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Captain's Focus

Will red drum ever return to the Shore? It's always seemed likely to me that any significant change in water conditions would be reflected in movements of the fish that live in those waters and are dictated to only by Mother Nature. When I was a youngster, some scientists predicted we were headed toward another Ice Age and urged stockpiling of food. After the scientific consensus changed to Global Warming in recent years, I was hoping that among all the gloom and doom forecasts that at least we'd be fishing for red drum along the Shore-- just as I'd read about as a kid in Van Campen Heilner's 1946 classic Salt Water Fishing. A recent front page article in the Star-Ledger about a Rutgers study indicating fish moving north in a "great migration" due to climate change got me wondering about why red drum haven't returned to the Shore. As detailed in my Jan. 25 column last year, the species mix 100 years ago along the central Shore was more like what we'd now expect from climate change. Red drum (then known as channel bass) were not only the primary inshore game fish, but Phillip Mayer declared " When I started to fish the New Jersey coast, in 1893, at such places as Corson's Inlet and Barnegat Inlet, channel bass were more than plentiful. Fishermen often regarded them as pests. They were everywhere." Mayer said he caught very few under 25 pounds, though he didn't spend "overly much time" trying to catch them as striped bass were also plentiful from 1893 to 1902. Surprisingly, the first two IGFA world records for red drum came from New Jersey.A few small red drum have been caught by striper anglers in the Shore surf since then, but last year I didn't get a single such report of a "puppy drum" from north of Cape May -- and I've never heard of even one of those "average" 25-pounders here. Especially after the worst fall surf fishing in many years, wouldn't it be nice to add a large game fish that isn't in a declining trend and not dependent on a heavy run of sand eels to provide a fall fishery! Since starting to write this column in 1984, I have seen some significant changes along the Shore. Cod had disappeared from N.J. to the extent that the catch of one of any size was noteworthy. Though never abundant at the southern end of their normal range, cod can now be caught even during the summer at Shark River Reef and on some offshore wrecks. The cold water spiny dogfish has just about taken over the continental shelf off the Shore, and is even a problem for surfcasters fishing bait at night for stripers in the spring -- despite the development of a commercial fishery for that previously worthless species since European markets were opened up. The sighting of a seal was a rarity when I started surfcasting along the Shore, but now they're a common sight. . There were promising signs of Spanish mackerel when I first moved to the Shore. Fishery management had restrained commercial overfishing of that species to the south and, with stocks rebuilding, it appeared they might become a target for Jersey anglers. One summer day I ran what may have been the only dedicated Spanish mackerel charter ever to sail out of Manasquan Inlet -- and we did put together a catch by casting small jigs and metals at the jumping Spanish under birds. I also used to see them jumping, usually out of range, while surfcasting. However, I haven't even seen a single Spanish mackerel jump in many years since. Unless the biology of the fish involved has changed, these observations would seem to indicate cooling waters rather than warming. Yet, there are many factors involved in fish movements, -- and a strong indicator of northward movement by southern species did occur in 2013, when an unprecedented run of croakers and spot (not normally abundant north of Chesapeake Bay) developed in Raritan Bay. Even more unusual was the fact that it happened when waters were still quite cool in the spring -- rather than during the late summer or early fall when those species often show up along the Shore. Anglers could fill buckets with them. Yet that brief abundance of those cyclical species was, historically, a mere drop in the bucket. For instance, New York Harbor was so loaded with spot in 1925 that the Brooklyn Edison Co. had to remove tons of them from their condenser pipes. Yet, just when we were expecting some consistent fishing for those pan fish, there was no fall run in 2013 -- and hardly any showed up last year. The Rutgers study didn't consider any of what I've mentioned. but concluded that "black sea bass and fluke, traditionally in Virginia and North Carolina, began to appear off the New Jersey coast". Yet, there was no indication of when those species weren't the spring to summer bottom fishing staples here. Party boats from N.Y. were catching vast numbers of sea bass off the Shore before the turn of the previous century, and it was around the time of the Yukon Gold Rush when pioneering N.J. skipper Henry Beebe tried a drift in deeper waters than he normally fished off the northern Shore and found incredible sea bass fishing on rough bottom that resulted in the area being dubbed the Klondike. The Klondike could certainly now use some of those sea bass from the south as I doubt the Rutgers researchers could put together a catch there these days. The deadline for commenting on the Fluke Addendum is at 5 p.m. Friday. The JCAA position letter from Paul Haertel was posted on my blog at nj.com/shore/blogs/fishing this week for discussion purposes. If you agree, forward your endorsement to krootes-murdy@asmfc.org, -- or present your own opinion. It seems that most N.J. fishermen don't want to go over an 18-inch minimum even for a longer season, while N.Y. anglers take the opposite stance. N.J. fluke pro Dave Lilly checked with several fellow high hooks and was surprised to find most failed to catch limits last year on many trips. He agrees with the JCAA approach. The Canyon Runner Seminar will be run in Atlantic City Convention Center on Saturday. That event was practically sold out, but check with Adam La Rosa at 732 842-6825. Most of the Canyon Runner crew spent a weekend at Casa Vieja Lodge in Guatemala to release 64 out of 84 Pacific sailfish raised, while Capt. Deane Lambros stayed in N.C. to boat a 700-pound giant tuna. The Shore lost one of its finest striped bass and fluke anglers this week when Bob Kamienski Sr. of Middletown passed away at 73 after fighting a tumor since last year. Kamienski was not only a member of the Hi-Mar Striper Club, but also one of those few individuals, that each successful club needs, who do most of the work no one else wants to bother with. He was especially active in keeping the spring and fall tournaments going as well as usually being one of the top guns to beat. His wife, Pat, has also been the winning lady angler. The obituary is scheduled for Friday's Star-Ledger. The local fishing scene has been very quiet, but the Big Mohawk from Belmar did come up with a decent catch of blackfish Tuesday that included a few tog in the 10-pound class and a pool winner of about 11 pounds. There were also some limits during Thursday's trip, and Friday looks good before the northeaster predicted for Saturday. The Belmar boats seeking mackerel have given up again after jigging only a few during what used to be the annual winter run. There hasn't been a spring mackerel run in years, and that scarcity has also been the case all along the coast. Yet, a surprise summer abundance on Stellwagen Bank in Massachusetts Bay had provided some hope for the future. Vinny D'Anton of Shark River Hills got his bluefish season started early, but he did it while wading near his winter home in Sarasota, Florida. Those small blues hit a Chug Bug, but they've been replaced by spotted sea trout and ladyfish. He also released a short snook Thursday morning on a D.O.A. Shrimp.

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