The surf is always telling us something; we just need to listen.
Last year on the Friday before Memorial Day, I was dead sticking in front of Ocean 1 Club, the old Thunderbird Motel site. I was working two rods with mullet on a red doodlebug rig, trying for a hookup with the last runs of racer bluefish. A light northeast breeze seemed a portent to a good bite yet, after three hours, nary a hit.
I was preparing to move when I noticed a solitary tern doing the vertical dive into the water, just beyond the breakers. As the late, great Ernie Weusthoff once told me, “He ain’t doin’ it for his health.”
I tied on a 2-ounce Kastmaster on a steel leader and made three deliberate casts in the direction of the bird, about 75 feet offshore. A violent strike interrupted the retrieve on the fourth cast, resulting in a 5-pound racer being wrestled onto the sand. That was followed immediately by a second bluefish comparable in size.
Even a solitary diving tern, which would be overlooked by many, can signify a small pod of bluefish or a solitary bass. Sometimes you just have to train yourself to be observant.
Awareness of weather conditions cannot be emphasized enough. The shoreline, particularly the barrier islands, constitute a micro climate. A light northeast breeze on a cloudy August afternoon will transport a shelf of warm water beachward, elevating surf temperatures. When the water is at its summer peak of 74 to 78 degrees, the ocean comes alive with fish. Juvenile bluefish, resident stripers, spot, croaker, kingfish, the occasional weakfish and that most desired summer surf target, fluke. The surf fishery for summer flounder, and that includes baby doormats in the 5- to 8-pound class, can be surprisingly robust.
I’ve seen anglers trudge off the beach, after a full day with nary a tap. Successful surf anglers read the beach and know the cuts and sloughs that unlock the door to action. Best bet for the future is to invest a late winter or early spring afternoon, preferably the day after a strong cold frontal passage. Bring a notebook and make note of the sloughs, which are distinctly visible at dead low tide, as pools of deeper, bluer water. Even while sitting with the family along the summer shore and staring out at the changing tide, you’ll see these prime cuts as entry points for schools of peanut bunker, sand eels and mullet, with predatory gamefish in swift pursuit. Mark these sloughs in your notebook.
A serious surfcaster will spend the day moving from beach to beach, taking photos and notes. A day studying the beaches, the barrier islands in particular, will pay huge surf dividends in the season to come! As such, August is a good time for a little beach study in advance of the fall run, particularly when bright summer sun shows off all the sandy contours in often gin clear surf waters.
It is important to be conscious of the sounds of the surf. In the spring, and again in the fall, nor’easters pound the New Jersey coastline (hard to forget the nasty March we had!) One beneficial side effect of the storms are the thousands of clams that are pounded into the surf and shattered by the fierce wave action. In the days following the blow you will hear the shattered clamshells crackling in the wash. This is the sound of the dinner bell for striped bass, which is when it’s time to rig up with the hi-lo, preferably with 6/0 to 8/0 hooks.
Even before the fall run kicks into gear, simple clam baits in the sloughs, pockets and even right in the wash can entice a bass bite as they patrol the shallows looking for an easy score.
Wind direction has a direct correlation with the bite. A brisk west to northwest wind will flatten the ocean waters along the Jersey Shore, giving it a lake like appearance. During the summer months, particularly late July through Labor Day, I find these are the classic conditions for taking fluke in the wash. One mid-August evening several years back I was employing Ernie’s “Walk & Cast” technique, with an ultralight outfit with 6-pound test, working a 4-inch chartreuse Fin-S on 3/8-ounce jig. Flipping the lure into the gentle breakers on a glasslike surf, looking for cocktail bluefish in close, I instead found myself wrestling a chunky 4-1/2-pound fluke onto the sand. The cast was barely 10 feet from where I stood, and within 20 minutes I beached two more.
The summer surf fluke fishery is becoming a mainstay on the Jersey shoreline, interrupting the summer doldrums with an opportunity to do battle with an aggressive, worthy, and tasty surf foe. Fluke can rival bluefish with their aggressive strike in the shallows, and they’ll often hit a Hopkins, Kastmaster, Deadly Dick, soft plastic and even a Bomber.
Dead stickers can take fluke on what I view as the champion of all surf fluke rigs, the “Sneaky Pete” spinner. Work two plump minnows or sand eels ever so slowly beachward, twitching the rod subtly, using no more than a 3-ounce teardrop sinker. The spinning action of this lure is deadly. You can also catch a small snapper and cast it no more than 75 feet from the shoreline. Again, the retrieve must be “slow, and slower.”
Wave action is very revealing. A shelf of waves breaking repetitively, in one specific locale, will form a sandbar, typically within 200 feet of the beach, often closer. A long, well elevated bar is a powerful attraction for pods of baitfish, on both sides of the bar, and the big choppers and striper bass that are in swift pursuit both inside, and outside of the bar.
A well-defined sandbar at dead low tide, will often reveal a lagoon-like pool of water. Navigating the bar, casting towards the ocean as well as beachward, maximizes your hook up potential, providing you with a clear advantage. In the spring and fall in particular, 40- and 50-pound bass prowl these sandbars.
It takes years to acquire a true sense of the surf, and that requires dedication. Self-education will ultimately unlock surf success. Be observant, follow the fishing reports for your locale, and be willing to alter your strategy.
Or as Ernie told me many years ago, ‘It’s fishing, not catching fish.”