As we enter the third spring of Covid, I suppose things look better as we get outside to explore the March weather to fish on all fronts. There’s a lot of shuffling around with regulations in February and March. Though the month of February backwaters are still closed for striped bass fishing, the good news is that the backwaters in NJ are reopen again for striped bass fishing starting March 1st with a one fish limit between 28 and 38 inches. Winter flounder fishing begins anew again on March 1st with a two fish bag at a 12-inch minimum size. Remember that you can fish for blackfish through February 28, but that season closes on March 1st. Got all that? Now, meantime, be sure your rods and reels are being cleaned and/or repaired so you are able to get right back in the game this month.
In the past three years Raritan Bay has enjoyed some pretty solid early season striper fishing. Schools of bass have been stacking way up inside the Raritan River past the Driscoll Bridge area and anglers are intercepting them in spots like Perth Amboy, South Amboy, Morgan’s Creek and Cliffwood Beach. Some pretty big fish were available in mid March last year as linesiders from 20 to 40 pounds were already around and willing to hit Savage Gear sand eels, large metal lipped wooden swimmers and big bucktails bounced off the bottom. One day in particular I remember the South Amboy jetty rocks had at least a dozen anglers casting wooden plugs and nailing bass after bass in the 30 pound class while we were on the boat casting back to the beach to get at that same school. Water temps were around 50 degrees at that time so expect that same kind of activity if the water temps hit a similar mark. Surfcasters launching bloodworm baits off those same shores were dialed right into the bass as well.
Striped bass moved into the river systems early last year as both the Navesink and Shrewsbury river systems had loads of adult bunker finning around, with a lot of them falling victim to a Vibro bacteria which prompted a massive fish kill. Stripers were inhaling bloodworms at spots like the Oceanic Bridge area and were hitting white Mag Darters around the Highlands Bridge and the Route 35 Bridge over the Navesink River. Strangely enough, I even witnessed some kids pulling up fluke in late March off the Navesink river route 35 bridge which is way earlier than normal for fluke to be there. Wreck fishing will still be firing in February as blackfish season remains open though many of the fish will be staging in the deeper waters of 90 to 150 feet making the Shark River Reef a good spot to target tautog. There should be cod and pollock out on that reef as well. Bring plenty of tog jigs, green and whitelegger crabs and clam baits for any and all reef species, which should include some red hake as well. Do not count out ocean going stripers during February as the schools were thick as thieves through the mid part of January. Surfcasters were finding fish casting and retrieving metals like Deadly Dicks and Ava jigs and boaters can be into the fish jigging those same lures. Come March, you can send out bloodworm and sandworm baits in the rivers as well as out in the surf to find the first migratory stripers. Don’t forget that winter flounder could very well be hanging in the Shark River Inlet area around the gas dock, L Street and Concrete Pier and tennis courts. Bloodworms and clam bits will score there.
White has been the go-to color for back bay and back river stripers the past few Marchs and this year shouldn’t be any different. Tannic river spots like the Toms River, Cedar Creek and the Metedeconk river will have stripers from 16 to 29 inches milling around and willing to hit small white paddletail shads or Kettle Creek rubber baits on ½-ounce leadheads. In February, those same river systems should be harboring plenty of white perch which can be caught on hi-lo bottom rigs fixed with fluorescent green or yellow pill floats with size #6 hooks tipped with bloodworm or sandworm segments. Winter flounder fishing was basically non-existent last year in terms of participation as the Covid shutdown certainly didn’t motivate anyone to head out in freezing weather to try for them. If you do choose to find a few flatties, my bet would be to head to Upper Silver Bay and right on the south side of the Point Pleasant Canal where the shallow water flats seem to warm up earlier than surrounding waters putting flounder on the feed. As well, try working the area on the south side of the Mantoloking Bridge with chum pots filled with mussel and clam chum to stir up the fish into a feeding frenzy. Alongshore, the stretch from Bay Head to Island Beach state park held striper activity on metal lures and plugs all through January and there’s no reason some straggler bass won’t be sticking around in February and March in the surf.
Hardcores who put their boats in the water early will be out and about trying to chase ghosts in March, aka bluefin tuna. It seems the fish are moving to our area earlier and earlier each year. Early season spots in the past three years seem to be around the 12 to 15 mile range at the Lillian, Humpty Dumpty, Slough and Mud Hole area in general. Big poppers can incite a topwater strike, while others will drop jigs to try and trick up the first bluefin of the year. Wreck pounders will be working far offshore to 40 or 50 miles to search out cod and pollock or even deep drop out at the canyon clay flats to find some golden tilefish in the depths, but that’s only reserved for the truly dedicated hardcores.
This will be the third March under the Covid shutdown, but I think going through the Omicron period this winter, I hope and pray that this will be the last major strain of the virus that affects our daily lives. It appears we are a little more lax with restrictions than at the start of the pandemic so marinas, tackle shops and charter boats should all be firing on all cylinders as the season starts up again during March. While you prepare for some early spring saltwater action, stay safe and be healthy!