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Daily Fishing and Outdoor Report

THAT WAS THE YEAR THAT WAS: This is my end-of-year rundown of our nearshore species and how angling after them went. I’ll begin with the better stuff then work way down to bassly things.

Weakfishing 2007 was excellent bordering on exceptional.

As is the case with all species, it was a case of knowing where the action was best -- and when best to go after that action. West Barnegat Bay anglers had it wired to the point of, dare I say it, near boredom.

While the spring run of spawning sparklers was far below what it had been during the astounding spring hooking of a few years past, there was a decent push of tiderunners around April and into May, then things went a tad quiet, which some pros took as a bad sign for summer weakfishing. It wasn’t, by any stretch.

The summer weakies moved in by June and just kept coming in waves, as is the manner of weakfish.

Again, it was the sharpies and even semi-sharpies that found larger spikes (just below take-home) and keepers by the loadful. There were even a goodly number of write-homes, weaks pushing 5 pounds or more.

I should add that those folks who simply got word of super weakfishing and thought they could just stop-and-drop anywhere in the bay quickly found out the need to first gain some sparkler smarts – or look for the spots where those in the know were anchored up. Still, it was 5-star summer and fall for weakies.

Bluefishing 2007 was right up there with the weakies year-that-was. In fact, the bluefish year was through the ceiling when it came to what most anglers look for: eatin’ sized blues.

There were so many so-called cocktail blues (1 to 3 pounds) that it was a tad odd.

The spring blues moved in early in the season, per usual, but never moved out, per unusual. There were some primordial anglers who couldn’t recall such a plentiful presence of blues lasting from spring right through fall.

Also per usual, the always aggressive blues saved many a slow summer fishing session from going skunk. They were around nonstop, especially near inlets, but also ranging far into the backbay creeks. They weren’t opposed to showing up at night either.

The reason for eatin’-sized blues hanging around from May through October may have been the bayside and nearshore bait presence (more on forage fish below).

The showing of slammers (blues over, say, 8 pounds) was about average for recent years. A few excellent pushes of choppers kept the fall LBI Surf Fishing Classic hopping, particularly noticeable in the absence of bass.

Blackfishing 2007 was below par, barely breaking through the poor barrier this year.

This is not to say this wreck or that structure didn’t offer a good day for blackie fishermen but the overall look and feel, i.e. the blackfish biomass, was not where it should be by any stretch, especially when considering fishery management had sought significant upswings in tog number by now. Look for even stricter regs if my read on the biomass is correct.

Even more bothersome than the slow togging was the poor young-of-year showing in seine pulls taken bayside. The life cycle of tog (and sea bass and flounder and weakies and so on) begins in the bay. A poor hatch -- a poor y-o-y showing -- will indubitably trickle down to a poor future showing of keepable fish. Being fairly slow growers, the impact of a bad hatch will be five or six years down the line.

Why the poor blackfish biomass?

I wish it was as simple as blaming the commercial pot fishermen working the artificial reefs (and likely to be forced off the reef areas) or the much-disclosed attack of the “recreational” marketers illegally dealing in live tog for the sashimi market. However, the problem is likely deeper and darker. I have to think the failing health of Barnegat Bay, marked by increased turbidity and chemical intrusions (contributing to an insidious decline in vital eel grass beds), is a root cause. With more and more build-out of bay-adjacent mainland areas adding to the run-off that is ruining the bay, this ecological ugliness is going nowhere fast.

Seabassing 2007, mirroring the togging, was fair at best, and maybe even a step down from togging. While some might call it an average year, based on long-term numbers, I have to factor in the amazing seabassing from a few years back, when the angling action broke all-time barriers. I guess it might be as much a question of why we had those astounding years as to why we’re so quickly back to blah.

Like tog, the seabass natural history begins in the bay. A failure of the species there is a failure everywhere.

Harping on that bay ecology, there isn’t some secret source for young-of-year fish. If the bay fails all else fails for the species.

By the by, the New Magnuson-Steven Act is jam packed with mandates to improve environmental conditions for gamefish rookeries yet the only thing that seems to be getting any air time – or even any action – is the management side of things. There is virtually no argument over the science that dictates that a failure in recruitment – the failure to add in huge numbers of young-of-year fish -- will doom any and all efforts to conserve.

Summer flounder: Indeed, this is the sourest point in the 2007 rundown. The fluking was good to very good with spurts of excellent fishing. This appraisal is good and bad in damn near equal portions. The good side is the fact that many anglers filled their freezers. The bad side is so many anglers filled their freezers. We easily went well over our annual poundage allotment. Fluking will be getting better and worse. Next year will see either a season so short that only tourists will cash in or increased size limits that only ocean drifters have a chance of finding. In fact, we may see both of those together should the suggestions of NMFS/NOAA be followed to the T.

I would be remiss not to mentioning the super catching of fluke by surfcasters – after the frickin’ season was over! Yes, they were all released unharmed but the frustration factor for sudsers – fishing post-season, after seasonal boat anglers loaded up all summer – was through the ceiling. Again, the strict following of the law by surfcasters was admirable – in the face of huge indications that boat anglers to our north had been illegally keeping fluke throughout the season.

A late-season raid on boat anglers near Sandy Hook by the Division of Fish and Wildlife enforcers caught a frightening large percentage of fluke fishermen breaking the law. I got some off-the-record details of that bust and not only did the law nab a load of folks, word got out (by radio and cell) in nothing flat and anglers for miles around began offing illegal catches.

Yet another angle on finding practical and effective ways to better fish stocks will be to whack the crap out of violators. So what’s the state’s solution? Cut back on funding the Division of Fish and Wildlife. When the saltwater fishing license comes into being, as it must, we have to fight like we’ve never fought before to assure those funds come back to serve us. Right now Trenton is salivating over the thought of some new revenue for the general fund. That cannot happen.

Porgies: Fair to poor. My dad and I used to go headboating for porgies on the original Black Whale. That was in the early 60s. Our take would be a two-man load, as in needing two guys to carry the catch back to the station wagon. These tasty panfish were also hugely popular among urban anglers coming in from Philly. Overall, it was a great fish to target when wreck fishing. Then, they went the way of too many species. Gone in a tail splash. There are some very strong managerial efforts to get them back but this is yet another species that I fear may be troubled more by environmental degradation of natural areas than purely by overfishing.

Hake, a.k.a whiting or frostfish: Slight upswing but still dismally below the glory years – many decades back – when we actually had a winter fish species to target neat the beach. Sidebar: Use website segment

Baitfish: I’m throwing this in since it’s the area I have the greatest personal expertise in. Hey, without baitfish there aren’t gamefish.

The mullet year for very good bordering on excellent. It was long and the mullet numbers were up there, especially during a three-day push when the pods were jammed to the point of bust – as in busting a net if you threw on them. Such mullet madness days make boatmen crazy. For weeks we have to spend huge chunks of time waiting for scattered schools of mullet for scoot by and still can’t meet shop orders. Then the mullet hordes arrive, shop orders are over-instantly filled and we have to watch, grinding our teeth, as millions of valuable baitfish cruise by with impunity, seemingly knowing we’re no longer throwing net on them. A few of them even flip me the bird. Fortunately George holds me back from going after them to kick their scaly little butts. “It’s not worth it. We’ll get their sorry asses next year.”

Oddly, the peanut bunker showing was below par this year, bordering on poor. This is not to be confused with the very fine showing of large bunker in the ocean this past spring. The scantness of baby bunkies threw me a bit since I most often see a direct correlation between y-o-y mullet and bunkies, based on a similar bottom-feeding tendency of the two species. However, there is the larger factor of larval recruitment, as forage fish larvae waft in from the ocean and into the bay. While similar ocean and inlet currents are ridden by both species, many natural and even manmade factors can favor one species over the other.

A single hatch is all it takes to rectify any problems with bunker recruitment. My guess is next year we’ll be back to massive schools of mid-fall bunkies.

As I noted repeatedly in this column, the spearing and rainfish runs this year were sky high. The biomass of these vital forage fish is obviously in no trouble whatsoever. In fact, thinking back to very early spring, the bay was already filled to shimmering with tiny spearing hugging the surface of the waters. With so much eco-grimness in this year-end rundown, these species are looking ultra-fine, which is tasty news for most nearshore game species.

Ocean herring also had a banner busting year. Throughout the summer the ocean was teeming with herring, many being caught on smaller plugs meant for blues. This super showing could be, in part, because of some constraints on the factory ship processing of EEZ herring. However, the herring biomass overall is astronomical, one of the few fisheries in good health.

Boston mackerel: It has been quite overlooked but the fishing for this amazingly tasty – and beloved baitfish – species has fallen off the charts. I have to contend with studies that show the biomass is hyper-healthy, almost on par with ocean herring but there’s something wrong somewhere since we’re going on half a dozen springs in a row when we barely even see this once overwhelmingly available fishery.

Striped bass: Last but least, striper fishing road a roller coaster that left many of us dizzy.

Super early-on (spring) bassing made some “all-time” charts, at least in terms of larger fish, most of them by anglers using snag-and-drop techniques under bunker pods. And that cow-ly action hung around for months – and ended on a dime. There were hardly even resident summer stripers in the house, with the Barnegat Inlet/North Jetty boat folks getting a so-so spattering of bass. The fall failure of this favored fish has been harped about enough. Since the fishery continues to grow, almost to epic levels, 2008 will surely see a closer-to-normal striper year, from spring to fall. By the by, I had a number of emails regarding a fine showing of large bass around Virginia, Maryland and North Carolina. I fear those are the fish that blatantly bypassed us.

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