I don't think there is any saltwater fly fisher along the East Coast that will argue that the fall is the time to hit New Jersey waters for some trophy fish. Reel screeching albies and big burly bass traditional draw the longrodder from around the tri-state area to test every bit of pretzel that a ten or eleven weight rod is designed to have. In fact, many will carefully plan vacations around these opportunistic times waiting an entire year to visit our pristine beaches or rock jetties for their one shot at glory. But how many of these same anglers know that the springtime offers the same opportunity at trophy fish in the very same New Jersey waters. Bass, blues, and weakfish offer the springtime longrodder a real shot at some of the first trophy fish of the new season. Your window of opportunity is short however so you don't want to miss out on the peak time. You will need to know something about the behavior of these fish in order to be in the right place at the right time.
Our relatively warm winter this past season has kept ocean temperatures in the low forty degree ranges. These warmer than normal temperatures have kept bass in our area all winter long. The majority of the fish that were caught were short or slot fish but the bigger trophies were not that far away, many as close as the waters off of the Chesapeake. Here ocean temperatures remained in the low fifties through the winter season.
Without a bay ice up this winter our New Jersey home waters have already begun to warm into the low fifty-degree ranges. These warmer water temperatures are the locations where the majority of our bait and subsequently our fish will be found. Through the month of March plenty of action has been provided by schoolie and slot size bass in our backwaters, but now it is time to turn our attention to the large.
There are three events that coincide with one another that will trigger the migration of these larger striped bass back into our waters in the springtime. These are the herring run, the bunker run, and the spawning urge of the striped bass. The exact timing of all three of these events is ultimately dictated by rising water temperatures.
The first two factors have to do with baits and big baits that we see entering into our back bay or freshwater tributaries to spawn. The alewife and blueback herring are like the striper in that they are anadromous in nature and will seek out freshwater rivers, creeks, and tributaries to spawn.
These baits are big, seven to twelve inches, and will easily get the attention of a large bass. As these baits congregate around flumes, creek mouths, and other freshwater outflows one can easily see their silvery to bronze colored flanks fluttering just beneath the surface. This action acts like a magnet to attract the bigger bass.
These herring will begin to enter into our waters as early as the middle of March. At this time water temperatures along the ocean are still well below fifty degrees so you won't expect to find bigger bass chasing them down for a meal. It isn't until the middle to end of April and into the month of May that we see the action begin. Traditionally live liners along the Central New Jersey Coast will record their biggest and best catches in May. However, this year with the warmer ocean temperatures we can look for good action at the end of this month.
Along with the alewife and bluebacks that will be present we will also see spawning adult bunkers enter into the brackish waters of our back bays to spawn. The Atlantic Menhaden also known as mossbunker, pogy, bugmouth, and fat back are one of the most important fish species found in New Jersey waters. They too are members of the herring family and have both recreational and commercial value.
These baits are even bigger than their alewife and blueback cousins and will range anywhere from a half pound upwards to two pounds or more. These big baits are probably the most important forage fish for stripers when we look at their availability throughout an entire season in our inshore waters.
When these baits set up in our back bays it is a common site to see big bass corralling and slashing through them just before dark in many shallow areas of the back bays. Like the other two herring species the big bunkers arrive well ahead of the big bass but it doesn't take long for them to find them once they show up on the scene.
Big bunkers first showed in Raritan Bay on March 10th of this new season. Since then more and more baits have been arriving and have spread out through the bay. A good class of twelve to sixteen pound bass set up on these baits early and has been typical of the bigger bass that were being caught at the end of March into early April.
The third factor that draws big bass into our waters in the spring is their natural spawning urge. As mentioned, bass are anadromous and will seek out suitable freshwater locations to spawn. With this spawning urge the males will usually arrive first followed by the large females and finally the smaller females. These fish will start to enter freshwater tributaries when the water temperature reaches 49 degrees. Spawning will occur when the water temperatures increase to 58-64 degrees. Some rather hefty bass can be found at these times with the largest females in the thirty and low forty-pound ranges. The males will usually be in the teen and twenty-pound class.
With these big fish that are around or passing through there is still no guarantee that they will take your fly. In fact most of the big bass that you will take on the fly in the spring will be in the teen size ranges when working local back bays or beachfronts. This shouldn't discourage you or hinder your efforts because a teen size bass in the spring is a real trophy in my book.
To hook into the much bigger fish your chances will be greatly improved if you are in their exact spawning areas where the fish are set up. For the New Jersey longrodder this will mean a trip to the Susquehanna flats or the upper Hudson or Delaware Rivers. In our much smaller bodies of water such as the Barnegat Bay, Great Bay, and Manasquan River systems lack of sufficient water depth and current will not support successful spawns. As a result attempts to spawn are extremely limited and most likely unsuccessful.
The action in the spring really starts to heat up once the blues arrive on the scene. Traditionally blues will reenter New Jersey waters once the mackerel run passes through. These fish will be fast on their heels picking away at these oily baits. The migration of mackerel to more northerly waters typically passes through New Jersey during the first two weeks of April. This is an offshore event for the most part but can occur within five miles of the beach depending on where the schools actually decide to move through. This migration like other migrations is highly temperature regulated. With the warmer than normal ocean temperatures this past winter this migration was well under way in mid March of this year. That puts the blues in our waters right now.
Smaller two to four pound class fish will arrive first but then the bigger blues in the eight to twelve pound ranges show up on the scene. These blues are fast, mean, and green and are commonly referred to as "racers". Upon arrival they will usually head for the warmest waters of the back bays. These locations are typically found along our western bayshores.
With all the big baits that are around the blues feel right at home joining in on the party. They need no invitation and will crash these baits at every opportunity that they get. Couple this with plenty of smaller baits that are present like spearing and grass shrimp and a full course meal is readily available to keep their interest.
The window of opportunity for these big blues lasts only about three weeks. After gorging themselves during this time frame these big brutes will quickly exit the bay and head out to the deeper offshore waters. Unlike the bass these fish will not spawn until the summer and it will be an open ocean not back bay event.
The normal time frame that these big blues appear in our backbays is during the first several weeks of May. But this year we can look for these fish in the latter part of April since everything is ahead of schedule this season.
One of the favorite locations to find Mr. razor lips is going to be up on the flats. It is not uncommon during this time period to find these big fish racing through these areas like underwater submarines torpedoing anything that comes in their range. One way to know that the fish are set up in your area is to watch the spin guys tossing poppers. If they are consistently hooking fish then you know fish are cruising the area. Here is where blind casting is very effective. Keep shooting your line out there varying the retrieve until your rod doubles over.
Another amazing site that you will encounter along the flats is when these fish will move into one to two feet of water and fin. Here you can come upon small schools of big blues just milling around. Their exposed dorsals and artistic swirls are a dead give away that these fish are there. As baits pass through these areas the blues will quickly maneuver around them effectively using the shoreline as a barrier with no escape. When the blues set up in this manner some great top water action can be had. In these situations however they will be very skittish and will spook easily, so approaching them cautiously is of utmost importance.
In the last several years so much has been published about the resurgence of the weakfish in the Garden State that they need no introduction here. If you check the archives of this site you can find my complete article on this subject dated April 29, 2001. By the middle of this month the first weakfish will arrive in our back bay waters. It is always exciting when these fish show up on the scene because many a salty flyrodder has his or her roots tied to the sweetwater pursuit of a feisty bow or brown. These saltwater look-a-likes readily rekindle this passion that once was the focus of our springtime endeavors.
About two weeks after the first scouts make their arrival the heavy artillery begins to pour in. This would be the trophy weakfish better known as the tiderunners. These tiderunners are our spawners and are searching out suitable structure in close proximity to submerged eelgrass beds to spawn. These fish are not anadromous and will stay in the brackish waters of the bay and estuary. They will not seek out freshwater areas like the bass. In fact a heavy freshwater runoff from spring storms can quickly lower the salinity of the bay sending these fish looking for a more suitable environment back towards the ocean.
These weakfish will range in size from seven to eleven pounds but it should come as a surprise if bigger fish are taken. Last year during the spawning season the largest weakfish I know of that was caught was eighteen pounds. This fish was taken in the Sandy Hook area.
Coming upon spawning weakfish is often an amazing site. One female can be draped with several males all competing for her. At times they can be seen swirling and jousting for position when the female is ripe. When a female is hooked many times you will see numerous males following right behind her all the way to the boat.
Catch and Release
Timing is key to catch these fish during the peak of their spring run. You will need to keep your ears open and hopefully have a good reliable local source of information. Keep in mind that with all of these big fish but especially with our female spawners it is critical that you practice catch and release if the fish are not spawned out. These fish should be given a chance to drop their eggs. In doing so you will be doing your part to help to ensure that our fishery will continue in earnest for many years to come. Having a trophy shot at all three species in any given day is quite an exciting way to start off a new season. Good fishin... fly fishing that is!
Editor's Note: Jim Freda is a saltwater fly fishing guide and co-owner of the Shore Catch Guide Service located in Manasquan, NJ. His new book "Fishing the NJ Coast", Burford Publishing Company is currently available from www.shorecatch.com. Jim can be contacted at (732) 528-1861.
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