Archive for Barnegat Bay

Fly fishing Barnegat Bay’s spring bite

Posted in Fishing Conditions, Fishing Reports, Saltwater, Uncategorized, Writing with tags , , , , on June 14, 2018 by stflyfisher

On the Sunday afternoon before Memorial Day, I made the 4 hour trek down to the Jersey shore to spend some time with my Dad and to fish the infamous spring bite in Barnegat Bay. Fishhead Greg, a charter captain I had fished with twice last fall and owner of Fisherman’s Headquarters, had recommended it, after all. Captain Greg had told me that the striped bass fishing can be outstanding in the spring as fish migrate northward on the feed. And beyond the stripers, “racer” blues, so named for their somewhat emaciated appearance (big head and skinny body), invade the relatively warm waters of Barnegat Bay to feed voraciously in the shallows. The bite, as Captain Greg would say, can be “off the charts”, good. In particular, seeing a big bluefish crash a popper in 4 feet of water is something all fly anglers should see at least once in their life.

As recounted in my Memorial Day post, I fished the sod banks on my own on the first morning of my visit and tallied my first striped bass on the fly. With the skunk shook off, fishing with Greg the following morning HAD to be good! Indeed it was…

I talked with Greg the afternoon before our trip. As usual, he talked at length about conditions and possible game plans. He had not had good luck on Memorial Day and was seeking “revenge.” He had some concerns about the cold water that had been flooding into the inlet as a result of prevailing southerly winds. These winds are known to move the warmer top water, resulting in an upwelling of cold bottom water. And that cold water can really put the brakes on the bite.

Greg said that trolling had been a hit or miss proposition, though some big fish had been caught. And since he knew I was really all about fly fishing, he decided on a three-pronged attack for our trip: 1) fish the jetties and inlet, 2) come inside and fish the sod banks, and 3) fish the flats. This would all be done fly fishing. Greg’s rationale was that there is always life in the inlet. If the inlet didn’t fish well, we’d fish the sod banks where I had some success, and then at high slack water, we’d hit the flats where he’d gotten reports of schoolie stripers in abundance. The plan sounded great to me, and after all, I’ve always tried to follow the guide’s advice. They know the water.

And so we met early on an overcast and misty Tuesday morning. It was warmer than Memorial Day and would brighten and warm up more throughout the morning. Greg had his boat, The Fishhead, at a new slip close to Barnegat Light. I arrived at 5:30 am and found him busy at work prepping for the day.

After loading my gear on board, we stowed my rigged rods. I brought a 10 weight Scott Tidal with a floating line armed with a Bob’s Banger popper, a 10 weight TFO TFR (“tough fly rod”) with a sinking tip line armed with a 2/0 chartreuse half and half, a 9 weight Orvis Clearwater with an WF intermediate line armed with a 1/0 clouser, and an 8 weight TFO Professional Series II with an intermediate sink tip armed with a size 2 clouser.

We were soon headed straight out to the inlet. The sea in the inlet was mild with barely a light wind blowing out of the south. Greg nudged me up within casting range of the submerged section of the North Jetty. Armed with my 10 weight and a sink tip line, I cast the weighted half and half and let each cast sink on a ten count before I started a fast retrieve. After only a few minutes I felt a bump as the fly neared the boat and then as I pulled the fly up for a backcast, saw a dull blue flash and a boil where the fly left the water. “I think that was a blue,” I yelled. I cast again, counted down, retrieved and BOOM, I was on.

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My 10 weight takes a deep bend thanks to a Barnegat Inlet bluefish… (Picture courtesy of Greg Cudnik)

My 10 weight instantly took a deep bow as the bluefish dug hard in response to the hook-set. I tightened the drag but blues are strong fighters and the fish surged and stripped line, off and on for the first few minutes. Eventually I worked the fish up close and Greg deftly slipped the net under it. As Greg would say, “we shook the skunk.”

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Blue on the fly… (Picture courtesy of Greg Cudnik)

We continued to fish the North Jetty, then fished the South Jetty. but no one seemed to be home and we saw very little action on the other boats. So Greg shifted to Plan B and off we went to the sod banks. We scaled down from the 10’s to the 8’s and 9’s, hoping a big blue or striper might make us think differently about our tackle choice.

Greg worked through some good looking water. But like the jetties, the sod banks were not to be, save one bluefish that sucked in an errantly cast clouser off Greg’s fly rod. Greg had short-cast the fly in preparation for a true cast, and the fish struck at boatside. He had it on for 10 seconds and then the leader parted, victim to the blue’s razor grill.

So we moved to our last hope holdout, another of Greg’s “Promised Land” areas, considered highly productive and reliable. The area we fished is simply known as “The Flats” and is an expanse of shallow bay water that will often hold striped bass and bluefish cruising for a good meal in the spring.

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The flats…

Greg had kept in touch with another fishing friend who reported some action on the flats. His friend was getting stripers in a hole he found amidst the shallow grass-bottomed flat. He was drifting over it, then driving upwind at the end of the run and repeating the drift. The schoolie bass were apparently liking the white soft plastic he was casting to them. So Greg steered towards his friend’s boat and had us drifting the flats about 100-200 yards away. We were blind-casting initially when we saw some signs of surface action. We slowly moved above the surface action so we’d drift down on what looked like striped bass chasing bait on top.

Almost immediately I was hooked up to one of the bigger bass of the day. The fish pulled strong and fought hard and was definitely a great way to start the flats bite.

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First bass on the flats. Can you tell I’m happy? (Picture courtesy of Greg Cudnik)

For the next few hours we drifted over that hole and every drift produced schoolie stripers. At times Greg and I were doubled up. Greg fished a crease fly for a while and had some topwater hook-ups which were visually awesome.

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Captain Greg with a nice schoolie.

It was great seeing such a nice mix of schoolie bass – a healthy sign for sure. Some were up in the 20″+ range, while others were smaller, but each one was carefully released to fight another day. Captain Greg is very much a conservationist. He’s not against harvesting a fish on occasion, but prefers to release striped bass, particularly the larger ones.

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“Go get bigger…”  It takes a striped bass 5 years to reach the 20″ mark and another 10 years to grow past the 40 pound mark… (Picture courtesy of Greg Cudnik)

As the morning aged into noon, the wind came up out of the south. What had started as a hot glassy-calm morning transitioned to a cooler and breezy one. The stronger wind rushed our drift so that each fishing window shortened. The fish were still there and the action continued but the tide was starting to ebb. It was time to leave the flats with the water moving out of the bay. If we waited too long, we’d not make it off the shallows.

We packed it in and left the flats, heading back to the dock. The day had started fast with a nice bluefish, then slowed considerably as we searched the inlet for more life, but ended up in a big way. The spring bite was every bit as good as Greg had said it could be, though it was a very different bite. I had booked the trip thinking we’d get into big blues but instead the highlight of the trip was a non-stop schoolie bite on the flats. We caught some 25+ bass and I once again learned more about the great Barnegat Bay fishery from Captain Greg.

God-willing, I’ll be back next spring. I’ll do more wade fishing and book another trip with Captain Greg. Maybe the bite will be big blues, maybe classy bass in the inlet or off the beach. Whatever it is I’ll welcome the fishing, a new harbinger of spring for me.

 

 

 

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Memorial Day, Barnegat Bay, and Roger’s River

Posted in Fishing Conditions, Fishing Reports, Saltwater, Uncategorized, Writing with tags , , on June 2, 2018 by stflyfisher

Oh, I know the sound the river makes,

By dawn, by night, and by day.

But can it stay me through tomorrows,

That may find me far away?

Roger’s River by Ralph D. Conroy

I woke up at 4:30 am on Memorial Day and lay there in bed, knowing I should get up and get going, but after a full weekend of yard work while the spirit was willing – the flesh was weak. ‘Think of what they did on this day’, I thought, and that thought finally ended the fight.

Unlike past years, I would not be fishing Ball Eddy on the West Branch of the Delaware that day. Instead, I had decided to visit my father, a Korean War veteran, and engage in some fly fishing on Barnegat Bay. In the Spring, Barnegat Bay is known for its good striped bass fishing as the bass are migrating northward along the East Coast at this time of year. It’s also a time when “racer” bluefish – referred to as racers because their starved bodies are so thin in comparison to their heads – invade the warmer waters of Barnegat Bay to feed up. Blues can provide outstanding topwater fishing on the flats of the bay.

Most fly anglers know the saying: you fish to the fish’s schedule, not yours. This is particularly true when fly fishing the salt. The tides can make or break the bite as can the wind and water temperature. Fortunately for me, all of these factors were aligned nicely this Memorial Day. I just had to hustle and get out to Barnegat Light before the tide hit slack high.

I drove out to the island from mainland New Jersey and crossed the great Barnegat Bay on the Long Beach Island causeway. To my left I could see the bay’s waters stretch seemingly endlessly and in the distance could just barely make out Barnegat Light. The wind was coming out of the northeast and rippled the bay. A grey overcast hung over the water and the island – a good thing for the light-shy bass. I was feeling hopeful.

It’s a 15 minute drive down Long Beach Island’s main boulevard to get to the northern end of the island but it always seems an eternity. On the way, you pass the once sleepy towns of Ship Bottom, Surf City, Harvey Cedars, and Loveladies, and finally enter Barnegat Light – established in 1692 – the town around the lighthouse and the literal end of the road. Then, turning left off the boulevard, you pass the fishing fleet, the party boats, and the charter boats, and make your way to a part of Barnegat Light referred to as High Bar Harbor.

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The commercial fishing fleet at Barnegat Light. In the distant background is part of High Bar Harbor and to the right stretching into the bay, lies “the dike.”

Arriving at the state park at the end of High Bar Harbor, I rigged up and set off through a cedar and bayberry canopy and emerged onto a great bay beach, referred to by locals as “the dike.”

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An aerial view of “the dike” seen as the long thin spit of land that stretches from High Bar Harbor to a sedge island. The dike is man-made of dredge spoils, built to create a harbor and divert tidal flows around the sedge island at its tip. Barnegat Inlet is to the far center right of the picture.

The northeast wind blew gently and immersed me in a bath of fresh salty air. Gulls and osprey soared and wheeled overhead. I had the entire beach to myself and as I walked in the sullen light of that morning, I wondered how it must have been to make a beach landing in war, the air ripped by bullets and filled with the cries of dying men.

It was a 15 minute walk to reach the end of the dike where the sod banks began. The place looked fishy and felt right. The current was flowing like a river along the banks and the water was a beautiful blue-green, reminding me that the emerald beaches of the Gulf have their own beauty but it is not the only beauty that water can have.

I found a point that protected a sandy cut behind it. It looked like a perfect place for bass and blues to set up and ambush or intercept prey.

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The sod banks…

My 8 weight was rigged with an intermediate sink tip line. I tied on a 1/0 chartreuse and blue clouser. Casting slightly up-current just like I would fishing a trout river with a streamer, I let the fly sink, counted down to 10, and began to strip the fly back on the swing. On just the third such cast, the fly stopped with a solid throbbing jolt. The rod tip danced and bowed in a deep arc and I cleared the line and got the fish on the reel. What followed was a good deep fight, filled with head shakes and lunging runs…

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A solid Barnegat Bay schoolie striper complete with chartreuse and blue mustache…

I was elated: this striper was a first on the fly and I caught it using the basics I had taught at a BC Flyfishers meeting held the week before.

I worked my way up the dike, casting and working the fly deep on the swing. The bass seemed to be holding in close, just off the current, no doubt picking up baitfish and crustaceans flushed loose from the banks by the tidal current. The bite lasted another hour during which I tallied three more nice schoolie bass…

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The current died when the tide reached high slack water and this lull would last a bit before the great bay had absorbed the ocean’s rush and started pushing it back seaward. I decided to pack it in, happy with my success. I had, after all, achieved one of my fly fishing goals; to catch a striped bass on the fly.

The walk and wade back was a long one. I was tired from the morning’s fishing and the soft sand underfoot made the hike all the more taxing but gave me time to once again reflect on the meaning of the day. Just before going to bed the night before, in an effort to calm my excitement over fishing the next day, I pulled out a Field & Stream anthology of short stories. The book seemed to naturally open to a story titled “Roger’s River“. The author, outdoor writer Ralph D. Conroy, was born in 1939, grew up in Massachusetts, and was an Army veteran. Mr. Conroy was a regular contributor to Guns & Ammo magazine, and was also published in Reader’s Digest and Field & Stream. In his short story, “Roger’s River”, the author writes of many themes familiar to stories with fly fishing as a backdrop, but it was the theme of connection and subsequent loss in war that resonated with me most that evening.

The story takes place during the Korean War. The author, recently graduated from high school, ventures afield in the Vermont countryside to set up camp by a river and fish alone. He is a week away from reporting for basic training in the Army and this is his last time to fish before heading off to war. He arrives at a small town and meets another young man who turns out to be a local fly fisherman familiar with a stream close by. The young man’s name is Roger. The two young men only briefly chat before Roger sets off to what the author later describes as “his river.” This is the only time the two men actually talk to one another in the story.

The author sets up camp that evening and hears the distant wail of a harmonica as he sits by his campfire. The next day he discovers Roger’s camp – neat and orderly – as he returns from fishing the river. There he finds the makings of a poem scribbled on some paper that hints that Roger too, will soon be off to war. After packing up, the author has the feeling that he is leaving more than the river behind.

Fast forward a year and the author is back home from his tour of duty in Korea. He returns to Roger’s river and finds Roger’s camp a mess – littered and in disarray. He leaves the camp on a mission to find out what may have happened to Roger. Courtesy of a local gas station attendant, he locates Roger’s house and meets his father, who reveals that his son had died in a helicopter crash in Korea a week before he was supposed to come home.

Over 54,246 men were killed during the Korean War with 7,704 still unaccounted for as of 2018. As I walked up the beach to the wood line of bayberry and cedar that marked the path out of the dike, I remembered the prose of Conroy’s story, recalling the meaning it carried, like the clarion call of taps in the evening. I thought of those lost in that war, like Roger, who may have carried a fly rod to cherished water, fished it one last time, and then left it behind for a higher calling. I stopped, took pause to view the bay, then turned and left it behind me, feeling fortunate for the morning’s fishing, but more so, for what they gave so that I could return to my own river and fish another day.

Thanksgiving reprise: Stripers and The Promised Land

Posted in Fishing Reports, Saltwater, Uncategorized, Writing with tags , , , on December 28, 2017 by stflyfisher

We stood there in the cold dark of a pre-dawn November morning talking about the plan for the day of fishing. Lights sparkled about the village of Barnegat Light just across the harbor. Greg said we’d fish “the promised land”, an area off Seaside Heights where the ocean water was warmer, the bunker thick, and where the migrating striped bass were congregating for a Thanksgiving feast. Even humpback whales had been reported cashing in on the autumn harvest…

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A humback whale breaches with a mouthful of bunker. Fishhead Greg is seen in the background working the bunker pods for hungry bass from his 21′ Parker center console boat. This beautifully timed picture was taken by Kevin Fresno fishing aboard Reel Fantasea Fishing Charters with Captain Steve Purul.

Striped bass migrate south in the fall and early winter and on the way, feed voraciously on menhaden, otherwise known as “bunker”. Menhaden is a big baitfish – they can reach 15″ in length – a literal cowboy steak for hungry striped bass, bluefish, and weakfish.

Greg fired up “the FishHead”, his name for the 21 foot Parker center console outboard that he so loves for its shallow water capability and it’s ability to fish near shore waters. We pulled up our neck gaiters and buttoned down as we sped out the inlet, rounding the north jetty where Greg opened the throttle for the long ride north. We were not the only boats on the way either. Big and small, open and cabin, we raced across a flat sea just off Island Beach State Park to “the Promised Land.”

Once at the Promised Land, we began to actively scan the horizon for bird play or other signs of fish. In their absence, Greg was wrestling with what to do. He had already suffered the day before when his client refused to do anything but fly fish. In the end it’s all about the client’s needs, but it was killing Greg to watch his client blind cast the water while boats all around were catching stripers on the troll. I was fine with conventional gear and even trolling gear. I wanted a striper on the fly, but I also wanted to take fish by other means if that was all that was working.

I was, in fact, dreaming of conditions Greg had reported on November 12…

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What every saltwater fly fisher dreams about – the surface feed. Picture courtesy of Greg Cudnik, Fisherman’s Headquarters…

And of the fish he caught on the surface bite that morning while fishing alone…

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Greg Cudnik with a dandy…

We slowly cruised around the area Greg had fished the previous week. The fish finder would go from blank to occasionally showing a big blob and a few random markings. Greg explained that the blobs were schooled up bunker, but he wanted to see them more spread out horizontally. If they were spread out, jigging or using the snag and drop – a technique where large weighted treble hooks are used to first snag bunker and then let them drop in the water and hopefully into the large mouth of a hungry striper. Either method would have been a good way to hunt bass. But as the bait was balled up, trying to position the boat directly over them as they moved about would be difficult, at best and akin to chasing fish. Given this situation and the lack of surface activity, trolling was the only viable option.

And so we trolled. Greg likened trolling to watching paint dry. He masterfully set up a deep bunker spoon on wire line, a mid-depth umbrella rig with swim baits, and a shallow running rapala-like diving plug. We trolled at 3 mph, chatted, but also scanned the horizon. It wasn’t long before the bunker spoon rod took a deep bend, but then almost as quickly relaxed. We’d find out later it was a solid strike that broke the hook off the spoon! Then the shallow diving plug rod bent down, reel screaming. I let the fish run a bit, set the hook, and soon had a nice striper in the boat. This fish was pretty much right at the minimum length but Greg suggested we release it for something bigger.

A while later the umbrella rig rod went down. This fish would be a nice keeper – roughly 16 lbs.

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Even fish caught on the troll can make a happy angler… (Pic courtesy of Greg Cudnik)

We would end up catching another smaller bass on the umbrella rig and missed a few more.

Come mid-morning, the troll bite began to die down, so we cruised in search of bird play. We did find some and I broke out the fly rod and cast a bunker fly. While we did not see any surface action I did get a good whack at one point, but that was the extent of the open water fly fishing.

We then headed to the inlet and fished the North Jetty. I rigged up a 10 weight rod with a sink tip line and tied on a fly imitating a peanut bunker, a juvenile version of the bigger bunker that were just offshore. Greg positioned me perfectly for casting to the jetty. I was casting to the wash around the jetty, the seams off the current over the submerged part of the jetty, and even casting out in the deeper water away from the jetty, varying retrieves and sink time. Harbor seals were about the jetty – so neat to see these beautiful animals coming back along with so much other marine life.

At one point I had a good bump and it ended up being a very large Atlantic Herring. I have caught herring on the fly while fishing the bay and they put up a good fight. They can grow to over 18″ and this one was certainly up there in size. Having said that, it could also easily be taken by a large striped bass.

But no one, even the guys fishing live “spot” were catching anything. It seemed as if no one was home around the jetty. We moved on and tried a beautiful part of Barnegat Bay where a “river” ran through the sod islands off the bay side of Island Beach State Park, but again no luck. And so we called it a day. That evening I would dine on fresh striped bass in the company of family, while dreaming of stripers-to-be on the fly…

Over the rest of that weekend, I spent time with my father and went to visit my mother in Seacrest Village Nursing Home. My mother had suffered a broken hip as a result of a fall a month earlier and in combination with her worsening dementia and stroke-related speech problems, was not doing well.

On my last visit before heading home, my father and I sat by her bedside. She lay in the bed, murmuring at times. It was hard to know if she remembered me, but she remembered my Dad, if only by his name. Her bed was by the window and the sun streamed in brightly. Beyond the window was the parking lot and then the low bay marshland of Barnegat Bay.

My Dad and I talked and tried to engage my mother. She would look at us and smile at times. Her hands shook uncontrollably. She lay before us a mere shadow of the great woman, wife, and mother she had been in her 88 years. And then out of the silence of the room and the confusion dementia casts on days of old, came a moment of clarity. My mother raised her head off the pillow and turning to the light streaming in, said with joy in her voice, “oh, isn’t life good.”

Back Home in the Comfort Zone

Beautiful Barnegat Bay salt marsh. Picture courtesy Greg Molyneux

I left for home the next day with thoughts of my mother weighing heavy on my mind and heart. How ironic, I thought, that a nursing home, where people come to live out the rest of their days, could be built on the great salt marshes of Barnegat Bay where so much life begins. The great striped bass migration started there with the spawn each spring as did the masses of bunker that fed them on their way to “the promised land”. The baymen lived because of the bay’s bounty and Tuckerton, Barnegat, West Creek and so many other bayside towns and villages sprung up around the tidal creeks and sod banks and thrived on the fish, shellfish, and sea ducks all brought about by the marsh. Yet there lay my mother, on the threshold of the life-giving bay, dying…

Two weeks after my visit, the cell phone rang very early on a Monday morning. I glanced at the phone and saw it was my sister. I knew before I even answered that my mother had passed. The most positive force in my life – my guiding light – that everlasting smile – all of that was gone now.

And so I returned again to the shore, to the bay and the marsh with so many tidal creeks running like little fingers into the land. I spent time helping family get ready for my mother’s final goodbye – calling hours, a Mass, and a farewell lunch after. The weather was beautiful, unusually warm, and though deep in grief and busy in the preparations, I could not help but wonder if the striped bass were still around. A peek at Greg’s blog showed that as deep in December as we were, bass were still being caught, and by a few lucky fly fishers, even. And though it had proven to be a much longer striper bite than originally anticipated, it did not surprise me. Mom, in her own way, had asked the bass to stay a bit longer, as if to show to me just how good life was, in the promised land…

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Thanks, Mom!