Montauk has long been known as “Mecca” for striped bass fishing, but I think that’s about to change. New York’s famed location is going to have to give up the title to its little brother, New Jersey.
Though I am a born and bred homer from the Garden State, I’ve fished and reported on the good days at Montauk, Chappaquiddick and the like. There has been a decided shift in the past 15 years, and now I believe the finest striped bass fishing on the planet exists in the Garden State. Here’s why.
Migration Hot Spot
Jersey is the pipeline for the migration. Like the Garden State Parkway, you have to use it to get to where you need to go. Consider it a virtual rest stop where stripers hang out and feed for months on both ends of the migration.
Forty pounders are caught nearly every day during the spring bass migration in Raritan Bay and its tributaries from late March through early June. Sure, many people’s claim of a “40” are actually 30-ish pound fish. But, you can easily score one of these 30-pound-plus fish without trying on any day out.
Striped bass spawn up the Hudson and Raritan Rivers, and breeding fish enter the bay as they swing around Sandy Hook. Boating anglers in Raritan Bay can easily release 50 to 60 fish on a half day trip. Jigging, plugging, spooning, trolling—all methods produce.
Not only are the fish being caught by boaters in Raritan Bay, but surf anglers are getting in on the action. The area north of the central coast of Barnegat Inlet has been nothing short of biblical as stripers migrate south during the fall. Last fall was like none other along this stretch. Days of 50-plus releases per man were not uncommon, with fish ranging from schoolies of 24 inches up to 50 pounders.
Jersey politicians did one thing right: Getting the Omega 3 bunker boats out of state waters. That has allowed a vast biomass of menhaden to proliferate throughout the year in Jersey waters. This draws behemoth bass into the bays, river systems and alongshore to fatten up on omnipresent adult bunker.
Walk up to the beach and black clouds of bait are present in the surf and nearshore from spring through winter. During the fall, massive schools of smaller baits such as peanut bunker, bay anchovies and spearing push out of the backwaters and inundate the surf line. From October through December, sand eels choke the surf waters.
A catch and release striper surf tourney on a small stretch of the Jersey coast last October reported 53 bass from 40 to 52 inches (25 to 52 pounds) released in one day. And that chew lasted for days.
No Commercial Fishing
Correction: Jersey politicians did two things right, outlawing commercial fishing for striped bass in state waters decades ago. Yes, striped bass are migratory. But with no netters scooping up hundreds of bass in a single set day in and day out, Jersey waters act like a protected oasis for bass. They don’t have to avoid wide nets or rumbling boat engines which push them offshore or deter their innate ability to migrate unhindered along the coastline.
Jersey is certainly not known for structure, but the rock jetties at inlet mouths keeps bass holding tight to the beach. Though beach replenishment initiatives have buried many jetties, those remaining along the northern section of the Jersey coast act as magnets for bass and bait. Stripers pin and corral bunker schools against these structures, creating blitz conditions that last for three to four days at a time.
Residential Striped Bass
In recent years, a massive amount of bass winter over in Jersey’s backwaters. Where New York may be a little too cold, the slightly warmer waters of the Garden State are comfortable enough for them to stay put. These backwater locales are off limits to striper fishermen in NJ in January and February, but when opening day comes on March 1, you can guarantee anglers are thick into 20- to 34-inch class fish right from the get go.
Traditional schools of thought state the bulk of the migration heads northward to New England from June to August. But savvy Jersey bassers who haven’t had their fill of the spring migratory madness will skirt inside the 3-mile line of the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), catching 40-pound fish through the heat of the summer months in 70 to 80 feet of water. We’re talking nearly year-round striper fishing in NJ.
Times Are Changing
Is this incredible bass fishing a one-off? Will it last two or three years then disappear? Shake the Magic 8-ball: All signs point to No. This caliber of striper fishing has been happening for 15 years straight now, maybe longer, with occasional lulls. But the past 4 to 5 years has been nothing short of legendary.
The script has been flipped. License plates from Rhode Island and New York now line the Jersey beaches in the fall. It may just be time for Montauk to give up the title belt. You had a good run.