Looking back at last year’s January column, we were smack dab in the Covid confusion and for the start of 2022, it’s pretty safe to say we don’t know what the winter months will bring us this year regarding Covid protocols. Signs point to somewhat normal life, but you truly can never tell. That said, charters, piers, party boats and fishing, in general, should remain status quo, with options available everywhere and no real Covid restrictions. So let’s get to the fishing. Blackfish season is open, running from Jan 1 to Feb 28 with a 15-inch minimum size and a 4 fish bag limit. Black sea bass season is now closed. Winter flounder season is closed until March 1st. Striped bass fishing in the bay is closed, but is OPEN in the ocean, meaning the surf and boat fishing in the ocean is legal. Other than that, ling, cod, pollock, and porgies will round out the fishing for the month. There’s a good chance that all the outdoor shows will take place this year, so stay tuned week to week to see if they proceed or get canceled. Remember, any saltwater angler in New Jersey has to register for the free and mandatory Saltwater Registry program at http://www.nj.gov/dep/saltwaterregistry/ to be a legal saltwater angler in 2022.
Normally, I don’t even include this Raritan Bay section in January, but it had to be told about the fantastic striped bass fishing that lasted well into December here. Though you legally can’t fish for bass in Raritan Bay in January, those fish could very well have spilled out of the bay along the coastline this month, meaning striper fishing could be red hot near the mouth of the bay. Spots off Sandy Hook at the Rip, or right along Sandy Hook could be hoppin’ with bass activity. The fish were stacked all the way back into Keansburg, South Amboy and Union Beach through mid-December, so there’s a very good shot stripers will be hanging around outside the bay.
Which brings us to the northern coast striper fishing. I’m betting if we continue on a mild slow rolling winter and no long strings of deep freezes, stripers will be lit up along the coast from the Highlands down through Manasquan Inlet. This time of year fish are usually feeding on sand eels as the predominant bait, but peanut bunker and herring could also be hanging around if the waters don’t dip too low. Boats should be cruising the shoreline anywhere from the surf out to the 3-mile limit searching for marks on the screen or looking to find diving gannets and gulls feeding on bait being pushed up from bass below. This time of year it’s all about jigging and popping. Drop down Ava jigs from size A27 to A87, Savage Gear sand eels, RonZ baits, Kroc metal spoons, Crippled Herring jigs or Acme Kastmasters to trick up a few fish low in the water column. If fish are feeding up top, toss out big poppers like the Savage Gear Panic Popper, Madd Mantis Big Poppa, and the like. Bottomfishing was stellar during December, mainly at spots like the Farms, Mud Hole, Arundo and Shark River Reef. Blackfishing took a while to get going but was firing on all cylinders by mid-month. Look to target deeper water in the 100 to 125-foot range in January, and even further offshore to the 20-mile area wrecks. Ling fishing was lights out on the Mud Hole wrecks with some real fat boy 3 to 4 pounders taking clam and Gulp baits on the bottom. Porgy fishing was productive with catches of 20 to 30 fish per man on each outing to the Rockpiles. Look to fish wrecks in the 85 to 150-foot waters for the most action, though don’t be afraid to push off into 180 to 200-foot depths if need be.
Blackfishing took a little while to get going in December but by mid-month, the Sea Girt Reef and Axel Carlson Reef finally got the push of fish from the backwaters to move out onto them. 75 to 95-foot depths held tog in the 3 to 6-pound class though bulldogs over 10 pounds weren’t common as of yet. January usually sees some of the largest blackfish around, so be prepared to trophy hunt for whitechinners with heavy stout rods and reels with enough cranking power to handle the bulldog runs of 10-pound plus fish. Equip yourself with larger 6/0 Octopus hooks and use whole whitelegger crabs for big baits to target trophy tog. Look for days of northwest winds and a slight 2-foot chop as those conditions usually get the blackfish snapping. Striped bass should also be hanging around here as the fleet had been of Mantoloking and the seaside Pier all last month. Anglers were dropping rubber sand eel-type baits like the Savage Gear sand eel to score with slot fish in the 28 to 38-inch class. Keep a keen eye out for the bird plays doing their magic to betray where the fish are feeding. If you’re into surfcasting, the stretch from Bay Head to Island Beach state park always holds January stripers. Throw out Ava A17 jigs and drag them along the bottom to pick up bass feeding on sand eel schools as they unearth themselves at sunrise.
Bluefin tuna in January is nicknamed “ghost hunting” as you will often see fish jumping but the trick is to get them to hit something you throw out. They are mainly feeding on sand eels and small rainfish baits this time of year. BFT were so close in December some anglers saw them jumping just outside the breakers! Check waters around 3 to 8-miles out as 50 to 100-pound bluefin were being caught fairly regularly last month. Toss RonZ eels, Savage Gear mack sticks and even Madd Mantis poppers to elicit a surface strike with the commotion, but mainly the fish will be marked then you can drop down the sand eel type jigs to try and trick them up. Anglers can then work out to the 5 to 30-mile range spots like the Lillian, Slough, Humpty Dumpty to find a few fish. Trollers will drag RonZ and Hogy Pro baits way, way, way back in the spread like 300 yards, dragging them around to get random bites from BFT. If groundfish are your game, cod and pollock will be ready to bite clam baits on the 20 to 50-mile wrecks as the cod had already shown up in December. You can also drop hammered jigs of 8 to 16-ounces down on the wrecks to get strikes from both species.
It looks like we are set for a mild winter so far, but that may change by the time you read this. Plan a day out on the saltwater as many party boats continue to run through the month for blackfish, ling, stripers and even tuna. Don’t miss out on the start of the 2022 season! Stay warm and happy New Year!