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By Mark Marquez II
There’s something about surf fishing that haunts nearly every saltwater angler in Jersey.
The sea rolling onto the land, the mist so salty that your mouth tastes like it, the smell of fish deep in the back of your nostrils, the sand sucking your feet into the earth as you walk.
Not to mention the quick silhouette of a striper in a breaking wave, or a thud on your line, and then the line zipping across the surface. This ain't a hang up on a jetty rock!
But the number of trips that a surf angler must take to connect is the ironic thing.
Surf fishing is both popular and one of the more challenging efforts.
“You’ve got to put in the time,” said Paul Comerford, co-owner of Grumpy’s Tackle in Seaside Park. “And you will catch fish.”
Grumpy’s caters especially to the surf angler in this famous town for the sport.
Paul’s words sum up the challenge: This fishing takes a long learning curve.
But he also speaks about the hope promised to the faithful: You will catch fish. If you persevere.
But there are ways to increase your odds, and knowledge can make a difference.
A rundown of what’s happening this fall:
It’s September in New Jersey, and bait fish start pouring out of the bays to move south for the winter. Mullet shoot out first, usually beginning the second week of the month, and then run along the coast in balls of nervous water.
Blue-water species like bonito and false albacore also come in heavily on the mullet. The appearance of bluefish is almost set in stone, though nothing's guaranteed. But in a given year, sometimes bonito and albies swim close to shore, and during other years they don't.
Each year’s migrations are different, and during some years mullet run thick, and on other years they don’t. Last year's population was low, but this year's was the largest that Paul’s probably seen in 10 years.
This year’s albacore and bonito fishing was beautiful around Seaside, Paul said.
But they were scarce in much of the rest of the state.
The albies and bonito will stay a brief time, a matter of weeks.
After the mullet, peanut bunker exit the bays, swarming the coast on a swim south, usually from mid October to November.
|Massive bodies of striped bass are about to push south to their wintering grounds in two primary places: the Hudson River and Chesapeake Bay. They will shool along the coast, the main event that surf fishers are waiting for.
Water temps will determine when the bass will make their move, Paul said, and air temps create the water temps.
Stripers primarily prefer 55- to 65-degree water.
Now this is something to pay attention to. Fall fishing seems to be changing.
Barnegat Inlet's north jetty,
one of the most famous
surf fishing spots in the country.
Photo from New Jersey DEP
Migrating striped bass used to begin to arrive in Jersey the second week of October. They can still arrive at that time, but the action seems to be getting later and later in the year.
Warm autumns have been a trend lately.
Some anglers have given up fishing in recent falls when the stripers weren’t arriving on the usual schedule.
But the fact is that the bass will come, and they always do, Paul said.
Mid October to the end of December is traditionally the time when migrating stripers are here, and November is typically best, Paul said.
But all bets are off now, because of the warm falls, and Paul was catching big stripers consistently through the second week of January last year.
Anglers should probably think about breaking old habits and fishing later in the year if they want the best fishing these days.
Bluefish are much more tolerant of a large range of water temps. They traditionally stick around from September till the beginning of November, and Paul tells anglers that when they see blues begin to disappear, start expecting stripers.
Adult bunker will arrive about the same time that stripers do, but every year is different, and some years bring lots of the adults, and some don’t.
Last year adult bunker showed up during mid October. That might not happen this year, especially because of unsusally warm weather, but then again it might.
When adult bunker are here, stripers should be running rampant. Paul will drop a bunker head in the water during this time and often come up with a 25-pound striper, he said.
Smaller baits including spearing and rainfish will also leave the bays and school the surf in fall, and these along with peanut bunker usually attract smaller stripers. The big bass prefer big baits, namely adult bunker.
Sand eels can also become prevalent during the season, usually in December, and again, these small baitfish usually attract small stripers.
Small, schoolie stripers usually arrive first. Then the big ones follow. One theory is that big stripers forage longer and lag behind.
Stripers are “more of a clean up act,” Paul said. They’ll follow a school of blues that’s chomping through a pod of bunker, picking up the scraps that fall below.
That’s one reason they probably eat a bunker head, Paul said.
Sometimes another group of small stripers are the last to arrive, bringing up the rear after big stripers leave for the season. But Paul has also seen years when only big stripers show up.
One belief is that these small ones bringing up the rear are resident fish. A certain number of resident fish spend all year in the waters. Maybe the last small bass are just the residents going on the feed before hunkering down for the winter.
Other fish also enter the wash, including fluke and weakfish. Still, striped bass, blues, albies and bonito fascinate surf anglers the most.