Saltwater fishing season off and running
Our saltwater fishing season is getting off to a flying start as the action on many species kicked in significantly earlier than past years, indicative of an early spring that seemed to arrive about two weeks ahead of time.
Right now the saltwater angling focus is on big chopper bluefish weighing up to 20 pounds working their way up the coast. Larry Jock, Editor of The Coastal Fisherman in Ocean City, Md., annually tracks the “first fish of the year” caught in the Ocean City area, and even though this season’s first bluefish was caught in mid April, about the same as last year, other species are showing up sooner than in the past.
For example, last year’s first mako shark was caught on May 14, this year, April 28; yellowfin tuna last year was May 7, this year, April 30; dolphin last year was May 20, this year, April 30; and flounder last year, April 16, versus April 7 this year. While this early arrival is not consistent with every species (bluefin tuna showed up about a week later this year) it does suggest a trend that may be indicative of warming ocean waters. Last week I fished the Chesapeake Bay where mate Bobby Thomas speculated that the trophy rockfish migration was also running about two weeks early.
Last Tuesday I launched my boat, Open Debate, in my seasonal quest for back bay summer flounder in Ocean City, Md. My initial flounder foray on Wednesday was thwarted by windwhipped whitecaps and muddied waters. No wonder mine was the only boat to be seen on the rough and tumble back waters of the Isle of Wight Bay. I gave it about an hour, but after five drifts and no bites I surrendered to the elements and headed back to the dock. I’ll try again when the weather breaks.
As regular readers of this column know, I maintain a record of my flounder catch each year and last season was one of the poorest on record in the back bays. In 2015, which was fairly typical of other seasons, I fished 34 days (May through October) and caught 232 fluke of which 32 (14 percent) were legal keepers of 16 inches or more and I averaged 7 fluke per trip. Last year my totals dropped off significantly. I fished 28 days and caught just 133 flounder of which only 10 (7.5 percent) were keepers as I averaged fewer than 5 fluke per trip.
The Maryland regulations for summer flounder were consistent both years (16 inches minimum length, 4 fish daily limit) and they remain the same for 2017, so why the drop off? Last February I consulted with Scott Lenox at the now defunct Greater Philly Outdoor Sports Show for his analysis. Lenox is the owner of “Fish in OC” and host of Ocean City’s fishing television show “Hooked on OC.” He’s worked in the fishing industry and fished the waters in and around Ocean City for over 25 years. Lenox believed that the last year’s poor flounder fishing in Ocean City’s back bays was caused, in part, by dredging of the Ocean City Inlet in early spring, at about the same time the flounder began their migration into the bays. The murky water and dredging activities discouraged the flounder from entering the bay.
Another factor may have been seismic testing that impacted inshore waters, testing intended to lay the groundwork for a future wind farm. Lenox added that although bay fluking was negatively impacted, flounder fishing at inshore reefs, wrecks, and lumps was excellent. The upshot here is that if bay fishing doesn’t improve this year, I’ll point the Open Debate toward ocean structure.
For an update on what’s happening along the coast in southern New Jersey I checked in with Captain Dick Herb of Escapade Charters out of Avalon. Herb, who also serves as Chair of the New Jersey Fisheries Council, notes that there are tons of bruiser bluefish off the Jersey coast and in the back bays right now. Plenty of striped bass are hanging out in Jersey waters as well. “We’re catching the bigger stripers at night,” said Herb. “We had great weather before the fish arrived and are hoping it clears as soon as possible.”
*** But, according to Herb, flounder fishing regulations for New Jersey remain in limbo. “As for flounder fishing, things are still very up in the air,” he confessed. “At present the regulations are set at a 3 fish daily limit, 19 inches in length or greater, spread over a 128 day season with dates yet to be determined. The problem with that size limit, since the males run smaller, is that it targets female breeders one hundred percent. If you’re keeping just the breeders it’s going to damage the fishery. That said, behind the scenes we’re looking into going out of compliance and hoping some complicated negotiations will result in changes and compromises with the National Marine Fisheries before the Atlantic States Marine Fishery Council meets on May 10 and 11.”
My friend and fellow outdoors columnist Terry Brady covers the New Jersey saltwater fishing scene for Pennsylvania Outdoor News. In his most recent column he, like Herb, also bemoaned the current state of the Garden State’s questionable flounder regulations that raise the legal size limit to 19 inches. Citing a petition from New Jersey’s three representatives to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, Brady noted, “More than 90 percent of summer flounder in New Jersey waters that are greater than 19 inches in length are females, the commission representatives said, meaning an increase in size limits would encourage higher harvests of reproductive fish, which would be counterproductive to sound fishery management.” We’ll have more on this evolving New Jersey fish story in future columns as it unfolds. Stay tuned.
As for the freshwater season back here in the Keystone state, the folks at the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission (PFBC) remind anglers that the stocking program is still going strong and the spring season offers plenty of opportunities to catch brook, brown and rainbow trout. The PFBC will stock 500,000 more trout into 445 water sections through the end of May, said Brian Wisner, Director of the PFBC Bureau of Hatcheries.
“We want anglers to know that great trout fishing continues through spring and into June and picks up again in fall when water temperatures start to cool.”
Included in this year’s stocking lists are the popular Keystone Select Stocked Trout Waters, a program where large 1420-inch trout are stocked into 14 streams across the state. The program was launched last year with eight streams including our own Middle Branch of the White Clay Creek here in the southeast. Six new waters were added this year.
The PFBC annually stocks approximately 3.15 million adult trout in more than 720 streams and 120 lakes open to public angling. Also, PFBC cooperative nurseries run by sportsmen’s clubs across the state add another 1 million trout to waters open to public angling.
In addition to the PFBC’s extensive hatchery trout stocking program, Pennsylvania also has thousands of wild trout streams. At present, there are 3,700 miles of streams containing some level of wild trout and 1,644
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miles of Class A wild trout streams. Class A streams are the Commonwealth’s best wild trout streams and they offer a different challenge and reward for anglers.
“These fish and the streams that contain them are some of Pennsylvania’s most treasured resources that all trout anglers need to experience,” said Wisner. “Enjoy the in-season stockings and make this the year that you branch out from your favorite stocked water and add some wild trout fishing to your ‘to do’ list!”
Here in the southeastern corner of the commonwealth, where we had a two-week jumpstart on the rest of the state, the PFBC’s stocking program is wrapping up on local streams. The final stockings in Berks County were completed Friday, May 5, on Antietam and Hay Creeks. In Chester County, stockings end with a flurry this week with the East Branch of White Clay Creek, White Clay Creek, and Pocopson Creek being stocked on Monday, May 8, and the East Branch of the Brandywine Creek and Pickering Creek getting one last batch of fresh trout on Tuesday, May 9.
Almost all flounder like this 24-incher are female breeders. Significantly lowering the size limits would target more males and might actually be better for the fishery.