Fall 2011 Striped Bass season – The Other Side of the Coin.

This is how I felt last fall. This monkfish swallowed a 28" striped bass and choked on it. A real life "bit off more than it could chew" fable.

TheNew Jerseyfall striper run of 2011 for many will be considered one of the most bountiful in the last forty years. At least, that is what I have been hearing ad nauseam for the last two months. And I have no reason to doubt these claims. Well, actually, I do have one. It was for the most part, restricted to certain portions of state. And for those of us who like to do our angling from the sand while pitching artificial lures at these linesiders, in areas south ofLong BeachIsland, it may have been one of the more lackluster seasons in recent memory. There must be a reason to justify why one section ofNew Jersey’s 130 miles of coastline was so much more productive than all the rest. I am determined to find the answer.

I love fishing. But more than catching, I love the technical aspects of the sport. The thrill of the hunt, the gear and pure surprise that overtakes you when you reel a fish up from the murky deep. That’s what does it for me. Over the years, I have discovered (and to be sure, I am not the first) that it’s not the equipment that catches fish so much as being able to anticipate where and why the fish are going to be and what will make them strike your preferred bait. In fact, I have caught some of my nicest specimens on tackle I rescued from my parents basement that is damn near a half century old. So in my mind, it’s a combination of factors that contribute to a successful outing.

There are reasons this season has frustrated me like no other. You see, when I am not fishing or the fish aren’t biting, I am learning. Surf fishing is my milieu. I don’t restrict my endeavors to the surf, but it is definitely my favorite. No bait either. If I used live bait, I wouldn’t have the need for the thousand plus lures I have accumulated over the years. So I read. And talk to just about everyone I meet on the beach, getting their opinions. And have caught my share of fish. But not this season! And the logic just isn’t working this year. Spots that I knew to be productive in past years were as barren as theGobiDesert. And it wasn’t for lack of effort. I put in an average of four to five days a week, using every tactic that has worked in the past. Tides, moon, wind or weather meant nothing in these hot spots this year.  The logic most certainly, defied me this season.

Logical thinking may be my strongest attribute. Gathering information is a critical step in my planning process. So why weren’t the fish here in my area (Absecon Island) and yet so jam-packed in areas a mere 15 miles up the coast? First, I referred to my logs of previous fall seasons in this area. A pattern emerged indicating that my efforts had been slowly declining over the last ten years reaching a valley in the last two years. Weather patterns were more or less the same in that time period. This year, water temperatures actually stayed in the optimal range for a longer period which should have translated into a better season not the reverse. My initial reaction to this discovery was two fold. That is, why was it happening and how can I adjust. I am not a pure meat hunter, keeping only smaller fish in the range but do so enjoy the art of the catch.

Upon reflection of my efforts over the last ten years, it initially occurred to me that were reasons the big fish weren’t hitting the sand in my previously prosperous spots. First on my list was the beach replenishment program. A quick search of federal and state sources showed me that the southern sections of the state were more likely to have sand pumped on the beaches than were the areas north of Brigantine Island.  But as I have previously mentioned, I am a technical angler. I scout the beaches I fish each year at various times, noting the slews and cuts at extreme low tides and even comparing them to old aerial photos I have of the entire coastline. Yes they are filling in to some degree but all in all, not that significantly.

My next assumption would be a bit more difficult to prove. I have always followed the rule that the fish will follow the bait. Match the hatch is a primary rule of angling and one that has rarely failed me. Well this year, and for the past several years, there has been a definite blight of available baitfish in some of the areas that I frequent. From the southern tip of LBI through Wildwood, they just never made land. The big question is once again why? Along the coastline, I have always worked on the assumption that the clam was the lowest point of the bait chain. It also recently occurred to me that over the last ten years, there have been few occurrences of “clam washes” on any of the beaches I frequent. Clam washes, where huge number of clams are forced onto the beach after a particularly rough sea, while not exactly common place, did seem to occur on a fairly regular basis. I can recall times where the beaches were so covered with broken clam shells that municipalities brought on front end loaders to clear them before they started to rot. Of late, when I see more than four or five clams on the beach in one spot, it’s more likely that it is the result of anglers shucking surf turkeys for use in their pursuit of excellence. I haven’t personally observed a clam wash from Brigantine through the Wildwoods in 8-10 years. It also coincided with the last time we had inshore clammers more or less dragging the same territory. Could this be the answer to my quest?

To confirm my suspicions, I would need to speak with someone who is more of an authority than I am. My experience with clams is pretty much limited to steamed, half shell or fra diavlo. Luckily, my home is close to the local boat ramp which is frequented by some of the areas commercial clammers. Over the years, I’ve had many conversations with these bay rats who work the bays to earn a living. Most are second and third generation bay men and take notice of changes that may affect their catch. If anyone could confirm my suspicions as to why the striped bass bite has changed over the years, I was sure they could confirm my hypothesis but not sure if they would do so. After all, the basis of my theory proposed that their industry was instrumental in keeping the big game fish away from our local beaches. I wasn’t quite sure how they would react to this claim. To my surprise, not only were they willing to discuss it, they moved me in a direction that somewhat astonished me. Most of those I spoke to were quick to defend the big clam boats that had dragged off the front beaches some years ago when the waters were open. The reasoning was sound in that the big chowder clams will quickly borrow down and the beds should replenish themselves over a period of years. Definitely makes sense. But why wasn’t I seeing the results? Because I was looking in the wrong places!  The culprit according almost to a man was the cow nosed ray. Huh? If you would have given me 100 guesses, cow nosed ray would still not have been on my radar.

I had been noticing more and more cow nose rays in the back bays and had even hooked a few during some early season fluke hunting. Certainly a powerful species, it never really occurred to me that they might be affecting the character of the surrounding waters. But according to the clammers, one cow nose can annihilate a clam bed. Cow nose rays have an extremely large mouth and once they locate a clam bed will suck in as many clams, oysters or mollusks as it can locate. It grinds the shells using a dental plate which separates the shell from the meat and discharge the crushed shells through their gills. And here is the kicker. They are thought to use an electro-receptive detection method to locate deep burrowing prey. And my research also indicates that while they on a “near threatened” classification, there numbers have been growing strong. So strong that they are considering promoting them as a “food fish” in theChesapeake as a way of controlling their impact. How a fish can be both “near threatened” and that destructive is beyond my comprehension.  And while they do have natural predators (sandbar and bull sharks, cobia), those species are not strong in this area.  It’s not always mans fault when a species disappears. Sometimes, nature itself plays a strong role.

So what is the end result? Why did one section of the coastline have such a prosperous season and another just ten miles south, get shut out? Is it the cow nose rays, the shore replenishment programs run amuck or a combination of factors? Or simply cyclical occurrences as some are want to say. I honestly don’t know the answer. But I do know that it is a fact that one area was head and shoulders above another and has been for the last four or five years. To prove my point, take a look at the statistics for the Atlantic County Surf Derby. One of the oldest surf derbies in the state, it is a fall event running approximately 5 weeks. This year, they lowered the minimum striper entry length to 32 inches, down 2 inches from previous years. There were a total of five linesiders entered in the tourney this year and the overall winning bluefish was taped in at 18 inches. Considering the amount of activity a mere ten miles north ofBrigantineIsland, these numbers, at least to this writer, were absolutely appalling. Water and air temperatures this year were as favorable as in any prior year, possibly better and yet production was down substantially. Participation in the tourney, by all accounts was the same if not somewhat better than past seasons.

The successful angler does more than buy good equipment and bait and show up at the beach. Especially those of us that prefer tossing artificials as opposed to drowning bait. I have always lived by the motto “Information is Power”. But knowing why and changing conditions are two separate issues. Putting you time in will overcome poor conditions to a smaller degree. Even the blind squirrel finds a nut occasionally. This past fall run, I was the blind squirrel and I can tell you it did not work for me. Yes, there is always next year but that means a lot of fine tuning between now and the spring run. And this time I will be ready. That is, if they decide to let me.

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