Archive for stripers

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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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.”

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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!

 

 

 

Looking Back on 2013

Posted in Fishing Conditions, Fishing Reports, Flies - Local Favorites, Saltwater, Smallmouth Bass Fishing, Trout Fishing, Uncategorized with tags , , , on April 3, 2014 by stflyfisher

It’s always helpful to take a look back before moving forward. And while this post is a little late as we near the close of March, for most Southern Tier fly anglers, the traditional fly fishing season has not quite started. So, here’s the way I see 2013 from the fly fishing rear view mirror…

Early season fly fishing for trout in 2013 was very good. I started the season, per tradition, fishing Cayuta Creek with fly fishing friend Dan. The stocked browns never fail on Cayuta and offer a great way to shake off the dust and rust from a long winter. The creek was in great shape and full of that blue-green early season water fly fishers love to see. Particularly noteworthy was catching my first fish on my own fly – in this case a Picket Pin – and an early season favorite.

First fish on one of my own flies...

First fish on one of my own flies…

I also caught what I believe was a hold-over or native brown on a JJ Jigs Picket Pin streamer, a first for me. I once briefly hooked and saw the flash of a very large brown under a downfall and lost another good one in the same spot.

A nice Cayuta brown caught on a picket pin streamer...

A nice Cayuta brown caught on a picket pin streamer…

As was the case in 2012, pre-spawn smallmouth bass did not disappoint. And it was a good thing, because 2013 was one of the worst fishing years for smallmouth in my record books, one that I’ve deemed “the summer of no smallmouth“.

A nice pre-spawn smallmouth...

A nice pre-spawn smallmouth…

Blame high water and lots of it combined with working for a living and not always being able to capitalize on flows settling down to wade-able levels. It seemed there were many weeks when I would drive by the rivers on the way home from work, watch them clearing and dropping, only to watch them rise again with late week or weekend rains. There were a few good outings, including a jaunt on the upper Susquehanna in Windsor where a wooly bugger soft hackle streamer I tied scored some very nice smallmouth.

This early fall smallie took one of JJ-Jig's "home invader" streamers on the swing...

This early fall smallie took one of JJ Jig’s “home invader” streamers on the swing…

Blues off New Jersey were quite simply and truly ‘the blues’ this year. As reported on the Miss Barnegat Light website, it was a weird fishing year with such a lack of bluefish that the boat switched to fluke fishing all summer for the first time in over 20 years. What happened to the blues? The word is that they were far offshore and could be had if one was willing to go for them. One boat reported finding the big guys in abundance offshore where they normally hunt tuna – in this case upwards of 40 miles out of Barnegat Inlet. Based on economics, party boats would rarely venture out that far for bluefish fares. So, aside from one day of tussling with a bunch of big ones in the fall, it was a lousy year for blues.

Getting back to trouting, I was introduced to two great subsurface patterns that really impressed:

I fished a sulfur soft hackle during the sulfur hatch and did quite well. This was not a first for me – I had been introduced to soft hackles way back on a trip to the Bighorn River in Montana – but it was a first on the West Branch of the Delaware. Along with some nice browns, I caught a bunch of dandy rainbows.

A beautiful West Branch rainbow...

A beautiful West Branch rainbow…

I also ran into a nice guy named Tom at the parking access. We got to talking as anglers are apt to do. Tom had not fished Ball Eddy so I offered that I’d be glad to show him around and I was glad I did. Not only was Tom a great fly fisherman, he also introduced me to the caddis sparkle pupa – some he tied up himself. I was fishing a different caddis pupa pattern and not getting nearly the action he was. He threw me a few and as they say, I became a ‘believer’.

The fall streamer bite on the Catskill rivers was so-so for me this year. Conditions were classic when I went in the fall and I did hook up, but it was nothing like I’ve experienced in the past.

A new old rod… I made it a point to cull my ‘stick’ inventory and sold off some in order to purchase a classic Scott rod that I intend to wave above local waters in 2014.

Scott 906/7 BT

Scott 906/7 BT

This Scott 907 BT (“Bass/Trout” rod) was built in the original Scott factory in Berkeley California. The original owner purchased it in 1993 and it has been fished far and wide, including a trip to New Zealand. It’s a “907” rod with a twist – a 6 weight trout tip and a 7 weight bass tip. I’ve always loved my Scott 907B and look forward to putting many more miles on this rod.

‘Turnover’ in the fall is always an interesting time. The science behind this event is that as the temperatures cool, the surface water of ponds and lakes cools, sinks, and displaces the relatively warmer bottom water. This turnover creates up-welling of the bottom water which continues until water temperatures are consistent, top to bottom. Before this process is complete, the water can turn stained or dirty, but afterwards, it’s clear as can be, and refreshingly so on our pond, which is normally murky and weedy in the summer to early fall. I took my kayak out on the pond in mid-November on an unusually warm day and experienced some incredible streamer fishing. I fished my St Croix 5/6 weight with a sink tip line and short leader tipped with one of my weighted bugger / soft hackle variants and had a blast “sight fishing” to deep-cruising largemouth. It was neat watching them inhale the fly in water as clear as the Caribbean. And many of these bass put quite the bend in the rod.

Stripers were hit and miss this year, as recently posted. I managed 2 pool-winners and caught a total of 6. I missed another big one right at the boat. The bass followed my flutter jig right up to the boat, took a swipe, and then bolted! It’s always exciting to watch big bass in feeding mode!

A great way to end 2013...

A great way to end 2013…