May 27, 2015
By Capt. Jim Freda
No need for a boat to get a New Jersey striped bass fix
The 127 miles of the New Jersey coastline are home to a vast array of rock jetties and groins that have been constructed to shelter and protect the sandy shore. These structures—there are approximately 392 of them—were built beginning in the 1930s and can be found at the mouths of inlets, tidal rivers, harbors, and along oceanfront beaches.
These man-made features are the foundations of diverse ecosystems of marine life that wouldn't otherwise exist along a sandy beach.
Large predators such as trophy striped bass, bluefish, weakfish, and false albacore are attracted to these jetties, and often stick there like fish magnets.
For fly fishers with a little knowledge, these structures are in essence motionless casting platforms that transport you into the middle of saltwater action that is ordinarily strictly the realm of boat anglers.
Technically, jetties are any long artificial structures built perpendicular to the coast to protect the openings of inlets, harbors, and river mouths. A groin is a similar but shorter artificial structure built perpendicular to the shoreline in an effort to control beach erosion by trapping sediments carried by longshore or littoral currents.
Along much of New Jersey, the shore runs north-south, and the jetties run east-west.
Decades ago, the Army Corps of Engineers attempted to stabilize the New Jersey shoreline and inlets with an aggressive project of jetty and groin construction. One of the best locations in New Jersey to see the results of this work is in Monmouth County, which, in a stretch of 15 miles from Monmouth Beach south to the Manasquan Inlet, has more than 100 jetties. This stretch of shore and has been dubbed "Jetty Country" by the many jetty jocks who frequent the area.
Fly fishing a jetty is like fishing an unfamiliar trout stream for the first time. First you read the water to locate where the best fish-holding structures are, and then you choose the appropriate tactics and tackle to effectively take advantage of these features.
There are three general areas around most jetties that consistently hold striped bass. These three areas—the jetty tip, the beach end, and the middle—serve as ambush points where predators lie in wait as bait gets disoriented from crashing waves or currents. Each zone has its own peculiarities and associated tactics.
Working the Tip
The tip of a jetty is often the most productive location, and most experienced anglers upon arrival often make a beeline for the end of the jetty, particularly at first light. I get up early enough to arrive at my selected rockpile 10 or 15 minutes before false dawn.
The tip of a jetty is often surrounded by the deepest water and has more than 300 degrees of casting opportunity, and the most subsurface structure, making it the most productive spot.
Jetty tips rarely drop straight down into the depths. The foundations of the jetty extend below the surface much like an iceberg, and storms and hurricanes have often dislodged the jetty tip rocks, spreading them out into the water. In some instances an additional 50 to 75 feet of subsurface rocks are hidden below the surface, with stripers and blues prowling above.
When fishing the tip, fan your casts out 180 degrees. Begin by casting straight east, right at the heart of the tip and the deepest water. This area is most favorable at high tide when the water is relatively calm. In rough water, the heart of the tip can become unfishable due to large waves breaking on top of it.
If no fish are holding in that direction, begin to fan your casts to the northeast. This area is also an ideal location for predators, as tides and wave action often create a deep hole for gamefish to lie in wait. The reason for this is that the littoral current, which transports sand from south to north along the beach in this part of New Jersey, deposits sand on the south side of a jetty as the jetty acts as a barrier. The downcurrent side of the jetty (the north) receives much less sand, resulting in a deeper hole.
The Beach End
After feeling comfortable that you fished the tip exhaustively, you can move to either the middle section or beach end of the jetty. The choice will be up to you, as both areas are conducive for holding bait and gamefish.
In the middle section, look for detached rock outcroppings below the surface. As water flows over these structures, the change in current velocity acts as a magnet for striped bass looking for dislodged food.
Among the most prominent features of the middle of the jetty are rip currents, which normally run along both sides. Water moving laterally along the beach is redirected by the jetty, and deep cuts are carved along its sides as the water follows the path of least resistance. As a result, rip currents transport and disorient small baits, making them easy prey. Fish the transitions along these rip currents as you would a seam in a river—predators feed along these areas as though it were a cafeteria line.
The beach end of the jetty runs all the way back to the zero line, which may be the pavement, dunes, or a permanent bulkhead. The majority of this portion of the jetty is covered with sand and never sees the sun. This gives the illusion that the jetty ends where it meets the sand on the beach.
At the beach end of the jetty, there is usually a deeper pocket where the beach and jetty meet. This deep pocket is produced from seaward-returning water that digs out the sand along the entire beach, creating a beach scarp. This trough serves as an avenue for cruising fish looking for small dislodged invertebrates.
Schools of baitfish use the beach scarp or trough as they follow the topography of the coastline on their migratory routes. This migratory highway frequently ends where the scarp hits a jetty, and the pocket there is particularly deep due to effect of the rip current against the jetty rocks.
This spot where the jetty hits the beach warrants a close examination every time you walk onto a jetty, particularly during the fall when schools of bait can become trapped in the cul-de-sac, with large stripers prowling the only outlet.
Tackle & Strategies
Because of their large diameter, floating lines cast relatively poorly in the wind, and fast-sinking lines too frequently hang up on jetty rocks. Intermediate lines with a sink rate of one to two inches per second are my workhorse lines in moderate to slightly rough surf.
I use a 9- or 10-weight rod with a stiff butt section so I can cast large flies into the wind, and exert plenty of power and leverage to control a big fish away from the rocks.
When the surf is rough, you need to get your line below the whitewater so it doesn't get swept around as much. In this case, a 200- to 300-grain sinking line is better line.
Another situation to prefer a sinking line over an intermediate is when working the trophy hole at the tip of the northeast end of the jetty at high tide. When my intermediate line fails to draw strikes, I switch over to a 200- or 300-grain sinking line for some deeper probing. Allow the line time to sink down to various depths, and use a jerky strip-stop retrieve.
To fish a rip running along the side of the jetty, position yourself at the upper third of the middle section of the jetty. From here, cast the line back toward the beach. Time your cast so that when your line hits the water, it falls on the backside of an advancing wave.
Allow your line to be swept toward you with the current as it slowly sinks and drifts through the feeding zone. Stay tight to your fly and bring in slack—just as you would do when nymphing for trout—so you don't miss any strikes. Let the line pass you and then slowly strip it back against the current, allowing the flow of water over the fly to produce tantalizing undulations. Do not strip too quickly, or the fly rises out of the strike zone. I get most of my strikes when the fly changes directions and begins swimming back against the current.
In Monmouth County the beach end pockets are more pronounced on the north side, so look there first for large predators trying to pin baits between these boundaries.
To work the beach end pocket and beach scarp from the rocks, cast out from the beach scarp and let the incoming waves push your line into the trough. Retrieve the fly slowly along the trough and finally into the pocket. Most of the strikes occur near the pocket. The nice part of this jetty fishing is that if you hook a bass in this area, you can quickly get off the rocks and fight your fish from the safety of the beach.
Regardless of where you are on the jetty, always retrieve your fly to the edge of the rocks. I intentionally pause my fly in any pocketwater next to the rocks before I pick up to cast. As waves move in and then recede, the fly undulates back and forth. Bass and blues will attack a fly in this paused position in a last desperate attempt to capture their prey as it appears pinned with no escape.
Working flies closely along jetty rocks risks hang-ups, and also break-offs when a large fish rips line from your reel. To tilt the odds in your favor, your leader should be heavier than you would normally fish in the surf or from a boat. I use an untapered 5- to 7-foot, 30-pound-test leader of abrasion-resistant material such as Sufix InvisiLine to help to prevent break-offs due to razor-sharp barnacles and mussels on the rocks.
Fighting a big striper or bluefish from the rocks is one of the most exhilarating fly-fishing experiences for Northeast anglers. When a big fish hits, remember that the fight is a two-sided event. Don't let the fish pull any line without working hard for it.
The beach is the best place to land a fish. Try to determine beforehand—based on your jetty position—whether walking off the rocks and fighting the fish from the beach is possible. If you can safely get onto the beach, be sure to walk a good distance away from the jetty before you begin to reel in the fish. As you walk down the beach, your reel drag and rod should control the fish as line is being pulled from the reel, and you can ensure the fish doesn't fight its way back into the rocks.
If you are way out on the jetty, and getting to the beach is not possible, look for a pathway down through the rocks to reach and land your fish. Look for covelike features among the rocks to offer shelter from incoming waves, and low-angle rocks to safely descend to the waterline.
Make your personal safety the highest and first priority. Landing a fish is not as important as your life. I have seen fly fishers try to land big fish, and get swept off with the next incoming wave. I'll break off a big fish before trying to achieve hero status.
Even when you aren't landing a fish, safety on the rocks should be a priority. Be familiar with wave period, rogue wave formation, and the locations of sandbars around the jetty that impact wave formation and wave height. Watch the wave pattern for a considerable period of time if you are unsure about whether or not the incoming waves have any potential for washing over the jetty.
Nothing is worse than to be out on the rocks and have a rogue wave suddenly jack up and wash you off. Learn the tide stages and how they usually affect wave heights at that particular location.
Whatever you do, don't venture onto a jetty without proper attire. When the water is cold, this means a rain jacket, bibs, short boots, and Korkers—carbide steel studded sandals that fit over your boots and give you sure footing on wet or algae-covered rocks. The K-1100 Jetty Plus Cleat is my favorite style.
When the water is warm in the summer or early fall, getting wet is not a problem so the rain jacket and bibs can stay home, but Korkers are always required footwear.
Waders are not advisable, as they reduce your mobility clambering over the rocks. The life expectancy of an expensive pair of waders is short on the barnacle-crusted jetty rocks, and if you end up in the water wearing waders, it is much more difficult to swim.
You may have heard that when waders fill with water they pull you under, however this is not true. Not knowing how to swim is what makes you go under. If you don't think this is so then jump into the deep end of a pool with waders on and see what happens.
Travel light on the jetty by keeping your tackle and gear at a minimum. A box of flies, extra leader material, snips, hook sharpener, and a spare spool with a different line weight are all you need. These can easily be placed in a jacket pocket.
A stripping basket is a necessity to prevent your line from dropping into the rocks or tangling underfoot. Your basket should have plenty of drainage holes in it to allow for any water that dumps into the basket from wave splash to quickly flow out. Also be sure to push your basket behind you when walking from rock to rock or when fighting a fish. This gives you a better field of view when you look for your next step.
Finally, all fly fishers should be cognizant of the fact that they can take up the same space as three experienced spin fishermen could occupy on the rocks. Even if you were first at a spot, be considerate of other anglers when the blitz is on. If possible, make room for everyone to fish, and be a good ambassador of our sport.
Capt. Jim Freda is co-owner of Shore Catch Guide Service (shorecatch.com) in Manasquan, New Jersey, and author of Fishing the New Jersey Coast.