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Trophy Weakfish on the Fly!
by Capt. Jim Freda
Shore Catch Guide Service

he resurgence of weakfish along the New Jersey Coast has captured the attention of many anglers as a world-class fishery has developed over the last several years. Opportunities abound in our coastal rivers, back bay channels and flats, tidal creeks, and inlets to hook into weakfish that have been tipping the scales in the seven to fifteen pound range. This fishery has been so good in recent years that the savvy striper swiper has now turned his attention to these yellow finned denizens that invade our waters each May.

Copyright © Jim Freda The weakfish's robust fighting ability coupled with the fact that they fall easy prey to a feathered imitation has also put them high on the list for the longrodder. But it is not the one to five pound fish that are readily available that gets our attention but rather our quest becomes those trophy tiderunners that will without question pretzel your rod.

The most opportunistic time to target these 'world class' fish is during the month of May. Each spring weakfish will migrate into New Jersey waters from the south as they seek out suitable spawning grounds in our back bay waters. By mid to late April some weakfish have already been caught but the bulk of the school will arrive in mid-May. Large female spawners in the ten to fifteen pound range become the target. Last season the largest weakfish taking on the fly came from the Sandy Hook area and was in the eighteen-pound range. If you are a relatively new fly fisher don't be fooled by this quarry's name thinking that it is indeed weak. This couldn't be farther from the truth, as even a five to six pound weakfish will put up a great fight on light tackle. This moniker instead is related to the fact that the weakfish has a soft membranous mouth that will tear easily when hooked.

Many salty flyrodders have their roots in sweet water where browns, brookies, and rainbows gave them the first taste to that longrod bend. Well, you will feel right at home when targeting weakfish because they look and act a lot alike. They are however not related.

Copyright © Jim Freda Weakfish and are actually a member of the drum family and have similarities that are associated with croakers. They have a body color that is silvery in appearance with dark olive or grayish backs. Wavy dark lines or dark blotches are a distinctive feature along their sides and back. Their dorsal and tail fins are lightly colored and their ventral, anal, and marginal fins are yellow.

So what has happened in the last half a decade that in each new season we are seeing bigger and better returns of these fish to our waters? For one thing we have seen netting restrictions and bans that have been placed on this fishery in some of our southern states where weakfish will winter over. As a result weakfish numbers have been increasing steadily.

But there is also another factor in my mind that has had a big impact on the recovery of our weakfish stocks. This factor would be the decline in the numbers of large bluefish that we have been seeing along our beaches in the fall.

Large alligator blues those in the ten to fifteen pound range will make easy prey of weakfish as they exit our back bay waters and begin their migration along the beach to the south. Constant pressure from these big choppers day in and day out can quickly keep the population in check.

But this has not happened in recent years. Today along the New Jersey Coast you will be hard pressed to find any type of consistent big bluefish action along the beach. Yes, we will have a day here and there but it is nothing like I remember in the eighties when daily big blues on the beach were almost a guarantee.

Let me point out that I am not saying that the big bluefish stocks are in jeopardy, because I do not think that they are, but rather where these big fish have been showing up is the issue. The pelagic nature of the bluefish will congregate these fish in deeper blue water where plenty of bait is located. As a result these fish can be spread far and wide all along the eastern seaboard or even across the Atlantic for that matter.

Without the presence of these voracious predators along the beach weakfish populations will thrive as the majority of the fish including the first young of the year will see reduced pressure. If these big blues reappear with any regularity along our beaches in the fall I think we will see a weakfish population that will decline. To me this is just another one of Mother Nature's natural cycles.

Timing is Key
We normally find that the first several weeks of May is when the largest weakfish of the season will appear around our inlets and enter into our back bays. Last year our prime time was from May 6th to May 20th. This year however good action could persist into the early part of June, as it seems that we are running about two weeks behind schedule with the cold winter and early spring that we have seen here in New Jersey.

Your best bet in the earliest part of the season will be to work the outgoing tide especially around dusk. This is when the warmest water will be present and these fish will be most active. The incoming tide will bring in much colder ocean water into the back bays and fish can become sluggish as a result. This incoming tide is much better during the summer months when the bay waters warm into the seventies. Now the influx of the cooler ocean waters will turn the fish on.

Another consideration that you will want to pay attention to is boat traffic. Weakfish are extremely skittish around boat traffic and schools that are on the surface will quickly be driven down. It is best to avoid high traffic areas. Some of your best opportunities will come at night when boat traffic is virtually non-existent. This coupled with the fact that weakfish are highly nocturnal in their feeding behavior can really put the trophies onto the fly.

Finding the Right Spots
Copyright © Jim Freda Weakfish are attracted to structure and currents so finding areas like these are going to be the key to your success. In the back bay these trophy fish will feed heavily during their pre-spawn period. They will look to ambush baits along ledges and drop-offs that are closely associated with deeper channels. Any area that drops off from a flat to eight to ten feet of water or more are ideal locations to target.

These areas will be easily identifiable at low tide as the deeper water of the channel will appear much darker in color than the surrounding area of the flat. Wearing a pair of polarized sunglasses will be a definite aid in identifying contrasting profiles. When you come across these areas make a mental or written note of them so that at high tide you will be able to return to the exact same spot. If you are in a boat it is a good idea to mark them on your GPS.

In the earliest part of the season some of the first spots to check will be around any warm water discharges from outflow pipes or flumes. Any power plants that discharge directly into the bay will also be hot spots. Tidal creek mouths are other areas that will draw fish. And don't overlook the flats either as the weakfish will move up onto them in the beginning of the season.

As the water warms in the bay the weakfish will spread out from these areas and will be found in the more numerous channels that run through the bay. The fish will stay here throughout the summer and into the fall before they make their move to migrate south. Inlet mouths will also become very productive at this time.

Tactics that Work
Weakfish can be a lot of fun on five to eight weight rods but when targeting the trophies I would be prepared with at least a nine or ten weight rod. The reason being is that the longer your battle persists with these fish the greater the chance that the hook will tear from their soft mouth. These heavier rod weights will able to generate much more power and leverage to subdue your quarry more quickly. As a result a lost fish is much less likely. Also keep in mind that when a big tidrunner takes your fly you will not only be fighting the fish but also the strong current that it will use to its advantage.

Copyright © Jim Freda The other consideration for using these rods will be the need to throw heavy sinking lines to put your fly at the level the fish are at. When fishing areas associated with currents that drop off quickly to the ten to fifteen foot ranges you will need to throw 400-500 grain lines. Trying to use an intermediate line in these locations will only result in your fly drifting over the top of the fish instead of in front of them.

Many times I have seen anglers get terribly frustrated when working an area that you know is holding weakfish but each cast keeps coming up empty. The fly is right but it is not at the proper depth to draw strikes. It will be best to carry several different weight lines or heads so that you can adjust accordingly to the current speed and depth when you come upon a fish holding location. If your fly is occasionally picking up some weed or detritus you know you have it at the right depth, that is right on the bottom.

Even with the right weight line you should also keep in mind where you set up to cast to a particular hole or drop-off. You may have to move up above a particular location so that when your fly and line swept down current it will end up where the fish are actually holding.

You will also always want your fly to complete its drift as it tails out along a channel or bank. Many times weakfish will follow your fly and strike out at it as it moves along the side of the ledge or drop-off. The weakfish will use this sloping topography to their advantage as they pin the baits along its sides.

Another very effective tactic particularly when fishing from a small boat is to anchor up over a suitable holding location and chum with grass or sand shrimp. Fresh grass or sand shrimp can usually be purchased from a commercial netter that will sell them to you by the quart. You usually can meet them at their dock while calling ahead to let them know that you are coming. Do your homework here as to sources that are available if this is the tactic you are going to employ.

When chumming it is important to not over chum or for that matter to under chum. Over chumming will keep the weakfish back in the slick as a free meal drifts down to them. Under chumming will not get their attention or hold them within line drifting range. Knowing what is just the right amount comes with experience. Once the weakfish are set up just behind the transom it can be non-stop action for quite awhile.

When utilizing sinking lines a short leader is all that is needed. Weakfish are not leader shy and keeping your leader short will ensure that your fly rides at the same level of the line. A short leader will also result in more hook-ups as you will have a better feel for a subtle take or strike. A three to five foot section of twelve to fifteen pound fluorocarbon is all that is necessary. Using sinking lines that are density compensated or level sink will also give you an advantage as these lines will decrease the amount of belly in your line that is paid out as you feed line into the current.

Reserve your intermediate lines for when the weakfish move up onto the flats or when the tide is slack and no current is running. You will also come across times when the weakfish are blitzing baits right on the surface. Two years ago at Barnegat Inlet this happened repeatedly in the early summer morning hours. When I first experienced it I thought it was a marauding school of toothy blues from a distance. But as the fish pulled closer they were all yellow finned instead of yellow eyed.

Flies that Produce Best
Weakfish have a diveCopyright © Jim Freda rse diet that includes a variety of marine organisms such as grass shrimp, sand shrimp, worms, spearing, anchovies, killies, peanut bunker, juvenile herring, baby snappers, spots, croakers, crabs, clams, and other crustaceans. Their two prominent canine teeth that so viperously protrude from their upper jaw indicate that they are an aggressive predator that stalks it prey.

Clousers, half and halfs, deceivers, and Bob Popovics jiggy fleyes are the flies that produce best. You will need to remember however that for the bigger weakfish you will want to go with flies in the five to six inch ranges. The smaller sized flies will catch all sizes of weakfish but your catch will be dominated by plenty of aggressive weakfish in the one to five pound ranges. Since these fish are not our primary target scale up in length. You may not get as many takes but when you do it will most likely be a weakfish of much larger size.

When fishing any weighted fly the best retrieve to produce strikes is a slow strip where your fly drops back in the current as it falls. This stop and drop action, as I like to call it, usually drives the weakfish crazy. Look for the strike to occur as soon as you start to strip after your fly has fallen.

The colors that produce best are yellow, chartreuse, or pink over white. If these do not produce try switching to a lavender or purple color with some flash added in. At night black is always a good choice. Last season a yellow over white jiggy fleye was an extremely hot fly and accounted for many big fish.

When working within a chum slick one of the most productive flies is a Popovics ultra shrimp. Dead drifting this fly back through the slick below the surface is often a deadly tactic. Another fly that works well in the slick is a sparsely tied clouser or jiggy fleye in rust over white or orange over white. Both of these patterns also nicely imitate the translucent appearance of a grass shrimp.

Left - Rich Swisstack, Right - Dave Alue

Get Out There Now
This year's class of tiderunners will hopefully be a run to remember as more and more fly fishers seek out that trophy fish. The previous IGFA record was nineteen pounds two ounces and is shared by Dennis Rooney caught October 11, 1984 at Jones Beach, Long Island and by William E. Thomas caught on May 20, 1989 in Delaware Bay.

With the size of the fish that we have been seeing it was no surprise at all when Shore Catch Guide Rich Swisstack guided Dave Alu to a 19 Lb 12 oz Weakfish on bait from the surf of Staten Island, NY on May 7, 2008 — establishing a new IGFA All Tackle World Record (in the picture above Rich is on the left and Dave Alu on the right). There are also many IGFA tippet class records that are easily within reach. So get out there and give it a try, the fish are big, plentiful, and willing to cooperate. Just remember to take care releasing all fish that are not slated for the dinner table. This will help to ensue that this tremendous fishery will continue for everyone in the years to come. End

Copyright © 1998 - 2014 Jim Freda, All Rights Reserved

Articles by Captain Jim Freda

Capt. Jim FREDAEmail Captain Jim Freda

Jim Freda is a highly respected charter captain, author, outdoor writer, seminar speaker, and photographer. His first book Fishing the New Jersey Coast, has been a best seller and received the “New Jersey Center for the Book Award” as one of the most notable NJ books. He co-authored a second book Saltwater Fishing a Tactical Approach, A Guide for Northeast Beach and Boat Fishermen, with his Shore Catch associates Capt Gene Quigley and Shell E. Caris.

Jim has weekly fishing columns that appear in the Bergen Record, NJ's second largest newspaper and the Coast Star and Ocean Star newspapers of Monmouth and Ocean Counties. Nationally, Jim is a contributing editor for Fly Fishing in Saltwaters magazine and also writes for Fly Fisherman magazine, Saltwater Sportsman, Eastern Fly Fishing, Big Game Journal, and Regionally he writes for On the Water magazine where he has is own monthly column, The Fisherman magazine and the NJ Federation of Sportsman Clubs newspaper.

As a seminar speaker Jim is featured as one of the celebrities on the Saltwater Sportsman National Seminar Series, as one of the “Stars of the Show” at the Fly Fishing Show in Somerset, NJ, the Northeast’s largest fly fishing show and is on the National Pro Seminar slate at the Toyota Saltwater Expo also in Somerset. He is also regularly featured each year at many of the local fishing clubs in the surrounding area including the State’s two largest clubs the Hudson River Fishermen’s Association and the Saltwater Anglers of Bergen County. Capt Jim has also been a guest speaker at all the Trout Unlimited Clubs in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Jim has also been a special guest speaker at the Bloomberg Network in New York City.

He is a member of the National Factory Pro Team for St. Croix Rods and pro staff for Fins Fishing Line, AVET Reels, Spro, Gamakatsu, Hogy, Korkers, Costa Del Mar, Columbia Sportswear and Aquaskinz.

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