Climate change bringing new species to Cape Region

October 25, 2019

I have been fishing in the Delaware Bay and Atlantic Ocean since the early 1950s, and I have seen the impact global warming has had on the water and the species we catch. Of course, the warmer water is not the only factor that determines what is available for saltwater anglers to catch, but when species that have never been caught anywhere near Delaware become common in our coolers, there is something causing the change in their pattern.

The first time I really became aware of species moving from south to north was in 1989 when I moved to Virginia Beach. Claude Bain was the tournament director of the Virginia Saltwater Fishing Tournament, and he was getting questions about spadefish. These fish were not on the tournament list, yet they were showing up in catches from the ocean and bay.

Some anglers were becoming frustrated because they could see hundreds of spadefish over a wreck or around a buoy, but could not get them to eat any type of bait. The solution was to use an Eastern Shore MirrOlure. That’s a treble hook molded to a lead weight for easy casting. Effective, but not legal under Virginia Saltwater Fishing Tournament rules.

Claude contacted people in states to the south where spadefish were more common to find out what baits they used. Some used jellyfish while others used tiny bits of clam. All chummed.

We enlisted the aid of Herb Gordon, and the three of us set out to find the best way to catch spadefish. It was not a quick learning process.

We soon discovered that spadefish will drive you nuts. They will only eat when they want to eat. However, once they start, it’s Katy, bar the door.

In the end, clams were the most logical bait. They are plentiful and easy to use. The foot makes a good bait and the body is great chum. Put a very small piece on a small hook. Drop the bait back to the fish, put the rod in a holder and wait for it to bend over.

We did our best to let everyone know how to catch spadefish, but I am sure a few still fell to the Eastern Shore MirrOlure.

Delaware has schools of spadefish around. The Outer Wall and the Ice Breakers hold some, and I am sure they are on various wrecks and reefs. The problem is they are very difficult to catch by accident, and few anglers target them.

Pompano are another newcomer to Delaware. We have caught them from the beach and from boats. I caught my first Delaware pompano and my first one from the surf at Three Rs Road this summer on a FishBites sand flea.

Just to keep things confusing, one day this summer I had in my WGMD radio report porgies, pompano and black sea bass, all caught out of Delaware. I contacted John Clark, DNREC Fish and Wildlife’s director of Fisheries, and told him about having three species from three different temperate zones all caught on the same day. In addition, porgies have been absent from Delaware waters since the 1940s. My grandfather used to bring home lard cans (no YETI back then) full of porgies from Delaware Bay.

This past summer saw a good run of king and Spanish mackerel in the ocean. We have seen both species before, but 2019 was an exceptionally good season.

The Chesapeake Bay had excellent Spanish mackerel action with fish over five pounds common. At one point they were up the bay as far as Thomas Point.

Then there are the dolphin. I didn’t get out on them this year, but in 2018, we caught dolphin at the Del-Jersey-Land Reef, and this year I had reports of them even closer. On that day, the water temperature at the Del-Jersey-Land was over 80 degrees.

I have no doubt that as the water temperature continues to rise, we will see different fish in our area and we might even lose a few. These changes will not happen overnight, but they will happen.

Fishing report

The weather has not been kind to fishermen, but when it lets us get to the fish, the catching is pretty good.

Black sea bass in the ocean is the best bet right now. Charter and head boats as well as private boats are catching limits from ocean structure. Some days the best action is over the Del-Jersey-Land Reef, and other days it is closer to shore. Clams, squid, crab, FishBites and jigs all work on the sea bass. Triggerfish and flounder make up the bycatch.

Tog fishermen are catching a lot of shorts and a few keepers at the Outer Wall and Indian River Inlet on sand fleas and green crabs.


  • 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 several publications and 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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