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Captain's Focus

Mackerel are in local waters during the spring for the first time in many years, though there's a question as to whether it's a real "spring" run. Stripers turned on in Raritan Bay on Thursday, and blackfish are back in season on Friday. Capt. Jimmy Elliott has been working on scattered schools of mackerel since the winter, and put his fares on the Golden Eagle from Belmar Wednesday into five-gallon buckets of them during Wednesday's trip. Jigging was good early with the wind blowing, but dogfish became a problem when the wind dropped out and the drift slowed. The action picked up again when the wind came up again later in the trip. The first bluefish of the year was spotted following a hooked mackerel. Though this is the best showing of spring mackerel in a long time, it appears to be a carryover of the winter run rather than a true spring run. Traditionally, huge schools of mackerel migrated up the coast in April – starting off Virginia and heading steadily to the north. Those stocks were devastated by the foreign fleets in the 1970s, but made a comeback a decade later after the 200-mile limit and Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Management Act was signed into law by President Ford on April 13, 1976. Once again we enjoyed a spring run in April that often lasted into May before blues sent the mackerel schools fleeing to the east. In those days I figured jigging stringers of tiny tubes plus a diamond jig or sinker was slow if I didn't catch over a hundred mackerel on a party boat trip. Dogfish were never a problem in those days, and freezers were quickly filled with mackerel for the shark season with enough left over for giant tuna bait in late summer. It's not like that now, as even big draggers have had a hard time loading up on mackerel. NOAA Fisheries has considered mackerel to be abundant, and the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council continued to provide big commercial quotas even as the spring run became a dead issue. When I followed up on that with NOAA Fisheries a couple of years ago, it turned out that they hadn't updated the stock assessment since the fishery recovered. Since I haven't heard any mackerel reports from the south, and neither has Elliott, this doesn't appear to be a real spring run even though there's enough to provide a decent fishery. Yet, that single bluefish sighting is a warning that anyone wanting to get in on this opportunity should do so during the first fishable day. The Jamaica from Brielle is joining the mackerel fleet on Saturday at 7 a.m. Capt. Howard Bogan says the fish are located 14 miles SE of Brielle. What a difference a day makes. That's what Art Berkman of Pompton Plains said after he clammed Wednesday in Raritan Bay with Johnny Bucktails on his Sea Hunter out of Keyport to no avail – before getting into a Bonanza of stripers Thursday morning on the same bay. Stevie Nosti of Hazlet was also aboard as they cast plastic shad lures to release about 80 stripers before the wind forced them in. Berkman said they looked like fish straight in from the ocean were "cookie-cutters" from 29 to 32 inches. Gannets were diving on bunkers and herring, and the water temperature ranged from 49 to 50 degrees. With the blackfish season opening on Friday, the Ocean Explorer and Big Mohawk from Belmar will be seeking those fish, weather permitting. So will Capt. Bobby Bogan. He made an experimental trip Wednesday with his crew. There were gannets diving, but no signs of stripers. He ran east to rough bottom where there was surprisingly good action with keeper cod. Dogfish were a problem, but a switch to jigs improved that situation – and the cod hit jigs better than bait. Bogan then tried a wreck that produced blackfish releases. He'll be fishing daily except Sundays, with Saturday night trips offshore to fish for tilefish on Sundays. Bob Matthews, at Fisherman's Den in Belmar Marina, says flounder fishing is still poor, though the few being caught still represents an improvement. Joe Melillo, at Castaways Tackle in Point Pleasant, reports a good pick of flounder up to 18 inches from Point Pleasant Canal to the Mantoloking Bridge. He also knew of a 12-inch blackfish being released on a sandworm in the canal, and of two 14-inch stripers that hit small bucktails at the Rt. 70 Bridge on Manasquan River. Nick Honachefsky of Normandy Beach fished briefly for flounder Wednesday afternoon near the Mantoloking Bridge when the wind was swinging the boat over a wide arc – but he still caught a 16 ½-incher on sandworm. He noted that Capt. Al Crudele's son caught a large weakfish this week near Sea Isle City for the first report of that species. The Jersey Coast Anglers Association has a special incentive for anglers fishing the 22nd annual Fluke Tournment on Saturday, August 6. Dan Nykyforuk took home a check for $11,000 last year, but the payoff could be much bigger this year due to a new doormat fluke category that will pay $50,000 cash for the largest fluke exceeding 12 pounds. For info visit www.jcaa.org.

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