Out with the old, in with the new

December 31, 2016

Depending on your preferences, 2016 was either pretty good or pretty bad. If you had a boat capable of fishing in the ocean it was pretty good. If, like me, your fishing was restricted to a 16-foot boat, the beach or the inlet, you didn’t have much fun.

My biggest disappointment was the lack of big croaker and spot in the Lewes-Rehoboth Canal. Those fish provided me with lots of good fishing over the past few years, but not in 2016. The flounder run in the canal was nothing to write home about, although some keepers were caught, just not by me.

I did have a couple of good trips to the Ice Breakers and the Outer Wall, where I caught a fair number of kings. The same area produced small trout, as did many other locations in the bay. It will be interesting to see if the trout return in 2017 after having grown a bit larger.

There was a decent run of big blues during the spring. While not as large or as long as the run in 2015, it was still good to see them. They left behind lots of young-of-the-year blues that pestered the small baitfish to death all summer.

The majority of the flounder caught in Delaware were taken from the ocean. The Old Grounds saw excellent fishing over the rough bottom, and the ocean reef sites also held fish. The few times I hitched a ride on a friend’s boat, I did catch my share of flatfish. I was also able to put some keeper sea bass in the box.

Over the years, I have seen the flounder fishing move from the Delaware Bay and the Inland Bays to the ocean. Last year, this migration was all but total as both the Inland Bays and the Delaware Bay were pretty much devoid of flounder.

In my opinion, this shift of the flounder population has been caused by the warming of the waters. There can be no doubt that the water has gotten warmer, not only affecting the flounder, but also sheepshead, spadefish and triggerfish. The last three species are recent arrivals from the south. While my memory only goes back to the 1940s, I have spoken with others who go back even further, and no one remembers catching any of those three fish until the last few years.

Black sea bass showed up in good numbers whenever the season was open. It was great to see them at the Old Grounds during the summer, and over inshore reefs and wrecks in the spring and fall.

Offshore action was good. Plenty of tuna, marlin, dolphin and wahoo to please that segment of the fishery. I made one trip to the Wilmington Canyon and the boat went 3-for-3 on white marlin.

The biggest changes for 2017 will not be the availability of fish, but the restrictions placed on fishing. There will be a major change in the flounder regulations, and this could put a big damper on participation. Right now we don’t know what these regulations will be, and there are a number of variables that could impact the final decision. I do think it is safe to say, no matter what the fishery managers come up with, flounder fishermen are not going to be happy.

With flounder fishing facing crippling regulations, I believe anglers will have to switch over to sheepshead, spadefish and triggerfish. All three of these species can be caught over Delaware Bay and inshore ocean structure, but it will take some getting used to. Wreck anchors, chum bags and small hooks will be needed to target these fish.

My personal wish is for the return of big croakers. While it would be nice to see them spread out from the bay to the ocean, if they only show up in the Lewes-Rehoboth Canal, I will be a happy camper. 

Flounder hearing

The National Marine Fisheries Service will hold a public hearing about regulations for summer flounder Tuesday, Jan. 17, at the DNREC Auditorium, 89 Kings Hwy., Dover. The meeting will begin at 6 p.m., a time that will make it a bit difficult for folks who work for a living to drive down from Wilmington or up from Sussex County. Nevertheless, summer flounder are the most important recreational fish in the state so this is an important hearing. If you are unable to attend, I will be providing a summary of the hearing and how you can make you voice heard via email.

Fishing report

Not much change. Sea bass and tog have been caught when boats can reach ocean bottom structure. Sea bass season will close Dec. 31.

  • 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