Raritan & Sandy Hook Bay Fly Fishing

For most New Jersey longrodders the months of April and May signal a long awaited cure for cabin fever. Once again shooting a line into the suds becomes a top priority as striped bass, bluefish, and weakfish return to our back bay waters. This is the time of year that we put the ocean side on hold to maximize our success on the water.

To cash in on some of this tremendous early season action, one of New Jersey’s largest and most productive systems to fly fish is the southern bayshore of Raritan and Sandy Hook Bays. Located in the northern Monmouth County, this system is charted as part of the New York Bight region and New Jersey’s marine estuary system.

Four rivers converge and dump into the bayshore area that accounts for its rich nutrient supply and ecological diversity. These are the Hudson, Raritan, Shrewsbury, and Navesink rivers.

The most widely fished bayshore beaches extend for a distance of approximately twelve miles starting from Cliffwood Beach, located directly off of exit 117 on the Garden Sate Parkway, and head east to the Atlantic Ocean. These locations can be fished from shore, kayak, or with a small boat. The Leonardo State Marina, in Middletown Township and the Atlantic Highlands Marina near Sandy Hook both have public launch ramps and facilities that are available.

Wading access to the bayshore beaches is easily attainable by traveling down Route 36 East off of exit 117 of the Garden Sate Parkway. Any left turn from Route 36 will take you directly to the bay. Two favorite locations in the upper part of the bay are Pebble and Union Beach. At the end of Route 36 you will cross over the Highlands Bridge just below the point where the Shrewsbury and Navesink Rivers converge. At this point you will find the entrance to Sandy Hook.

A favorite location here is Plum Island that runs parallel to the Hook for a quarter of a mile.

A deep channel and drop off runs out at about ten yards from the beach making this an ideal location for wading. The changing tide is the best time to fly fish this area as baits are flushed through due to the moderate currents that are produced.

At the tip of Sandy Hook you will come to one of the best-known locations throughout the state. This is the Sandy Hook Rip and has been highly publicized for the trophy fish that can be taken from her waters. To access the Rip you will need to follow the access road to its end and park at the Nine Gun Battery parking lot. From here you will walk the Fisherman’s Trail along the dunes for about a mile. The trail is posted and easy to follow even in the dark.

As with other locations throughout the Garden State the key factor that will pull bait and fish into these backwater areas in the early part of the spring is water temperature. The magic temperature that we await for is in the mid-fifty degree range. At these temperature stripers, blues, and weakfish become interested in our flies once again as spearing, spawning bunker and herring make their reappearance.

In the earliest part of April striped bass will be the fly fishers main target. These fish will enter our backwaters about a month before our bluefish and weakfish make their appearance. Weakfish won’t start to show in good numbers usually until the end of April into the beginning of May. Bluefish usually begin to show up in good numbers around the second week in May. The fly fisher can employ two types of strategies in the early spring. First option is to fish small flies that emulate small dominant baits such as spearing or grass shrimp. The second is to fish big flies that imitate large spawning adult bunkers, alewifes, and blueback herring.

Fishing smaller flies will result in many more hook-ups in the course of a day with mostly schoolie size fish. With bigger flies you can expect a lot less hook-ups but you will have a shot at the bigger trophy fish that are feeding on these larger baits.

If you decide to go for a multiply hook-up day you will want to fish small clousers, jiggies, half and halfs, or deceivers. If grass shrimp are present try drifting a Popovics ultra shrimp below the surface. If the water is on the clear side stick with natural colors that match the bait. If it is cloudy go with the brightly colored flies such as yellow or chartreuse. In either case be cognizant of how you present these small patterns. Small baits are usually swept away or hold to the side of strong currents rather than swim against them.

The best flies to use to hook into a larger trophy fish will be longer flat-sided streamer patterns in the six to ten inch ranges. To imitate alewifes or bunker, a bronze back with greenish hues with a white underbelly will most closely resemble these baits. The blueback, as the name implies, has a bluish hue or tint to its dorsal surface.

Intermediate lines with a six to eight foot 15# tapered leader will work for most applications except when there is a strong current. In these situations fish a 250-350 grain sinking line with a three to five 15# leader. Eight to ten weight rods are the norm.