Fish America: New Jersey

As I mentioned in my blog, I love New Jersey. I can't explain what it is, although I could use a lot of words trying. It's where I had my first place after graduating school, it's where I caught my first striper in the surf, and on and on. So part of me was looking forward to fishing in New Jersey for the entirety of this trip. I had all sort of plans and hopes: sharks, tuna, stripers. For the first six days of my week in New Jersey, those plans were systematically crushed one by one. Here's what I was trying to do, though, and why fishing in New Jersey can be so much fun.
When a shark trip with friend and Jersey-born surf-rat Joe Cermele comes up short out of Forked River, New Jersey, aboard his 26-foot Pursuit on Friday, we try again on Sunday, only to find the harbor entirely fogged in all morning, preventing safe travel offshore. I turn to my next plan, a trip with Captain Jim Freda of Shorecatch Guide Service out of Manasquan, New Jersey. These guys have been in business for more than a decade in Jersey, they have some of the best captains and guides in the state, fishing for everything from tuna to stripers.
Our first objective was running to some nearshore structure to try and target bluefin tuna. I'm 0 for 2 in my tuna trips so far on this trip, but am determined to get a bluefin. We had a narrow weather window at sun-up, when conditions would allow us to fish more than 10 miles off in Freda's 28-foot Parker comfortably, and we took our shot.
The conditions were right, but the fish were absent. It served as a frustrating example of how highly unpredictable these fish can be. Our back-up plan was live-lining bunker, or Atlantic menhaden, to stripers inshore. Striper fishing in Jersey in July can be a tough proposition, and it proved so on Thursday, as our bunker went unmolested despite several drifts.
At the end of the day on Thursday, I accepted a last-minute invitation to step out of Jersey and get to Connecticut to fish aboard the Blackhawk II with Captain Greg Debrule. Debrule has a full-body mount of a great white shark that he caught off Montauk. He's caught 1,000-plus-pound blue marlin. He's one of the best captains in the business, so when he invites you to fish, you go. Greg is loud, he doesn't hide his opinions, and he wants you to catch fish even more than you do.
For the past few years, Greg has been running the party boat Blackhawk II out of Niantic, Connecticut, and bringing big stripers and bluefish over the rails night and day.
Party boat fishing is something else altogether. If you've never done it, try it--at least once. At its best, it looks something like this photo. There are birds blitzing everywhere and bass and blues are underneath. Everyone onboard is hooked up, and the mates are running around with the net, unhooking and boxing fish.
Things can also get hairy. Friday's trip wasn't jam-packed--there were about 30 fishermen. But still, having that many lines in the water leads to trouble sooner or later. Currents, winds and varying levels of angling experience create some interesting situations that the mates have to deal with.
The morning trip is pretty calm as far as problems go, and the fishing is fantastic. There are several drifts where almost everyone on the boat is hooking up with big bluefish, with bass mixed in. We're diamond-jigging these fish, using 14- and 16-ounce hammered jigs. Pictured is the first striper of the day.
Before long I'm in on the fun. Although my luck with stripers would fail me all day, there was no shortage of big bluefish like this one. All the fish meat that is not kept is donated to the United Way to help feed the hungry. Greg estimates that the Blackhawk gives upwards of 7,000 pounds of fish a season to the United Way folks. That's where my bluefish are headed.
One great thing about party boats is the variety of fishermen you'll find on any given trip. There are kids catching their first bass, novice anglers and experienced fishermen onboard. I got the chance to share the bow with Reggie. When I ask how long he'd been coming out aboard the Blackhawk, he holds his hand waist-high to show me how tall he was when he started. Reggie fishes bait, and you won't catch him without a cigar and a beer. This guy puts the party in party boat fishing, and after a long career working in construction, he's content to take his share of fish from the sea aboard the Blackhawk. This striper would be the pool-winner at the end of the day.
After the 8 a.m. - 3 p.m. trip, I'm back on for the evening shift, fishing 4 p.m.- 10 p.m. A new group of passengers brings excited fishermen like Garret, Graham and Mitchell, out to target some of their first stripers and blues.
The first catch is half-surprising and half-disappointing. It's a lobster. The kids holds out hope that it might take the pool until the first bluefish comes over the rails.
The kids hold their own, though, and hearing them grunt and laugh as bluefish after bluefish peels off drag, you can tell that these guys will be fishermen for life.
The bite slows down slightly on the evening trip, but there are still plenty of blues and a few bass to go around.
With the boat washed and the rods rinsed, Greg races home. Trying to stay behind his truck, I get the impression that this guy even sleeps faster than I do. He takes time to show me his great white shark mount before hurrying to bed. After all, he's got a 6 a.m. Fourth-of-July full boat to deal with the next day. The shark is massive. It's hard to comprehend a predator like this up close.
With my brief return to Connecticut behind me, it's back to Jersey, and perhaps the most famous saltwater scene in the Garden State: Island Beach State Park. Made up of 10 miles of sandy beach facing the Atlantic, IBSP provides some of the best surf fishing in the Northeast.
You can't fish IBSP without stopping at Betty and Nick's tackle, right in front of the entrance to the park. The place is the epicenter of the Jersey surf culture. There's a diner attached to the tackle shop, where anglers in their waders can grab a pork roll before picking up their bunker and hitting the beach. Betty and Nick's is pure Jersey.
An over-sand permit, which can be purchased on a weekend or seasonal basis, allows anglers to bring even the kitchen sink on the sand for a shot at stripers. The beach buggies and trucks that line IBSP in May and June are truly a sight every surfcaster should see. The place is just something else entirely.
Tossing an assortment of lures in hopes of fooling a stray bass is unproductive, as I figured it might be. Once July rolls around, it becomes harder to find bass on the beach during the day. Bait-fishermen, and surfcasters working at night find the most fish. My one-day permit means I have to be off by sunset, but it's hard to call any trip to this beautiful stretch of shoreline a waste of time.
So far my plans in New Jersey have been beset by fog, summer heat and just plain bad luck. The tuna are absent, stripers have pushed off the beach, and sharks won't cooperate. All in all, New Jersey has kicked my ass. But I've got one last long shot. Al Ristori is a well-known writer and fisherman who calls New Jersey home, and if there's one guy who can get me a Jersey fish, it's Al. He's fishing with Captain Hans Kaspersetz on Sunday, and has an extra seat on the boat. It's the bottom of the ninth and I'm trailing, but at least I'm at the plate.
We aren't far outside the slip when the outboard acts up, and it becomes clear it's not in good enough shape to spend a day on the water. I'm just about ready to put Jersey in the rearview mirror when Hans miraculously borrows a boat and saves the day. He brings an Edgewater up behind our docked vessel, we load the gear and bait, and we're off again.
So thanks to Al and Hans, after a rough week in Jersey, I was able to hit what felt like a walk-off home run on the Fourth of July in my last day in the state. It all began with a 38-inch fish that got the morning going by taking a bunker chunk fished off the bottom off the Sandy Hook Channel.
Shortly thereafter, I caught my first striper of the morning, a beautiful 34-inch fish. Hans--who's never at a loss for words and finds a way to both insult and encourage you in the same breath-- seemed proud of me.
It wasn't long before drags were singing all over the boat, as we'd found a nice school of fish with the feedbag on. This behavior is somewhat atypical this late in the season, but we weren't complaining.
The highlight of the day came courtesy of Dominick Castellucci. Dominick had never in his life caught a striped bass. Pictured here, held by Captain Hans Kaspersetz, is his first. The 48-inch fish had a girth of almost 30 inches, and I think must have been at least 40 pounds. The largest fish on the day went to the most deserving guy on the boat.
Dominick was all smiles for the rest of the day, as Al and Hans both tried to emphasize how fortunate he'd been to start his striper career with such a fish.
Former Outdoor Life Fishing Editor Jerry Gibbs told me that if there was one guy that could put me on fish in New Jersey, it was Al Ristori, and he was absolutely right. Thanks to Al and Hans, my Jersey visit has a great ending. Here, Al stands with his son Mike, who was up from Miami for a visit.
Leaving Jersey was tough, but after a day like we had on Sunday, a memorable Fourth of July to say the least, it was a little easier. Fishing across the bay from the New York City skyline is worth the price of admission alone. But I had to get down to Washington, D.C., to catch some fireworks and fish.
If you go… Sandy Hook: Fish with Captain Hans Kaspersetz and Al Ristori, who charter trips together. You'll learn more from these guys about striper fishing in Jersey than you ever thought there was to know, and the hardest part will be to stop laughing long enough to fight the fish. ww.capthans.com or e-mail Al at Cristori@aol.com. Jersey Shore Stripers and Tuna: Shorecatch guide services. Shorecatch has a handful of guides to put you on fish no matter what you want to go for in New Jersey. www.shorecatch.com Connecticut Party Boat: You'll have stories from fishing the Blackhawk with Greg to last you until next season, I promise. www.blackhawksportfishing.com.