As South Jersey’s trophy weakfish action gets underway, it’s worth thinking about relationships.
If you were to walk up to an old angler in the surf or on a jetty and ask him what he is catching, there is a chance, especially depending on the geographic location, that he will look at you and answer “hardheads and gray trout.” Would you know what he meant?
Perhaps if he answered “squeteague and redpups” you would know better? How about one last one, “croaker and weakfish.”
Ah, now that last one catches everyone’s attention, and I am sure a few casting arms even start quivering in anticipation. Many of us have come to learn that these two, though they exhibit different physical features and predatory stylings, are actually closely related species. The soft ray fin family of croakers is a worldwide family that includes many of our favorite East Coast gamefish like the sea trouts, red and black drums, three species of kingfish, spot, and of course, the Atlantic croaker, as well as famous West Coasters like the giant-growing white sea bass.
What a lot of people do not know is that a pair of the clan, the croaker and weakfish, have complex relationships that some people are only just now beginning to recognize, and even some theories are being brought up in academia.
In my home waters in Cape May County we begin seeing the weakfish occasionally in April, though the larger specimens are more common in May and June. These older (up to 17 years) weakies are strictly predatory, using their “buck teeth” to trap smaller fish, swimming crabs, and shrimps. Smaller fish are more generalized in their feeding habits, not excluding bottom grubbing. Weakfish mature quickly and within the first two years of life, most are already spawning. This equates to roughly 10 inches or more of body length.
Atlantic croakers (from now on, I will just refer to them as croaks) are smaller, shorter lived fish. They have a rapid life cycle with the whole population reaching maturity by the second year of life. They also do not live as long as weakies, with a 5-year-old fish being truly exceptional. Throughout their whole life cycle, croaks are generalist bottom grubbers. Worms, shelled mollusks, crabs, shrimps, small fish and fry, carrion, and even barnacles are fair game. That is to say, anything they can fit in their mouths. Croaks rely on scent and their sensory barbels to locate food, and crushing plates in their mouths to power through shells.
These two cousins have a very complicated relationship. At various times in either of their life cycles, one acts as prey to the other, while at other times, they can be found in great numbers together. Often still one will exist to fill a niche vacated by the other.
In South Jersey waters, the spring weakies are one of the first back bay species to bite. Smaller blues and stripers will be in the mix as well, plus the first fluke of the year, but it is the weakfish that has often called the most attention with saltwater anglers raring for a fight. These spring weakies are almost always larger predatory fish, and I’ve found that pink and green feathers or plastics are the most eagerly eaten lures.
Recently, I have seen some popular commercial plastics being marketed that are actually shaped like croakers; this is for a good reason, these larger weakfish eagerly prey upon their cousins.
Mix & Match
In the early spring, these largest weakies are feeding on the previous year’s spawn. Croaks spawn from May to October, but the greatest event is August. These young croaks overwintered in brackish, or near freshwater in upper bays and estuaries, and as the water warms and food becomes more abundant, they venture out into the back bays and ocean.
Nearly every major predatory fish, weakfish included, prey on the young croaker. As they age and grow, their list of predators gets slightly smaller, and eventually these carpet schools of croakers are accompanied by similar sized weakfish. In my times fishing, I almost always find a spike weakie or two hovering above schools of croaks as they hug the bottom.
A school of croakers is a mobile eating machine, and whether the weakfish are following to scavenge or benefit from the feeding below remains to be seen. As the season progresses, if you find a school of croakers on the bottom, don’t forget to try the top and midwater as well.
These mixed schools are a common feature of my home waters in Wildwood, but I’ve also learned an interesting tidbit as well; the absence of croakers in one area seemingly results in more weakfish. This doesn’t take much common sense to figure out, as the lack of competition of overlapping feed stock would result in better weakfish numbers. In the back bays in particular I have seen areas over several years produce either the croakers with a few weakfish mixed in, or exclusively more weakfish.
Often these areas are holes or lumps only 30 or more feet in size, but seemingly always holding a pile of fish tightly to it.
Croaker stock numbers from year to year are highly variable. It was the hypotheses of one researcher I spoke with that harsher winters result in a higher mortality rate of the young croakers, which he hypothesized results in one to two years of lower stock in the Delaware and Chesapeake Bays. There is very little science in this, as there is very little money for the subject, but again it does not take much common sense to see the wisdom in it.
As they have different spawning cycles, weakfish breeding more continuously during the warmer months, money allocated to weakfish stock assessments overlooks the smaller cousin. However with that said, young fish (seemingly) remain in the shallows, so it is possible that cold related mortality could also be an issue.
The plus side to targeting these croaking cousins, is the use of similar tackle to target multiple species that are present with one another. I recommend simple drop loop top and bottoms. I will always be a bait man; we rarely stray from what we first learn. I keep my strips in the 1- to 2-inch range on the bottom hook for the croaks and slightly longer on the top hook for the weakies. Some anglers experiment with small floats on the leaders to keep the bait off the bottom. I have had luck with this for the weakfish, but rarely for the croakers.
Green and pink have always favored me when fishing these cousins. My go-to is 3/0 Chew Chew teaser I get specially made; I use that on the top hook, leaving a 2/0 on the bottom. I never go more than 12 inches on my top and bottom leaders, but I also tie the drop loops further apart. It is a matter of personal preference, I’d just rather not spend time untangling lines.
On occasion I accent my setup with plastics and artificial bloodworms, even the occasional Gulp! just to see what is helping the bite, and adjust my bait as needed. Beyond that, I just keep the cooler ready for the croakers and pray the weakies bite as well!
The author is owner/operator of Sailor’s Delight Back Bay Fishing charters in Wildwood, NJ.
|RULES & REGS: KNOW THE LIMIT|
|New Jersey does not have a size limit in place for Atlantic croaker, while in Delaware, there’s an 8-inch minimum size. Neither state has a bag or closed season. As for weakfish, the one fish at 13-inch size limit remains in place coastwide.|