What a phenomenal wrap up for 2022 for the Jersey fishing scene. Firstly, surf and boat stripers were absolutely lit up with explosive, may I even say, historic activity, the likes of which we haven’t seen since the late 90’s and early 2000’s. Now, as we head into January, ocean going stripers could very possibly still be hanging around, but the focus generally shifts over to bottom fishing for blackfish, ling, cod and pollock. The blackfish season is open, running Jan.1 to February 28 with a 15-inch minimum size and 4 fish bag limit. Black Sea Bass season is now closed. 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. 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 2023. Add to all this the boat show season which is alive and kicking! Let’s get started.
You’d be hard pressed to find another striper season in Raritan Bay late fall than this year. The bass were all over and the migratory fish seemed to keep on coming. There’s even a chance that the fish could still be hanging near the mouth of the bay in January, off spots like the Sandy Hook Rip, Romer Shoal and Flynn’s Knoll. If the bunkers stick around as they are as of early December, it could be a rip-roaring time into January. Try and toss poppers, paddletail shads or jig ava jigs, as sand eels should be prevalent in the area by now.
Again, striper fishing could be heavy off this stretch of coast as the schools have hung around the area from sandy Hook down through Long Branch with blitzes hitting the beaches and staying close to shore. Bunker of all sizes from adult size to cupcakes to peanut class were choked inshore along the coast, providing plenty of forage for bass to feed upon and stick around as water temps stayed above 54 degrees well into mid-December. White paddletail shads were absolutely deadly on bass as were topwater poppers. Sand eels should have moved in by now and slender metals like Ava jigs or Williamson Gomoku jigs will be the prime time lures to use to jig up stripers. The shipwrecks and reef sites like Sandy Hook reef, 17 Fathoms, Farms and Shark River Reef all had out of the gate hot to trot blackfishing happening and January generally sees the largest whitechinners come to deck. Drop 1 to 2 pounce orange, white or chartreuse blackfish leadhead jigs tipped with half a green crab to dial the tog in. If you have a boat with spot-lock on the trolling motor, sit atop a piece of structure and work it hard, shifting as need be to find the feeding packs of bulldog tog. Other bottom brawlers that make an appearance this time of year include red hake, cod and pollock. If you don’t have your boat in the water, don’t worry! Many party boats running out of Belmar, Highlands and Brielle sport daily trips to the wreck grounds so you can fill a cooler with fillets without the hassle of using your own boat. For a tip, bring fresh white legger crabs sold at year round tackle shops to give you an edge if the blackfish aren’t feeding on green crabs as much. You may pay more of a price for the white crabs, but it’s worth it, even if you grab a dozen.
Here too stripers could very well be still on the chew. A few years back, the striper bite with 10 to 25 pound fish continued on through the month of January and the way this season has unfolded, it should happen again. General hot spots include off of bay Head, Lavallette, Casino Pier and Island Beach state Park. Look for busting schools and drop jigs or shads to get a strike. The main focus will be on tautog here as well though. With warmer than average temps, blackfish will be seated on the inshore grounds in 75 to 100 feet of water at spots like the Axel Carlson reef, Garden State Reefs and the Sea Girt Reef, but will push off into deeper water to 120 feet near the Shark River reef by month’s end. Prepare with a heavy 6-1/2 to 7 foot stout rod rated 30 to 50-pound to effectively pull the heavy duty tog of 3 to 10 pounds off the structures and always use a 50 to 60-pound mono shock leader to prevent the razor cuts of the wreck on your braided running line. It’s possible that ling can also be habituating the wrecks and reef areas so be sure to scales down and bring 2/0 to 3/0 octopus hooks and fresh bits of clam bait or Berkley Gulp swimming minnow grubs to put on the hook. I know this sounds strange, but with the bluefin tuna seasons we’ve been having, its not uncommon to see busting schools of bluefin tuna around the boat when you are anchored up. Always have a heavy rod rigged with a Madd Mantis popper or 8 to 12-ounce diamond jig to drop down or cast to happen into a BFT.
Tuna guys chasing “ghosts” in January have come up big to date and you can always find BFT hanging around if you put in the time. The shallow waters of 50 to 80 feet off of Long Island was bananas for medium to near giant BFT last year as guys battled tuna from 300 to 600 pounds while popping trolling RoZ lures and dropping jigs to them, sometimes with fights that lasted well into 4 hours of fishing. If you pop offshore into the 30 to 60 mile range you will most likely also run into the breaking schools of tuna but know this – you don’t always have to go big with lures to trick them up as they are most likely either feeding on big baits like herring or mackerel, but can also be keyed in on sand eels. Small slender profile metal jigs or RonZ thin rubber baits can easily get them to hit, but you have to have an appropriate rod to be able to cast and work them effectively. Go with ODM rods that make lightweight but sturdy 80 to 130-pound class outfits to be able to use the lighter lures with efficacy. If you’re committed to bottom brawling, there are no shortage of 20 to 50 mile wrecks to target cold and pollock some of which can push the 40-pound mark. Use fresh clam baits or bergall strips or work a Hammered Dimond jig on the bottom for co or reel up swiftly to intercept schools of pollock hanging above the wreck.
What a year 2022 was for the NJ books! With any luck, we should start of 2023 with the same excitement!