Daily Fishing and Outdoor Report
The Tales of Fall Sand Eels;
Needlefish Making a Splash
SPOOKY SEASON: I have to alert outdoors folks, especially those who frequent the Jersey outback, to consider hanging kinda close to home for a goodly chunk of early December. From December 5 through 10, the woods will become alive with the sound of shotguns. That’s the state’s six-day firearm season for deer. Then on Dec. 14 (through the 16th in some hunting zones) a special Permit Shotgun Season takes place. It’s a lot less noisy but it still involves people shooting shotguns at things they strongly suspect are deer.
I value the deer hunting season as the only known way to adequately keep deer from overrunning field and forest. Still, I can’t say shotgun season is my favorite time of the year for outdoorsing. Even I’m hesitant to wander further than 450 feet from a building – the minimum legal distance a hunter must be from a structure when shotgun hunting.
By the by, even Sundays in December are now a tad spookier. In the past, Sundays were no-fire days. Now, certain wildlife management areas are actually open to hunters for this supposed day of rest.
NOTE: Our popular Wells Mills (Ocean) County Park will be closing its hiking and biking trails during the six-day firearms season. While hunting is not allowed in the park, natural areas surrounding the park are hugely popular deer hunting grounds. Park authorities fear there’s a tad too much potential for an accidental crossing of paths twixt parkgoers and nearby shotgunists. The park’s nature center, adjacent to the parking area at the entrance to the park, will remain open.
WEATHER GLANCE: La Nina continues to cast her spell over the Eastern Seaboard. On Monday, air temps hit the 70s in parts of the state, breaking records. While we’ll see a seasonable cool-down following a cold front this week, temps could very well inch back upward, far above December norms.
Per Jet Stream based projections, don’t bet on a white Christmas hereabouts – regardless of the odds the makers are offering.
As for the first part of the upcoming winter, look for sky things to be super swingy, with the oddest of weather switches. We’ll see bouts of unusually mild conditions instantly giving way to cold, wet and nasty, then a flip-flop back to meek and mild.
On a larger scale, we saw the odd swing weather thing (a La Nina specialty) via an ultra-rare frigidy Halloween snowstorm but 70-degree days for Thanksgiving weekend. A short sleeved Christmas?
As of this week, ocean water temps are in the low to mid 50s. That’s way mild. And it’s part of the reason we’re still seeing a load of cow bass coming to light, some over 30 pounds, taken from surf and boat.
This past week saw dozens of stripers over 20 pounds. It’s unlikely the better bass will be flying the coup anytime soon.
Contributing to the stripers’ staying power is a bizarre bounty of sand eels.
SAND EEL APPEAL: On that slimy subject, I have collected a bunch of reports on the stomach content of kept bass and blues. It turns out the sand eel factor has been through the ceiling this fall. Virtually all insider reports included sand eels as a major stomached foodstuff.
I’m heavily into bait side of fishing. It’s ultimately the most important factor in all of angling. This year’s sand eel surge is fascinating.
First, a quick bit of sand eel science. They are not eels at all. They’re more technically called sand lance, belonging to a small family known as Ammodytidea. Your Latin training tells you that means sand burrowers. And these are truly among the sea’s most amazing speed burrowers, able to back into sand in a fraction of second.
Although the Ammodytidea family is small, it’s main member (sand eels) produce the most plentiful larva in all of the northwest Atlantic Ocean. They are prime forage when it comes to enhancing the growth process of many prime gamefish.
Our current presentation of sand eels begs, “Why the heck are so many of them here?” That lends itself to a related question: “Where the hell were our usual fall forage fish?
The annual autumnal tsunami of spearing never even showed. In my 40 years of faithfully seining and (later) cast netting, I’ve never seen spearing, our most common nearshore migratory forage fish, go abjectly AWOL.
What’s more, our regular rush of fall peanut bunker failed to materialize along the beach. When, in recent memory, haven’t these fall mainstays shown right on schedule?
Also, the massive fall balls of big bunker, a recent autumnal phenomenon, seemingly flew the coop very quickly this fall.
It all builds up to a forage fish baffler.
Then, sorta outta the blue, barrels of sand eels show. Such a sand eel surge is not a common thing hereabouts.
Could it be that, somehow/somewhere/someway, the utter lack of spearing (a very aggressive feeder, believe it or not) allowed sand eel larvae to super survive? That’s not such a stretch. Voids are instantaneously filled in the marine realm.
It should be duly noted that scientific net surveys going back many decades clearly show that sand eel populations are astoundingly cyclical in our area, but not so much to our north (off New England).
Expectedly, there is already knee-jerk chatter that global warming has the sand eel biomasses drifting all over the place. In fact, I called a scientist buddy I know up in Massachusetts and he is already swearing up and down that the overall warming of the ocean has the sand eels “confused.” He’s doing a paper on the subject. I’m thinkin’ we should wait at least a few falls to milk that assumption – unless someone wants to give me a huge grant to study the sudden phenomena.
“Hello, Jay, I’m with the organization that sponsored your sand eel/global warming research. Could you tell us what all this data means?”
“Whatever you want it to mean, Sir. What ever you want it to mean.”
Hey, it was a very juicy grant.
One final note about sand eels, they can ball up like nothing you’ve ever seen. They’ll pack in even thicker and deeper than the biggest of bunker balls. Around here, such slithering teeming sand eel gatherings occur in winter. I’ve driven Holgate in the most frigid recesses of February and observed fairly frenzied birdplay over Beach Haven Inlet. Lard-ass gulls were grabbing thick-as-bricks sand eels, a creature they wouldn’t stand a chance of catching in warmer more spread-out times.
NEEDLEFISH PLUG BLOG: Plugging has exploded in the surf. And it’s not just small stripers being taken by casters but even some fish to over 20 pounds.
I hate to admit it but needlefish artificials continued to rock the rockfish. The brand name of the week seems to be the Super Strike Super “N” Needlefish. I’m very familiar with these not-cheap hot-lookers/hookers. Drawn out at both ends, Super Strikes are pretty as a picture, graced by top-grade airbrushing, which adds sublte color blends, top to bottom, front to rear. The available color range is insane, yet, if you read the many accounts of incredible needlefishing sessions, it sure as hell seems that one certain color rules a given day -- more often than not changing the next day. While that color du jour thing is common to all plugging, it sure seems more pronounced when fishing needlefish lures. Unfortunately, to carry a quiver of top-end needlefish plugs, you’re be sacrificing hundreds of dollars.
Many of us still carry the olden-look needlefish plugs (Gibb’s and such), which are little more than a pencil-y piece of painted wood, sometimes made a bit flashier with white bucktail ass ends. Those old standby models remain dedicated to the highly effective floating shape of the original needlefish, made popular in the mid-1970s – though created many decades earlier.
Key question: Are bass attacking needlefish thinking they’re, well, needlefish?
That’s very unlikely. I kid you not. In fall, needlefish show and go as quickly as the mullet run, maybe quicker. They’re really not a major presence. What’s more, I have frequently tried to live-line needlefish and not only have I never had a single taker but even bluefish seem disinterested in my wounded offering. I have to think the thick (and stinky) oils that come off of a needlefish aren’t overly appealing to gamefish. It’s one of the very few fish I’ve never eaten.
Needlefish plugs are likely drawing ravenous hits based on the way they simulate any number of famed baitfish. Per numerous pro opinions, this plug somehow resembles sand eels. While I don’t see it, needlefish plugs seem to be going crazy in this year of the sand eel. Also, the immense assortment of colors applied to striper-slaying needlefish plugs seems to indicate the artificial can, indeed, mimic various baitfish.
As for fishing needlefish plugs, the traditional pencil-look plugs are a moving piece of plugging boredom. You cast it out, slowly reel it in a few feet, slow/stop, repeat. Jerking does very little to enhance the action.
Retrieving boredom notwithstanding, anyone who has ever taken a hit on a needlefish lure knows the insanely intense strikes it garners. Even larger model bass let fully loose on this artificial. An attacking gamefish is 100 percent committed to the kill.
I have a theory on that enhanced aggression from fish hitting a needlefish plug. While most plug shapes try to imitate a wounded or spastic baitfish – often confusing or even spooking a trailing predator -- the tedious straight-ahead progress of a needlefish plug seems to be a very identifiable look to a gamefish. They’re confident that they’ve covertly snuck up on a fully healthy baitfish, one that simply hasn’t yet seen them.
I should note that the above-hyped Super Strike offers a bit more play, i.e. action, than traditional needlefish artificials. Still, they’re slow movers when compared to the oft-erratic motion of a swimmer, diver or popper. That laidback look is apparently a good thing when ocean waters cool.
RFA TO A T: I want to throw a plug in for the fine folks at the Recreational Fishing Alliance (RFA). This hard working eelgrass-roots angling groups has a cool a new t-shirt available for the holiday season. Buying one for $20 (S&H included) is a chance to both donate to the angling cause and then don a very apropos "Freedom to Fish" shirt.
The RFA's new design shows a surfcaster on the beach at the magic hour, ready to unhook a good fish while a nearshore center console and offshore sportfisherman also prepare for coastal action.
Per the RFA, “Look closely and you'll see the image of American freedom, the bald eagle, watching out over our angling rights - of course, since 1996, the RFA has been 'First for Anglers,' fighting in the trenches on behalf of your right to fish!”
The quickest way to get one is to go to the www.joinrfa.org website. On the left side of the homepage you’ll see the ad for the shirts. And, yes, they take PayPal, far and away the fastest way to buy anything cyber-ish.
SHOP SMALL REACTION: I had a fairly heated e-response to my “shop small” – patronize smaller businesses -- appeal in last week’s column. A problem seemingly arose over my failure to concurrently include the concept to also “Buy American.”
Truth be told, I considered such a patriotic appeal. Then, I realized such a “Buy American” plea would be doomed to frustration and failure. What’s more, many of the local shops are all but forced to carry, let’s say, import items. I will readily join the nationally advertised effort to encourage shoppers to buy maybe a couple “Made in U.S.A.” items this Christmas season.
Getting a tad more political, to say “Buy American” is a bit of a euphemism. It could easily read, “Don’t Buy Chinese.”
Unbeknownst to many Americans, we are now hopelessly addicted to the opiate-like magnetism of China’s cheap labor and masterful output of fairly-adequate goods, often made to the specs of American firms. Sure, we also sell stuff to China but we’ve precipitously falled behind in that tit-for-tat balance of trade thing.
And what baby boomer could have ever thunk it? From kindergarten onward, we were schooled to dread communism and its world conquering proficiency at playing dominoes. Now, through bifocals, we see our freedomous nation in a throaty economic kiss with the most powerful communist nation in the world. We’ve become inextricably intimate with the commies. WTF? Some folks might swear we’re being covertly commercially conquered -- with nary an AK or M16 being fired.
Personally, I loose my mockingest snigger when I see our nation financially and flagrantly fattening one of the most militaristic freedom-squishing nations on the planet then assuming its finest tough-nation posture by refusing to normalize trade with communist Cuba, a fourth-world country suffering deprivations so extreme its people live in sub-poverty. “Yeah, we bad!"
RUNDOWN: As of this week, ocean water temps are holding in the low to mid 50s. That’s way mild. And it’s likely part of the reason we’re still seeing a load of cow bass coming to light. A couple linesiders over 30 pounds were taken from the surf and from boats.
This past week also saw dozens of stripers over 20 pounds. It’s unlikely the better bass will be flying the coup anytime soon. And when they do a heapful of schoolies will swarm on-scene. I’m talkin’ a memorable biomass of bass in the 20- to 30-inch range.
The final week’s worth of the LBI Surf Fishing Classic is going astoundingly strong. And to think we had worried about extending the event to eight weeks, possibly leaving the final week or two longing for weigh-ins. Fat chance thanks to fat bass and blues.
Yep, even the big bluefish are strong on-scene. Tuesday’s south winds seemingly perked the slammer showing. Loads of trophy-sized choppers arrived after days without a single blue. Fall angling seems to be getting later every year. When we train the weather to allow spring fishing to start earlier we’ll be happy hookers for sure.
Did anyone catch that twilight meteorite on Monday? It flared forth in the NE sky, oceanward? It was short-lived but produced quite a yellow burst before going out. It was kinda freaky seeing a shooting star when it was still pretty bright out. A lady nearby me also saw it and asked, "That wasn't a plane was it?" It was simply a fast-flash astronomical event.