The abundance of southern New Jersey’s barrier islands originally attracted the Leni Lenape, who left their homes in the woodlands to paddle across the “absegami,” or little water, to enjoy the fruitful summer months on the coast. One can only imagine the natural wonders they encountered. In the early 1600s, the captain and crew of the Fortuyn, credited as the first European explorers to visit the area, named it “Eyren Haven,” or Egg Harbor, due to the large concentration of nesting shorebirds.
Four hundred years later, this region maintains a remarkably diverse ecosystem, with 50 miles of tannic river waters meeting the gentle sloping plane of Cape May and Atlantic counties’ coastline and ocean, a once-frozen glacial riverbed turned vibrant estuary. This is where our story begins with a month-by-month breakdown of the region’s fishery.
Except for a last shot at migratory striper fishing along the ocean, which can hang on into early January before temperatures fall into the wintery abyss, not much saltwater fishing occurs during the first two months of the year.
The near-coastal waters and estuaries are a little too cold, and the best option exists many miles offshore on deep-water wrecks, where tog spend the winter.
Die-hard anglers pass the cold months a few miles inland, around the region’s freshwater sources. The small, non-tidal creeks and lakes that feed the estuary hold kamikaze pickerel hitting everything that moves and the occasional winter-weary largemouth bass or feisty yellow perch. It’s the best medicine to keep cabin fever from setting in. Small soft plastics, crankbaits, and small to midsize streamer flies can fire up the fish, along with an angler’s spirit.
In like a lion, out like a lamb. One minute, spring is in the air, days are longer, dandelions are blooming in the yard, and the once-empty osprey nests see their seasonal tenants move back in. The next minute, we’re looking at icicles hanging from a street sign, wondering if we’ll ever see the sun again.
March fishing centers around the over-wintered striped bass that are awakening from their lethargy. Water temperatures have already begun to rise and the sun is much stronger, comparable in strength to that of an early October sky.
A well-placed soft plastic dropped to the bottom in one of the bay’s deeper holes can equate to a double- or triple-digit day. Toward the end of the month, we’ll see action in the shallows with light jigheads and smaller offerings tempting fish soaking in the strengthening sunlight.
A time of change. Trees are blooming, flowers begin to blossom, and most of the coastal bird species have arrived on their long journeys to summer nesting sites. The flats and bays begin to show life, and not only in the deeper troughs.
With striped bass, we see a changing of the guard. The winter-over stripers of March begin to leave the bays to migrate to their northern spawning grounds while an influx of fish, fresh from the ocean, arrive and prepare to swim up the rivers to spawn.
It is imperative, if we are to rebuild the striped bass population, to be gentle with these fish before, during, and after their spawn, and to practice conservation-minded techniques and release practices. These fish are the future of the striper fishery.
If we’re lucky, sometime during this month large bluefish will move onto the flats, but these have been scarce the past few years. Toward the end of April, the tautog that spent the winter in the bay become more active as the temperatures increase and they resume feeding. These fish will be joined by some westward-migrating blackfish making their way into the bays and nearshore wrecks.
The same goes for summer flounder. Historically, this time of year is when the edges of flats hold sizable doormats that spent the winter hanging in the deeper pockets, awaiting spring.
As waters cross the mid-50-degree threshold, striped bass and bluefish ravage spearing on the flats and along sod banks. Migratory stripers will be pouring out of the river systems and into the ocean and beachfronts, keeping surfcasters busy day and night.
Summer flounder are active as well, foraging on crabs, shrimp, and spearing. Tog have settled into the haunts where they’ll remain for much of the summer as they prepare for their spawn.
Weakfish make an occasional showing, reminding us of what was once an abundant bite many moons ago. Sheepshead begin to emerge from their offshore and southern wintering grounds toward the end of this month. This is also the beginning of gnat season, so dress appropriately during the month and into June. These small, biting bugs will blacken the sky above your head on windless days in the backwaters.
This month, fishing can start off much like parts of May, but as June progresses, the water temperatures get into the 70s and the heat of summer begins to set in. Striped bass are still present but become more nocturnal as the noises of daytime, along with the ever-increasing crowds and Jet Skis burning the flats, send them deeper for much of the day. Still, keep an eye out for a rogue school of bass under bird-play on the flats.
The summer flounder bite in the bay is in full swing since they are no longer confined to the warm mud flats. These fish can be found throughout much of the bay’s mud, sand, and hard-bottom zones. Flounder are the primary focus for many south Jersey anglers this month.
Tog are active and frisky because they are in the thick of their spawning season, so be sure to incorporate good release practices if you run into these slippery crab eaters. Sheepshead begin to show in numbers around area structure, and the bluefish, when they do arrive, continue to destroy anything and everything thrown across them. Keep a rod at the ready as birds working can randomly pop up throughout the bay and inlet.
By now, the heat of summer has set in. Water temperatures in the bay are in the 70s and 80s, and the ocean temperatures are close to that as well.
Summer flounder are still prevalent throughout the bay, but they begin to show signs of feeding only on the cooler tides or closer to the inlets due to the hot temps. Fishermen welcome this change because greenhead flies can be unbearable in the back bays this month. Fluke can also be caught on inshore lumps, wrecks, and reefs, along with black sea bass and the occasional triggerfish.
Larger bluefish have departed the bays, but their smaller counterparts will continue to harass baitfish near the inlets throughout the month.
Striped bass are primarily nocturnal now, but when you do run into them, it’s important to practice the utmost care since release mortality increases during the heat of summer. They’re often better left alone this month.
On structure in the bays, sheepshead, tog, and triggerfish are all active, but the abundance of juvenile sea bass can make catching the target species difficult.
Summer sharks show up in our waters, and a number of species will begin to harass the bunker schools nearshore. It’s a good time to break out the wire leaders and circle hooks. I suggest crushing the barbs because it makes for a painless release boatside for both angler and shark without sacrificing any performance from the hook itself.
We may see an influx of Spanish mackerel in July. Look for bird-play in the bays or run a small metal or slender fly along an ocean bunker school as the macks like to shadow the schools, looking for smaller baitfish that seek refuge in the safety of the large bunker school.
Water temperatures have caught up to the air temperatures and are usually hanging in the 70s in the ocean and the 80s in the backwaters. We have full saturation of the summer species.
Inshore, summer flounder are still going strong since most have gravitated to the cooler, more refreshing waters of the inlets. Triggerfish are abundant on most of the back-bay snags. Sea robins and small sea bass are hitting anything and everything wiggling on the bottom. Sharks patrol inlet areas in search of easy meals.
This is also the time many anglers focus on the oceanfront. Wrecks and reefs can keep things busy all month long between flounder, sea bass, and triggerfish action.
Keep your eye out for Spanish mackerel schools under birds, and for the massive schools of threadfin herring, which have been encouraging other southern visitors to show up in numbers in recent years. Watch the bunker and threadfin schools, not only for sharks but schools of cobia patrolling. They are waiting to inhale a live-lined bunker, eel, or well-placed artificial or fly.
The first weeks of this month can feel much like the previous, but the lessening daylight and first cold fronts of the year begin to drop the temperature just enough to get those back-bay tog chewing again alongside the occasional sneaky sheepshead. Flounder are still abundant and easy to target near both inlets and farther into the back bays as they feed on peanut bunker schools that seem to be everywhere.
With traffic on the water diminishing and fewer Jet Skis interrupting the flats, striped bass begin to feast once again, ravaging the peanut bunker schools. Keep your eyes open for bird-play around any corner.
On the ocean side, wrecks and reefs are going strong with summer flounder action; cobia are usually a little more abundant this month as well. Spanish mackerel can be seen under birds just outside the inlets, so keep a small metal ready to cast whenever heading out front.
The sights, sounds, and manmade disturbances of summer are a memory by the tenth month. Cold fronts are bringing cooler mornings and the shadows are becoming longer. Only the young ospreys remain in the nests for a couple more weeks because their parents have already flown the coop for more equatorial climates.
Mullet have begun to flood out of the bays and along the beachfront. It’s an excellent month to be a surfcaster since the surf comes alive with hungry stripers destroying mullet schools along jetty pockets. My go-to for this scenario (in fact, it’s all I throw in the surf during the mullet run) is the small Super Strike Little Neck Popper, the sinking model. Slowly swum below the breakers, it’s deadly on mullet-run bass in those first few inches of water where the jetties meet the sand.
The backwater tog bite is now at its fall peak as these fish feed hard before migrating offshore or hunkering down as the temperatures drop.
In the back bays, this is a fun month for topwater opportunities on both spin and fly, as striped bass are becoming very active through most of the daytime now. There will be sight-casting opportunities as bass herd bunker schools into the sod-bank pockets in just inches of water. Silence is key during this time, so make sure your trolling motor prop is free of nicks and scratches or get on the poling platform to see these amazing sights unfold before your eyes.
Along the oceanfront, tog action is steady on the nearshore wrecks and reefs, and some cobia still remain. If things come together, the false albacore come in for a couple weeks during this month, providing great run-and-gun, drag-screaming action.
Another transition month, when fall starts to feel a little more like winter. The remaining baitfish begin to thin out as most make their exit the bays into the surf on the way south to warmer waters. The back bays are alive with action as the migratory striper begin to mix in with the residents. Topwater is still an option, but slowly, the fish transition over to subsurface offerings, as the bass make their way from the flats to the deeper channels, as frigid overnight lows chill the shallow waters.
The back half of this month can make for action-packed action jigging in the deeper holes with a 5-inch D.O.A. Jerk Shad and 3/8-ounce jighead being my favorite.
On the oceanfront, November has historically been a great month for striped bass, but with a lack of abundant year-classes and warmer fall weather, we’ve only seen brief flurries of inconsistent action after Thanksgiving in recent years.
Anglers may find success working inlet rips with bucktails and live baits on days it’s too rough to make it out past the safety of the inlet. On calm days, anglers can also run trolling motors close to the sandbars, casting inside the trough for schoolie stripers migrating down the coastline.
Nearshore wreck and reef tautog action in the ocean peaks this month, so don’t forget to bring crabs just in case the bird-play isn’t there to find the stripers.
Frosty mornings and noticeably shorter days leave us longing for the humid mornings and sweltering summer heat; cold fronts seem to drop in weekly now. In the back bays, striped bass action usually starts off strong as the migratory fish from the north have made their way into their wintering holes where they mix with the residents to spend the winter. This can make for some fun jigging in these deep pockets. Have a reliable fishfinder and side-scanning sonar to locate these fish. Most years, anglers can count on running into schools through Christmas.
Large migratory stripers will still be moving along the oceanfront this month, though falling water temperatures may send them offshore. Again, sonar with side-scanning capabilities is recommended and anglers should always keep their eyes on the sky. Concentrations of birds this month usually mean schools of hungry stripers. Depending on the forage, anything from a live-lined bunker on a circle hook to a slender jig (or casted 9-inch swim shad) can be the call.
By the end of the month, the fishing usually starts to wind down, though it may be as much from angler fatigue after weeks of cold exposure than it is from slow fishing. People usually hang it up for the season by Christmas, so boat traffic is very minimal most days. This brings to mind a New Year’s afternoon about 8 years ago when I ran out with a friend, and there wasn’t another boat in sight. We didn’t make it more than a half mile outside the inlet before we encountered a dozen whales feeding on a massive wall of bunker. Every drift through the pod with a live bunker, large swim shad or bucktail yielded a hookup to a decent-sized bass. It lasted until we couldn’t feel our hands or feet anymore. Meanwhile, the annual polar bear plunge could be seen going on in the distance, with crowds of people braving the frigid temperatures to take a dip, yet no one knew of the incredible striper fishing happening a few hundred yards away.