CAPE MAY - Maryland resident Joel Goron got to the beach before sunrise, hoping that he would land a striped bass during his two-day mini-vacation.
Goron, 47, of Laurel, Md., caught plenty of small bluefish, but no stripers, after spending last Thursday and Friday here at Poverty Beach.
Stripers are notoriously picky about what they eat, but his lure was probably not the problem. Nor was the weather. Strong northwest winds were creating turbulent, murky waters, which stripers love and use to their advantage as they prey on disoriented baitfish and dislodged shellfish.
The real problem was probably that the ocean temperature is just getting to what stripers like: 55 to 68 degrees.
The ocean off southern New Jersey was at 62 degrees on Tuesday. Stripers range from Florida to Canada, but most are found between North Carolina and Massachusetts. Fish that summered off New England are starting to head south, but they have yet to move past New Jersey to wintering grounds as far away as North Carolina and Virginia. So, Goron looked at the bright side.
"It's better to fish and not catch them, than to not fish at all," he said.
Striper fever is here early this year, with anglers wetting lines before the fish arrive in great numbers.
Some say the early striper fever is fueled by the early closing of fluke season.
The season for fluke, also known as summer flounder, ended Sept. 6, even though there are still plenty of the flatfish out there.
Before the first fluke season was created in 1993, anglers would fish for them right up until the water cooled and stripers showed up.
Fluke season in 1993 ended Oct. 9, but it's been slowly pulled back under a government program to restore stocks.
Now, with fluke season ending around Labor Day, there is no signature fish for more than a month in late summer and early fall.
"It's been devastating the last three or four years," said Schellenger's Landing party boat captain Fred Ascoli. Schellenger's is in Lower Township, Cape May County.
"When flounder stops on Labor Day, it just puts a halt to fishing. It's not that they can't go fishing. There are croakers, small blues, kingfish, small stripers, albacore and bonito, but nobody's moving. Nothing is going to happen until the stripers start to bite."
Some anglers are rewarded with an early migrant or a small resident fish. Young stripers don't migrate, but stay inshore. Stripers spawned in the Delaware River can be caught almost year-round. Some anglers, though, are getting antsy.
"I wish it was happening. All I'm catching is snapper blues," said Bob Cochran, 48, of Sanatoga, Pa., who arrived Friday for three days of fishing.
Cochran said he landed a 34-inch striper here in May during the spring run as fish headed north, but he acknowledged the most success he has had is when the water is 55 to 58 degrees.
"It's a little early," said Cochran, who works at the Limerick Nuclear Generating Station.
Cochran said he would continue fishing for two more days with his brother-in-law Bob Goodman, a construction worker from Havertown, Pa., who owns a summer home in the Villas section of Lower Township.
Goodman, 45, agreed the water needs to be colder. He's used to hooking stripers in colder spring waters on the Delaware Bay.
"Normally, I go bayside to Sunset Beach (in Lower Township). I go there in April and May and slam them good there," Goodman said.
Richard Orth, who owns Cape May Bait & Tackle, agreed the lull began after fluke season, though anglers are rewarded with other fish such as croakers, bluefish and kingfish.
Orth said some are happy catching stripers smaller than the 28-inch size limit.
"They're here year-round. They're called resident fish," Orth said.
Brothers Jack Bosna, 47, and Steve Bosna, 49, are happy catching them.
"I got a small striper off Steger's (Beach) and a small one off the Queen Street jetty. Steve got one off that Poverty (Beach) pipe. Part of the lull is that summer is over and less people are here anyway," Jack Bosna said.
The Bosnas also don't mind catching fluke out of season, which is legal as long as they are thrown back. They landed 19 fluke off the Alexander Avenue jetty in Cape May Point on a recent day.
Still, there is nothing like fighting a big striper. The larger stripers are mostly migrants from the Chesapeake Bay stock. The migration south takes advantage of baitfish leaving the bays and rivers this time of year to head offshore. Jack Bosna said they are seeing plenty of baitfish,so it could be a good year.
"Everybody's gearing up for it. Mullet are everywhere," he said.
Ascoli would rather see the fluke season start later than May so it can be extended in the fall until stripers arrive.
"In May there are other fish to catch, including striper, drum and sea bass. One day in September is worth three days in May," Ascoli said.
This year, Ascoli took a chance by buying fluke quota for September for the Miss Chris and Miss Chris II party boats. The government auctions off 3 percent of the annual quota to raise funds for scientific research and these fish can be landed after the season.
He went to Montauk, N.Y., for the "research set-aside" or RSA auction that doled out 60 percent of the fish to the commercial fishing industry and 40 percent to the recreational sector.
"It hasn't worked out that good because the winds killed us," Ascoli said.
There are no guarantees in fishing, but for some it's always better than the alternative.
"I could be working," Goron said.
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