Our jigs hit bottom in 65 to 75 feet of water and were immediately attacked by hungry striped bass, and by the time Nick DeNucci, Bob Stasiulaitis and I headed back the release count was up to about 75. Not bad for a late-season striper trip, but this was beyond late. The date? January 6, 2002!
New Jersey striper action should have been long over by then, but it just kept cranking. In fact, I had to borrow my friend Ken Hagemann's 26-foot World Cat for that January trip because my boat had been hauled for the season. Even though we had to break through skim ice in Hagemann's canal, the conditions were good, with no wind and just a gentle three-foot southeast swell on the ocean as we headed north from Manasquan Inlet to Ambrose Channel, where the stripers were reportedly feeding. We didn't quite make it that far, as we spotted gulls dipping to the east off Sandy Hook and soon encountered a large body of bass.
I started off using a four-ounce Bridgeport slab jig, but after DeNucci began catching double-headers of schoolies on his jig-and-teaser combo I added a three-inch Femlee plastic eel above my jig and quickly hooked up with something extremely heavy. It turned out that a 32-inch striper had hit the jig, while a fat 36-incher had grabbed the teaser.
The bass that day ranged from "shorts" of less than 24 inches up to 20 pounds, with about 40 percent making the New Jersey slot limit of 24 to 28 inches. Since we didn't keep any, we couldn't be sure what the fish were feeding on. However, the last striper I landed spit up a couple of small fish while I was leading it to the boat, and we scooped one up with a net. It turned out to be a 5 1/2-inch weakfish.
Although we couldn't have asked for a better day, we made the right move by leaving Ambrose Channel at 2:00 p.m. A southeast wind was just coming up when we reached Manasquan Inlet, and snow was falling by the time we cruised through the Point Pleasant Canal to Hagemann's home.
The Never-Ending Season
Even some nasty weather didn't turn off those winter stripers. Captain Rob Semkewyc runs the Sea Hunter out of Atlantic Highlands for fluke on a half-day schedule during the summer, but switches to jigging and eeling for stripers during the fall. Other party boats in his area had either switched to bottom fishing or gone into dry dock for the winter, but not the Sea Hunter. Semkewyc had a band of loyal customers who wouldn't let him quit, and they regularly jigged up 20 to 60 bass a day when weather conditions were good enough to fish the edge of Ambrose Channel. Yet Semkewyc said he couldn't put off going into the yard any longer, and made the second weekend in January his last attempt of the "never-ending" striper season.
I joined him and 13 other anglers at 7:30 a.m. on January 11, when the wind had finally dropped off enough to get out. Unfortunately, a "possibility of showers" turned into a steady, bone-chilling rain - but the fish were there! Birds were working the edge of the channel when we arrived, and we were into bass right away. Most of the stripers were small, and the birds soon sat down, but the fishfinder showed loads of marks on the bottom every time Semkewyc steamed against the roaring 3.5-knot ebb tide to start another drift.
The drift was so fast that it was difficult to keep our jigs on the bottom, even in 30 feet of water, although everyone who could handle the cold and rain managed to pick away. Then a raw northwest wind came up to drive in the rain and make us really miserable, but the sky soon cleared and we had one pleasant drift before the wind began to honk. I released 27 bass from 16 to 22 inches, while each of the other anglers onboard probably caught at least one slot-sized bass. There were also four or five fish over 28 inches, including the 11-pound pool winner taken by Paul Rubbe of Piscataway.
Despite the poor conditions, everyone on the Sea Hunter managed to land between 20 and 50 stripers that day - and those fish were aggressive. They were hitting jigs that were flying past in the current, despite the chilly water temperature of 44 degrees. Presumably, these were Hudson River bass and, with the mouth of the river just a few miles away, could feed as long as the bait and conditions pleased them before heading for their wintering grounds.
One Wild Winter
While New Jersey anglers have been catching stripers much later than in the past, when most diehard anglers would call it quits after Thanksgiving, the fall of 2001 was exceptional due to water temperatures that remained high well into December. Anglers fishing northern New Jersey had some excellent jigging and trolling action in 60 to 70 feet of water during the usually prime month of November, but often had to fight through bluefish to reach the bass.
That fishing had died out by the end of November, when former SWS Northwest Regional Editor Tom Ohaus stopped by and we had to run south to Harvey Cedars Lump in order to catch schoolies on jigs and flies in 53.8-degree water. Then a run of bass around the clam boats working off Manasquan Inlet developed in early December, but we still hadn't seen any herring or significant surface action.
That changed on December 20, when I took fly-fishing pro Joe Blaze up to Shrewsbury Rocks and got into a flurry of surface action while fighting a stiff northwest wind. As we were heading in, I got a call from friend Steve Nelson, who reported birds working off Shark River. It turned out that hundreds of gannets and gulls were diving on bass and blues that were chasing the previously missing herring. The northwester was blowing 32 mph, but the activity was occurring in a partial lee within a mile of shore, so jigging was no problem.
I ended up releasing 28 stripers up to 36 inches, plus 21 blues to 12 pounds, while Blaze managed to release five bass up to 32 inches on fly, despite the strong winds. The next morning I found the birds diving on herring that were being chased to the surface within a half-mile of Manasquan Inlet, in waters that had just dipped below 50 degrees.
It appeared that fishing was all but over when John Hoffman and Susan Bonoff arrived from Brookline, Massachusetts, determined to make a striper trip on December 28 on their way to a holiday in Atlantic City. I didn't hold out much hope, as the air temperature was hovering at 23 degrees when we got out to the Mile Buoy off Manasquan Inlet at 8:30 that morning, but Hoffman soon released a double-header of 30-inch bass, taken on a deep-trolled shad rig. Then I got a call from the north, and we made a run up there to get into the last of some surface action east of Sea Bright Reef, where Susan topped our jigging releases with an 18-pounder.
The bitter cold of late December did lower the water temperature to 48 degrees, but that's still a good level for striped bass activity, and the action that followed in January wasn't entirely unexpected. Ironically, air temperatures hardly ever fell lower than they did during the last week of December, and the water temperature probably didn't drop much, if at all, below 44 degrees, which may have kept the stripers active. In fact, though most anglers assume cold water dulls the fish's feeding activity, I have jigged up dozens of stripers in past Decembers at Harvey Cedars Lump, when ice was forming in the rod guides and the water was in the upper 30s.
Action to the South
The New York-New Jersey area wasn't the only place that held feeding stripers last winter. A few charter skippers continued fishing clams for bass at the mouth of Delaware Bay throughout the winter and enjoyed good success, and anglers from Virginia to North Carolina experienced record-breaking winter striper action. Claude Bain, director of the Virginia Salt Water Fishing Tournament, issued almost 400 citations for striped bass caught last January and February, as compared to an average of 50 during that period in previous years. About two-thirds of those citations were awarded for released fish with a 42-inch minimum size, while the rest were for weighed bass of at least 40 pounds. The total number of citations in 2001 was 778, with 553 releases and 225 weighed, but three-quarters of those fish were taken after December 15.Normally, most of Virginia's citation-sized fish are caught between November 20 and January 10, when water temperatures drop into the mid-40s and migratory bass move into their ocean wintering grounds between Cape Charles and Cape Hatteras. The action dwindles when the water temperature drops below 42 degrees, and Bain said it gets down to 37 degrees in his neck of the woods.
Anglers in this area look for diving gannets and surface swirls to pinpoint the action. They primarily troll huge jigs weighing up to two pounds and fashioned from painted in-line sinkers rigged with eight- to ten-inch shad bodies. Big spoons also work well.
Even though the big year classes of the 1990s won't be providing larger quantities of big bass until a few years down the road, Bain is seeing more trophy stripers every year. There were a dozen 50-pound fish (including a 55 1/4-pounder) taken in 2001, and he expects the state record of 61 3/4 pounds to be beaten shortly.
It's anyone's guess whether anglers will enjoy great "off-season" bass action in 2002-2003, but last winter proved that it is possible. Whether it happens or not, you can bet that a dedicated group of striper fishermen will remain on high alert well into January, ready to take advantage of a winter blitz.