Try the Cape Henlopen pier for catching pan fish

June 25, 2011

Fishing has settled into a summertime pattern with the usual suspects showing up in the usual places. Flounder have been caught in the bay, the ocean and Indian River Inlet. Shorts outnumber keepers by at least a 10-to-1 ratio, but fish to 9 pounds have been taken.

Croaker and spot were caught out of Indian River and Rehoboth bays, the Delaware Bay as far north as Woodland Beach and from the surf. The Cape Henlopen Fishing Pier is one of the more popular locations for catching these pan fish.

The offshore fishing has been very good. Limit catches of yellowfin tuna were made between the Baltimore and Wilmington canyons with a few dolphin and billfish taken from the same area. The 20-Fathom Lumps produced bluefin, bluefish and false albacore along with a few mako sharks.

Next Friday, July 1, marks the opening of the summer rockfish season. Rock from 20 to 26 inches may be retained in the Delaware Bay, Delaware River and their tributaries. The season is closed for all rock over 26 inches. The limit is two rockfish per day. Keep in mind this only applies to the Delaware side of the bay. The regulation in New Jersey remains two fish over 28 inches per day.

Catch and release
With the current status of flounder fishing and the changes that will be coming to the tog and rockfish regulations, catch and release is becoming a way of life for saltwater anglers. Our sweetwater brethren have been practicing catch and release for a very long time, influenced by the professional bass fishermen who release everything they catch.

The history of catch and release in saltwater fishing is comparatively brief.

It began with billfish anglers who started releasing marlin in the late 1980s. Prior to that time no one would believe you caught a marlin unless you hung it at the dock. The carnage during marlin tournaments caused people to realize they were killing the sport. Most big-money tournaments require the fish to be landed, but minimum sizes are so high, very few billfish are killed.

Rockfish were the next to receive the catch-and-release treatment. The all-but-complete collapse of this fishery and the ensuing moratorium made catch and release mandatory. When the season reopened with a one- or two-fish bag limit, it was either catch and release or have a very short fishing trip. The larger size limits also played a part in releasing rockfish.

During my years as a charter boat guide in Virginia Beach, I had days when a party would catch more than 50 rock, releasing all but the boat limit of six or eight.

I would start the trip with plugs or jigs that had barbed hooks. Once the limit was in the boat, off would come the lures with the barbed hooks, replaced with lures that had the barbs bent down.

Bait, either live or dead, creates a problem for catch and release. Fish are more likely to swallow a bait than a lure, resulting in a deep hook set that damages the gills or internal organs.

The problem has been solved to a considerable extent with the introduction of circle hooks. While a circle hook does not completely eliminate deep-hooked fish, it cuts down the incidents to a very few.

A circle hook works because the round part of the hook travels along the inside of the mouth until it reaches the jaw. There the hook turns and catches the fish at the hinge. This not only causes minimal damage to the fish, it also makes for a very easy release.

I was introduced to circle hooks in 1989 when I went on my first amberjack trip. We used live spot for bait and when an amberjack picked up the bait and I engaged the reel, the hookup was instantaneous. No hook set needed.

The biggest problem with circle hooks is they don’t work as well when a fish swims toward you.

It takes more patience than most of us possess to refrain from cranking out the slack and waiting for the fish to head away before coming tight. Most will end up pulling the bait and the hook out of the fish’s mouth.

Barbless hooks on lures and circle hooks with bait are but two things anglers can do to facilitate catch and release. Handling the fish without damaging the slime protection, keeping large fish in the water when unhooking, cutting the leader as close to the mouth as possible when releasing toothy sharks and generally behaving like the released fish holds the future of saltwater fishing will all help.

  • Eric Burnley is a Delaware native who has fished and hunted the state from an early age.  Since 1978 he has written countless articles about hunting and fishing in Delaware and elsewhere along the Atlantic Coast.  He has been the regional editor for Salt Water Sportsman, Field and Stream, Outdoor Life and the Fisherman Magazine.  He was the founding editor of the Mid-Atlantic Fisherman magazine.  Eric is the author of three books; Surf Fishing the Atlantic Coast, The Ultimate Guide to Striped Bass Fishing and Fishing Saltwater Baits.  He and his wife Barbara live near Milton, Delaware. Eric can be reached at

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