Thursday, September 27, 2012

Summer, pt. III - Striped Bass Edition


Time for the third and final installment of the CriticalAngling summer series. This time, we'll visit the Mid-Atlantic coast that is popularly called "Jersey Shore."

So if you recall, I got married back in June. We got married in Ohio near a lot of my wife's family. Most of my extended family, however, is located on the East Coast between New Jersey and Maryland.  While I have a lot of aunts and uncles in good health, they were too busy taking care of my not-so-healthy grandparents to be able to attend the wedding. So we took a short 4-day trip to see my family in both coastal states. I was able to do a little poking around estuary including a short afternoon trip with Capt. Joe Hughes of Jersey Cape Guide Service (

One thing I love about this region of the country is the food. My aunt lives close to Philadelphia, so cheesesteaks are prime for pickin'.

Gooey Cheesesteak on Fresh Deli Rolls. Mmmmm...

Down at the Jersey Shore, at the boardwalk, pizza is an all-time favorite. I have always been loyal to Mack & Manco, even after the partnership re-arrangement causing them to now be "Manco & Manco." You decide which one has the better ring to it. I'll be busy eating this delicious foldable treat.
Manco & Manco, formally Mack & Manco Pizza. The Best.
Jersey Shore style. G.T.L. baby...

A little south of the boards is a very lively ecosystem in a narrow, meandering inlet connecting warm back bay water with cooler ocean water. There are no jetties or dredged canals in this little inlet, which I think contributes to its fishiness. I have caught a lot of stripers, blues, and keeper size fluke (flounder) here in years past. I didn't bring my rods this time, so I was happy to just explore. There were Horseshoe Crabs waltzing along areas where sparse flooded grass tickled submerged rocks, and small croakers, silversides, and other baitfish joined hermit crabs in feeding on the discarded carcasses of kingfish (see video below).

Horseshoe Crab--A natural foot masseuse when wading at night. 

Finally it was time to meet up with Capt. Joe. This guy is just an all-around awesome person and that makes him an especially good fishing guide. Tiffany and I had fished with him a number of times before on our Jersey ventures, and we always enjoy his company whether or not the fish are biting. Fortunately, most of the time, they are--in no small part due to Joe's ability to pick out the hungry ones for us to seduce.

When I called Joe a few weeks before the trip, he told me he was pretty much booked solid. He saw a few hours on a Friday evening that he wasn't fishing, but would have otherwise gone to resting between a long day offshore and an early morning back bay trip the next morning. Somehow, he managed to squeeze us in and didn't seem the least bit tired. He worked his butt off for us and dazzled us with his South Jersey charm.

Fearing that the intense summer heat had driven the stripers off of the marsh flats for good--with water temps around 90F--Capt. Joe told me stearnly before we boarded that the plan was to start out getting some fluke on live minnows. While I'd rather toss artificials in skinny water, I love this region and I don't get out here much, so I took the same approach I've taken to fishing lately--I'm just along for the ride.
Fluke love 'em a nice bridge. 

Capt. Joe Hughes rigging up for fluke. Note the bridge.

We caught about 15 fluke between us in about an hour or so. That's pretty good action, but we were using live minnows. Tiffany kept getting snagged on debris, so most of those hookups were mine. Unfortunately, no keeper size fish so they all went back in the brine without pics. Had we caught a keeper or two, I'd not only have pics, but I'd have had a happy belly. Fresh flounder is nice fleshy white meat. Yum.

The sun was angling lower in the sky, and the tide was starting to pull all the critters from their shallow marshy haunts, so Joe fired up the engine and meandered us to the very back of "out back" as they call the bay area here. You could say this is the most "bay" you can get in the bay--the little creeks with all their elbows, colliding and re-routing around the undercut sod banks where fiddlers, shrimp, silversides and mullet abound.

Joe got us in position on the first flat, the water still up in--but quickly leaving-- the tall grass atop the sod. I think it was my fourth cast that scored the first fish. Did I mention Joe only fishes topwater this time of year? This is about irritating the stripers. And boy did we irritate them.
Tiff weighs a fine schoolie on the Boga. 

Over a stretch of bank no more than 150' wide, we spent the next hour missing as many explosions on our Skitter-Pops as we do setting steel into fishy flesh. There were even a few we came tight to, but came unbuttoned. I don't remember the number, exactly. Suffice it say we had fun.
Tiff reels in another from the magic flat.

The coolest thing was that on a single flat, the stripers were of mixed size. Often fish like to shoal up with same-size buddies, but I caught both the smallest and the largest fish of the trip within feet of each other. Little guy was about 16"; Big momma was about 29" and thick.

"Nice to see you, too," I imagine her saying...

Weapon of Choice
We were catching stripers in 85 F water only deep enough to cover their backs! We couldn't believe it. And they were healthy, happy fish! I even had one that Joe and I both agreed had taken lessons from a redfish: The angle of the sun didn't allow us to see the fish in the slightly stained water, so we blind cast at points and cuts in the grass. On one cast, I was popping with a good cadence, when a bulbous wake emerged from the right side of my popper 15' from the boat and proceeds to bolt like lightning to my left. He had just been sunning himself! No interest in the popper for that fish.

We started to run out of water beneath us on the prolific flat of choice, but more importantly our escape route was drying up faster. We had to cross a shallow stretch to get back to the dock, so we had to call it quits. However, Joe wanted to try one more spot on the way back in. Once in the safety of "deep" water (5 feet?) we were to quickly drift by a shoreline and make every cast count. The tide was pulling water fast around a corner, and the shoreline we faced was tucked up just out of the rapid current. Little schools of 3-4" mullet pushed wakes the surface with their bulky torsos and heads, back and forth along the exposed sod. Holes in the dirt wall where fiddlers took shelter were fully exposed and reminded me of a wall at my old school that I used to run by and drag my fully-extended hand along; the quick covering-and-exposing of the tiny holes in the wall would make a sort of 'bubbly' sound that I found pretty entertaining.
The view on the ride toward spot #2. This feels like home.

I had already made my first cast when Joe spoke up from the poling platform telling me where to focus my next shot. He didn't think I made such a wise choice. Just then, white water erupted from the bank and under my popper. "But CATCH THIS FISH FIRST!" Joe shouted, followed by a self-deprecating laughter for his speaking too quickly and erroneously. But alas, I wouldn't catch that fish, or the next one, or the next one. Tiffany and I must have missed 8 more shots along that drift. Oh well, it's good to know they're there. The heat didn't push them out. And just like my relatives in the area, they're residents of the Garden State...So we'll be back to visit them again.

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