Island Beach State Park Fishing

Jersey Jewel: Dig your toes in the sand and hang on to your rod at Island Beach State Park.

By Nick Honachefsky

Fall is marked by fewer bikinis but more fish.

Take a deep breath. Smell that? It’s a hint of pirate gunpowder. Captain Kidd point-blank shot and beheaded a pirate crewman here, procuring his spirit for the dubious duty of eternally guarding Kidd’s buried treasure, deep within the sedge and sands of Island Beach, New Jersey. If you’ve got an eagle eye, you may find a piece of eight, or discover a glint of chiseled obsidian arrowhead in the sand, crafted by the indigenous Lenni Lenape Indians, who stood knee-deep into the Atlantic netting striped bass before white explorers even knew a mass of land existed across the Big Pond.

New Jersey’s Island Beach State Park (IBSP) is mired in magical maritime history, and the archaic treasures that comprise the soul of the place are boundless. There may not be any patch-eyed, bloodthirsty ransackers here anymore, but, for twenty-first century spectators and explorers, bent rods, breathtaking scenery, and flat out mesmerizing shallow-water fishing sum up the treasures on this 10-mile-long barrier island along central New Jersey, separating the Atlantic Ocean from Barnegat Bay.

Tackle and Guides
Betty and Nick’s Bait and Tackle, (732) 793-2708; www.bettyandnicks.com

Nick Honachefsky, BeachNut Guide Service, (732) 854-0073; beachnut33@hotmail.com

Shore Catch Guide Service, (732) 528-1861, www.shorecatch.com

Home to the largest osprey colony in New Jersey, the island is buffeted by the Atlantic surf, coastal sand dunes, tidal marshes, freshwater wetlands and lush sod banks on the bayside; the expanse contains more than 200 native plants and animals, including red foxes, beach plum shrubs, and stinkpot turtles. Striped bass, bluefish, weakfish, false albacore and fluke, with a few scrappy battlers such as kingfish (whiting), blowfish, croakers and the occasional black drum, round out this year-round fishery mix.

Springtime Glory

Come late April, surfcasters mobilize to put the first striped bass on the boards for the new year, and the commotion always takes place deep within the deep troughs and sloughs off of IBSP. From the third week of April through late May, migratory striped bass and bluefish move northward off the Jersey Coast, packing on needed pounds lost from wintering over. For the most part, it’s the bait fishermen, a.k.a. “bucket brigade,” that hit the beaches. Early season bass are a bit sluggish and will usually only pounce on fresh clams on bottom rigs, but by mid-May as the water temp reaches the mid 50s and low 60s, bass become aggressive and will take bunker chunks and whack swimming plugs worked at a leisurely pace. The lion’s share are 20- to 24-inchers, but by late spring the “big girls” from 15 to 50 pounds come home to graze on the large schools of adult menhaden within casting distance of the beachfront, making a snag-and-drop rig a worthwhile technique to employ. Menhaden schools not only bring in the big breeder bass, but also some true monsters such as thresher sharks up to 400 pounds. What a rush to tie into one of those!

Long, but skinny bluefish of 4 to 8 pounds make an appearance, and are voraciously trying to bulk up. Most are taken on fresh cut bunker or mullet. Come Memorial Day, weakfish go on the spawn and the artificial bite begins to go off. You’ve got a shot at putting a serious-sized tide runner on the sand. Many people go trophy hunting for the weakie of their dreams by casting 1⁄2- to 3⁄4-ounce leadheads, affixed with 4-inch Fin-S fish in Rainbow Trout or Arkansas Shad patterns. Most fish are caught in and around the channels that hug the sod banks on the backside of the island.

Fantastic Fall Run

Enough is enough. Come October and lasting through early December, this barrier island fishery is nothing short of spectacular. The foolin’ around time is over, as the famous fall run is under way. The eye-popping baitfish stew includes adult menhaden, mullet, peanut bunker, sand eels, spearing, rainfish and anchovies. The schools form dark shadows that hug the coast. Gamefish explode on them with unbridled gluttony and the striped bass becomes the number-one Most Wanted species on the target list. Normally sluggish 30- to 50-pound stripers become aggressive and can be readily taken on plugs, poppers and swimming lures. The crashing madness in the surf is ideally sight fished, and it is now that fly rodders punch out Bob’s Bangers, Lefty’s Deceivers, or silicone mullet patterns. Pluggers score big stripers with A-Salt Black Bombers, Gibb’s Poppers and similar plugs. “Alligator” bluefish from 10 to 18 pounds explode on the bait schools as well and it can get disgustingly ugly, with plenty of lost line, lures and self-esteem.

The choice fall season spot to set up on is at the southernmost end of the island, on the quarter-mile-long North Jetty of Barnegat Inlet. There, northeast winds pin the bait schools against the rocks and they consequently get pummeled from voracious bass and blues. The appearance of false albacore, a.k.a. little tunny, and Spanish mackerel create a high octane option for surfcasters at this time of year, where the liquid-quick dynamos swim close enough to cast to. Try a one-ounce Crippled Herring metal in this situation. Fly rodders stand an excellent chance of taking the prize speedsters right from the sand, and enjoy the blistering, reel emptying runs. The tunny and Spanish run generally occurs from late August through September, so mark your calendar.

In fall, the emphasis goes from bait fishing to artificial lures. Tandem jigs catch ’em up.
In autumn a beach buggy battalion hits a maniacal level here and literally hundreds of decked out, rod-racked buggies will be runnin’ and gunnin’ along the sands chasing the bluefish and bass schools that erupt for 10 miles along the coast. The fall scene is like a Monster Truck race to chase birds. If you can’t handle the sick rush of full-on blitzing conditions where buggies are flying, birds are diving, surfcasting is tight, and the water is boiling and roiling with activity, then sit at home and watch a bass fishing show on TV. Island Beach State Park fishing during the fall months is nuts. It’s that simple.