Strong, beautiful and elusive, New England’s squeteague should be high on your list of target species this spring.
I’ve always found weakfish a bit confounding. These fish are tremendously elusive. While bluefish, and even bass, can’t help but make their presence known in a region, if it weren’t for a few very skilled anglers with meticulous logbooks, weakfish could slide through an area totally unnoticed – and I’m sure they do in most New England waters. You won’t find weakfish blitzing on top like blues, it’s rare to find them popping and feeding on top at night like bass, and since these fish are notoriously boat-shy (more so than any species I’ve encountered in the Northeast) they are seldom detected by fishfinders. To make chasing these fanged fish even more difficult, the few anglers who successfully target this species in New England are extremely tight-lipped about it. Most of these fishermen are only willing to report on their action weeks after the bite is over, and for good reason – weakfishing is hard work!
The best way to pin down that New England weakfish this spring is to take anglers’ experiences from previous years and combine them with a good knowledge of the species itself. This article should provide you with a solid base of both.
The Elusive Squeteague
Although weakfish are much more pleasing to the eye than black drum, they are in fact members of the same family of fishes, the Sciaenidae, or drum family. This family of fish can be recognized by the high, triangular dorsal fin followed by a long, low soft-rayed dorsal. An even more distinctive characteristic of this species is their modified swim bladder that allows them to make a croaking or drumming noise which plays a role in their breeding behavior. In weakfish, it is only the males that make this noise, and it’s not uncommon to have larger male weaks make a racket right after being landed, especially during spawning season.
The scientific range of Cynoscion regalis is listed as Northern Florida to Nova Scotia, but realistically, you won’t be seeing any of these yellow-finned predators north of Cape Cod. Large weakfish have a preferred temperature range from somewhere in the low 50s to around 65 degrees. Outside of those water temperatures, weakfish become very difficult to find.
Adult weakfish are mainly piscivorous, meaning they feed mostly on fish. In New England, big weakfish will feed on menhaden, anchovies, sand eels and spearing. They will also feed on sea worms and crustaceans if the opportunity presents itself. Despite the fact that they can be extremely aggressive, weakfish are also very selective at times, keying in on tiny baitfish or grass shrimp. When faced with finicky weaks, the best bet is to scale down your offering. Fishing with a teaser may also help tempt lock-jawed squeteague.
Fishing during periods of low light will also help your odds of tying into a New England weakfish. Large squeteague increase their activity after dark both because of the reduced boat traffic and because they have the upper hand over their prey when hunting at night. During the daytime, weakfish will hunker down inside channel edges or on the deep side of drop-offs. Although the fish are rarely actively feeding when the sun is high in the sky, they won’t pass up an easy meal drifted past their nose.
17 pounds 4 ounces
Fayerweather Island, 1986
16 pounds 8 ounces
North Kingstown, 2007
18 pounds 12 ounces
Buzzards Bay, 1984
Weakfish move into estuaries to spawn in the springtime, remaining in the bays and nearshore waters for some time to feed after spawning. By early July, most weakfish have moved off to deeper water, and just about disappear. In past seasons, when squeteague were more abundant, the fish would again show up along the New England shoreline in the fall before making their way offshore and south for the winter. Unfortunately, the past few years, the weakfish haven’t returned in the fall.
This means that window of opportunity for getting a big tiderunner on the hook in New England is fairly small, running for about 3 to 4 weeks from mid-May to mid-June. Unlike bluefish, weakfish are rarely an incidental catch when targeting striped bass. Therefore, catching weakfish requires a focused approach, devoted exclusively to this fanged sea trout. Unfortunately, the prime time to target weakfish coincides with the prime time to target big stripers. It takes incredible discipline to pull time away from a shot at a big striped bass for a low-percentage shot at scoring a weakfishing in New England.
In order to get an idea of how to tip the odds in your favor for getting a big New England squeteague in 2009, I talked to a local expert from each state to figure out the where, when and how to find ol’ fang-tooth this spring.
Connecticut’s “BarFly” Weakfish
From what I gathered from my talk with Captain Jerry Morgan, anglers after weakfish in the Constitution State will have to do a fair amount of bar-hopping. No, no, not the bar-hopping we did a couple months ago on St. Patty’s Day. I’m talking about sandbars.
Technically speaking, the narrow spit of land connecting Charles Island to Milford, Connecticut is a tombolo, but that doesn’t stop local fisherman from calling it the Charles Island Sandbar. At low tide, anglers can walk the entire length of the tombolo to Charles Island, but they’re warned to pay close attention to the tides. A poorly-timed fishing foray could leave you stranded on Charles Island for a full tide. Of course if that did happen, you would have a few hours to look for the treasure Captain Kidd supposedly buried there.
Whether it’s the treasure or the abundant baitfish that draw weakfish to Charles Island, they seem to show there in pretty good numbers starting in May. Between mid-May and early June anglers will have their best shot at hooking up with soft-plastic jigs, bucktails and even flies.
Moving north and east a bit is the sandbar that got top-billing from Captain Jerry, the West Haven Sandbar located on the western side of New Haven Harbor. For these weakfish, anglers dunking sandworms have an advantage, especially early in the season. As the water warms, however, making the switch to artificial lures will give you a shot at a truly large weakie as the fish become more active. Yo-Zuri swimming plugs as well as soft-plastic jigs work very well for shore anglers in the area. Fishing a Clouser Minnow on an 8- to 10-weight fly rod is another good way to tempt West Haven weakies.
Given their ability to quietly explore out-of-reach waters without fish-spooking motor noise, kayak fishermen are primed to go after this species – and New Haven Harbor is a great place to launch the ‘yak and take a look. Use your electronics to find drop-offs as weakfish will sit on the deeper edge of abrupt depth changes during the day.
Shallow structure in western Long Island Sound will also hold weakfish during the summer months, and anglers have success both trolling and jigging for squeteague in these areas.
There are as many different opinions about the best color lure for weakfish as there are colors in the weakfish itself. Depending on where you’re doing your squeteague-searching, different anglers will swear by different colors. In Jersey, pink is thought to be the weakfish favorite. In Massachusetts, anglers aren’t cautious about tying on something yellow, and in Rhode Island, it’s chartreuse. Your best bet is to have a variety of these colors with you to find out first-hand what the fish prefer. Here are a few that should definitely be in your tackle bag when you hit the water for weaks this spring:
- Yellow Cotton Cordell Red Fin
- Yellow Bomber
- Rag Mop
- Yo-Zuri Swimming Plug (Crystal Minnow)
- Chartruese Bucktail with Soft Plastic Worm
- Jighead and Soft-plastic Body (Pink Zoom)
Tiderunners in Rhode Island
Back in the 70s and 80s, weakfishing in the Ocean State lasted for a good part of the season with catches taking place from Charleston to Narragansett, and all the way out to Block Island. These days, says Rhode Island surfcaster Steve McKenna, any anglers looking to tie into a Rhode Island tiderunner should focus their efforts on Narragansett Bay. In fact it’s a bay within that bay that provides the best overall chances of hooking a weakfish in the smallest state. Greenwich Bay has given up some very big weakfish over the past couple years, including the state-record weakfish of 16 pounds 8 ounces taken in May of 2007. McKenna’s best advice was to hit the bay an hour before sunset, which is when the weakfish typically move into the area to feed.
For Greenwich Bay weakfish, chartreuse-colored lures seem to outfish everything else. Small bucktails in this color, tipped with a soft-plastic worm, have been a staple in the Rhode Island weakfishermen’s arsenal for decades, and this old classic remains one of the best lures you can tie on.
Buzzards Bay Squeteague
Mike Thomas, from M and D’s Tackle in Wareham, stressed the importance of lure selection when looking for Buzzards Bay weakfish. Whereas my experience with South Jersey weakfish taught me never to hit the water without a healthy supply of pink lures, Buzzards Bay weakies show a clear fondness for yellow. Also, Mike said that since the squeteague are usually found in shallow water, lures should be selected based on their ability to effectively fish skinny water. Anglers casting should try minnow-style swimming plugs such as Bombers and Cotton Cordell Red Fins. Trolling is also a viable option in the bay, and Mike recommends dragging classic Rag-Mop lures if you can find them in order to tempt the weaks. Given the shallow water, an assortment of flies will also work in the area – just make sure they’re yellow!
Buzzards Bay has a lot of water, with a number of potentially productive weakfish areas, but Mike narrowed down the best option to the area inside Marion Harbor. Weakfish move into this harbor in May and usually stick around until the beginning of June, moving out after they finish spawning. Mike said anglers will occasionally spot the weakfish in the act of procreating in the shallow-water areas along the shorelines.
The past few seasons, Marion Harbor has been giving up weakfish in the 11- to 14-pound class. After another year of growth, Massachusetts anglers have a shot at hanging a 15-plus pound weakfish from the scales in ’09.
After the spawn is over, Mike said the weakfish move out of Marion Harbor and set up along Bird Island and the edges of the Cape Cod Canal. At this time, the weakfish hang in deeper water and become difficult to target exclusively, but Mike did say anglers incidentally catch them while targeting fluke.
Trophy Time in the Northeast
Weakfish are a highly cyclical species, and right now, from New Jersey to Massachusetts, we seem to be in a cycle where weakfish numbers are down, but the ones around are of massive proportions. With the World Record falling in New York in 2008 and the Rhode Island state record being broken in 2007, the odds of hooking a teen-sized weakie are the best they’ve been in decades.
So even though hours can be long and the action can be slow, when that ticked-off tiderunner of a lifetime starts ripping drag between violent headshakes, all of your effort will be well worth it.