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New Jersey Nirvana: "I Have Never Seen So Many Big Striped Bass in my Life"

Constant hook-ups and pretzeled fly rods were the norm in the fall of 2022. But will it ever repeat?

New Jersey Nirvana: "I Have Never Seen So Many Big Striped Bass in my Life"

Ben Furimsky, president and CEO of The Fly Fishing Show, caught this personal best striped bass in the fall of 2022 using a 13-inch-long menhaden imitation. He was by himself in his boat and followed a large school of bass for 7 miles along the New Jersey coast, catching and releasing a total of 4 fish over 30 pounds from the same school. This one weighed 51 pounds. (Ben Furimsky photo)

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I have never seen so many big striped bass in my life.” This is what I heard almost daily during the fall of 2022, as the season went down in the record books as absolutely the best New Jersey striper season anyone alive has ever seen.

Beginning in mid-October and through the end of November, we had striped bass and bait around the boat every day. Many days were simply magical as schools of big bass corralled either adult bunker or peanut bunker, churning through them at the surface and putting on a visual display that put our senses on overload.

Constant hook-ups were the norm, often with two or three rods hooked up at a time. In my chartering area out of Manasquan Inlet, New Jersey, it was the best anyone has ever seen due to an abundance of bait, stable weather, and lots of large bass coming from the 2015 spawning cycle.

Of course we’ve seen these Jersey blitzes before. Central New Jersey has been famous for these predator-on-prey assaults for many decades. But never have I seen the fishing this good over such a long period of time as we did in 2022. Our fly rods were constantly pretzeled over the gunnels, and the only question was how big the next striped bass was going to be. Fish of more than 30 pounds were a regular occurrence.

A fly angler standing on a rock jetty fishing while a wave crashes into him.
New Jersey has many rock jetties or groins, which extend into the ocean and give anglers on foot a chance to reach farther out into the ocean. (Ross Purnell photo)

Bunker Season

In the last few seasons, Atlantic menhaden (bunker) both big and small have been inundating our coastal waters. Overall, menhaden are overharvested in the Atlantic Ocean, mostly by the menhaden reduction fleet in Chesapeake Bay. But in our New Jersey waters in the fall, these fish congregate by the millions, and striped bass gather to feed on them. When ocean temperature drops from 62 to 52 degrees it is game on. Adult bunker—ranging from 8 to 14 inches—move in from offshore in October. When these larger prey start moving south in November, young 4- to 6-inch peanut (baby) bunker pour out of the back bays and rivers to join them.

Fly fishers often catch the biggest striped bass in October when only the adult bunker are present, and the smaller bunker haven’t yet arrived. These bass range in size from 20 to 40 pounds with some bigger ones mixed in. This was true for Ben Furimsky, owner of The Fly Fishing Show, who was by himself when he hooked, landed, photographed, and released an estimated 51-pound bass near Ocean City, New Jersey.

Of course, the biggest bass are caught by anglers using live bunker as bait, but fly fishers also have a shot at them. This keeps the anticipation and excitement at a feverish level this time of year. But even without mega-size bass, my clients are always thrilled to hook into 20- or 30-pound bass. Many of them last year caught their biggest bass ever on the fly.

To be successful, you must cover as much water as possible in both a vertical and horizontal plane. This gives you the best chance of hooking up. From the boat I use a 10-weight rod, and 350- or 400-grain sinking line with a 6-foot, 40-pound fluorocarbon leader looped to the fly line. When the big bunker are around I use 10- to 14-inch synthetic bunker flies. Bob Popovics’s Beast Fleye is my number one choice. My other go-to flies are Dave Skok’s Yak Hair flies, large Popovics’s Bucktail Deceivers, and Hollow Fleyes.




Casting long distances with flies this size can be difficult. A good boat strategy is cast out, and then use stack mends to pull all the remaining fly line into the water. This allows the slack line to sink as the boat drifts away from the line. As the boat continues to drift, the line eventually becomes tight. When you have 90 feet of line out—and it is tight—it is time to begin stripping. The sink rate of the fly line along with the speed of your drift determines how far down your fly can get.

Capt. Jim Freda in his boat holding a large striped bass up to the camera.
From the boat, use 10-weight rods and 350- or 400-grain sinking lines to get your adult bunker patterns down to where the bigger fish are feeding. When there are schools of peanut bunker closer to the surface, floating lines and poppers can bring explosive strikes. (Jim Freda photo)

On my 28 Parker Sport Cabin with a 10 to 15 mph wind blowing, my fly gets down about 30 feet before the 350-grain line comes completely tight. On a horizontal plane, the fly is about 60 feet from the boat.

Retrieving the fly can be with a long pulls or short strip-pause-strip-pause methods. One some days it seems they prefer one speed or action over another. Be ready to strike at all times, as big bass inhale the fly in one swipe. Strip-strike hard to the side twice. Do not set the hook by raising your rod straight up into the air. The “trout set” has little actual force behind it and it pulls the hook into the bony upper palate of the bass, which is hard to penetrate. Striking to the side uses the power of the rod butt and pulls the hook into the corner of the mouth.

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On calm windless days, the stack mending method doesn’t work as the boat doesn’t move as actively. On calm days you’ll need to double haul and shoot line to achieve maximum distance, then allow some time for the fly to sink.

The captain’s positioning of the boat around blitzing bass in pods of bait is key to your success. My job when guiding is to size up which way the bait is moving, and then get you in the optimal position in front of it so the bait and bass come right under the boat. In that circumstance, a 30- or 40-foot cast puts the fly right in the strike zone during the retrieve.

In November, peanut bunker tend to be near the surface so we can use floating or intermediate lines. Geno’s Baby Angel is my favorite fly for peanut bunker but Popovics’s Hollow Fleyes, Lefty’s Deceivers, Chouinard Widesides, and Farrar’s Baby Bunkers are also effective. The fly sizes should range from 4 to 6 inches. When fish are busting bait near the surface, you can also switch to casting bangers, poppers, or chuggers to see some incredible visual strikes. The commotion from these flies draws reactionary strikes as the bass don’t take a long look at the fly—they immediately perceive it as injured prey.

I have always found it advantageous to have multiple fly rods rigged with different flies and lines when blitz conditions are going on so you can have a fly in the water all the time. Changing spools, heads, or rushing to tie on a new fly when the action is erupting right in front of you is not something you want to be doing. If one fly or line type doesn’t connect after several minutes during a blitz, cast another rig.

Good boating etiquette is necessary when all mayhem is breaking loose around you so that everyone remains safe and enjoys their time on the water. This means yielding to other boats that are already working an existing blitz. Don’t crash their party just because you’re not in one. Instead, size up the action when you come upon it, and see if your boat can slide in without crowding those already there.

If this is not possible, try to predict which way the blitz is pushing and position yourself ahead of it. Cut your engine and allow the action to come to you as you drift into it. Also, when exiting a fleet make sure you do so without causing any unnecessary commotion. Do not cut across water that others are fishing, and don’t throttle up until you are far enough away so that your boat wake is not felt by anyone else.

A striped bass crashing through a group of breaking baitfish.
In November, adult bunker ranging from 8 to 14 inches come from offshore and migrate along the New Jersey coast. At the same time, peanut bunker from 4 to 6 inches move in large schools from the rivers and estuaries and also start moving south. (Tom Lynch photo)

Shore Blitz

The surf can also be explosive with blitzes taking place throughout the fall. It is exciting and challenging, and the feeding frenzies that can happen when the bass have the bait trapped against the shore can be explosive. But in the end, shorebound fly fishers are at the mercy of the bait. If the bait doesn’t come in close to the beach, then neither will the bass.

If you don’t have a boat, running a 4X4 on the beach gives you a lot more opportunities than fly fishing strictly on foot. Mobility is a big advantage when it comes to finding fish.

Island Beach State Park is a great place to run a 4X4 on the beach to look for birds, bait, and structure. You can drive onto the beach at Gillikins Mobile Sport Fishing Access and drive all the way to Barnegat Inlet, where you’ll find the 1,300-foot Barnegat Jetty. You need to purchase a permit to drive on the beach. All the details are on the park website.

In the fall, west winds are optimal for driving the bait and fish onto the beach, as in New Jersey this is an offshore wind. This wind also helps to flatten out the surf so that you can effectively fly fish and not have to worry about big swells and waves tossing and pushing your fly line all over the place. Last fall there were many optimal days like this, and many surfcasters and fly fishers also had their best season ever. Use a surfing conditions website like surfline.com to get forecasts and current surf conditions. When the report for surfers is “poor” it’s time to go surf fishing.

A coldwater intermediate striper line is the workhorse line for the surf as this type of line coils less in your basket. A stripping basket is a must to keep and hold your line on the retrieve. Without one, your line will just get swept away when it hits the sand.

Monmouth County where I keep my boat is also known as “jetty country.” Jetties, or groins, litter the coastline. Jetty jocks can use these stone structures to reach out farther into the ocean without a boat. However, the rocks are very slippery and landing a fish can be a challenge.

Wading boots with aluminum or tungsten carbide cleats are a must. Most jetty fishermen wear Korkers CastTrax cleated overshoes. Don’t even think about venturing out onto a jetty without adequate footwear as you will risk serious injury or death.

Proper etiquette on a jetty when fishing during a blitz is also a must. The tight quarters and limited space on a jetty is no place for anglers to encroach upon one another when trying to get at the fish. Crowding each other on the rocks while fishing together is a special skill that many anglers have not acquired or experienced. It requires teamwork, a high level of awareness, a sense of each other’s casting and fish fighting abilities, a sense of timing, and most importantly trust.

An orange evening scene of an angler fishing the surf near a jetty.
When the ocean temperature drops from 62 to 52 degrees, Atlantic menhaden (bunker) congregate by the millions, and striped bass gather to feed on them. (Ross Purnell photo)

When I am around a group of strangers on the rocks, most of the time I am more concerned about what they are doing than fishing myself. My biggest fear is that the person does not have a sense of awareness of casting space and where their plug, with all its treble hooks, is at every moment. I do not know of anything worse than getting a treble ripped across your face, ear, or body.

When the jetty is crowded, fly fishers must yield to all the other fishermen. The space you take up with your casting can fit two or three spin guys who know how to fish together. Your backcast is also a big problem as it raises some major safety concerns. Fly fishers need to be good ambassadors of the sport and either move to the beach or put the long rod away when the rocks are crowded. Having said that, there are times when you can have a jetty all to yourself, and the fishing can be pretty good.

Exercising proper etiquette is the best way one can avoid tempers from flaring and bad attitudes from developing. It is always best to put someone else before yourself and not have the “It’s all about me, I have to catch a fish” type of attitude. Rather, enjoy the experience of fishing with a fellow fisherman who has the same goals of catching fish in mind.

The Future of Striped Bass, by Tony Friedrich of the American Saltwater Guides Association

There is no discussion: striped bass are the most important fish in the Atlantic for fishermen from all walks of life. The species supports the most trips, the largest economy, and a fanatical following second to no other Atlantic fish. They are genuinely every man’s fish. You can catch them any way imaginable. They are in trouble and need your help. In fact, we can’t save them without you.

We need to start this discussion with a clean slate and dispel some common striper myths. First, Canada’s stock causing conflicts with Atlantic salmon is a different genetic stock from our migratory striped bass. That has been proved time and time again through genetic research. Furthermore, the historic exploitation of striped bass in Canada resulted in a 13-year moratorium in those waters that started in 2000. The recent increase in population results from that management action, not our fish moving north due to climate change. The other concept we all must comprehend is that localized abundance doesn’t equate to a healthy coastwide fishery. There are vast areas of the Atlantic that have no striped bass.

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) manages the U.S. striped bass fishery. There are 14 jurisdictions and two federal bodies represented on the Atlantic Striped Bass Management Board. Each entity has different goals and views on what the fishery should look like. This discrepancy in priorities creates a management bottleneck.

A researcher kneeling in the surf taking measurements of a striped bass in a glass case.
The ASGA is asking anglers to submit comments, sign on to its formal letters, contact your ASMFC commissioners, and fight for the resource. Addendum II presents another opportunity for the conservation-minded community to rise up and make your voices heard. (Colin Archer photo)

Striped bass populations peaked between 2002-2006. Since then, we have seen a gradual but accelerating decline in what’s called the spawning stock biomass (SSB), which is the number of spawning-age females. All female striped bass reach sexual maturity by age eight and join the migratory ocean stock. There has been a slight uptick in the SSB over the last few years due to a robust 2015 year class.  Since 2019,  spawning success in the Chesapeake is the lowest on record for striped bass in Maryland, which represents 60% of the coastal stock. That means is that by 2027, this fishery’s SSB will fall off a cliff. We have a pile of 2015 fish sitting in front of us with nothing filling in after 2019.

The SSB in 2021 was measured at 143 million pounds. The threshold SSB number is 188 million pounds, and the target for the stock is 235 million pounds. However, the harvest numbers in 2022 doubled when the 2015 year class entered the slot size, giving us a situation where there were fewer fish in the ocean but  skyrocketing harvest due to the robust 2015 year class being within the slot size.

For only the third time in 70+ years and the first time ever for stripers, an emergency action was implemented to tighten the recreational slot limit slot to between 28 and 31 inches. That emergency action expires Oct. 18 when the ASMFC will possibly send Addendum II out for public comment as further reductions are needed to rebuild the stock by 2029. This will define the future health of this fishery. If we don’t get this right, there is little hope for the next generation of striped bass anglers to enjoy this fishery.

If you have ever fished for stripers or want to fish for stripers in the future, your voice is critical. ASGA views the role of all stakeholders (anglers, guides, and business owners) as stewards of this resource. ASGA continues to fight the good fight, and we aren’t hesitant to ask for your help. Fly Fisherman magazine has been a leader in conservation for decades. Much like the Pebble Mine campaign, Addendum II presents another opportunity for the conservation-minded community to rise up and make our voices heard. We need all of you to submit comments, sign on to our formal letters, contact your ASMFC commissioners, and fight for the resource.

Please visit our website and find us on Instagram and Facebook to get the latest news, ask questions, and learn more about the state of striped bass.


Jim Freda is a USCG licensed captain and owner of Shore Catch Sportfishing. He has been fishing the inshore and offshore waters of the Jersey Shore for over 40 years. His award-winning book Fishing the New Jersey Coast (Burford Books 2001) is still the authoritative source on the subject matter.

Instagram: @jimmy_freda_shorecatch | shorecatch.com

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