The crazy Covid-19 springtime has undoubtedly shifted our lives number one, and in respect to this column, our fishing opportunities and ability to get out and enjoy the outdoors. All our thoughts and prayers go out to those who have lost people to the virus and in no way do we want to minimize that. That said, let’s continue with this column and hope we are past the tough days and can get back to some sense of normalcy.
The shutdown in the state of NJ affected the recreational fishing industry big time. As it stands now, tackle shops are allowed to do curbside pickup, though people are not allowed inside the stores. ALL charter and party boats are deemed “non essential” and therefore are out of business until restrictions are alleviated. That restriction has been a killer to local industry. The “catch” was that if you own a private boat, you could go fish so long as you had the boat in your slip and if in a marina, it was open, though it was mandated that you could only fish with family. Yeah, I know, sounds crazy as the whole decision making process has been with this. As I write this on May 4, I believe there’s a good chance that all of those restrictions will be lifted with party and charter boats and tackle shops, so its best to check the regs as soon as you read this. For June, the great news is that summer flounder season opened on May 22nd to September 19th and there should be plenty of flatfish on the bite to fill the cooler as it stands with an 18-inch minimum with only a 3 fish bag limit. Black sea bass season has also reopened on May 15 th and lasts until June 22nd with a 10 fish bag limit at 12.5-inch minimum size.
Simply fantastic striper fishing was blowing up inside R-Bay in April and May. Bass started off in April way back where the Raritan River spills into the bay, off the shores of South Amboy, Cliffwood Beach and Keyport. Stripers were hanging in 20 to 25 feet of water and pounced all over jigged offerings such as Kroc spoons, RonZ rubbers, Storm Shads and Kettle Creek rubber baits. Average bass were in the 6 to 20-pound range, but some real beauties pushing 30 to 40 pounds also hit the jigs. As April transitioned into May, trolled Mojos and bunker spoons started getting whacked with more ferocity, though large wooden swimmers lazily glided on the surface also garnered attention. As of early May, there were only very scattered reports of bluefish in the bay, and they were only reported by a few surfcasters chunking for bass. Who knows if they will have shown by June, but we can hope. For blues, find the bunker schools and you’ll find the blues. Or you can toss random poppers along the channel edges and spark up a strike. Fluke fishing will probably be the main focus of the bay in June, with shallower spots off of the Ammo Pier, Keyport flats, Coast Guard station and outside of the Highlands Bridge for solid early month action.
Oh boy, this one may be tough as there have been virtually zero reports from here in March, April and May. I can however tell you what SHOULD be happening. On the fluke scene, I would focus on the river systems in the Shrewsbury and Navesink outflow where flatties will be stacked up and ready to exit into the R-Bay before they head out into the Atlantic. Oceanside, you can basically pick to set a drift anywhere in 30 to 50 foot of water off of Long Branch, Elberon, Deal, Spring Lake or the Highlands to find fluke as they set up in the nearshore waters warming up with the sunny days and warmer currents moving in. The usual fluke baits apply, though I would lean more towards using fresh baits like spearing, squid or sand eels, and to douse all baits with scent additives like FinEssence Oil as early season fluke are keying in more on smell than they are aggressive on the ambush. I heard from a bunch of toggers in April that a whole mess of black sea bass were already colonizing the shipwrecks from 3 to 8 miles off, so that fishery could very well be firing this month. Remember, you only have until June 22 to fish for them, so I would be on a steady push to get after ‘em. Set up with three dropper hi-lo rigs set with 3/0 to 4/0 Mustad Baitholder hooks and be sure to thread on red or green beads above the shank of each hook as they are wild attractants for sea biscuits. Bait the hook with a freshly cut squid strip, piece of clam tongue or a 3-inch Berkley Gulp! Swimmin Minnow. Sea bass love the curly tail grubs so be sure to fix each hook with one even before you stick on some bait.
I heard of scores of fluke inside the Manasquan River and Barnegat Bay from anglers fishing for blues and bass during early May, and that means the bite should be rock solid in June, especially throughout the backwaters. With a very cool spring, water temps were still around 49 degrees in early May and that may just mean the fluke will stay in the back bays for a few weeks longer than usual. That would be good news for spots like Oyster Creek Channel and Double Creek Channel inside Barnegat Bay, or by the 70 bridge, and 35 bridge stretch in the Squan River. Fresh baits on small bucktails drifted and bounced on outgoing tides will offer the best shots at hanging fluke. Blowfish had already been in the Barnegat Bay since May and should be ready and willing to nip away at any clam or squid baits you have throughout the month. If fishing via boat, or for that matter, even dockside bulkhead, send down a wire chum pot filled with ground frozen mussel or clams to draw them in and get the bite going. Bluefish packs could be popping up anywhere in the backwaters with hot spots at the Point Canal outflows, Squan River and on channel edges inside Barnegat Inlet. Outside, fluke will of course be hanging at the sea Girt and Axel Carlson reefs, but be prepared with sea bass gear as well since both species will be inhabiting the wrecky structure. If you want a final shot at winter flounder, set up your slick on the east side of the Squan River train bridge, right off Dog Island, where flatties are stacked and staged to make their move out through the inlet.
Historically, shark fishing for makos and threshers would take top billing for offshore activity, but recent stock assessments have convinced most shark tournaments to change their format over to targeting tuna instead to protect sharks and keep the pressure off of them until a sustainable rebuilding stock is achieved. That said, let’s talk tuna! Bluefin have been running rampant for the past 6 years as BFT schools have invaded Jersey waters from 3 to 60 miles offshore each May and June and stick around through the summer months. Best shots are at spots like the Chicken Canyon, Triple Wrecks, Atlantic Princess, Texas Tower and the Slough, and a wide variety of trolled lures will get them during the early part of June including Chatter Lures sidetrackers in black/purple or Zucchhini color patterns, Joe Shutes or Ilanders rigged with Ballyhoo, Cedar Plugs and pulled medium sized Williamson Tuna Catcher jets. Get a gameplan before you leave dock, find the right temp break and have 2 to 3 backup spots within a 15 mile radius to hit if your “lucky spot” doesn’t produce.
Let’s hope the COVID days are mostly behind us by the time you read this. Stay smart, stay safe and stay healthy!