Overall biomass may be down, but the heart of the fishery still beats in the Garden State.
Mention the word weakfish, and some folks think back 30 or 40 years when Fortescue was known as the “weakfish capital of the world,” as anglers heading out of Cape May and ports along the Delaware bayshore could stack up double-digit weight tiderunners along the docks like cord wood at the end of a trip.
Even going 15 to 20 years into my own past, July through August was prime time for grass shrimping in Barnegat, Little Egg Harbor and Great Bay, when 4 or 5 quarts of live grass shrimp could get the waters boiling with weakfish along a quiet slough or deeper edge of a grassy flat on the outgoing tide. With the boat bridle anchored along an edge, dad and I could sometimes catch 30 or 40 weakies each during a three-hour tidal shift, alternating between throwing handfuls of shrimp out with the moving tide and tossing light tackle shad darts impaled with two to three live shrimp into the slick. Slowly working those shrimp-tipped darts or shrimp flies back towards the boat on ultra-light gear was my favorite way to fish, with sometimes frenetic action; mostly with spikes in the 8- to 16-inch range but occasionally hooking into 3- to 5-pounders that would rip 4- to 6-pound mono from the spool in an instant.
In 1985, New Jersey anglers landed 3.4 million pounds of weakfish; commercial fishermen took another 3 million pounds. But nine years ago, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) faced a brutal scientific fact; that New Jersey’s total harvest for 1985 was higher than the entire coastwide stock of weakfish as of 2009. The problem with weakfish stocks began in the mid 1990s, and while surveys since have mostly shown that juvenile weakfish populations are strong, the older fish just haven’t been turning up in any great numbers. While ASMFC believed that the problem was not due to fishing pressure but instead due to natural mortality, by 2010 every state along the Atlantic Coast had moved to a one-fish bag limit on weakfish.
In ASMFC’s most recent benchmark stock assessment for weakfish in 2016, there are positive signs in the weakfish stock with a slight increase in the spawning stock biomass, and weakfish recruitment numbers in 2014, highest in about 15 years. However, while overfishing is not occurring in the weakfish fishery, the stock is still considered depleted with the one-fish regulations sure to be around for some time.
On the Meat
Back in mid-June, a buddy and I were out fluke fishing in shallow water behind the old Fish Factory in Great Bay. The first greenheads of the season had just started biting, but keeper fluke were not. After sliding one in the icebox and another dozen or two back over the side of the boat, we headed out along the sod banks to try one last drift or two outside of a creek flushing out of the marshes. On a little pimple cropping up about 20 feet, surrounded depths of 30 or more feet, the fishfinder lit up like a Christmas tree from top to bottom. With the same fluke rig, an S&S bucktail with squid strip and Tsunami Glass Eel teaser with pink Gulp swimming mullet, I dropped to the bottom and was quickly rewarded with my first weakie of the 2018 season, a little 2- to 3-pounder.
“Is this really a unicorn or are we just not targeting these beautiful fish because of the one-fish bag,” I asked half-jokingly later when posting a photo on Facebook. The responses I got were intriguing.
“I don’t know if I go with ‘unicorn’ but they’ve always been quite cyclical,” said Jeremy Muermann, the fishing club advisor at Lacey Township High School. “Two years ago Barnegat Bay was loaded with them in August and September.”
As for the low bag limit keeping anglers away, Muermann agreed; though others like Daniel Mancari wondered why a low bag limit should really alter fishing plans. “Fish to have fun, not every legal fish should be looked at as a meal.” For the most part, Mancari’s right. Tossing Gulp or soft plastics along the sedges or jigging bucktails tipped with shedder oil soaked squid strips over quiet, back bay sloughs is a relatively inexpensive endeavor, which can lead to good catch and release action when you can scare up a school of weakies. Then again, when you plunk down $50 on a gallon of live grass shrimp or flat of sandworms, some of most effective ways to catch weakfish throughout the season, you typically expect to justify the expense at the end of the day with a few slices of fresh meat.
I spent years living in Sea Bright in the late ‘90s though, where’d I stand along the street ends on the incoming tide well into the night, slowly working a pink Fin-S at a 20- to 45-degree angle for a few amazing catch-and-release weakfish nights, and I was always excited at not having to clean a fish before slipping into the rack for a few hours of sleep.
The Frugal Fisherman
While Delaware Bay once experienced some of the most epic weakfishing in history (Karl Jones still holds the state record, an 18-pound, 8-ounce tiderunner caught there in 1986 during the heyday.) the Raritan Bay has probably experienced some of the most consistent weakfish action over the last decade (Dave Alu’s world record 19-pound, 12-ounce monster caught on a bunker chunk from shore on Staten Island back in 2008). Particularly in the fall as young of the year peanut bunker begin spilling out of local estuaries from the Shrewsbury and Navesink on out to Great Kills and Jamaica Bay in New York, spots along the Raritan make up a convergence of bait opportunities that have led to some outstanding weakfish action, even when much of it is on the down low.
In late September of 2017, I joined Guy Buono aboard his Grady-White out of Nicholl’s Great Kills Park Marina out on Staten Island. The former Fisherman Dream Boat champ puts a lot of time in on the Raritan Bay grounds, as evidenced by the constant flow of weakfish photos I was receiving while sitting and working on deadlines at my laptop. Closing the lid on my work one morning, I met up with Guy at the dock with an array of jigheads and plastics in my bag and a light tackle spinning outfit (20-pound braid on 2000 or 3000 size reel, 20-pound fluoro and rods with fast action).
Pushing off from the slip, the first order of business was securing bait/chum in the form of peanut bunker, which were thick in Great Kills Harbor as usual this time of year. These “young of the year” baits often choking local canals, harbors and lagoons by late summer will soon be making their migratory move down the beach, which coincides with the kickoff of the fall run. An 8-foot net made of approximately 1/4-inch mesh with roughly a pound of lead per foot is a good net for throwing on top of a school of peanuts or finger mullet, and one throw should give you enough in the livewell to play around with.
Guy’s method of fishing for weakfish throughout his region is to find appropriate shore structure to slowly drift past, throwing a handful of live peanuts to attract some attention while following up with a few casts. Similar to how I learned to grass shrimp for weakies to the south, the peanuts got those weakies tuned up, while throwing jigheads with paddletail style plastics like the Kettle Creek Swing Shad provided a pretty good match for what we were hatching. Even easier and more direct was threading the hook of the jighead through the snout of a live peanut, and soft tossing into the fray; slowly raising the rod tip up and down gives that baby bunker reason to swim against the weight of the jighead, which can attract the attention of a weakfish nicely.
This particular method should work well wherever you’re fishing this month, and whatever the “structure” you might be fishing. If tide and wind are right, you can set out anchor ahead of an old dock, rocks or a creek mouth, tossing a few livies ahead of the ambush point and then allowing your jig-rigged peanut to frantically attract a bite. A quiet night on the boat near bulkhead and bridge lights could produce equally well on the drift through September. Surfcasters can employ the same method along a sod bank or jetty by tossing a small handful of netted peanuts along with the moving tide and following up with rigged peanut (check out the surf bunker article this month by Allen Riley!).
While weakfish stocks are indeed down, they’re not exactly out. In fact, a precipitous decline in weakfish stocks from 2000 to 2004 had many fishermen and scientists wondering if the weakfish world was collapsing. Then in 2005, weakfish action was pretty amazing on the Raritan in particular from August through September as peanuts were being gobbled up like candy by marauding schools of these sea trout. New Jersey anglers especially will remember the ridiculousness of the 2005 recreational harvest data (MRFSS) that showed Garden State fishermen scoring 1,017,378 weakfish for the season, where New York anglers had just 194 fish.
With cycles being what they are, it could be a long time – if ever – before we see 1980 style biomass of weakfish along the Atlantic Coast. Many have noticed that croakers haven’t really been around in significant numbers this season; old salts down in Delaware and Maryland once told me that in terms of cycles, when croaker are up weakfish are down, and vice versa. Perhaps a down cycle of hardheads for 2018 might spell bigger returns on tiderunners in 2019, who knows. It’s possible.
It’s also possible that those beautiful unicorns are out there right now sucking down peanuts tumbling out of the creeks and estuaries, and we’re just too stubborn to believe it’s worth a shot!