Man, if 2020 was any barometer, 2021 is going to be a strange year, at least its going to start off like that. COVID concerns will no doubt dictate many facets of life throughout the winter and into early spring, but we can only pray that by late spring or early summer we can put the pandemic mostly behind us. That said, there are no plans to shut down any fishing opportunity as was done last year with pier and beach closures along with boat ramps, but that’s not to say it won’t be done. For now we are in the clear. Regarding boat shows, fishing flea markets, seminars and such, I don’t see it happening this year, as has been the standard Covid protocol last year. Regulation wise, a major change takes effect on January 1st and that is the new law mandating the use of non-offset circle hooks whenever bait fishing for striped bass. That means livelining bunker, chunking, clamming and worming must use circle hooks. As well, the old days of “snag-n-drop” with bunker and a weighted treble hook are over. You can still snag a bait, but it must immediately be reeled in and transferred or switched to a circle hook if it is to be used for bait. So Snag-N-Drop is now effectively Snag-N-Switch. 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 2020.
All in all, the striper season along this stretch lived up to most expectations, as there were a wide variety of class sizes that patrolled the waters through December. Bait varied from sand eels to bunker to bay anchovies, but it all added up to some fantastic action on artificials such as poppers, Ava jigs, and trolled Mojos and bunker spoons. Many fish were in the sub slot of 25 to 27 inches, while a good majority were “overs” meaning over 38 inches long. Enough fell into the slot of 28 to 37.99 inches to put in the box for Thanksgiving dinner. There may very well be bass still hanging around in January, and the best bet would be to jig for them with Hogy Pro Tails or troll Umbrella tube rigs to get a strike anywhere from right outside the Manasquan Inlet up to the Shrewsbury Rocks.
A better bet for January here is for blackfishing, which was hot and heavy leading into December. Fish should be out about the 80 to 100 foot depths now at spots like the Farms, Klondike, 17 Fathoms, Shark River Reef and the deeper sections of the Sea Girt Reef. By this time tog are dialed into white legger crabs fished whole on a two-hook snafu rig, which will hang the largest of the tog ranging in the 10 to 18-pound class. “Roaster” fish in the 3 to 5 pound bracket can be caught on green crabs tipped on tog jigs in the 1 to 2-ounce range. If you have never jigged for tog, the simple method is to let the jig rest on the bottom and don’t “jig” it by conventional thought, but allow the tog to pick and punch at the bait as it lies on the bottom. The jig is just a glorified bank sinker with a hook to allow for an immediate hookset. .
Striped bass may also present an opportunity here, as last year the schools were found off of Point Pleasant and Seaside Heights Casino Pier well into the month. Again, try jigging with Ava jigs or Deadly Dicks as they will mimic sand eels best. Top tautog spots here will be the outside portions of the Axel Carlson Reef where whitechinner class fish of 8 to 10 pounds can be found patrolling the deeper structure piles and thick wrecks. I find that chartreuse, white and blue fleck coloring on the tog jigs seem to get more attention from wreck tog and you don’t have to go big with crab baits on the jig, but scale down to one lone small green crab to target those big blackfish. Other hot tog spots will be the Garden state North and South reefs where a lot of activity has taken place during January the pat two years so it is worth the run if you want to hit grounds that are less pressured. Any wreck in the 85 to 110 foot range will also fit the bill. Hardcore togheads will make the run out further to the 15 to 20 mile wrecks late in January and early February to find those double-digit white chinners. As well, this month presents options to find a few cod, pollock and ling at the Shark River reef site. Drop down clam baits on hi-lo rigs to see if anyone’s home.
Though January is not known as an “offshore” month, things have changed and that’s all thanks to the presence of bluefin tuna. As of December, tuna were crashing both bunker schools and even striper schools a mere 300 yards off of the surfline in Lavallette, what a sight to see! Those “ghosts” have been sticking around later and later into the winter months as they hound dog sand eel and bunker schools that can set up anywhere from right outside the surf to 20 miles and all spots in between. Historically, the areas such as at the Slough, Humpty Dumpty, Lillian wreck and the Fingers would be areas bluefin gravitated to. Lucky anglers last month found fish at the Barnegat Ridge and outside the Manasquan Ridge only 5 miles offshore. Best bet to get a strike is to throw thin strong metal jigs like Hogy Epoxys, Stingos, Shimano Butterfly jigs and the like. If you can still get them on an aggressive bite, topwaters will crush fish such as the Madd Mantis Poppers, Williamson Popper Pro and the Savage Gear Mack stick. There’s nothing like seeing bluefin come up to the surface and absolute bomb on a popper. You will get frustrated as many times bluefin will be visualized but getting them to hit is a whole other ballgame. Keep at it and don’t be dissuaded, persistence and perseverance are the two main weapons you have to nail down some January bluefin tuna. Just be sure to check with the latest current regulations at NOAA to be sure the season is still open to target them.
With any luck, we can put the Covid crisis behind us this upcoming year. My advice is to get out and go fishing often this month and next and every month after that as nothing is promised when it comes to life and our ability to enjoy the sport. Take care, be safe and stay healthy! Good luck fishing!