As Covid restrictions are being lifted by the week, it seems we are on track for a solid summer of fishing, and there‘s no finer kickoff than Memorial Day weekend in May to get it started. But before the holiday weekend, there’s plenty of prime fishing going on in New Jersey. To start, stripers are loaded up along the coastline from Raritan Bay down through Barnegat Inlet. Bluefish should be thick inside the back bays and along the surfline. Black sea bass season reopens on May 15th to June 22nd with a 10 fish bag limit at a 12.5 inch minimum size limit and they should be on the chew in May into June. The much anticipated reopening of fluke, aka summer flounder season starts on May 22 at 3 fish with an 18-inch minimum size restriction.
Big time bassin’ hit the Raritan Bay waters in late March and continued on through April. May should be the peak month to target large post-spawn fish as they move back down from the Hudson River and through the R-Bay. Remember, I chunking or using live bait like eels or worms, it is mandatory to use inline circle hooks, but I wouldn’t even bother with bait right now as linesiders will be actively whomping on lures. Start by searching out the schools, marking them on the fishfinder or by gathering visuals of birdplays betraying their locations. If they are marked down deep, drop rubber paddletails, jigheads and 5 to 6 inch soft bodies, or bucktails tipped with rubber baits and snap jig them up the water column, where bass will hit as they fall down. If surface strikes are prevalent, toss out large poppers or wooden swimmers and work them slowly on the surface as bass will tail slap lures a few times sometimes before committing to the take. Switch out your treble plugs for siwash hooks so as to minimize any damage to the stripers. If you’re felling a little bit lazy, you can troll the usual offerings like Mojo balls with rubbertail trailers, bunker spoons or Mann’s Stretch plugs at a 2 to 3 knot pace around the bay. Schools of stripers will be anywhere but try focusing on the mid-bay to outer bay areas at Chapel Hill Channel, the Ammo Pier, West Bank and Romer Shoal.
Of course, we can focus on stripers here as well. The northern rocky areas off of Long Branch, Asbury Park and Deal attract bass to pin bunker schools in tight where you can always launch poppers or soft bait jigs to the feeding fish. Trolling with size #4 bunker spoons or shad bar rigs will most certainly get whacked as well along the northern stretch. There had been early reports of bluefish along the coast in April and I truly hope by the time you read this, the choppers will be thick as thieves in Jersey. They should be running the coastline attacking bunker schools along the coast as well as entering the river systems at Shark River, Shrewsbury and Navesink. Metal lures will hang plenty of blues as will plugs and poppers so long as you remember to switch out the treble hooks or single hooks in order to prevent any errant hooks flailing around and lodging into your hand or worse when the blues thrash around upon release. Fluke season will have started, and inshore spots along the ICW channels and river systems in Shark River and others will probably be your best shot at finding flatties. If the fish have trickled out of the bay, they will be hanging tight in the 25 to 40 foot depths in places such as the Klondike, Spring Lake Hotel and the Deal Wall. Winter flounder should really be rip roaring inside Shark River as well as water temps should be in the low to mid 60’s by now.
Fluke fishing will probably take top billing here as the season gets started. The back waters of the Manasquan river system will generally be the hot spot to start with. Try going way back by the Route 70 bridge near the Crystal Point gas docks and make drifts through to Treasure Island to see if those first fish are stuck in the back. Bounce with light ½ ounce bucktails tipped with Gulp baits or strips of bluefish or mackerel, doused with FinEssence juice. If fish aren’t there, then try and work outside the canal by the old hospital to the Route 35 drawbridge. Bluefish should also be patrolling the waters from the Manasquan Inlet, down through Mantoloking Bridge, past Toms River and into Barnegat Bay. Incoming tides generally usher in the choppers and they will be willing to hit anything form plugs to poppers to metals. Concentrate around the Manasquan Inlet and Barnegat Inlet as the fish tend to stick around the tips of the jetties and then move in as they chase bait on incoming tides into the backwaters. Striper fishing will of course be on the menu anywhere out front with usual hot spots magnetizing off of the Thunderbird, Lavallette and IBSP. Bunker schools usually are the first sign of bass as they flip about and get pushed out of the water. Remember, you cannot snag-n-drop any more with treble hooks, but any bunker obtained with a bunker snag must be transferred over to an inline circle hook if fishing for striped bass.
In years past, Atlantic mackerel were a mainstay for party boats who would jig Christmas tree tube rigs to load barrels full of the fish. There were tricklings of mackerel in early April and there’s always a chance they may actually appear again. Last year, the first tuna hounds on the water were finding bluefin in early May. The BFT could be anywhere offshore at this time of year, study the temp charts and look for warm water eddies to spin off, which do not have to be tropical in nature, they can just be a temperature gradient change say from 62 to 67 degrees. General spots like the Chicken Canyon or Texas Tower were productive last year, but it all comes down to where the bait schools like macks, herring and bunker are congregating as well as the temperature breaks. Oft overlooked, when out tuna fishing on the canyon flats 60 to 75 miles offshore, make it a mixed bag trip and bring the deep drop rigs to try for golden and gray tilefish. Those big brute can weigh up to 40 pounds and will eagerly eat up any baits you put down such as chunks of bunker, herring, mackerel along with large 10-inch grubtails and squid skirts. You’ll be fishing anywhere from 400 to 650 feet so electric reels are a plus when having to check baits.
Finally, we turn the corner into summertime. Get out on the saltwater and soak it all in!