For many saltwater anglers across New England, spring is a time to target striped bass. However, if you are anything like me, then it also means hitting local beaches, back bays, reefs and sandbars for weakies, sea trout, squeteague, tiderunners or what are most commonly referred to as weakfish. Regardless of what you call them, they are an often-overlooked species that is guaranteed to give your light tackle a run for its money.
In recent years, the spring weakfish run has drawn increased attention from anglers, and with good reason as it is your chance at a tiderunner in the double-digits from the surf. The 2016 season, for instance, had anglers beaching weakfish topping the scales at just shy of 14 pounds with the average fish in the 6- to 7-pound range. When the weakfish arrive in early May, word spreads like wildfire and you often find yourself shoulder to shoulder with fellow anglers looking for their chance at a trophy. It resembles the opening day of trout season at your local stream, only with a little less chaos. Everyone is very respectful of one another and anxious to see the next tiderunner hit the beach.
Getting Down to Business
Chances are you already have the tackle needed to target this ferocious predator, so let’s start with your rod and reel. I always use spinning gear when targeting weakfish as it’s rare that I throw anything over 1 ounce. Another important note is that weakfish tend to have soft, paper-like mouths. It is because of this that I opt for a softer tip rod in the 7- to 9-foot range. A rod such as the Tsunami Airwave Elite 882M is a great choice and is reasonably-priced. At 8 feet, 8 inches it can handle anything from 1/2 ounce up to 2 ounces but is still long enough to make a good cast when needed. This rod has just the right amount of finesse in the tip to work soft plastics and lighter baits and enough backbone to tame even the fiercest weakfish. Pair that with a lighter-sized spinning reel such as a 4000 series Shimano Stradic or Tsunami Shield. Fill up your spool with 10- to 15-pound braid and you are off and running. Whatever reel you land on, always run a light drag setting to not tear the soft mouth of the weakfish.
Weakfish can be line shy so when targeting them I use a 3- to 6-foot length of 10- to 15-pound fluorocarbon leader tied directly to my braid with a uni-knot or an Alberto knot. The low diameter of both of these knots allows it to flow freely through many of the newer smaller sized guides found on today’s fishing rods. I also skip the snap and tie the soft plastic or lure directly to the fluorocarbon leader.
Lure selection varies depending on depth of water, tide phase, wind and what bait is present. Weakfish are predators and in the springtime are usually keyed-in on mummichogs, silversides, peanut bunker, crabs, shrimp or any other bait they can forage. Color selection is up for debate. Many weakfish veterans would always revert to pink as their go-to color, but over the years I’ve caught them on yellow, black, chartreuse and bone just to name a few. To play it safe, I always have an assortment of lures in my bag.
Hard Baits: The Daiwa SP Minnow is a great all-around lure that catches anything that swims. They come in three sizes, 5-1/8, 6 and 6-3/4 inches and in both sinking and floating versions. Last year, I had my best success with the 5 1/8-inch sinking model. It punches through the wind and loads nicely with the above-mentioned rod. As far as colors, laser green shiner, yellow pearl, laser shiner and bone are all good bets.
The Yo-Zuri Mag Darter is also a very popular weakfish lure, and most weakfish anglers carry at least a few of them at all times. I prefer the small 5-inch, 1-ounce size in gold red, candy, pearl chartreuse and ghost black.
When fishing a hard bait, I cast the lure up-current and retrieve it with my rod tip down at a fast tempo. I add sporadic rod jerks and pops that often elicit a hit from following fish not otherwise willing to strike. If given the space and on a reef or sandbar, I cast down current and retrieve very slowly, letting the current impart the action to my lure.
Soft Plastics: There are many choices when it comes to soft plastics, and anything in the 5- to 7-inch range does the job. Last year a local company called Plum Island Swim baits hit the market with some great soft plastics. I quickly adopted them as my go-to plastics and took more than my fair share of weakfish on them. When the weakfish were in close enough, the 6-1/2-inch white split tail was my plastic of choice. Rig them with a 1/2-ounce bucktail or jighead. This combination was very effective while wading a dropping tide on local reefs and sandbars. The softer plastic gave a very realistic flutter in even the slightest current.
Tins or Epoxy Jigs: These two items are great when you need to get that extra distance and really cover some water when locating weakfish. Tins such as a 3/4-ounce Hopkins Shorty or Acme Kastmaster in the 1/2- to 1-ounce range are very effective. Dress the hook with a yellow or white bucktail to further entice any passing weakfish. Hogy Epoxy Jigs are another lure that I never leave home without. The 5/8- and 7/8-ounce in pink, shrimp or silver are great options. A steady retrieve on these with an occasional rise of your rod tip triggers a strike from even the most wary of weakfish. Contrary to popular belief, weakfish hammer a tin or epoxy jig after the sun goes down.
Where to Find ‘Em
There is no shortage of prime feeding grounds along the New England coast for spring weakfish. Some areas that I’ve found to produce for me are sweeping sandbars and shallow back bays that warm up a bit quicker in the spring. The sandbars and local reefs offer a key ingredient for being successful when targeting weakfish: a plethora of bait. Very often you have peanut bunker or other baitfish washing up at your feet. The weakfish sit in the wash and chase them right onto shore. Make sure to fish your lure all the way to the beach as you will get a lot of last-second strikes just as the lure is about to hit the beach. Walk along local beaches or sandbars and look for bowls that weakfish can stage in for unsuspecting bait to swim by overhead. Bottom structure is something else worth mentioning. I prefer to fish sandy bottomed areas that have the occasional transition into smaller rocks and mussel beds.
The weakfish season kicks-off in late April to early May and generally reaches its peak during the full moon of May. In 2017, the full moon is on May 10, and the new moon falls on May 25. Don’t be afraid to fish after the full moon as these crafty predators don’t have a set calendar. Focus your efforts on first and last light. With regards to tide preference, it depends where I fish. For most spots, I favor the last hour or so of the incoming into the first two hours of the drop. For other areas, access is difficult at high water so I’m forced to wait until the first hour or so into the drop.
Be sure to stop into your local tackle shop and ask for advice. For me, that’s Bobby J’s in Milford, CT. Jason is a seasoned weakfish fisherman and can offer up some further advice, tactics and if you are lucky, maybe even a spot or two to try your luck.
Catch and Release
Coast-wide regulations currently allow anglers to harvest one fish per day with a minimum length of 16 inches. According to the most recent stock assessment by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) in 2016, the coast-wide weakfish stock is listed as depleted and has been so for the past 13 years. This designation occurs when the spawning stock biomass (SSB) falls below the threshold of 30 percent, or 15.17 million pounds. While the ASMFC further determined that overfishing is not currently occurring, natural mortality has been increasing since the mid-1990s, which has contributed to the stock’s inability to recover. Since the majority of the large weakfish being caught in the spring are egg-laden females, consider releasing that trophy fish after taking a few photographs (and be sure to submit them to firstname.lastname@example.org for use in an issue of The Fisherman!).