Jamaica Bay Fishing

It was 6 a.m. in early May as the sun began to paint the sky a fiery orange-red. We zipped across marsh flats and deepwater channels, and in minutes we were at our destination. I looked down at seashells and scurrying crabs passing under me as we slowly drifted to a stop in 2 feet of water. A sea of marsh grass spread out before us.

Swirls and boils in the water began to form off the port and starboard bow as we spooked what looked like large fish. My angler, David Azar, impulsively pulled line from the reel and piled it on the deck. I maneuvered the boat with the trolling motors parallel to the grass as Azar pushed and pulled in one fluid motion, sending out 60 feet of line. Two quick strips and a hefty boil formed right behind the yellow popping bug. One more, and a large tail slapped it into the air. Then, almost in slow motion, a nice-sized striped bass came completely out of the water not once, but three times before hooking itself and tearing off into deeper water. The sound of the screaming reel suddenly went mute amid the roar of turbine engines that filled our ears as a Boeing 747 airliner took off from a JFK airport runway positioned just at the end of the grass.

We looked up at the monstrous plane passing over us. As the hulking machine veered off to its left and out to the Atlantic, Azar yelled, ”This is awesome!” and soon his reel became audible again. Ten minutes later I lipped a beautiful, healthy 12-pound striper.

This fantastic scene took place a mere 12 miles from the bustling concrete jungle we call Manhattan. Still, Jamaica Bay, located southwest of New York City in Queens County, often remains overlooked by most city dwellers who travel to fish elsewhere but ignore the 10,000 acres of saltwater marsh, deepwater pools, brackish ponds and an open expanse of bay islands much closer to home.

Jamaica Bay
Guides
Capt. John McMurray
One More Cast Charters
718-791-2094

Capt. Ralph Burdis
Island Charters
516-946-0709

Capt. Frank Crescitelli
and Capt. Dino Torino
Fin Chaser Charters
718-317-1481 or
718-356-6436

In the 1950s and ’60s, industrial growth and abuse had warped most of the bay into a less-than-appealing spoil with decreasing numbers of birds and fish. However, in 1972 Jamaica Bay was declared a national park as part of the Gateway National Park initiative. The park service took an active role in the bay’s recovery, preventing further development and monitoring sewage treatment plants and industrial facilities that had gone unchecked until then. The marsh rebounded quickly, and bird and marine life began to flood the historically rich marsh once again. The bay’s improvement in the past 10 years has been dramatic, and as a result we’ve enjoyed some fantastic fishing.

Good fishing usually begins in the second or third week of April when the grass shrimp hatch begins. Millions of these little critters flood out of the grass when the tide comes up. You can be sure that striped bass in the 20- to 33-inch range will creep up into the marsh flats and gorge themselves after a winter of inactivity. Under these conditions, it’s a blast to fish 7- and 8-weight setups with a floating line and a popper.

Sand eels also become active during mid- to late April, and fishing sinking lines in areas 10 to 12 feet deep can prove effective. However, I’ve found that small sand eel patterns don’t seem to work as well as bigger, bulkier Clousers and Deceivers. The water in Jamaica Bay, with the exception of a few short weeks in the early spring and then again in late fall, can be murky. The game is more about getting the bass’ attention than matching the hatch.

Once the water starts to warm a bit in May, adult Atlantic menhaden (otherwise known as moss bunker) of 8 to 14 inches begin to flood into the back bays in numbers I’ve never seen anywhere else. Big fish feed on big bait, so this is the time of year to score a fish in the 20- to 30-pound range on heavy rods and sinking lines.

Later in the spring and into the summer, the sand eels, spearing and bunker will move out of the bay, and areas like Breezy Point in Rockaway or Coney Island in Queens can be red-hot as outgoing tides sweep the migrating bait over shallow-water bars and rips. In addition, August can provide some heart-stopping bluefish action as mullet move into the breaking sandbar areas. Early September marks the arrival of bay anchovies at Breezy point and the mouth of Jamaica Bay, and with them pods of false albacore. Later in September, the stripers show up along the breaking bars and attack mullet in the early-morning hours.

It’s not until October that the back areas of Jamaica Bay become red-hot again. Once the water cools, juvenile bunker (commonly call peanut bunker) begin to move out of the small creeks and bays. When this happens, blitzes of unbelievable proportions take place in the morning and early-evening hours. Stripers, blues and even false albacore come in to feed on these tasty morsels. Encounter one of these feeding frenzies, and the predators will smash just about any fly you can get in there. But fish a quick sinking line underneath all the mayhem, and you can hook up with some real monsters.

Late October and early November, depending on the weather, can also provide a week or two of excellent sight fishing. During this time of year, all the summer microscopic organisms have died off and the winter blooms haven’t begun yet. The water turns clear, and the fish become visible. Poling or creeping under the power of trolling motors between marsh islands with a 3- to 4-inch Deceiver pattern and a floating line can produce fantastic results. Poppers, gurglers and crease fly patterns work well under these circumstances also.

Once November rolls around, the adult bunker school up in the back bays again, and the larger bass are back on the prowl. Peanuts are present as well, so you’ll get a good mix of both big and small bass and blues.

If the weather stays warm enough, which it did in 2001, December can be the best time of the year as blueback herring inundate Breezy Point and the mouth of Jamaica Bay. These fish range from 6 to more than 12 inches. If the water stays in the 50-degree range, the annual arrival of these herring will coincide with the great fall striper migration along the East Coast. The result is mind-blowing, 20-pound-plus bass blitzes.

Jamaica Bay is a fantastic resource that’s close enough to Manhattan to be easily accessible by the New York City subway system. When the sun goes down, it silhouettes the city’s skyline over the marsh, painting a picture of the incredible juxtaposition of mass development and the unbridled natural world. So give Jamaica Bay a try. It’s truly a unique and rewarding area to fish.