Originally, the plan was very simple - stay with my friend Shane in Philadelphia and fish around town for Flathead Catfish and American Eel. But then I started chatting with Pat about it and he planted little seeds into my head...and soon we have a full blown fishing expedition in the works.
As in my typical fashion, this trip was completely packed to the brim on the fishing itinerary. There was a lot to do in very little time, so weather needs to be favourable and traffic needs to be light. Let me just say that from the start, everything was working against us.
After work on Thursday, Michael and I left Toronto as soon as we could. Driving out of Toronto, for the most part, was as expected with a bit of rush hour traffic but not too bad. When we were on the QEW around Oakville, disaster stuck! First, it was an accident involving a couple of truck causing about 30 minutes of delay. As we got close to the Skyway Bridge in Hamilton, traffic came to a very slow crawl. Apparently, a dump truck had driven onto the bridge with the truck bed completely upright, taking out part of the overhead bridge structure. Falling debris collapsed on a transport truck in the neighbouring lane and stopped it on the spot. The entire Toronto bound lanes were closed, and our side of the highway was partially closed. We were delayed for another hour or so.
Luckily, the border was surprisingly smooth. It seemed like the border guard was having a great day and basically waved us into the US without much question. Last time we drove to Florida, we were almost interrogated and we were asked to turn off the car and open our trunk for inspection. It was nice to was shooed in so easily this time.
We felt terrible pulling into Anthony's driveway at 1am in the morning. However, he was very accommodating and offered us a couple of great couches for a short stay. We had 3 hours of sleep before hitting the road again at 4:30am, arriving in Sandy Hook at 7am after getting some bait and local fishing intel at Giglios Bait and Tackle. The store was run by an old salt. He was very knowledgeable and shared with us some local fishing tips.
Our plan at Sandy Hook was to try the salt marsh on the bay side first thing in the morning, then fish the jetty along Fort Hancock as the tide floods in. However, we met a man walking his awesome Australian Sheppard puppy at the parking and he suggested fishing the tip. So we made some plan adjustment for the latter part of the morning.
I was expecting to find more species in the salt marsh. We could see school of smaller fish and quickly discovered they were Mummichog and Atlantic Silverside. We each caught some and kept a few as bait. I was a bit disappointed that we didn't find any Striped Killifish or Sheepshead Minnow in the marsh.
We then fished the bay area, hoping to find searobin in the shallow bay. Instead, we found unlimited amount of Bluefish that were cookie cutter 6-7 inches long. These are often referred as Snapper Blues. They were fun on light gear, but with these aggressive fish around, we couldn't fish for searobin. I poked around some rocks to see if an Oyster Toadfish could be located, but all I caught were more Snapper Blues and a snagged Norther Puffer.
As high tide was 12pm, we moved away from the marsh at 10am. We got there just as the last hour of high tide came in. We chatted with a family to see what they have caught. When they reported the Snapper Blues were thick in the area, the outlook wasn't good. However, the flooding tide seems to push out the bluefish and in came Summer Flounder and Striped Searobin.
Michael and I both tossed out two heavier rigs for the potential sharks and rays. We were allows 3 rods in New Jersey saltwater, so we both had one rod in hand to fish for Summer Flounder and searobin. As I was casting out one of the heavier rod, my Tsunami spinning rod snapped in mid cast. I was very frustrated since this was going to be one of my work horse rod for the weekend. I had no immediate replacement and I was down to only one heavy rod and one surf rod to fish at Sandy Hook.
We watched as the young kid beside us outfished all of us. He was pulling in Summer Flounder and Searobin on the regular. The father and son was using an active retrieve. I had already tried that method but I was still fishless. Michael was soaking strips of squid when he got picked up and landed a Striped Searobin.
I kept alternating between the active retrieve and soaking bait, but it was Summer Flounder after Summer Flounder for me. Meanwhile, Michael also caught a Striped Searobin soaking a Snapper Blue head while my Snapper Blue head was picked up by two Summer Flounder. I just couldn't figure out why I was only catching Flounder while others were catching Searobin, even when I fished shoulder to shoulder beside Michael. It got extremely frustrating and annoying actually...because Searobin was one of my top targets to achieve on this trip and they were supposed to be easy to catch...yet I kept catching Summer Flounder which I've caught many in the past already.
As the tide slacked, the searobin bit slowed to a crawl. In total, Michael caught 5 Striped Searobin and the family beside us caught around 10. I had a big fat zero to show for my efforts. From the distance, we could see and hear a storm brewing. I was adamant to put in a solid effort, even as the storm got closer and closer and we had thunder boomed above our heads and rain started falling. However, by 3pm, we decided it was tactically foolish to put more time in this spot when the fish had obviously shut down. It was time to move.
We were way behind on our itinerary. It was my hope that we could both check off the searobin in a hurry and fish a couple more locations during the afternoon. However, seeing that it was already 3pm, we had very little time left to fish. Our final decision was to scout out Townsends Inlet in anticipation for a solid effort with Pat the following day.
Traffic, once again, threw a wrench in our way. We got on the highway and it was another slow crawl due to an accident. Our estimated 2 hours drive, which would put us in Avalon by 5pm, now turned into more like a 3 hours arrival time. We couldn't waste what little fishing time we had left. During a quick lunch stop, I looked at the map and decided to hit Barnegat Inlet instead since we were already close to the area. It ended up being a semi-decent idea.
We were hoping to find Oyster Toadfish, Tautog and perhaps even Grey Triggerfish along the jetty. However, Cunner ruled the jetty and Michael easily caught his lifer Cunner...and many, many more. I was using bigger hooks so as to avoid hooking the Cunner. However, not much else was found in the rocks. Michael got distracted for a while and started casting for the numerous Bluefish that people were catching on the regular. They were OK size fish around 1.5-3lbs...nothing spectacular so I wasn't really interested at all. But after spending 2 hours of zero action, I tied on a diamond jig and started playing around in the outgoing current. About 10 casts in, I got picked up on the surface and fought a 4lb Striped Bass briefly before it shook its head on the surface and threw the lure back at me. I've caught Striped Bass before so I wasn't bummed at all.
By 7pm, we decided not to waste our time anymore. A relatively quick drive away is a fishing pier popular for night time shark fishing (so I've read). The area was supposed to yield Dusky Smoothhound easily and a good chance at Sandbar Shark. That seemed like a good option so we checked it out as night fell.
Again, we had two heavy rods each for the sharks while using a third light rod to poke around. The shark rods remained pretty quiet with only crabs bugging our bait and weeds dragging our lines. It wasn't until around 11pm when Michael started catching Black Sea Bass and a Northern Searobin using a sabiki tipped with squid. I tried to fish the same spot and even using Michael's rod and sabiki for a Northern Searobin...but only caught Black Sea Bass after Black Sea Bass. As high tide slacked around 12am, the bites stopped. Yet again, I was skunked out on the searobin!
Originally, we wanted to fish for eels on this Friday night. Seeing it had rained on and off in the afternoon and now raining at night, we figured it was best to simply put in more time for these sharks. In Florida, we had most luck with the sharks when the tide was slack. So we were very optimistic during this 12am slack.
However, we didn't even get a single run on the shark rods. I was using a bunker head as bait on one of my rod and it was pretty much crab proof...but even that bunker head was not picked up by a shark. There were two guys and a girl fishing for sharks earlier. They said they fish for them when they are bored, so I assumed they were local and do this regularly. When they packed up after an hour or so effort, it should have been a sight that it was a slow night. I did read the sign...but we were insistent (and optimistic).
It was now 1am and the tide had switched to outgoing. As the water washed out of the bay, it carried a lot of weeds. I was now fishing half of a spider crab as bait (one that Michael caught on his sabiki). I figure the crab was pretty crab proof so it simply let it soak, despite weeds collecting on my line and ever so slowly dragging it downcurrent.
Michael made a note that I should clean the weeds off my rod, but I said "I'll wait until it pulls a little faster." A few strand of weeds was not enough to distract me as I continued to fish the sabiki for searobin.
Finally, the line started singing away as a big clump of weeds caught the line. When I tried to reel in, I could feel the line passing through piles and pile of sea lettuce. The first big clump was stuck on the braid and it took a good 30 seconds to pull all the vegetation off. Finally, I saw my swivel and sinker and there was yet another big clump that had collected. After I cleared the weeds, I felt the line moving and thought it was simply the 4oz sinking swaying on the line. As I brought the line up by hand (I was using a 4' rub leader plus a 3' wire bite leader), I saw a little brown thing on the hook. Oh my...it was an Oyster Toadfish!!!
This was the craziest catch! This Oyster Toadfish was no bigger than 9" long, yet it had taken in half a spider crab and was hooked by a 9/0 J hook. I don't even know how long it had been on the line, since I had let that crab soak for at least an hour. Luck or not, I'll take this fish on my list!
Oyster Toadfish (Opsanus tau) - Species #395
The many faces of the Oyster Toadfish
This single fish saved my otherwise very unassuming and unaccomplished day. We stuck around for another hour hoping Michael can have the same luck, but by 1:30am, we were simply had to call it a night. We had to pick up Pat at the bus station at 8am tomorrow, and the hotel was still another 1.5 hours way.
When we arrive at the hotel, Pat messaged me to say his bus was full and his only option was the train. The train would arrive at 7:16am, which meant we had to get up by 6am. In the end, Michael and I only had a little under 3 hours of sleep.