It was a gorgeous late afternoon, as the sun was slowly starting its decent into the awaiting marshes in just one of southern New Jersey’s many beautiful coastal bays. Little did I know what was in store for me that day.
It was early June, the time of year that is absolutely one of the finest opportunities for success when fishing in the coastal back-bays of the northeast. This particular area is a pure saltwater wonderland in southern New Jersey, an area I stumbled upon when I first started to drive. All that interested me at that time was finding the shortest possible travel route from home to a saltwater playground to try out my angling skills. The playground was Brigantine New Jersey, a maze of secluded channels connecting multiple bays reaching its arms out to two separate inlets.
My travels for the next decade had me reaching for this saltwater oasis so frequently that I truly thought my Silverado knew its own way back and forth. I grew to love this area so much that I started a guide service which allowed me to share my enjoyment with others through fishing trips.
The early mornings in the back-bays are an astounding time to see awesome sunrises and catch eager fish waiting to blast a bait worked across the water. One particular week was very successful for a string of clients, some of which had even achieved back-bay slams. A back-bay slam is a striper, a weakfish, a fluke and a bluefish. The clients this day had a great morning; a great bite of weakfish and bluefish at first light, and we were on the prowl for some fluke for the dinner table. As the sun rose through the day the tide could not have rolled in any better.
After a few in the cooler, we made a move to some deeper water knowing deep down below there laid a mussel bed. With the tide just about topping out, the drift was perfect. The lunch bell rang and the bite was insane as my clients reeled, laughed, and high-fived their way to a limit of fluke with the biggest in the 5 to 6 pound range.
As I finished cleaning up and filleting the days catch for the clients, all I thought about was that the tide still had a few hours until it drained out of the bay. “Get back on that bite!” stuck in my head all the way until I approached that mussel bed.
Approaching the area, I felt like that young kid who had first started many moons back. There is something special in the excitement of discovering a new drop or ledge or even a hole in the back-bays. Just when you think you’ve covered just about everywhere, something appears right under your nose that fuels the fire of this fishing addiction.
I reach back to select a lure knowing all the way it has to be a bucktail. But what color; white or maybe pink? Its chartreuse, and I go ahead and sweeten it with a freshly cut strip of herring. At the time herring was still available to catch for bait. Boy, do I miss herring! That is one fishery I hope comes back soon.
Flood or ebb tide water is best for this area as you only get a short window to fish it with strong current at other tide stages. I drop my bucktail down into this section of channel with mussel beds below, and the tide now just slowly creeping out which is helping with a great presentation. As I feel the bucktail contact bottom, I cannot help but notice the mussel beds deep below that I bumping as the tide rolls out. Bang! There is that first tug fluke are notorious for. She has the bait. Does she have it all? Is she holding the bait? Did I snag the bottom? All these things go through your mind in a split second. I quickly decide she is holding the bait. Wait for it, wait for it. I ease off on a little tension from my bait caster reel, and feel her inhale the remaining long strip of bait. I lower the rod, and swing a solid hook set into what lurks below. It feels like a good fish as she attempts to bury herself to the bottom. This is where most anglers loose a quality fish. I take the time to slowing pry her off the floor without pulling a hook. Finally, I have her in the water column. Now the fight is on, as she violently fights attempting to spit the hook, me losing some line, gaining some line. This goes on for a few runs.
My Fish-finder shows 30 foot of water, but my reeling feels like 100 feet with every turn of the handle. As she surfaces for the first time I get a glimpse. “Get the net”, rings in my head. Lucky for me, on the next approach, she gently swims into the net as I sound off into a quiet marsh with no one around as the sun sets.
I grab a quick measurement; just over 27 inches. I reach for the scale, get the fish secure on it and it settles in at 8 pounds 6 oz. Not a monster ocean fish, but a personal best for me, and a respectable one for the back-bay for sure. With the sun setting and after a long rewarding day on the water and not having my camera, it was only fitting to enjoy releasing her for another day and an opportunity for another angler’s story.
I get the same excitement and enjoyment when I can take a new client or friend fishing for the first time, and hook them up with not only a quality fish, but also to the kayak way of life. For example, this past year I had clients from Vermont, who like many of my clients have become great friends. After giving some instruction, there is something I really enjoy seeing their faces when they hook up; noticing a twitch in their line. Walking them through a good hook set and then seeing a 5 pound fish appear from below is just as exciting as reeling it in myself.
Or when fishing with a co-worker, having one of them releasing the entire spool of line into the bay. Then, as he recovered his line back, with everyone busting with laughter, he reels up a 5 pound fish. On the very next drift, he does it again to my disbelief and, as we recover line for the second time, he says, “Well, it worked last time!” As I help him recover his line, I said, very matter-of-factly, no way can that happen again. As we reel in the last of his line with a 6 pound fish attached, I had to say, “Forget everything I showed you!” This is what it’s all about; good times with good people.
With the future fluke stocks on the rebound the last few years on the east coast it looks to be ample opportunities for quality catches in the upcoming years. I, for one, will be targeting deeper inlets in search of breaking my personal best. Over the years you learn the behaviors and trends of the fish. Knowing their likes and dislikes allows you to fish more quality water for quality fish. Sometimes when investing the time and effort towards personal best, the rewards are small and uneventful. However, when a plan comes together, it is something almost spiritual out there that takes me back to being that kid filled with all the excitement and adventure of exploring our saltwater wonderlands of the northeast coast!