Fishing / POSTED 30-Nov-2021

Weakfish Comeback

“One of my fondest memories as a kid growing up on Staten Island involved a weakfish,” Captain Frank Crescitelli recalled. He made the comment while we were standing on the bow of his 24-foot Yamaha-powered Blue Wave bayboat casting into the pristine waters of Little Egg Harbor, not far from his house in Beach Haven, New Jersey. We were using small plastic tail jigs and very light spinning tackle, swinging them in the current as they sunk into a deep hole where two channels converge. And we were catching, you guessed it, weakfish. 
Weakfish, also called northern sea trout or gray trout, are an inshore gamefish popular with anglers. Their stocks experienced years of highs and lows, and therefore their availability to anglers has been inconsistent. Even in their heyday, the seasonal runs would vary due to a combination of unknown factors, as well as a good dose of commercial and recreational overfishing. During the past fifteen years, weakfish numbers remained at dramatically low levels of abundance. There was even talk that they might have reached the point of no return. Catching a weakfish became a rare occurrence, like catching a unicorn according to Crescitelli, with recreational bag limits of one fish per person per day established for as long as most younger anglers can remember.
Then, just a couple years ago, they started to show signs of a comeback. Weakfish were encountered in increasing numbers and not just in the spring, but throughout the summer months in some estuaries. Though fishery managers remained cautious, it appears things are looking up for these once popular gamefish. 

Back to Frank’s story. “We were poor,” he said “and my mother encouraged us to go out make our own fun. I hobble together a rod and reel and hung around a nearby bait shop asking questions and trying to pick up any information I could. I fell in with a few friends who fished too, and we went down by the water every day. We fished hard for a bunch of kids. I would trek to anyplace with water access along the south shore of the island and cast into the murky water. This was before the Clean Water Act, and New York Harbor and Raritan Bay were pretty nasty. That didn’t stop me from trying to catch something, anything. One day I was fishing from an old storm sewer at the end of Norton Avenue when I caught a weakfish, maybe about five pounds. It was the biggest fish any of us had caught. When I brought it home, the other kids and some of the grownups in the neighborhood took notice. Catching that weakfish was the proudest moment of my life, and I was the talk of the town.”
Since those early days, Frank has gone on to become a successful charter captain and businessman. He even produced and starred in his own television show for three seasons, Fin Chasers TV. He has traveled the country and the world chasing all manner of inshore and offshore gamefish, but his favorite quarry in his Beach Haven home waters is still the weakfish. 

“They’re certainly not the biggest or hardest fighting gamefish you can find,” he commented, “But they are beautiful, and I get a thrill out of tricking them on light spinning tackle, especially on my fly rod. Catching a big one is still akin to catching that proverbial unicorn, but hopefully that’s changing. I am encountering a greater number of larger weakfish for longer periods each season.” 

Frank is not alone. Anglers from the Carolinas through southern New England would love nothing better than to see the weakfish stocks come roaring back. New Jersey and Long Island anglers have been encountering what appears to be increasing numbers of weakfish in the bays, rivers and creeks, a hopeful sign that the years of scarcity might be coming to an end. 

Will we see spawning runs of tiderunners in the not-too-distant future? Good question. Big weakfish are called tiderunners and they can grow to an impressive size. The International Game Fish Association (IGFA) all-tackle world record was caught in 2008 from the very waters Frank calls home on Staten Island. That fish ate a chunk of menhaden fished from the beach at night originally meant for striped bass. On a certified scale it was just a hair shy of 20 pounds. Now that’s a tiderunner! In the past, major spawning runs occurred each spring in Delaware Bay, Raritan Bay, Peconic Bay and Great South Bay on Long Island, as well as a few other tidal areas where weakfish can move into water with slightly lower salinity to lay their eggs. This takes place in the spring, earlier to the south, later in more northern waters. 
During the 1970s and 80s the spawning runs in Delaware, Raritan, Peconic and Great South bays were like the goldrush, attracting anglers from all over and creating long lines at public launch ramps to get in on the action. At the end of the day, many of those anglers left with garbage cans full of 7- to 15-pound weakfish. There was no size or bag limit and there were so many of them, no one thought it would ever end. Most of those big fish were filled with roe destined to be the future of the fishery and, unfortunately, a good percentage of those fish were probably wasted and inedible. Weakfish can be good eating if properly cared for and iced immediately, but if neglected, the flesh becomes mushy and strong tasting. They do not provide the same delicate table fare that their southern cousins, the speckled sea trout. 

At the same time angler pressure was at its highest, small weakfish were caught and sold by the ton for a pittance in what was known as the commercial fly net fishery off Virginia and the Carolinas. Fish as small as 7 or 8 inches fetched a few pennies per pound, but at the time there were enough of them worth just enough money for commercial boats to target, harvest and ship them out by the truck loads. The double whammy of anglers cropping off the spawners and commercial netters scooping up the young fish did great damage, and weakfish stocks eventually crashed. 

This year, after more than a decade of depletion, there appears to be a noticeable improvement in the number of larger weakfish moving into traditional spawning areas in New Jersey. To find out if the situation was the same in Long Island waters, the Yamaha team called Mike Caruso of The Fisherman magazine to learn more. He had an interesting method for gauging the uptick in the fishery. 
The magazine holds a season-long contest for subscribers. The first prize presented at the end of the year is a Yamaha-powered Steigercraft center console. They determine the overall winner by tracking specific qualifying gamefish landings, and they keep detailed records from year to year. Mike reported that during the past couple of years, there have been active weakfish spawning runs in all the traditional locations on Long Island. He said the weakfish action in Great South Bay and around Fire Island Inlet was on fire during the spring spawning months, including reports of greater numbers of more mature fish. Peconic Bay, another traditional spawning area, also saw more and larger weakfish this year, and Long Island Sound and areas along the Connecticut coast, not typically strong weakfish grounds, produced a lot of fish for anglers. The biggest one entered in the contest’s weakfish division was over nine pounds followed closely by a good many fish over seven pounds. Not only were the bigger fish more plentiful, but they also averaged a larger size across the board. Keep in mind that the coastwide bag limit for weakfish remains one fish per angler per day, with minimum sizes varying from state to state. 

“We’ve definitely seen a resurgence in weakfish encounters by anglers, with a lot of smaller fish holding over throughout the summer months, too,” said Caruso. “That bodes well for the future for this popular gamefish.” 
Here are a few techniques for finding and catching weakfish. Crescitelli said his secret to consistent success in his home waters is fishing light. That means using light fluorocarbon leaders, light line, soft action spinning rods and six-weight fly rods. Weakfish got their name because they have a very delicate or weak mouth structure. The skin around the jaw is thin, almost papery, and tears easily. If an angler applies too much pressure when fighting a fish, the hook can pull out. Frank recommends using the lightest jig heads possible for the current and water depth. His preferred jig heads only weigh ¼ to 3/8-ounce and have very sharp, light wire hooks. When fishing in areas with stronger currents or deeper water, heavier jigs might be necessary. There are loads of soft plastic bodies, some scented for added attraction, available and most work. Frank likes a variety of Berkley Powerbait body shapes and colors. His favored fly patterns are light-weight Clouser minnow types tied sparsely to look like a small fish or shrimp. He works jigs, flies and occasionally small swimming plugs by casting them across current so they will swing into an area that weakfish use as a feeding station with the current, while imparting subtle movement to make the lure appear to be swimming.

Frank keeps the drag setting light and hook sets gentle with little more than a flick of the wrist to plant the thin, sharp hook points. It’s important to remember to take your time once you hook the fish. Never try to muscle in a weakfish, - it rarely ends well. 
“Weakfish are structure-oriented fish,” Frank said. “There are spots they return to year after year, over and over throughout the season. They prefer hardbottom, especially where channels intersect or where creeks flow into the bay scouring out deeper holes and exposing hard bottom. Sedge banks with deep water are another area to explore, especially where they create points where tidal currents wash across them. Weakfish will take up feeding stations on the down-current side waiting for grass shrimp, small crabs, seaworms and baitfish to be carried to them. That’s why the swing presentation is so effective.”
Weakfish were a top gamefish in the mid-Atlantic coastal region for many years before the stock collapsed, but after a couple decades of low levels of abundance, there just might be a chance that they are on the comeback trail. Early indications are pointing favorably toward better fishing to come, but with their penchant for performing the disappearing act, anglers and managers remain vigilant. 
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