Fishing back in action after a long winter

May 15, 2014
Chris Hayes with a 28-inch bluefish in Delaware Seashore State Park. SOURCE SUBMITTED

Brrrrrrrrrr! We finally thawed out from a long winter's rest and we are back in action.  I thought it would never end, and then, just as things started to warm up, it snowed again! We went through three seasons in one March week. It has been a crazy winter to say the least. Snow and more snow, ice covering the bays more than once, and then more snow. At one point we thought ice skating from Oak Orchard to Dewey Beach would be a reality like back in the ‘70s.

Don't get me wrong. I live for the seasons and love the snow, but we have been spoiled by the many years of mild winters, and the bays freezing over really threw people for a loop. The water temperatures were so cold this year that fishing was a chore with minimal results at best. However, there was a little excitement to entertain us over the winter months. Snowy Owls showed up on our beaches in full force! People were travelling a few hundred miles just to get a glimpse of these beautiful creatures. For some of us it became a daily routine to see the owls in the dunes. People in beach parking lots brought telescopes and camera gear, and would excitedly ask ... "Have you seen the owls?" We’d say yes and then point them in the right direction. Seals made a major appearance here this year as well. Granted, we have seals that migrate to our area every year, but this year it seemed we saw more than usual. Many people were surprised to hear we have a seal population that makes yearly visits to the Delaware coast. They’ll be back next year, but now it’s time for toes in the sand.

Water slow to warm up

Now that spring has arrived and summer is on the way, everyone is excited to start fishing. Last year we saw bluefish and striped bass as early as mid-March. The water temperatures this year were too low for any fish to migrate that early; in fact we had our first annual DSF surf fishing tournament scheduled for mid-March and moved it to mid-April. That turned out to be a good idea since it snowed on that weekend. It would have made for a very interesting tournament! (We could have chosen the winners with a snowball fight.) On March 19th, Jeff Weaver found a short striped bass washed up on Lewes Beach. Everyone was taking notice, because just a few days before that, big striped bass started showing up in the Chesapeake Bay. The spring run was underway, and of course it snowed a foot a few days before – Old Man Winter putting a damper on the fishing community yet again!

So we simply waited for the right moment, and when it warmed up we went out fishing; if anything to just go through the motions. The seals were certainly eating fish, but we just didn't know what kinds. Bunker should have been here by now and the rest of the fish (striped bass and bluefish in particular) would soon follow. Skates started showing in the surf once we got out to the beaches. Not the favorite to catch, but let’s face it: A tug on a line is a tug on a line. The weather was looking great, things were looking up, and then it snowed again, almost a foot deep. It seemed that spring would never come and that we would not fish this year. Thank goodness that the Saturday meetings with the Saltwater Fly Anglers of Delaware Club kept us occupied. Talking about fishing is not quite the same as going through the motions but it’s not a bad substitute. Every winter I visit with the club. They tie flies and we all tell lies. Friends of mine were making snowmen and putting fishing rods in place of arms – I guess we all have our ways of coping with the winter blues.

Bunker showing is game changer

After the first week of April, fish started moving around our waters. Shad popped up in the rivers and striped bass were schooling in the Delaware Bay and Inland Bays. Freshwater trout season had started and the ponds and rivers were stocked. Then striped bass started showing up in the surf; at first it was just shorts, but eventually the larger keepers arrived. The cold made for lousy conditions, but even under the most adverse conditions many prevailed and managed to catch some fish. When the osprey started showing up we took that as another sign of warm water arriving very soon. The game changer was when the bunker showed up in the Delaware Bay. Then the big striped bass moved into the bays following their favorite food and went upriver to spawn. We didn't think we would see any more snow and spring was here to stay -- well at least we thought. There was one day in mid-April the skies spit a minor coating of snow overnight, but then Old Man Winter was gone for good.

The days were getting longer and normally it would be warm and on its way to blazing summer heat, but that was not the case this year. Now the summer season is upon us, and with it we are seeing all sorts of fish popping up at the same time. In less than three weeks we have seen kingfish, puffers or blowfish, weakfish, black drum, striped bass, bluefish, shad, skate, dogfish, herring, flounder and stargazers.

The past few weeks have been exciting. Fish are popping up all over the place. Flounder have been large and heavy in the Lewes Canal on pink or chartreuse gulp. Weakfish are being caught in the canal, Roosevelt Inlet, and Broadkill beach with pink gulp or pink zoom on jig heads. Minnows are working well for flounder now as well. Striped bass are hitting bunker chunks, spoons, bucktails with white plastic worms, and plugs, or bombers in darker colors. They have been at the Indian River Inlet, Lewes Canal, all of the beaches, Henlopen fishing pier, and the inland bays. Kingfish from the surf (that sounds like a band name) are hitting bloodworms, the real ones or fishbites, and so are the puffer fish.

Fully thawed, summer awaits

Surf clam has been the best bait for black drum. The most fun we had was catching black drum in the surf last weekend, but this weekend the fishing dropped off dramatically but it has still been decent. When the black drum showed up in the surf we thought it was just a fluke that a few fifty plus pounders were caught from Broadkill Beach. The next day it was like a blitz! Drum were being caught one after the other in just a few hours. It was a crazy scene. Rods bending one after the other and people rushing to grab them before they were dragged out to sea. I was fishing with Aahron Jost, Scott Jost, and Corby Fulton that Saturday. We had just set up when Aahron’s rod bent to the ground and he had a huge black drum on the line. This was five minutes after setting up and casting his bait. Every fifteen minutes or so he was reeling in another one. And our neighbors were hitting them twice as fast as Aahron. Corby and I sat there and watched this chaos for roughly three hours. It was awesome and painful at the same time. We wanted to catch fish too, but we were on the wrong side of the sandbar. Fishing: Sometimes you are not in the right spot, even when it is the right time. We had fun watching Aahron catch his first black drum, and the largest fish he ever caught from the surf. It was a pleasure just to be there for that moment. That boy was grinning ear to ear all night long. Since that weekend the black drum have moved farther north and the frequency of catches has dropped, but everyone will be talking for a while about the Spring Drum Blitz of 2014, though it only lasted for four days.  

Now that we are fully thawed out and anticipating a great summer, we will see what happens as the weeks pass by and the summer season begins. I am looking forward to a lot of fun fishing in the sun. If you think it’s too hot this summer just let me know I will send you pictures of snow-covered beaches and dunes. That should cool you off real fast.

Horseshoe crabs are starting to spawn in the Delaware Bay and Inland Bays, there are sand fleas in the surf line, and fiddler crabs are out and about. Blue Claw crabbing has been slow but we expect that to pick up as the water gets warmer. Clamming has been great all winter and spring, but it has been a bit cold out there.

We have friends working on some neat projects, and we will definitely keep you updated throughout the summer. One of them is an osprey nest platform my friends Mac and Kent Davis have set up near Slaughter Beach. There are two cameras on the platform and they are getting some great footage of the new tenants. So far the interest in building a nest has not happened but the birds are nonetheless using it to roost. So the boys are hoping for more activity soon.

Welcome back and have a great summer drifting the bays, hopping piers, fishing the surf, ripping up the rocks, or just chillin’ on the beach.

We will see you out there and good luck. Fish on!