The spring trophies are there for those who put their time in.
Ed’s voice echoed along the rocky jetty ravine. “It’s a giant weakfish!”
It was a beautiful calm spring night. I was taking it all in, the cadence of the surf hitting the rocks and the essence of the ocean, with a distant boat underway on the horizon as I followed the action of my lure as it traveled along the shadow line. I was suddenly awakened from the moment by the scream of Bill’s reel. I can see the headlamps moving about as they land the fish. I climb up the rocks an endeavor in itself and walk over a hundred yards. I found them admiring a beautiful tiderunner weakfish. I spend a few moments doing the same, looking over the largest tiderunner weakfish I’d seen in years.
After congratulating Bill on his trophy catch, I made my way back down the rocks to my spot, just as Ed hooked up with another big fish. It runs half the line from his spool before he’s able to turn the fish. We all watch the fight with anticipation hoping it is another solid tiderunner; and sure enough, it was. Aware that the bite may not last long, we all rushed back to our spots. I climb my way back to my rock, and on the first cast I find a wind knot creating a major braid tangle. Meanwhile, Bill hooks up with another drag-smoking fish. Ed is close by and handles the net. “It’s a big tiderunner,” Ed said while managing the net, another 30-inch class weakfish.
Bill and Ed added a few more nice weakfish in the 24- to 27-inch class that night, while I battled to get free from the time-consuming tangle of line on my spool; I also dropped my clippers into the water and my headlamp died. I did get a couple of fish started, but I didn’t land any.
I was definitely feeling the pain of the snake bite!
Bill Collins and Ed Teise (aka Doctor Spec) are both accomplished anglers. They each own an extensive list of tournament wins, and are obviously dialed in on what is necessary to reach the finish-line at the top end of the leaderboard. From my perspective they are both very competitive in a friendly way; and they each have a 30-inch class tiderunner weakfish in their coolers on this particular evening. The heaviest weakfish of course will determine who will move into first place in The Fishermen Magazine’s Dream Boat Fishing Challenge. Once the tide slowed and the bite ended, we agreed to meet at the Avalon Hodge Podge tackle shop when they opened later in the morning where the pair would weigh in their trophy fish for the tournament.
Before departing Ed gave me a few friendly shots about my missed opportunity at the biggest weakfish in decades. Ed and I have an ongoing season-long competition; it’s never mentioned during the season only during a late winter phone calls. I had been on a good run for several years catching the biggest weakfish of the season. At this point it is about 99% assured that Ed will end the season with a true tiderunner weakfish, perhaps the largest in the region, who knows. But on the way home that morning I reminisced about a pod of giant weakfish that settled on structure just beyond the surf; some beautiful tiderunner weakfish were caught at that spot, including my personal best of 15-1/2 pounds, taping out to 36-1/2 inches in length. The bite held until the wind shifted to the northeast.
Wind direction plays a major role in the hunt for weakfish. A weather pattern that produces a lot of south, southeast and lighter winds will create excellent conditions for catching spring weakfish in Cape May County at the Jersey Shore. It could be different in other areas, which is why knowing your fishing grounds intimately is imperative. Upwelling, eddies, currents and water temps are all affected by wind direction, and each is an important consideration when trying to zone in on the feeding time and location.
Upwellings and eddies can also move with the tide stage. Take the time every season to scout out where and when they occur; last year’s hot spot could be this year’s dead zone. This knowledge is invaluable to the angler; it can’t be found in a book or gleaned from social media; this is knowledge that is gathered by being on the water.
I found that water temperature needs to be 57 to 68 degrees for the spring tiderunner weakfish during a seasonal time frame of about April 7 to June 21. Spring offers the best opportunity at catching a tournament-winning weakfish. I have won first place weakfish more than once with fish I caught in the summertime, however, a 6-pound summer weakfish more than likely was an 8-pounder in the spring.
A Tight Window
When the conditions all line up it is time for the serious trout hunt to begin. It’s important to remember that the mature stud fish travel together, they feed together and bed together. You will not likely find a tiderunner weakfish among a school of 2- to 3-pound spike weakfish. In the same way, hoping to locate a 50-pound striper mixed in with 20- to 24-inch schoolies is wishful thinking. When you locate the spot and the bite window for spring tiderunners, make it a priority. Keep in mind even during years with the best conditions you are only looking at roughly 11 tide cycles for a shot at a true tiderunner weakfish. In some years I recall where conditions only came together for two days for the entire spring weakfish season. Whatever it takes: be late, vacation days, reschedule or call in sick but be there when the stars line up.
I got an invite last minute to fish the Ocean City White Marlin Open with the Martin Treux. Sr. crew as an angler. His captain and mates travel the world fishing the big game tournaments and they have an impressive win list. As I am reeling in a beautiful white marlin thinking how this could be the one, the mate suddenly released my fish before it ever got close to the boat. “What the heck are you doing,” I asked. “The captain got a good look at the fish,” the mate replied, adding “it wasn’t big enough to waste time boating it.”
That’s how adamant that captain was about staying on the fish and utilizing time; it’s a good mindset to have this spring if you’re able to locate a school of big weakfish. Have an extra fishing rod rigged and within hands reach; keep the lure in the zone during the bite window; and when you catch a good fish get your lure back in as fast as quickly as possible. Seize the bite, the opportunities don’t come around very often.
Just after Bill and Ed’s big night of big fish, I asked myself “Why are you heading home now?” The answer to a rhetorical question comes as I pull over, turn around and head to a spot where weakfish gravitate on the first 20 minutes of the incoming tide. This one particular spot is only a few miles from the spot where we’d fished earlier and offers a good possibility of big weakfish rising up from the relatively deep cut to feed on a mussel-covered flat. I’ll rig with a quarter-ounce white bucktail with a purple fire tail worm, the weight, color and style of the lure determined by the area and time I am fishing. In this situation I am going to cast to the edge of an eddie, a current that is going in the opposite direction of the main current. My retrieve is more or less a controlled drift that allows my lure to swing with the current over the mussel beds.
I might give this spot 20 casts before moving on. But the approach to this spot is critical; no lights, careful movement and being super quiet is imperative. Without the stealth the success rate drops substantially. After catching just a few fish the place is totally spooked. I fish light gear, a PENN Battle 2000 loaded with 10-pound PowerPro braid, with 18 inches of 15-pound fluorocarbon leader on a rod rated for 1/4 to 3/4 ounces.
A Dream Boat Fish
After the first cast I found myself looking down at a beautiful springtime weakfish of quality size. I release the weakfish carefully, watching as it swims off in the crystal clear ocean water. I was a second away from the end of my retrieve of my seventh cast when a giant tiderunner hit. I watch her attack my bucktail with force, the close proximity of the hit coupled with the clear water causing a major adrenaline rush.
This fish would put my gear to the test, pulling drag like a big striper. As I work the fish towards me it takes a run and gets caught in the rocks. At this point the only chance of landing the weakfish is to walk closer. It’s rather treacherous walk of 30 feet along submerged rocks, with the rise and fall of a 2-foot surf. I move slow and easy toward the snag. As I get close I can see the tiderunner lit up with beautiful purple hues while gently being pushed by the waves. I free my line, then prepare for a wave and a prayer with a “hand grab” landing of the beautiful weakfish. Out of nowhere a set of 4-foot waves appear; I would get pretty wet and even dropped my rod and reel in the process, but maintained a firm grip on the tiderunner.
As I climbed on upon the flat, dry rocks, I found myself staring into a one of a kind Atlantic sunrise holding onto a spectacular trophy weakfish; the cure for my earlier snake bite! I rush to the tackle shop hoping that Ed and Bill will be there, finding them at the scale surrounded by spectators. The weighmaster measures Bill’s tiderunner at 33.7 inches; he then places it on the scale where reads 10.7 pounds. “First legit 10-pounder I have seen in 40 years,” says an old timer’s voice from the crowd. Next up is Ed’s weakfish, which tapes out at 32 inches. It is then placed on the certified scale it fluttered around 10.7 for a second; but I could see Ed’s disappointment when the scale settled at 10 pounds even.
As I congratulate Ed on his trophy fish, he asked “How did you get so wet?” After telling the story of the big fish on the rocks and the rogue set of waves, Ed asked to see the fish. As he and Bill returned to their conversations and picture taking, I head to my cooler to find my fish still moving. I grab the tiderunner and walk her into the tackle shop. “That’s a nice fish, looks like 10 pounds or better,” Bill said. After putting the weakfish on the table, the weighmaster tapes it out to 34.75 inches before easing it up onto the scale. There the needle bounces to 12 pounds but settles at 11.7. Laughter, congrats and a few other words followed.
That morning we accomplished what has been thought impossible by so many anglers over the past 20 or so years. We targeted big weakfish and all caught weakfish 10 pounds or over, proving perhaps that if you put in the time and effort fishing for tiderunner weakfish it is still a very rewarding endeavor. We have each caught 30-inch class weakfish since that epic morning, all also have enjoyed 100 quality weakfish seasons, 98% percent of which were released.
Bill and Ed’s rankings in the Dream Boat Fishing Challenge have not been affected by my fish; it’s a fabulous tournament but I am not eligible. However, the memories of that fishing trip are worth more than prize money to me. That morning has been permanently burned into my minds’ eye.