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HURRICANE SANDY AFTERMATH

Posted 4/10/2013

How will the “Storm of the Century” affect spring striper fishing?

As named storms go, Hurricane Sandy was unlike anything that has ever hit the New York/New Jersey area. It is the largest Atlantic tropical storm system on record, with a 90-mph counterclockwise rotation that piled a massive storm surge on top of an already abnormally high tide. The result was destruction on a grand scale. 

The eye came ashore near Atlantic City, which meant areas to the immediate north received the brunt of the tsunami-like push of water. Western Long Island, New York Harbor and Raritan Bay took a direct hit. These are areas that make up the heart of the estuary complex inhabited by the Hudson River spawning stock of the East Coast’s most valued and valuable gamefish - the striped bass. 

New Jersey’s Barnegat Bay is one of the largest and shallowest bays in the nation, and a place where boating and fishing have been a way of life for generations. This area was crushed by Hurricane Sandy. In a recent interview, New Jersey Deputy Commissioner Bob Martin detailed some of the damage this fragile estuary experienced. He reported there were at least 57 complete houses and an estimated 500 vehicles swept into the bay along with untold tons of debris including portions of other damaged houses, and pretty much anything else you can imagine. The state is now working with three private contractors to complete a massive clean-up effort. The goal is to have 70 percent of the bay emptied of storm-related debris by June 2013. However, the more vexing issue is what to do about the more than 10 million cubic yards of sand washed into this already shallow estuary and its long-term environmental and socioeconomic impacts. 

 

The storm hit on October 30, 2012, when the striped bass were migrating south from their summer feeding grounds off New England to the Mid-Atlantic region. November and early December are prime time for area anglers to target these fish from the surf, kayaks, private boats, party and charter vessels. The fall run literally makes up the income backbone of the marine and fishing tackle industries in the area before winter puts a hold on fishing. The storm put an abrupt end to the fishing, damaging or destroying tens of thousands of private boats, and tearing up a large portion of marine facilities along the coast including marinas, tackle shops, fuel stations and launch ramps. The damage to houses was better documented, but some fishing and marine-related businesses are still waiting for some form of assistance.

By the end of November, some businesses were working to reopen, albeit on a limited basis, and some stalwart anglers were venturing out only to find no trace of the migrating striped bass. By early December, some bass were being encountered in surrounding ocean areas within 15-to-20 miles of the Hudson River, but the massive schools of baitfish typically found along the beaches were nowhere in sight. It seemed the majority of the larger migrating stripers passed by the area well offshore, heading to points further south.

After a few months to reflect and an unseasonably cold start to spring, anglers are wondering just what aftereffects the storm might have on spring striper fishing. Their concerns are certainly well-founded. Most of the early striped bass fishing in April and May consists of Hudson River smaller, non-migratory bass in the under 20-pound class, action that usually shows signs of turning on by early April. Did the storm so negatively impact the region’s marine and estuarine ecology that it would be a wash? There does appear to be some good news coming from fishermen who began testing the waters the second half of March, but unfortunately, there’s still a good bit of bad news regarding access to the fishing. 

Yamaha consulted a few professional captains who keep their fingers on the pulse of the early season action. Their commentary does provide some promise. 

Captain Brian Rice of Jersey Devil Charters is just finishing up some storm-related repairs to his Yamaha-powered 32-foot Contender® and his slip on the Nevasink River, a tributary of Raritan Bay. He said that even though the water temperature is a bit colder than usual at this point, there are striped bass being caught within sight of his slip on plastics and small swimming plugs. As the water warms, the river becomes one of the epicenters of early season bass fishing. The action then shifts to upper Raritan Bay later in April where bass will be most easily caught trolling diving plugs and fishing with clams on bottom rigs. Capt. Rice pointed out that the biggest problems facing boater fishermen will be availability of fuel at marinas.

Captain Terry Sullivan of Flats Rat Charters based in Point Pleasant, New Jersey said a few of his early season friends are experiencing better-than-usual action on school stripers to 30 inches on the Manasquan River. This is a promising sign as the river is connected to Barnegat Bay through the man-made Point Pleasant Canal. 

“I’m lucky that I keep both my boats on trailers so I can fuel up on the road,” said Capt. Sullivan. “And I just heard that another facility on the river has its fuel dock up and working again.”

A call to Captain Tony DiLernia of Rocket Charters in Manhattan turned up little news on the fishing in New York Harbor, but the fishing in the bigger, deeper waters of Hudson and East Rivers tends to start later than the back bay action. He did mention that the biggest problem facing anglers in New York and along the south shore of Long Island is the almost total lack of facilities and availability of fuel. 

“I can tell you one thing,” Capt. DiLernia commented. “There will be a lot less recreational fishing on the water this spring.”

The most recent information seems to indicate that the early season stripers will be there and ready to cooperate, but fishermen are in for a challenging time accessing the services that they took for granted before the storm. Trailer boaters will have an easier go of it with fuel. Some launch ramps will be accessible, but it’s a good idea to check them out before you decide you want to go fishing. Navigability in some bays will be on the hazardous side until clean-up efforts make a dent in the monumental undertaking ahead. One thing seems certain; if you can get out on your own boat, you will probably experience considerably less competition than in years past. 

The next unanswered questions are what impact the storm will have on the spawning aggregations in the Hudson River complex and how the aftermath will affect the northward spring migration of big fish come June. Stay tuned for future updates.