he months of April and May traditionally initiate a time of rebirth. Mother Nature awakens out of hibernation and blesses us with her beauty and splendor for yet another season. As our surroundings change, visual stimulation and aromatic smells permeate our consciousness governing our own sense of rebirth in our daily endeavors.
Trout fishermen awaken at this time year as a much-needed cure for cabin fever traditionally arrives, opening day. A secluded angler flyfishing in a babbling brook paints a picture of solitude and tranquility. The angler delights in ten to fifteen inch rainbow and brook trout coming to net and returns home satisfied saying, yes, this is spring in New Jersey.
But visualize now not ten to fifteen inch fish but ten to fifteen pound fish on the fly rod. This is saltwater flyfishing in New Jersey in the springtime. Opportunities abound at this time of year for the saltwater flyfisherman to do battle with their coveted trophy, the striped bass. From Sandy Hook to Cape May, the flyfisherman can find rock jetties and long stretches of pristine beaches perfectly suited for another "season in the suds".
But where is a flyfisherman to go in the early part of the spring season to maximize his time and success, and hook into fish of such proportion. In the earliest part of the season your best bet will be to concentrate your efforts in the back bays, coastal rivers, tidal creeks and ponds.
You will find that these areas will warm more quickly than the open ocean or beachfront. That magic water temperature of fifty degrees will be reached much more quickly here than in the ocean. This is mainly due to the warm water run-off from the land after early season rains. The fact that these areas are also shallower and usually have dark muddy bottoms will also help to contribute to absorbing the sun's rays, and thereby heating the water.
The most productive times in these areas will be on the outgoing tides, as this warmer water flows towards the ocean. The incoming tides will bring in much cooler water from the ocean turning the fish off.
In New Jersey, this warming trend also initiates the historical arrival of Alosa pseudoharengus and Alosa aestivalis, better known as the alewife and blueback herring respectively. This traditionally signals the start of the saltwater flyfishing season. The adults average anywhere from six to ten inches in length but can run as large as twelve inches and have a single black spot high on the body behind the gill plate. Their flanks are silvery and they have a deeply forked tail.
Since the alewife and blueback are anadromous in nature, their primordial instincts will drive them to return to freshwaters to spawn. This will make any tidal rivers, bays, creeks, lakes, or ponds, which are fed by freshwaters, suitable spawning grounds. These silvery flanks of baitfish will lure stripers of truly trophy proportions to the immediate vicinity along the waters' edge allowing the flyrodder to be within striking range.
There will be several prime locations that the flyrodder will want to concentrate around during the early part of the season. If you chose to fish on the ocean side fish around any freshwater outflow pipe that has a good tidal flow. Two principal locations in central New Jersey will be the Wreck Pond discharge pipe on the Sea Girt-Spring Lake border, and the Deal Lake flume situated between Asbury Park and Deal. Look for the herring to stage and school up on the ocean side and then make a mass migration during the full and new moon phases of this month. Areas like this are ideal for the flyrodder because the entrance to these migration routes are narrow and concentrate the activity in an easily identifiable place.
Inlet mouths, which lead into estuaries, are another prime location to cash in on some tremendous action. The Manasquan, Shark River, and Barnegat Inlets, along with the mouth of Raritan Bay at the tip of Sandy Hook, are all ideal locations for hooking into a lunker linesider.
As you travel back up into any of these estuaries there will be numerous places where stripers will ambush prey. A small boat with a minimal draft is perfect for working around these areas, which are otherwise inaccessible by foot. The sedge banks in Barnegat Bay are a perfect example, and are well known for producing large bass in the early part of the season.
The Point Pleasant Canal which connects Barnegat Bay to the Manasquan River is another early season hot spot that is worth investigating. The flyfisherman can access the canal either by boat or from the bank. Because of the very strong tidal flow in the canal the trick to fishing it for the flyfisherman will be to be there during the slack tide period. If you look at a local ocean tide chart for the area, the same tide stage in the canal will run approximately three hours later than those predicted for the ocean. Putting yourself there at this slack time period will give you the opportunity to fish the canal without any of its strong currents, which would prevent your line from getting down into the strike zone. Depending on the moon phase this slack period will last from thirty to forty-five minutes.
Pebble and Union Beach located in the back of Raritan Bay off of route 36 are also an early season haven for the flyfisherman. These areas are easily accessible by foot and can be waded. Also, the Shrewsbury and Navesink Rivers, which feed into Raritan Bay, are both excellent producers of early season bass.
When fishing these early season hot spots you can definitely count on catching bass. If you don't hook into a fish of trophy proportion you will always have smaller or short bass to fill the void. The estuary systems of Raritan and Barnegat Bays along with the Manasquan River have developed into well-established nursery grounds for the striped bass over the years.
Striped bass are also an anadromous species that spawn in the spring. The major spawning grounds for the striped bass caught in our area are the Delaware and Hudson Rivers. The Manasquan River is not conducive for these spawning activities due to its relatively shallow depth and weaker tidal flow. These areas will however, hold the young of the stock, which enter these waters. These fish will be present all year round. As the water warms with the changing weather conditions these short bass will present the first opportunity for the flyrodder to hook up even before the larger bass arrive.
In the early part of the season your most productive times to flyfish will be in the mid-afternoon till just before dark. This will allow the sun's rays to warm the water throughout the day. Night fishing at this time will usually not be productive. The pre-dawn hour before sunrise will become productive as we move into the later part of the spring.
The best flies to use to hook into a large bass will be large flat-sided streamer patterns in the five to seven inch range. Your flies should be full bodied and tied to your leader with a loop knot so the fly will undulate side to side as it is held in the currents. For the alewife, a bronze back with greenish hues will most closely resemble this baitfish. The blueback, as the name implies, has a bluish hue or tint to its dorsal surface.
Many other hues can be incorporated into the fly design of the herring pattern. Some purple, lavender, or even pink will add a nice touch along with the basic foundation colors.
Keep in mind that when these baitfish reflect light many different portions of the visible spectrum will be dispersed throughout the water column. When we see the bait out of the water it appears different to some degree compared to what the bass sees when the reflected light remains in the water and travels to the fish's eye. The cone receptors in the bass's eye are different than those found in the human eye in terms of their complexity. This will account for the differences in perceptions. Putting in different hues and some flash will maybe add just what is needed to get that trophy to strike out at your fly rather than the real thing.
Since the water will still be relatively cold in the beginning part of the season stripers will be found deeper in the water column. This will necessitate the use of quick sinking lines or shooting heads to put your fly in the strike zone. Flies should be fished slowly and with a strip and pause retrieve to compensate for the sluggish nature of the bass at this time.
Another effective technique is to hold your fly in a deep current allowing it to undulate bait and forth. This technique is quite effective when used at the outflow of discharges or at the mouths of estuaries and tidal creeks. This will simulate a staging or resting herring.
Putting yourself in the right place and at the right time will definitely be the key to your early spring season success. Take the time to explore new areas and don't be apprehensive about giving them a try. You may be pleasantly surprised when your efforts pay off with an early season trophy.
Guide's Note: For those of us who are not flyfishermen live-lining these baits will result in the largest stripers of the spring season. As these baitfish start to congregate in large schools anglers can net them with cast nets or catch them on small gold hooks or Zeke's herring darts. Plugs, worms, clams, and flies will all produce fish in the spring but cannot compare to the results that are possible with a live herring. Stripers, particularly large ones, find them irresistible.
One of the local fishing clubs that specializes in livelining herring is the Spring Lake Liveliners. The number of large bass taken by their members is very impressive with a 59 pounder the largest to date. The club has won the Shore's Grand Trophy for Inter-Club Competition the last four years in a row. Here are some of their tips which have made them so successful:
- Alewives or bluebacks in the eight to eleven inch range are the size of choice. The alewife is preferred slightly over the blueback because of its ability to remain alive longer, thus providing better action to entice a burly linesider.
- The set-up is basic. A 5/0 or 6/0 short shank tuna hook tied directly to 20 pound test line without any breaks or barrel swivel in the line which would normally attach a leader directly above the hook. Ande or Maxima lines are an excellent choice because of their ability to resist abrasion.
- Unlike fishing a plug, you do not have to worry about a line twist problem with the herring. The less terminal tackle you use the better the herring will swim.
- Conventional gear is favored over spinning gear due to better line control and more power that can be generated to subdue a large bass.
- Knowing when to set the hook after your bait is taken will be one of the biggest problems that a beginner will encounter. A big bass will usually take the bait in one swipe, but the ensuing runs will be different for every fish. Over time an angler will develop a feel for when the time is right. There is no set rule or numbers to count to that will work with every fish all the time.
So there you have it. Whether you choose the long rod or anyone of the more traditional methods of surf fishing for the early spring, in the end the result will hopefully be the same. A trophy linesider to start your "season in the suds."