Oh, bitter irony.
When the powers that be announced earlier this year that the minimum size to keep a summer flounder would be cut oh-so-slightly, it was back bay anglers who rejoiced more than anyone else.
It's us who have sufferred perhaps more than any other group with a limit so high that it was tougher than ever to find a keeper out back. This year, though 17.5-inches is still a mighty large fluke, it's better than last year's 18-inch limit. All those fish last year that were a half or quarter inch short might end up on the dinner table in 2012, we thought.
At first, it was a back bay bonanza.
Then, the water got warm early. Even the 17-inchers seemed to flee the backwaters and head for relief in the ocean. The bay angler ended up on the losing end of the fluke war again – except this time it was mother nature, not the Big Government Boogeyman – who called the shots.
The warm water temperatures that swimmers have loved all season long hasn't gone over quite as well in the fishing community. Reports of fewer keepers in the bay have meant lost dollars at some local tackle shops.
"They're already worried about the fall," said Valerie Yiaski, owner of Oceanside Bait and Tackle in Long Beach Township.
Val told me this week that some of her customers have begun speculating that the warm water temperatures could last into the fall, spurring a repeat of last season where the striped bass run didn't begin in earnest until November.
But the back bay debacle has opened the door to a great alternative: summer surf fishing.
Most surf guys I know put their equipment away for the warmer months. They'll hop on a party boat every now and then, maybe take an offshore trip or two, but those who live to fish the suds are rarely seen on the beach during the summer.
This year, that all changed.
At Val's shop, while I was fruitlessly looking for a keeper in Barnegat Inlet on Thursday, customers were busting down the door to show off their doormats. It seems that surf fishing for flounder has made a gigantic comeback this year thanks to the those flatties that got confused by the unseasonable warming trend.
If you're thinking about trying it out, Oceanside should be one of your first stops. A frequent customer, nicknamed "Willy Hits," created what he felt was the perfect rig for surf flounder fishing. The rig, little-known outside LBI at this point, has become a hit at the shop, with customers flocking to its Facebook page (and to its doorstep) with stories of both keepers and steady action all around.
Just tip with Gulp, a squid/spearing combo or peanut bunker and go! You won't be able to show off your "$40,000 tackle box" (a/k/a beach buggy) on the sand like you can in the fall months, but your keeper fluke will do all the talking your V8 engine can't.
As for my aforementioned bay trip, my dad and I fished the tide changes Thursday, hoping one or the other would bring some steady action. The first hour, or so, of the outgoing was the ticket, with consistent fluke action in the Oyster Creek channel along the banks of Island Beach State Park. The drift was pretty quick. We fished in water between 17 and 24 feet deep and had a ball, with our largest fish being a very heavy 17-on-the-dot-incher. There was also a jumbo blowfish that chomped on my bucktail rig (which was tipped with Berkley Gulp swimmers). He got thrown back with his undersized, flatter cousins.
Most have told me crabbing has picked up again over the past week, which was evident during my fluke outing since the blue claws were having a field day biting my Gulps in half.
The folks at The Dock Outfitters in Seaside Heights have reported the mid-bay is yielding an assortment of species. Snappers, blowfish, kingfish, spot, and black drum are all being reeled in, as well as some small sea bass.
Snappers and blowfish are being hauled in near the Route 37 bridge in Toms River, according to the folks at Murphy's Hook House on Rt. 37 East. There are also a few weakies in the mix.
Triggerfish are still hanging in the rocks of Manasquan and Barnegat inlets, so get on the bite while you can!
Surf anglers are pulling in a variety of species, with fluke being the top catch. Kings are also being caught from, we'll say, Brick on south. Fewer reports of kings were heard in Monmouth County, as is often the case.
Fluke fishing remains good at all of the local reefs. The Axel Carlson is always a favorite, as is the Barnegat Light Reef, which is designed for drift fishing.
With the warm water temperatures, I'd suggest boaters head out to the Klondike Banks. It's only a few miles from the beach off Manasquan Inlet, and you always have the chance to switch things up. For some reason, fish just love this area, and it's not uncommon to hear about people catching mahi-mahi and other "exotic" species for our inshore waters when the temperatures are up.
Blues are hitting pretty much everywhere, local captains said.