bound anglers fishing off the Tennis Courts and L-Street pier can fan cast to find gangs of flounder, while boaters can easily anchor off along the channel on the mussel bed flats to gain greater access to potential flounder packs. Bright, sunny days will offer up better action, and try to hit the start of the outgoing tides as waters will be warmest on the outflow as back bays soak in the sun’s rays quicker than in the deeper ocean waters. Its also always a good bet to try flounder fishing in the Shrewsbury and Navesink river systems as historically they were top producing avenues for flounder, but as mentioned before, not many people attempt the fishery anymore. You could very well be pleasantly surprised.
Early season stripers have become a staple fishery in recent years along the backwaters of central Jersey. Through the winter, resident bass have been sticking to the Toms River, Route 37 Bridge, Cedar Creek and surrounding creek systems and the striper fishing should be hot and heavy throughout the month. The key is knowing how to fish effectively. Use lighter 7 to 8 foot rods with 20-pound braided line and a hi-lo pill float rig, usually termed a kingfish rig, with size #2 hooks baited with bloodworm or sandworm bits. Prime times to intercept schoolie bass are right at sunup, then at last light into the darkness. Last March, there was even an artificial bite going on as bass up to 29 inches were pouncing on 3-inch white Storm and Tsunami shads cast out at sunrise. Mixed in with the bass could be the first wave of bluefish, especially near the end of the month. Besides bass, winter flounder will also be on the hit list, with a major focus on the grounds in upper Barnegat Bay on the south side of the canal, the south side of the Mantoloking Bridge and inside Barnegat Bay between the BB and BI Buoys outside of Oyster Creek. Chum heavy and chum often to get any stubborn flounder to feed with a little aggression.
Cod fishing wasn’t bananas, but there were enough being caught on the 10 to 15-mile area wreck trips for ling last month that makes me think a mild winter combined with a fairly strong showing on the inshore wrecks could spell solid fishing off shore at the 25 to 50-mile wrecks. I would target oft overlooked wrecks like the Cow, Winnecone, Triple Wrecks as well as more commonplace spots like the Texas Tower and Resor Wreck. Bring plenty of fresh shucked clams for baits as well as shelled clams to drop down and get a chum slick going. Pollock should also be spiced in along the wrecks, though you’re better off dropping jigs or curly grub tails and reeling them up the water column to elicit a jarring strike from a nearby pollock. If mackerel is your thing, be on the lookout for large red blobs on the fishfinder screen as macks had been making a comeback appearance in the previous two springs and could very well be caught offshore while wreck fishing. A simple Christmas Tree type of rig can dial you into multiple catches at once.
All signs point to an explosive jump start to spring fishing. You should have already fixed, cleaned and organized all your rods, reels and lures in effort to be prepared and ready to rumble starting March 1st. Enjoy the early season action, its about time we get back to the business of fishing!