Photo above by Tom Lynch/ANGRYFISH.TV
In 1970, I moved from Monmouth County to Ocean County. In the early years, I primarily fished on the ocean side of Island Beach State Park, enjoying the mobility of four-wheel drive along the beach. Soon after, I discovered the awesome back-bay side of fishing that Island Beach offered every spring.
When I lived in Belmar in the 1960s, my friends trailered their tin boats to the launch ramp on the bay side of Island Beach. Every spring on March 1, they caught their limit of 10 striped bass at 18 inches or more.
Back then, the top artificial lure in the bays was the Rebel 5½-inch blue and black-back saltwater minnow floater developed in 1962. It is hard to believe that more than 50 years ago, George Perrin of Arkansas made that first floating minnow out of plastic. Until then, minnow lures had been made of wood and were inconsistent in their swimming action; plastic lures changed the game. Other productive bay lures were the Mirrorlure 52M24 and Creek Chub Striper Strike in pearl white.
Things began to change in the 1970s, especially when Barnegat Bay became polluted after Toms River Chemical discharged waste into the bay. Then came Ciba-Geigy, a dye-manufacturing plant that dumped chemical waste into the bay and ocean for many years.
The bay fishery began to die off and, in response, public and private coalitions formed to fight for the restoration of Toms River, Barnegat Bay, and the natural wetlands. My wife was among those advocating the cleanup. She and many other Toms River residents were part of the Ocean County Citizens for Clean Water, a group that was instrumental in getting Ciba-Geigy out of Ocean County. This action was the start of Barnegat Bay’s restoration and continues to this day.
More recently, the shutdown of the Oyster Creek Nuclear Generating Station in 2018 has had a positive impact on the bay fishery. The false environment created by the warm-water discharge vanished, and baitfish, striped bass, bluefish, and weakfish that had unnaturally congregated in the creek began to spread throughout the bay.
Today, springtime offers many wonderful fishing opportunities. A tremendous number of striped bass and bluefish roam the bay beginning in mid- to late March. Fishing there has become an extremely important part of my life as it has to many others. Every year, it attracts thousands of fishermen who come to enjoy the bay’s beauty and serenity. While enjoying the fishing bounty, we must work to preserve what nature has given us for now and for future generations.
Back Bay Tackle
I favor 7- to 8-foot rods matched with 3000 to 5000 lightweight spinning reels. There are many durable and reliable rods and reels available for back-bay fishing, but my go-to setup is the St. Croix Legend Xtreme Inshore 7-foot medium-heavy with a Van Staal VR50 spinning reel.
When wading the bay, I use a sealed reel that can survive being splashed or dunked filled with 20-pound-test braided line with a 20-pound-test Seaguar fluorocarbon leader. I attach my lure selection with 50- or 75-pound Tactical Anglers power clips. These clips are strong, make lure changing easy and efficient, and do not impede the lure’s action.
Soft baits are proven and effective for a variety of saltwater species. Soft-plastic swimbaits have profiles that provide active gamefish can’t resist and tails that kick on both the retrieve and freefall. My soft-bait choices for the bay are the Hogy Pro Tail Paddle Softbait and the Storm 360 GT Largo shad with a 3/8-ounce jighead.
Other good choices are Tsunami Swim Shads and Kettle Creek Outfitters’ 4-inch and 5-inch swing shad in white. The Kettle Creek lures have distinct ribbings on their bodies that give them a natural appearance—they have been hot in back bays over the last several years.
The Spring Bluefish Bite
Around the end of April and the beginning of May, gator blues arrive and are exceptionally hungry. They are called “racers” because they have no belly fat, though this changes quickly as they feed on adult bunker and other baitfish in the bay.
Topwater lures are the way to go since these fish are mean and hungry. All poppers work, but my choice is the 7-inch, 2¾-ounce Musky Mania Doc. This lure triggers savage strikes from its mesmerizing “walk the dog” side-to-side action.
I always alter my topwater lures when large bluefish invade the bay. Depending on what size popper I use, I remove all hooks and fish with only a single J-hook on the tail—5/0, 7/0 or 9/0 depending on the size of the plug. This is key when wading the bay because the single J-hook is much easier (and safer) to remove from a thrashing bluefish than multiple treble hooks.
Fly-Rodding the Bay
Although light spinning tackle is the most popular method when fishing the bay, there are many serious fishermen using fly rods, and the bay is made for the fly-rod enthusiast. Mine is a 9-foot 10-weight St. Croix Legend Elite. I keep it simple with a clear intermediate line and about a 4-foot, 20-pound-test fluorocarbon leader.
Fly selection is also very simple. My preferences are the Bob Popovics Jiggy, Bucktail Deceiver, and Bob’s Bangers, though I also use a vintage Ka-Boom-Boom Popper originated by Cap Colvin of Seaside Park, New Jersey. It was first made from a cork perch float cut in half to produce two lures.
Today, I use a popper with a hard-foam body. The foam head can be tied out with the cup facing forward to create a pop or chug. The next generation of foam poppers on the market are those like Rainy’s Saltwater Popper Heads in white, which I use in size large for the back bay. This past season, I also used a Double-Barrel popper in a large size. Any foam-head popper can be tied with the cup facing forward to create a pop or tied on the reverse to produce a “slider” fly. These fly-rod poppers are impressive for both striped bass and bluefish.
Moving water is one of the most key factors when targeting inshore species. The first two hours of an outgoing tide in the early spring and first two hours of an incoming tide in the late spring can provide fantastic results.
Early Spring Lure Selection
My number-one topwater for back-bay stripers is the Storm Arashi Top Walker. It is available in 10 colors and has a very responsive side-to-side, “walk-the-dog” action. This lure generates a powerful wake along the surface even in choppy conditions. Other topwater choices are the Tactical Anglers CrossOver Stalker, Tsunami Talkin’ Popper, Stillwater Smack-It popper, and the Heddon Super Spook XT, just to name a few.