How will you know, unless you try?
With The Fisherman Magazine’s Dream Boat challenge kicking off this month, expect a few of the very first entries to hit the board from the Central and South Jersey regions as monster weakfish turn up along some of the local jetties, inlets and back bay sedges. These big, early season “tiderunners” should continue to make a showing northward into Long Island waters throughout the months of May and June, with a few big fish following bunker into Jamaica Bay and making their way through Shinnecock Inlet during their spring run with the tides.
While New Englanders don’t see as many big weakfish at the old haunts in Buzzard’s Bay and inside Cape Cod Canal anymore, one has to wonder if trophy hunters who’ve turned away from Squeteague Harbor dock lights simply do so because the one-fish coastal squeteague bag falsely leaves a lasting, negative impression of opportunity. Or perhaps, are they just keeping the bite quiet in New England as some insiders are saying? Scientists have always assumed that the larger weakfish tend to range from Delaware into New England states whereas the smaller fish stay south, while older data from New England researchers going back to the 1920s found “weakfish spawn locally around the shores of Cape Cod Bay in years when the fish are plentiful there, as they do regularly about Woods Hole, if the summer temperature of the surface is high enough. Spawning takes place chiefly in the larger estuaries or close to their mouths, usually at night.”
Not worth a look? Well, perhaps the time and expense it takes to keep baited hooks fresh during those summer jaunts for “spikes” in the 12- to 16-inch range simply isn’t worth it, but for those targeting the trophy tiderunners every spring with light tackle and artificials it remains an annual tradition, and almost exclusively “at night” when those spawning trophies are most active at the peak of the May and June spawn.
The Top Catchers
On May 27, 2016, New Jersey subscriber Bill Collins put the largest weakfish of the entire Dream Boat Challenge on the board after fishing a South Jersey jetty early into the morning hours. The 10.66-pound trophy was just one of his double-digit catches for the evening during a stretch of great fishing that he enjoys almost every season. It typically doesn’t take long for word get out in the local community, as last season a visit to local tackle shop to find pegboards suddenly absent of pink MirrOlures—particularly the Sinking Twitchbaits—was a pretty good sign that Collins and crew were back on the big weaks.
I had time to speak with Bill at length at one of the winter shows about his success with this “go to” lure, which he advised reeling very slowly, methodically, right along the structure at night for the best action. Hard plastic selections for trophy hunters also include the inimitable SP minnow from Daiwa, or Rapala’s X-Rap Subwalk, which when reeled slow and steady produces a “walk-the-dog” action down to 4 feet below the surface of the water.
“The sinking SP minnow was last year’s top bait in Connecticut fooling fish to 13-plus pounds,” said New England Editor Toby Lapinski, who also forecasted big things ahead from the folks at Shimano, saying “the new Coltsniper jerkbait shows promise going forward.”
One of Collins’s spring fishing partners, Ed Teise, had the second-place weakie in the ‘16 Dream Boat, a 10.05-pounder. Bill and I joked how we were relatively certain that particular fish was taken on a pink Zoom Super Fluke; there are a handful of anglers (myself included) who have logged 10-pound and up weakfish on the pink Zoom. It was said to have resulted in the landing of an 11.7-pounder during one of those same early May mornings that Teise and Collins were working on casting at giants. Just a few weeks prior, noted angler and author Frank Ruczynski was kayaking on Barnegat Bay in Central New Jersey just before dawn on April 22 when he hit a 30-inch, 10-1/2-pound weakfish on a Zoom.
“Zoom’s Super Fluke is my go-to confidence bait,” Ruczynski told us in The Fisherman Magazine last year, adding “Some of the region’s greatest, time-tested tactics include floating bloodworms along the inlet rock piles, tossing MirrOlures from the sod banks, dropping shedder crabs along a channel edge, livelining bunker, bouncing the bottom with a white bucktail and a purple fire-tail worm and my favorite, jigging soft plastic baits.”
Zooms dance and dart, same as the Fin-S Fish, another perennial favorite for the jighead rigging weakfish fanatic. For steady retrieves, molded white Tsunami or Storm swim shads should get a slot in your tiderunner box, while new additions to the soft plastic world for applying to jigheads include the new 360GT Searchbait from Storm, which pairs a lifelike, single-ball rattling jighead with a realistic soft body boasting 3D holographic eyes and a toe-in boot tail.
Scents of Purpose
When I first started fishing for weakfish with my father many moons ago, we would drift false channel edges during the summer months, away from boat traffic, with a bucktail tipped with small pieces of shedder crab, a delicacy for just about anything that swims. Perhaps a more popular bait south and west of New England and the southern shores of Long Island, the just-prior-to-going-soft blue claw crab is an outstanding seasonal bait. Right before the female blue claw sheds at its first molt of puberty – the point when it’s known as a “sook” or sally – she’ll become sexually mature.
Ready to mate, the sook releases a pheromone to attract her male counterpart; this scent is especially intoxicating to weakfish looking for an eventually soft and helpless meal. While April may still be a bit early to find soft shells and shedders, a bottle or two of Fin-Essence shedder oil squirted into a heavy-duty Ziploc bag filled with Fin-S, Zooms, 360GTs, Keitech Swing Impacts and other favored soft plastics can give your presentation a stronger presence throughout the season.
No doubt, as traditional as my early lessons in the art of the shedder crab, the application of the “purple fire-tail” to a white bucktail was long the only way that any self-respecting jetty jock would fish for weakies. Whether gunning for the spring tiderunners or those early summer yellowfins swimming along the rockpiles, boulders, jetties and groins, a Mann’s Jelly Worm in electric fire or black emerald, or perhaps a Berkley PowerBait Rib Worm in purple/chartreuse tail, provides a solid and highly effective crossover fresh to salt selection that has always been effective on a white bucktail and jigged around the structure.
It’s widely thought that the biggest weakfish run with the tides, turning in towards the back bays and estuaries around the time of the full and new moons of May and June during the spawn. Quiet waters are often the keys, and the best success occurs for anglers working the night shift along the groins, jetties, sod banks and bridge abutments where the big tiderunners actively chase down baits moving along the edge.
Locations where creeks empty or channels converge are coveted spots for trophy hunters, and the arrival of bunker, as well as the striped bass and bluefish, is a good sign for the presence of weakfish. Quite a few big weakfish have been caught on bunker chunks on the outskirts of feeding bluefish, with one of the largest ever taken on rod and reel coming in 2008 when Dave Alu hooked up with a 19-pound, 12-ounce monster while chunking for striped bass on Staten Island with guide Rich Swisstack of St. Croix.
Weakfish are found along the Atlantic Coast from as far north as Nova Scotia down to Florida. While this species is long thought of as a north by south migratory species more apt to be found in Northeast inshore and estuarine waters during the summer and deeper down in the lower Mid-Atlantic in the winter, recent years have found offshore party boats like the Jamaica out of New Jersey catching weakfish in February on their deepwater cod and porgy trips. The last few years have also seen late-season weakfish catches made aboard the party boats working off Block Island in December. These are not just lone catches but instead solid bites of fish as schools of migrating weakies are found making their way to deeper waters. No doubt, there’s a lot still for scientists to learn about this migratory sea trout.
Glancing at the 2016 fishing reports that appeared right here in The Fisherman Magazine’s New England edition, weakfish catches were not only good last spring but some impressive catches were made. Had just a couple of the anglers who weighed-in fish of 10, 12 and even 14-plus pounds been subscribers to The Fisherman Magazine then our Dream Boat final standings would have looked noticeably different. The coastline of western Connecticut is a hotbed of spring weakfish activity, but boats sailing across Long Island Sound to New York waters for May porgies and striped bass regularly reported landing weakfish mixed-in with their catches. Last year the Connecticut bite began just before the new moon in May, peaked on the full moon and continued right through both moons in June before catches became scattered throughout the rest of the summer in the Sound. Similar catches were also documented in Narragansett Bay and along the shoreline of Buzzards Bay. Suffice to say, New England subscribers could easily shake things up in this year’s Challenge should they put their collective minds to it!
From the Chesapeake to the Cape, there are many casters in the region hoping for “repeat” performances from these spring tiderunners; but if you think you they’re not there and don’t even try, how will you ever know for sure?