Delaware Bay Weakfish: Is 2021 The Year For A Return? - The Fisherman

Delaware Bay Weakfish: Is 2021 The Year For A Return?

snaggletooth
Will 2021 be the year ol’ snaggletooth returns with a vengeance on Delaware Bay. It could be a few years, but reports out of Delaware DNREC show good recruitment in recent years.

It was a beautiful spring morning as Al Ristori and I ran down the Mispillion River from Milford in my 20-foot Bertram Moppie.  I kept the boat in Milford, DE to avoid the zoo that was the launch ramp at Cedar Creek every morning during the World Weakfish Championship Tournament sponsored by the Milford Chamber of Commerce.  Al was a guest of the tournament and I was one of the local guides as well as the local outdoor writer who shepherded guests around the bay to show off the excellent weakfish action.

Some of my guests could not catch a cold in a rain storm, but I didn’t have to worry about that with Al.  He and I had been friends for several years and I had fished with him in New Jersey, New York, Virginia and the Florida Keys.  Al can catch fish.

Once we cleared the long, rock-lined Mispillion Inlet, I headed for the general area of Brown Shoal as the sun rose just above the smooth surface of the bay.  As we neared our destination, I saw one charter boat was already on station with six customers and the mate working bucktails around the gunnels.

As I got close to the shoal my SONAR lit up with solid marks coming 6 feet up from the bottom.  No need to go any further, so I pulled the motor back to idle and broke out my tackle.  Al did the same and in quick order we had two dead sticks and two rods in hand.  All were rigged with bucktails and plastic worms.  Over time we had both experimented with numerous lures that were touted as the greatest weakfish baits of all time.  Still, nothing outproduced the bucktail and worm.  My favorite colors were a yellow bucktail and a purple worm.

weakfish
It’s possible that the one fish coastal bag limit on weakfish is keeping folks from targeting them, but for anglers like Danielle Casella, scoring weakies of any size or number is something worth celebrating.

Much to my surprise, our beautiful lures that were perfectly presented, were completely ignored by the multitude of weakfish that were directly under the boat.  Obviously, these fish did not know who they were snubbing.  I mean, they should have been fighting one another to be caught by Al Ristori.

 

I noticed the folks on the charter boat were having the same result.  No matter how hard they worked their jigs and where they tried to cast the results were the same, no hits.  Then I saw the charter boat mate’s rod bend over and he was into a big fish.  Almost instantly everyone on his boat was fast into a big trout and so were we.  All four of our rods went off at the same time giving Al and I plenty to do, but somehow, we managed to get all of the fish into the boat.

Once the weakfish began to bite, there was no stopping them – it was drop the bucktail down, set the hook and begin the fight.  I have no idea how many weakfish we caught that morning, but I know they were all in the 6- to 8-pound class. Once we had enough on ice for dinner, we played catch and release until the fleet from the tournament arrived and we headed back to the dock.

Back To The Future

al
Al Ristori and one of the many weakfish caught on a glorious spring day while fishing with the author, a few moons back.

I am sure some who are reading this remember those glory days when weakfish ruled Delaware Bay.  I saw it from beginning to end and I have heard all of the reasons why the stock collapsed.  Please remember that the power plant at Salem and the refinery at Delaware City were in operation when the weakfish were here.  The southern shrimp boats were operating then as well.  Big blues and dolphin ate their share of weakfish then, as witnessed by the cut in half carcasses floating on the surface.

I also remember when there were very few trout in Delaware Bay.  Back in the 1950s my grandfather and I would rent wood boats from a lady in Slaughter Beach, put on our 7.5-HP Elgin motor and run out to the Coral Beds and catch croaker. I only remember catching trout on one trip.  We both caught one each and, although they were big fish, they were the only trout I saw in Delaware Bay until I returned from the Navy in 1965.

I have been doing fishing reports for Delaware Bay in The Fisherman Magazine since 1974.  Back when weakfish were plentiful you had to have at least a 10-pounder to get your name in the report.  I think the minimum for a Delaware citation was 9 or 10 pounds.  Today it is 3 pounds.

But guess what?  Last year some weakfish citations were written.  In fact, a few 5-pounders were caught.

According to the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC) sampling, the young-of-the-year numbers for weakfish have been strong for several years, but it seems those fish do not return to Delaware Bay.  The last 2 years have seen a change in that trend.  I have personally caught good numbers of small weakfish from my boat in Delaware Bay and from the surf at Three Rs Road.  Most of those fish came on either bloodworm or Fishbites clam.

I have yet to catch a weakfish over the 13-inch minimum size, but that may be because in 2020, due to motor and health issues, I never put my boat in the water.  I did see charter and head boats come back from Delaware Bay with their one-per-person over 13 inches weakfish limit.  This is the first time in a long time I have seen that.

How & Where?

fred
Fred Bonner nets a big trout, aka weakfish, for the author during the heyday of the fishery back in the 1980’s.

So where are these trout being caught?  Pretty much where everything else in Delaware Bay is caught – on the artificial reefs.  Delaware has one of the very best artificial reef programs along the East Coast with eight in Delaware Bay.  Weakfish, like most other fish, will hang out over structure where the stuff they like to eat lives.  This includes crabs, worms, small fish and shrimp.  The artificial reefs attract all of that stuff and more, plus, they provide a place to hide from larger predators.

With my 16-foor Starcraft I fish the Lower Bay reef sites and the Inner and Outer walls.  They are close to the boat ramp at Lewes and that is close to my home.  Since there are not a lot of keeper-sized trout around I will fish the reef sites with Fishbites on a top-bottom rig using circle hooks.  This way, if I get into a school of small trout, I can release them with minimal damage.  My main targets will be croaker, spot and kings (sea mullet, whiting, roundhead) and if I catch a keeper trout, so much the better.

As for fishing the Inner and Outer walls, I will use a small bucktail with peeler crab if I can get some or Gulp! peeler crab if the real thing is not available.  I will cast the jig to the rocks and work it back with the current.  The lighter the jig the better.  I use my Minn Kota trolling motor to maintain a safe distance from the wall.  I only fish the Outer Wall on calm days. The Delaware State Record weakfish was caught at the Outer Wall by William Thomas in 1989 and weighed 19 pounds, 2 ounces.  If I remember correctly, he was using a Texas-rigged worm.

FISH OF THE MONTH

For subscribers to The Fisherman Magazine, don’t forget about the Dream Boat Fishing Challenge and the eight eligible species which could help you on our way to a new Steiger!  The Fish of the Month prize for top weakfish is an Accurate Tern Fishing Reel TX-400X, and a weakfish mount from Global Fish Mounts.  The minimum size for weakfish entry in the Dream Boat Fishing Challenge is 5 pounds, and there’s a good bet that the top fish will come from somewhere in the New Jersey, Delaware Bay region; top weigh-ins in past years have been registered in the waters behind Avalon, Wildwood and Strathmere, though the sedges of Great Bay and backside of Island Beach State Park have yielded a fair share of prize winners too in the past.

If I were going to target bigger weakfish, I believe I would fish at night.  Back when the larger weaks first showed up, we caught them after dark.  Some went out to the Brandywine Lighthouse and nearby shoals and used underwater or just above the water light to attract bait to the boat.  That attracted the weakfish who would hang in the light line and hit bait or lures worked by them.  You may have check with your local regulations to be sure using lights is legal where you may be fishing.

Fishing hard structure like the walls, the bases of the lighthouses and the inlet jetties may also produce larger weakfish at night.  Use live bait, peeler crab, Gulp! or the always popular bucktail and worm and fish tight to the structure.

In this day and time fishing for a big weakfish is a lot like hunting unicorns.  The chance of catching one is slim, but the satisfaction of doing so is very rewarding.

Related

Hutch-and-Lynch

Striper Tag Update: Hail Mary & Uncle Fred

Wrapping up the 2021 Northeast Striped Bass Study with fall deployments & new discoveries. 

edward

Cold Hands, Hot Surf: Hone In On Holiday Stripers

Finishing up strong in the December suds.  

chart1

BDV Spotlight: Outside The Spec, Garden State South

High-tech scouting from NOAA shows a few hidden gems in and around this south/central reef site.