Get Ready For Opening Day Striped Bass in the NJ Backwaters
Winter in the Northeast is tough. Especially for the shore bound angler. The opportunities to fish come few and far between, and the availability of fish to catch diminishes. New Jersey makes winter fishing even more difficult by closing the backwaters to striped bass fishing from January 1st until February 28th (or 29th on a leap year). Other than jumping on a party or charter boat for blackfish, what can a NJ Angler do to scratch that fishing itch? Prepare for Match 1st.
March 1st gets penciled in by many anglers as the official start of striped bass season, even though the ocean remains open year round. Fishing the back bay requires different tactics and different equipment than you will use out front. What follows is a primer to get you ready back bay striped bass fishing.
One small caveat. This was written with Barnegat Bay in mind. This will apply to all of the backwaters from Bay Head down to Cape May to some extent. If you are looking for advice for Raritan or Delaware bay, this is not it. Those are two different style backwater fisheries.
About the easiest way to target striped bass is to present them with real food. Bloodworms are a top early spring striped bass bait. Fish them on a Mai Tai Worm Rig, or a Mai Tai Hi/Lo rig with 4/0 or 5/0 hooks and a small bank sinker. You generally don’t need more than an ounce, usually less, but it would be wise to carry up to 2 oz for areas where there is some current. Whatever rig you choose, make sure it has inline circle hooks when using natural bait for striped bass .
If bloodworms are hard to find, clam will work too. Use the same rigs, but cut the clam into small pieces, about 2 inches across. You can also use bunker, but again, keep the chunks on the small side.
Lures – Soft Plastics
While bait fishing is productive, the early spring is a great time to throw small lures. Soft plastics shine this time of year. You need to keep them small, in the 3 to 5 inch range, and fish them slowly.
Our most popular soft plastic for early season striped bass has been the Kettle Creek shads. Both the 4 inch and 5 inch models work, with the 4 inch being slightly more popular earlier in the season. Pair them up with a bullet head jig from S&S bucktails or a Kalin Ultimate Jig Head and you are ready to go.
For swim shads, look to the No Live Bait Needed 3 inch swimbaits paired with a No Live Bait Needed 3” jig head. Since you may be fishing some shallow waters, make sure you get the smaller sizes. Also from NLBN are their Mini Mullets. Pair these 4 inch swimbaits with a swimbait hook from Owner or BKK and work slowly with the occasional twitch.
The standard style swim shads from Storm and Tsunami also work this time of year. Keep the size in the 3 inch and 4 inch range. White is normally the preferred color, but natural patterns like bunker also produce.
Recently new to Grumpys is the Tidal Mullet swimbait from Tsunami. Grab a pack of 4 inchers and pair with either a small jig head or a weighted swimbait hook .
Now available at Grumpys Tackle are Z-Man DieZel Minnowz. These nearly indestructible swimbaits are real popular in the southern states for redfish and sea trout. They will work perfectly for our local striped bass also.
Lures – Shrimp
This time of year in the backwater, the striped bass will feed on anything. One of the more common baits around are grass shrimp. We carry two options for shrimp lures, the Vudu Shrimp and the Tsunami Holographic shrimp. When fished properly, both of these will outproduce anything else in your bag. Tie them direct and fish them at an EXTREMELY slow retrieve. If you have current you can dead-drift them with the occasional twitch thrown in. Keep all movements subtle because an unsuspecting shrimp doesn’t move much.
Lures – Topwater
As the days grow longer and the backwaters warm a little, usually later in March or early April depending on the weather, a topwater bite develops on the grass flats. Small traditional style poppers like the Stillwater Smack-It Jr work will when fished with a moderate to slow retrieve. Spook style lures like the Heddon Saltwater Super Spook also work well as they can be fished slowly. Keep your spook style lures small (5 inches or so). This is not the time of year to break out the Doc lures (yet). One other lure that works well in the back bay is the Yo-Zuri 3D Inshore Topknock Pencil. As with all surface lures this time of year, keep the retrieves slow and don’t overwork the lure. Save those retrieves for late April/May when the bluefish arrive.
Lures – Other Subsurface Presentations
While soft plastics generally rule the fishing this time of year, there will be days/nights where the bass prefer something else. This is when you break out stuff that looks like standard striped bass fishing gear, but sized down. For example, a simple bucktail always works, but since you are fishing shallow water, you want to go with something light, around a ½ oz, and tied with lots of bucktail to give it some “float”. Since you will be fishing shallower areas, you don’t want to drag bottom. With a heavier bucktail, or a sparsely tied bucktail, you will need to retrieve too quickly to stay off the bottom. The S&S Bucktails Pro Rockhopper in ½ oz is perfect for this.
For hard plastic swimming plugs, the Rapala X-Rap in the SRX-10 size is our most popular springtime plastic swimming lure. The color Glass Ghost is the most popular, but some days naturals like Bunker or Olive Green work better. And if the water is a little stained, the Hot Purple, with the splash of chartreuse down the side, is a great choice.
The other plastic swimmer that does well in the spring in the Cotton Cordell Redfin. The 4 inch and 5 inch sizes are what you are looking for. The Black/Chrome and Blue/Chrome work well, especially where there is artificial light available.
When a wider bait profile is present, the Yo-Zuri 3D Inshore Twitchbait is a good lure to have. Keep to the smaller 4 3/8” sizes.
For those who were able to get a Scabelly glider, especially if you got a Mini 3.5 Inch or a Micro 2.5 Inch, this is the time to use them. These lures are deadly in the early season. If you did not get a Scabelly, the Salty C’s, Alan’s and Grn.Head gliders work also.
Rods and Reels
For your rod and reel selection, you are going to want to scale that down just like with the lures. While your 9’ and 10’ surf rods will work, it will be much more pleasant to throw lighter lures and fight these back bay fish with something much lighter.
For rods, anything in the 7 to 8 foot range that can throw lures some where between ¼ oz to 2 oz will do. While you can use rods geared for boat and bank fishing in that range, like the Tsunami Carbon Shield II, using a rod designed for the surf where casting distance is a priority will be a big help. The ODM D.N.A. 7’6” model, known as the “Back Bay”, was designed specifically for this. Our very own 7’10” Grumpy Sandstorm rod is also perfect for this. Tsunami makes a line of light Airwave Elite rods, and the two smaller models will also be great for back bay fishing. Another great option is the Jigging World Onyx surf rod. Get the 8 foot model there.
Once you have your rod, you need to pair it up with an appropriate reel. The Shimano Vanford reels are perfect for the back bay. They are light and smooth, so you can fish them all day. Another option from Shimano is the Stradic. For either of these, the 4000 model will work. If you are not a Shimano fan, there are other great options. From Penn, the Slammer IV DX in the 3500 size and the Battle III DX in the 3000 size pair up nicely with any of those rods. If you like Daiwa, the BG in the 3000 size works great. One popular reel is the Tsunami Evict. Either the 2000 or 3000 in that model reel is a good option. If you need a reel that is a little tougher and could survive a dunking, the Van Staal VR50 is the reel you are looking for.
Spool up any of those reels with braided line. You don’t need anything big in the pound test department. 15# PowerPro will work, but if you are fishing near some hard structure, you can bump it up to 20#. Your leaders also don’t need to be heavy. 20 to 30 pound Ande leader is sufficient, unless you are fishing a bulkhead or dock you need to lift the fish onto. Then you may want to bump up to 40 pound test.
Back bay fishing is simple. You don’t need a huge utility belt with a bunch of tools hanging from it. You’ll need a plug bag, and while you can use a fancy one like the ODM Surfwave AIO or the Ebbpoint Beachwalker, the bags offered by FJ Neill are sufficient for this task.
Most of the time you will be walking docks, bulkheads, sod banks and the like. You won’t need waders here, but you will want some sturdy footwear. Good hiking boots for the docks and bulkhead, while waterproof muck boots are good for the sod banks. In some instances, you will want to wade out a bit, and for that you will need waders and a good surf belt for safety.
As far as tools to carry, you will always want to have a good pair of pliers on you. Some of these early spring fish are small, so get a pair of needle nose pliers for unhooking purposes. With some of these small lures, you may find they work better tied direct instead of using a clip or a snap. You are going to want a pair of Boomerang Snips for line cutting purposes. The model with the LED light is nice for night fishing, as the light isn’t so bright that it ruins your night vision. (You will still want a flashlight or headlamp for travelling to and from your spot however).
For handling fish, if you are on a dock or bulkhead, a longer handled net is nice to have. While most of the fish in the spring are on the small side, there are occasionally some larger fish mixed in and you will be happy to have a landing net for those. If you are wading, you will want to carry some sort of fish gripper.
Other Tips and Advice
The weather this time of year is cold, especially at night. Dress for it. Get your Stromr jackets out. If you are wading, have a couple of layers along with some warm wool socks. In case you get wet, its always nice to have a spare pair of Grumpy Jogger in the car so you don’t have to drive home cold and wet (or worse yet, having stop for coffee looking like you had a bad accident on your way to the restroom).
Since the fish generally tend to be small, we suggest you crush the barbs on the lures you are using. It’s amazing how deep a small striped bass can get a small swim shad down its throat. Having no barb makes it easier to get that fish back in the water.
Where to fish?
Did you think we were going to point you to exact spots? Sorry, but you are going to have to do some searching. But we will tell you what to look for.
When the backwaters first open on March 1st, the better fishing always seems to be on the mainland side of the bay. Generally, the bottom on that side is muddy, and the sun warms up a mud bottom quicker than lighter colored sand. Concentrate on the west side shoreline and any feeder rivers or creeks during early March. As those spots slow down, start moving east.
You want to look for places with structure. Channel edges near a mud flat are a good choice. Hard structure like docks or jetties will also hold fish. Soft structure like where grass flats meet mud flats are also good spots to try. There is also some structure that is only there during certain times of the day. Shadow lines caused by artificial light near the water is an excellent spot to concentrate at night. Put a few of those together in one spot and you are in business.
The striped bass in the early spring are cold, so they will avoid areas where they need to expend a lot of energy. Sometimes the water temps are down in the low 40’s. You are going to want to look for spots with a gentle current, and avoid ones with a ripping current until the water gets up closer to the mid 50s. Keep your presentations slow as the bass are less likely to chase a bait far when cold.
We hope this helps you get started backwater striped bass fishing, or for those who have done so before, we hope this helps you fine tune your tackle. See you out there on March 1st.