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Posted By Jim Hutchinson, Jr., April 27, 2020
Mike Velez had a great day on the Raritan on Saturday, throwing metal lips and dragging green mojos for a mess of good stripers aboard his Hobie. Kayaks have been a tremendous asset this season for social distancing, stealth fishing, and navigating loss of access (closed launch ramps, beaches and facilities). Note Mike’s set-up with hi-vis safety flag and PFD in particular; if you’re pedaling/paddling into the action this spring, be sure you’re probably rigged for safety and success.

The month of May in the New Jersey, Delaware Bay region is typically greeted with a blast of fishing adrenaline; the striped bass bite has already been terrific throughout the region for the better part of a month, while new reports of black drum, bluefish, weakfish and even blowfish would typically blow the doors open on a new season. Field editors making calls for our May monthly edition going to print bright and early Monday morning show that things are well ahead of schedule in 2020; regrettably, the COVID-19 crisis has struck at the heart of the recreational fishing community at the worst possible time.

“As the month of May dawns we were still under siege from the coronavirus and the many restrictions that have been placed on us,” writes North Jersey reporter JB Kasper, adding “even with the opening of marinas and boat ramps, a lot of fishing access is still off limits due to local restrictions and state park closures. The hope of tackle owners, boat captains and fishermen in general is that by mid-May some of these restrictions will be lifted and anglers will have better access to the excellent fishing we are seeing this spring.” JB said striped bass fishing continues to be super in Raritan Bay and surrounding waters, while bluefish too have started to make their way into northern coastal waters. “Sinker bouncers are seeing improving action for ling, sea bass, cod and other ground fish,” he said, adding “Last but not least fluke are starting to trade places with the winter flounder which is a sure sign that the warm weather fishing is just around the corner.”

Of course, while curbside bait and tackle service is allowed for those placing phone orders to their favorite shops in advance, and private marinas are able to open up for customer access, the downside is that several recreational fishing industry interests are still shut out of the game, notably the party and charter boats. JB reported in our May edition that captains have taken a huge financial hit from the shutdown, but have thus far not been included in any government discussions for reopening or assistance. “Their frustrations all came to a head on Saturday when boats from the Raritan Bay area organized and took part in a flotilla to show solidarity over the plight they have been dealt,” he said, reporting that boats sailed from Atlantic Highlands up and into the Shrewsbury River. As JB described, “Even in this time of frustration and fear there are still people who are willing to stand up for their rights, and that says something about the American spirit.”

Another regret as we head into a new month is the quick end to the April tautog fishery. The four-fish limit is only in place from April 1-April 30, at which point we see a pause on the New Jersey tautog grounds until early August; with no for-hire patrons able to access this fishery, so few private boats in the water and a dearth of angling participation in April, you’d think that the alphabet soup groups of fisheries management (NOAA, ASMFC, MAFMC) would make some type of allowance for the lack of access. Bah, I’m sure somewhere some bloviating fish-hugger is out there someplace smiling wickedly at the loss of opportunity for New Jersey anglers, probably even plotting a way to use the crisis to further erode access. But of course, our local fishermen persevere and fish through it all. “Although this month did not give opportunities for anglers to get out on a party or charter boat to get after some fish, folks did manage to find other ways to catch them,” noted Central Jersey field editor Ashley Viola on Sunday in her final report for the month of April. Ashley said some anglers have taken to using their kayaks to found access to spots virtually unreachable by land; it’s a great way to safely and responsibly circumvent some of the COVID-19 beach closures of late. Ashley said anglers are still getting stripers out back throughout Ocean County, and welcomed the arrival of bluefish while offering early goodbyes to the back bay winter flounder on their migration east.

In addition to the pandemic, the April weather has played havoc on opportunities this spring. As South Jersey field editor Anthony Califano noted, Saturday, April 25 was the first decent weather weekend day we have had so far this spring and anglers from all over took advantage of the break. “The reports came in fast and furious today and that bodes well for the month of May when we should see even more angler participation, more bait in the water and higher temperatures,” Anthony said while submitting his report for May, showcasing a highlight reel that includes confirmed black drum catches from both the Delaware Bay and behind Atlantic City. “Just as the calendar was getting set to roll over into May, we are seeing some drum from the high teens to the 40-pound range,” Anthony said, adding that there were tons of short stripers hitting bait and soft plastics from the Mullica River, down the coast to the jetties and beaches of Cape May County. “A couple weakfish and blues were also confirmed along the jetties of Atlantic City,” he said, adding “Back bays are also loaded with spearing, minnows and herring all of which point to an epic May fishery.”

As noted online at TheFisherman.com and also written up in the May edition Report Section, on April 18, the governors of New York, Connecticut, and New Jersey made a big splash in announcing together that marinas, boatyards and marine manufacturers are allowed to open for personal use during the COVID-19 crisis. As NJ Governor Phil Murphy noted in the release, “We’ve committed to working with our regional partners throughout this crisis to align our policies when and where appropriate.” Gov. Murphy went on to describe this as a “unified approach” with neighboring states, describing the decision as “the most effective way to alleviate confusion for the residents of our states during the ongoing public health emergency.”

A “unified approach” meant to “alleviate confusion” is what Gov. Murphy said; yet here’s an email we received from a recent Long Island expatriate who got a place here in New Jersey not long ago and was as confused as I was about the closures and announcements. “Would you know why NY state beaches are open and NJ closed, thought they were working together,” asked Joe Giacoppo in an email last week.

We had this very same question as Joe, which is why we emailed the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) press office regarding the fact that CT and NY state parks and marinas were open, so were the beaches; so why isn’t New Jersey following the unified approach? Here’s the response we received. If you’re able to find the answer to Joe’s question in here, email jhutchinson@thefisherman.com.

“New Jersey’s State Parks and Forests remain temporarily closed to help ensure social distancing and limit the spread of COVID-19. During this time, state park marinas remain closed to the general public. For those who have personal property stored within state parks or their marinas, access to that personal property is permitted. DEP has been following this approach since the closure of state parks on April 7, 2020, which is consistent with the regional approach among New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut that allows marina access for personal use while observing social distancing requirements. Even where marina access is permitted in New Jersey’s state parks, all facilities (including restrooms) remain closed and social distancing practices are being enforced by State Park Police and Conservation Police Officers. DEP takes seriously its many responsibilities to protect public health and safety, and to act as stewards of our state parks, forests and other state assets including marinas that are so important to the people of New Jersey. Working closely with Governor Murphy, DEP will reopen open state parks as soon as it is safer to do so.”

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