Examining the shortage of weakfish

May 5, 2012

Fishing has improved with the better weather conditions. Tog remain the best bet for boat anglers with easy three-fish limits taken from the bay and ocean. The best rockfish bite is in the upper bay, where fish up to 40 pounds or more were caught while chunking with fresh bunker.

There was some good rockfish action at night last Wednesday and Thursday for those willing and able to walk out on the South Jetty at Indian River Inlet. Plugs, Storm and Tsunami shads, bucktails and live eels all produced fish up to 30 pounds. A smaller run occurred on Saturday night and I expect to see even more big rock taken from the inlet over the next two weeks.

Hickory shad have also been caught at the inlet and from Massey’s Ditch. These are fantastic sport on light spin or fly tackle and, while their food value is pretty low, they make a great bait for rockfish. Shad darts and small spoons are the best shad lures.

Flounder have been a bit scarce. Reports from the Lewes and Rehoboth Canal, Broadkill River, Indian River Bay and Massey’s Ditch all indicate a few keepers caught by men, women and small children who are much better fishermen than me.

The surf is beginning to come alive. Big rockfish have been caught on fresh bunker and a few blues have fallen for the same bait. Bloodworms could bring in an early run king. Skates and dog sharks are still the primary catch.

Reports from the Cape Henlopen Fishing Pier indicate a few keeper flounder. A bucktail with a strip of bunker, squid or a live minnow fished at night are the top baits.

So far this spring I have had reports of weakfish caught by both recreational and commercial fishermen. I understand that the gill net fleet has been catching their 100-pound daily limit with ease and to date I have seen photos of 6- and 7-pound trout taken by recreational anglers.

Understand, we are a long way from seeing weakfish in anywhere near the numbers we saw in the 1970s and 80s, and we may never have that kind of fishing again. According the reports I have, the gill netters are seeing a variety of year classes which asks the question, where have these fish been for the last 4 or 5 years?

Last fall, I caught several short trout in the bay and in the ocean, but nothing over the 13-inch minimum size. Now we have 6 and 7 pounders eating bloodworms in the upper bay.

This tells me we are woefully short of information on the life cycle of weakfish.

I recall Rich Seagraves doing a study on trout back in days of the World Weakfish Tournament out of Slaughter Beach. Rich was looking at the DNA of trout caught during the tournament to determine if Delaware Bay and Chesapeake Bay weakfish were two separate stocks. If I remember correctly, the conclusion was they are the same fish.

When rockfish were approaching economic extinction we mobilized the states and the federal government to action. Studies were made, grad students and their professors saw plenty of money and we were able to place a moratorium on the species. Now that rock have recovered, we are keeping a tight rein on them to sustain the population.

Weakfish have been scarce for 10 years and yet the best we can do is place a one-fish limit on recreational anglers and 100-pound limit on commercial fishermen. As far as economics, just look at the Slaughter and Bowers Beach recreational industry since the trout disappeared. Tackle shops have closed, head and charter boats are out of business and the Cedar Creek Boat Launch is seldom anywhere near full. Lewes has not suffered quite as much because tog and flounder are available in the bay, while sea bass, tuna and marlin are within a reasonable run from the dock.

The return of rockfish has helped the commercial fisherman make up for the loss of weakfish. Croakers are the only game in town for both groups once summer rolls around. Last year, the hurricane ran them out before they had a chance to move up the bay.

The answer to learning more about weakfish is money. Unfortunately, in this economy, money is in short supply. Back in days of rockfish scarcity we had the same funding problems. I wrote an article suggesting we declare the rockfish a tactical weapon. Arm it with missiles and send it up the Volga River. Today, if we could figure some way to include weakfish in Homeland Security funding, perhaps we could generate some money for research. I am pretty sure we could learn a lot about the species with just the money we spent on the new state police boat.

  • 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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