There were two others that had arrived already, but luckily I managed to get the port stern corner spot. Yes! The person on the starboard corner had 5 rods ranging from a trolling rig to a light spinning outfit. He was a regular on the boat. After exchanging a few pleasantries, we chatted about lures and rigs needed to target Atlantic Bonito and Little Tunny. Bert is very knowledgeable and he had a whole tackle bag of lures and jigs for anything that you may encounter on the Queen Mary party boat. Diamond jig and Swedish Pimple in the 1-1.5oz sizes were the staples, while he also had a mix of swimbaits, dropshot plastics and bucktails that he could pitch to any fish breezing through.
I only had smaller diamond jigs, so when the deckhands were free, I asked one of them to bring me a couple of the 1.5oz hammered diamond jigs. For $4 each, they were well worth the price if I can catch my targets with them.
The Queen Mary had been catching limits Bluefish, numerous Atlantic Chub Mackerel and some Atlantic Bonito in August. On some days, anglers may be able to catch a handful of Atlantic Bonito each. Since I had already caught Bluefish in the past, Atlantic Bonito was my top target on this trip despite the greater uncertainty of the catch, while Atlantic Chub Mackerel was a good "fall back" species. The bite had slowed down a lot in the past two days, so I was quite worried whether I would catch any fish, nevermind any new species, at all.
There was a sign that warned against the use of braided line on the boat. Not only was braid a nightmare to untangle, the keen eyed Bonito and Little Tunny could also avoid baits tied to braid. So I added a topshot of 15lb mono followed by 4 feet of 15lb fluoro. I had two rods with me and was conflicted about which lures to tie onto each rod. At the end, I settled for a 1.5oz diamond jig for the slightly heavier UglyStik/Baitrunner 4500 combo, while I tied on a swimbait on the lighter 9' rod. I figured this is a good mix of subtle and aggressive presentation on hand.
The boat was scheduled to depart at 7:30am. However the boat was still relatively empty, which was a big surprise for a long weekend. Finally, we departed with around 30 anglers on the boat, leaving lots of room for everyone to fish.
It was about a 45min boat ride until the Captain Dave slowed down and set anchor. Low tide was at 6am, so the tide was moving a little now. The fish were slow to respond, since no one hooked into any fish in the first few minutes. Finally Bert landed a Bluefish, and another person landed a Striped Searobin. Hm...searobin, eh?
I didn't have any weights or baits that I could use to catch searobin, since I was geared up for bonito and mackerel. We had planned to fish for searobin at Sandy Hook the next day, so I ignored the temptation and focused on zipping jigs for the bonito. Basically, I was casting the jigs out 20 feet from the boat, waited for the jigs to hit bottom, and reel as fast as I could while twitching the rod tip here and there to impart a bit of darting motion.
Two drops later, something hit my jig at mid depth. It gave up a nice little fight and I was expecting a Bluefish when I saw the wing like pectoral fin. No way...
Striped Searobin (Prionotus evolans) - Species #405
I honest can't remember how deep we were fishing...perhaps in 30 to 40 feet of water. It was a complete surprise that a searobin would follow a fast moving jig and hit it so far off bottom. Well, at least at the time I thought it was strange.
After the nice bonus lifer, I focused on the bonito again. Since the fishing was rather slow, the captain signaled for everyone to reel up and we made a little move.
At the second spot, it was just a little bit bettter. A few people brought in Bluefish. My jig was largely ignored for a few drops except for a Bluefish that followed to the surface. Just as I was debating whether to change jigs or not, I had just dropped the lure on the bottom and made two cranks of the handle when a fish grabbed the jig. Initially, the fish came up fairly easily and I had deep colour within seconds...until the fish decided to sound deep and gave a pretty good run. I thought I hooked into a larger Bluefish after the first run, but the fish made a second strong run, and then a third, and a fourth, and a fifth. This was no Bluefish. I didn't want to get too excited since the fish was running all over the place and I had to follow it around the stern. At last, after a little 5min battle, I had the fish on the surface. In typical fashion, this fish did a few circles before we could get it into the net. YES!!! I did it!
Atlantic Bonito (Sarda sarda) - Species #406
Freaking awesome mini tuna!!!
Atlantic Bonito was my top target for this trip. Now that I caught it, a huge weight simply melted away off my shoulders. Added to the fact that the Striped Searobin was my second top target, I was in disbelief. It wasn't even 9am yet and I'm completely happy if I don't catch another new species for the rest of the trip. From here onwards, it was simply fishing for the sake of fun...lifer hunting was officially a secondary objective.
On some trips, I have species that resisted capture the whole way. Despite admirable efforts, sacrificing sleep, water and food to put all my energy and time into the pursuit, I would end up utterly frustrated and defeated. And then there are days like this day...where it seems I could simply do no wrong.
On our third stop, I saw someone pulled up an amberjack species. It was a bit far away for me to get a positive ID, but I heard the mates said "Almaco Jack". Well, I've yet to catch one of them. So I started to zip my jig through the water column vertically while twitching the rod tip. This isn't exactly vertically jigging, but close enough I guess.
After a few drops, I was picked up while my jig was about 10 feet off bottom. It was a strong little fish, certainly not as strong as the bonito, but it still gave up a decent struggle. When the fish came up, there was another one following the hooked fish closely. I could see the dark band that crossed the eye and ended just in front of the spiny dorsal fin. It was a amberjack species. The trouble was...which was it?
I've caught Greater Amberjack and Samsonfish before. Anything else would be a new species. Since there is no Samsonfish in the Atlantic, I simply need to rule out Greater Amberjack. A quick look of the maxilla helped to identify the species. Greater Amberjack maxilla is rounded with a sharply angled "boot" which is unique to that species. This fish in question has a flat maxilla. In addition, the maxilla reached the middle of the eye. This fish has 12 gill rakers, a bluish tint on the back, and white caudal fin tips. All of these characteristics indicated I had caught a Banded Rudderfish!
Banded Rudderfish (Seriola zonata) - Species #407
It can't get better than this...or so I thought.
On my last trip to New Jersey, Michael randomly caught two Northern Searobins at a pier where we were fishing for sharks. Despite my efforts to catch one on two separate nights, I simply could not catch any of them. It was rather deflating since Michael caught 5 Striped Searobin and 2 Northern Searobin on the same day...and I was fishing right beside him only to get snubbed by those pesky fish.
Here I was simply fishing for the fun now...and I saw the guy behind me catch a small Northern Searobin. I switch out the swimbait and tied on a 3/4oz diamond jig with a plastic trailer hook. The plastic tube trailer imitates the sandeel which lives on the bottom and the favoured prey for many bottom species. Assuming that these searobin would chase a lure, I worked the lure up the water column in the same manner that caught my Striped Searobin. A few drops later, I hooked a fish. It wasn't what I was looking for, but still fun to catch a Bluefish on this trip. Many others would be happy to simply catch a boat load of these, but I like variety.
Instead of aggressively jigging the lure up the water column, I simply bounced the jig on bottom, just enough to flutter the lure inches off bottom with the occasional hard pound to kick up some sand. This is similar to the way we fished for Lake Whitefish on Lake Simcoe. It took maybe a dozen bounce before the lure was hit. Sometimes, it is amazing how well everything came together as a plan...
Northern Searobin (Prionotus carolinus) - Species #408
This morning of fishing had gone way beyond any expectation!
But I'm still missing one potential target - the Atlantic Chub Mackerel. The mates suggested that I focus on the top 20 feet of the water column for mackerel. I started fishing the lighter diamond jig from mid depth to the surface, but for a long, long while nothing bit.
Then, it was like someone flipped the switch. Actually, it was the tide change. At around 11:30am, the tide had reached slack high and it was all quiet. We made 4-5 moves and nothing really bit on any of the spots. I caught 3 other Banded Rudderfish and one other Northern Searobin, while watching a few bluefish chased my lure up to the surface only to turn around at the last moment. Perhaps the coolest thing was to see two searobin followed another person's jig all the way to the surface, then they came over to circled my jig that was dancing just under the surface.
We were running out of time with about an hour left to the day. On the second last spot, the mates took out a block of frozen silverside to thaw. At our very last stop, they started chumming the water with the silversides and a school of Atlantic Chub Mackerel surround the boat!
Initially, I could not get these fish to hit. I kept switching lures until I finally tied on a small 1" Swedish Pimple. I discovered that the fish would only hit if the lure dropped a few feet below. If the lure was too close to the surface, they were attracted to the flash and vibration but they were too shy to bite. Once I figured it out, it was pretty easy catching these fish.
Altantic Chub Mackerel (Scomber colias) - Species #409
We needed some bait for shark fishing on Sunday night, so I got to work. Tipping the lure with a small chunk of mackerel that the mates had cut up, these mackerel were biting on demand. They pull hard for such a small fish, bending my 9' surf/salmon rod double and burn out a good amount of drag. Yeah, it was really easy fishing, but who wouldn't like fast and furious action like this?
In the midst of all the mackerel, something larger followed one of the lures to the boat. At first, someone yelled "Shark"...but we soon saw a flash of sapphire, emerald and gold. Feeding in the chum was a 20lb dorado...and it was right at my feet!
The few of us now at the stern were frantically trying to pitch something out to the dorado. I had tied my swimbait back onto my UglyStik so I pitched it out in the fish's path. The fish circled the few lures that were presented, but at the end it took Bert's drifting chunk of mackerel that was on his 8lb gear. Oh boy...this was going to be something interesting!
Bert went for a ride around the boat. The fish went back and forth the stern a couple of times before it took Bert over to the starboard side. I was too busy catching mackerel so I didn't really follow the action. From what I heard, the fish went around the bow and almost got around the anchor rope of another boat that was nearby. There was a bit of drama with the other boat but Bert managed to keep the fish on. After what seemed like 15 minutes, there was finally some cheering from the bow and Bert landed the fish. Up to this point, I had the jackpot fish for most of the morning. Although the dorado shouldn't really qualify for the jackpoint (Bluefish and Bonito only), I'm happy to be defeated by such an epic catch...come on...20lb dorado on 8lb tackle...you have to give it some respect.
After filing my cooler with a dozen mackerel and releasing another bunch of them, it was finally time to head into port. The wind picked up and the clouds moved in, so it was a bit rougher on the ride back. The captained slowed the boat down a touch and we got back about 20 minutes late from our expected 2pm arrival. Eli and Michael was already waiting for me at the parking lot. We hurried to pack my gear into the car, and we were off for our second objective for the day.
On the way, Michael and Eli reported they had both caught Northern Puffer, Bluefish and Black Seabass. Michael only found one Cunner. Despite using Green Crabs, neither of them were able to catch any Tautog, although both of them had plenty of crabs stolen off the hooks. Michael said a spear fisherman reported seeing many small Tautog in the area.
Eli wanted to catch some micro sunfish, so it was a drive to our special lake to find some Bluespotted Sunfish, Banded Sunfish and Mud Sunfish. The fishing was rather slow on this day, and it took a while for Eli to finally catch a Bluespotted Sunfish. After I've accomplished my role as a guide, I went to look for Blackbanded Sunfish around the weeds. I did see two juvenile Blackbanded Sunfish that was about 1" long, but they were not interested to play.
Meanwhile, Michael announced he had found some darters in the sandy area. I went to join him as he tried to identify the darter in his micro tank. These darters were small, with many less than 1" long. I had a few took the bait but it was very difficult setting the hook into their tiny mouths. After trying for an hour, I decided to walk around with Eli to help him find a Mud Sunfish. Despite our efforts, fishing was simply too poor. None of us caught any Banded Sunfish or Mud Sunfish and we were running out of time. So unfortunately, Eli only caught 1 of the 3 targets here.
We were running a bit behind schedule. After a short stop for lunch/dinner, we tried to arrive in Philadelphia in time to catch some sunfish to use for Flathead Catfish bait. However, we got there well after sunset and in the fading light, the sunfish were not biting.
Since I didn't get a PA fishing license, I left the fish all to Michael and Eli. I simply lend my rod for Eli to use so he can deploy three baits for catfish. Luckily, Michael started to make a couple of bait and we sent a small live panfish out for bait, while the other two rods was rigged with chunks of the fresh mackerel.
Our friend Matt had said that in order to catch Flathead Catfish, you needed live sunfish. Indeed, the fresh mackerel was ignored, while the only live panfish took a short strike.
Michael managed to catch a small Green Sunfish a little later and we soaked that for a while. Finally, Michael caught a palm size Bluegill Sunfish and we switched out one of the mackerel for the live Bluegill. It was maybe 15 minutes later when Eli noticed the rod tip frantically bouncing. The clicker was soon screaming and we were certain it was a Flathead Catfish. Unfortunately, the circle hook didn't set despite Eli doing everything correctly. What was even more unfortunate was the missing Bluegill Sunfish on the hook.
Without any good live bait, we fished until 10:30pm and called it a night. It was exciting to get two strikes, but a bit deflating that we couldn't make good on both hits.
Arriving at the hotel, all of us were dog tired. It wasn't long before our eyes were shut.