Cape May’s Fall Stripers

This story first appeared in Saltwater Flyfishing Magazine in Oct./Nov. 1999. Order a back issues of this magazine.

The sun is climbing over the peaked slate roofs of elegant Victorian homes, grand hotels, and the famous Congress Hall, where political and industrial dignitaries once stayed and John Phillip Sousa and his band played marches on the sprawling lawn. It is splashing light over the waves breaking on the black stone jetties and picking out the bright white of the gulls wheeling above the surf line. The Delaware coastline swims just beyond sight to the south, invisible except for its pinprick lights at nighttime. Scattered fishing boats dot the rips in between the two bodies of land.

It’s 9:30 a.m. and I’m standing on Congress Beach in Cape May, New Jersey. A friend called an hour ago to say the stripers are blitzing the beach at two hours after high tide every morning. I called work to say I’d be late.

Congress Beach is deserted except for the birds. They aren’t working hard, but they’re working, spinning in lazy circles right above the tide line. Occasionally one leaves the wheel and dives at the surf. As I walk closer, I see the splash of a striped bass turning over on a baitfish. Then another. I strip 45 feet of line into my basket and cast a homemade white Deceiver into the surf. I let the fly wash with the current for a moment, give it a short strip, and let it drift again.

A striper hits, not hard or soft, just a good steady pull. When he feels me pull back, he tucks his head and runs.

As line plays off the reel, I see he wasn’t alone. Fish are breaking up and down the beach. Juvenile bunker churn the water as they struggle to escape the stripers. Thousands of small cigar shapes are silhouetted in each wave before it breaks, with larger, faster torpedoes bulling through the schools, swimming onto the beach to get at the bunker.

After an hour, I’m soaked with sweat. I’ve had to jog up the beach to keep up with the schools, which bunch up for only ten or fifteen minutes at each jetty. Long enough for me to catch my breath and hook another fish. There’s so much bait in the water now, on the casts where I don’t catch a striper, my fly is snagging small bunker through the tails or abdomens.

This is fall fly fishing on the beach in Victorian Cape May.

It’s about 65 degrees two weeks into December, and the beach isn’t the only place to find fish. Stripers are holding consistently in the back bays. As always, they’re in the rips in great quantity, along with large schools of bluefish. The rockpiles at Cape May Point are still producing stripers and the occasional weakfish.

The weather isn’t always this nice this late in the fall, but this isn’t terribly unusual, either. The water temperature is hanging around 55 degrees and the stripers are still in Montauk. Local lore says when the stripers are in Montauk, on the southern tip of Long Island, there’s a month of fishing left in Cape May; stripers could be running the beaches until January.

But this is the prime time. From the end of October to the middle of December the locals in Cape May rearrange their priorities and their lives for fishing. Frantic phone calls come at all times of the day. "They’re on the beach at Poverty. I’m watching them come right onto the sand. You better get down here."

Fishermen take to carrying cell phones with them to make sure they’re not missing a bigger blitz at another beach.

Out on the rips, the chatter between the charter captains is epic, if cryptic. They hate to give away a shoal that’s producing fish, especially keepers – even in the late fall, when such fish abound in the waters off Cape May.

Late fall is the prime time to visit Cape May for other reasons, too. The massive traffic congestion and tourist crush of the summer has abated, but most of the inns, restaurants, and shops are still open. The myriad historic house tours, ghost tours, carriage rides, whale watch cruises and other tourist fare are still running. The weather is pleasant, with the exception of the intermittent nor’easter. Christmas decorations turn the city of bed and breakfast inns into a Victorian fantasyland where you can dine on a four-star gourmet meal one day, fried crab cakes the next. It is a strange, appealing juxtaposition: the elegant, staid, antique Victorian comfort of "America’s Oldest Seashore Resort" and the long history of commercial fishing, whaling, the pounding surf, slippery rocks and the bullish striped bass.

Cape May is about three hours south of New York City, straight down the Garden State Parkway, and an hour and a half southeast of Philadelphia. It’s a small Mid-Atlantic resort city just south of the Mason-Dixon line. It was almost completely destroyed by fire in the Victorian era, and completely rebuilt, leaving a proliferation of unspoiled Victorian buildings found nowhere else in the country. It is renown for its fine restaurants, architecture – the entire city is a national historic landmark – and in some circles, its fishing.

Lower Township, bordering Cape May to the north, is home to the second largest commercial fishing fleet on the East Coast. The whole south Jersey region boasts some of the best saltwater fishing in the country, from stripers and blues to big game such as marlin, tuna, and shark. The Mid-Atlantic $500,000 tournament runs out of the Canyon Club Marina just over the Schellinger’s Landing bridge from Cape May.

For the most part, the fishermen in Cape May use heavy bait-casting rods to throw large, live eels or bunker, whether from boats or off the jetties. A few anglers use lighter spinning tackle.

Even fewer use fly rods.

But that doesn’t mean a fly rod can’t catch fish in Cape May. It just means the fly rodder may get a few curious looks, and many questions. ("You really catch fish in the ocean with that thing?") A few hours on the water usually demonstrates the viability of the fly rod.

The rips

A primary Cape May fishing attraction, long worshipped by bait fishermen but largely unexplored by fly rodders, are the "rips."

The "rips" are comprised of a vast series of trenches and shoals that riffle the ocean floor between Cape May Point and Delaware. The rips channel the tides into fast currents that run through the ocean like rivers. They create the same kind of fast-water, slow-water combinations a river does.

And they hold many fish.

They can also be dangerous. The prosaically-named Prissy Wick’s Shoal, just off the coast between Cape May and Cape May Point, can be as shallow as two feet and throw up waves as high as 12 feet, depending on the tide and weather. Although this is one of the more extreme shoals, the rips in general claim boats every year. It’s a good idea to fish them with a captain who’s navigated them before.

The only fishing guide in the area to specialize in rips fishing with a fly rod is Captain Lee Schilling.

Lee is a long-time fishing guide who decided, five years ago, to switch almost completely to fly fishing. He’s developed a technique for fly fishing Cape May’s rips that is easy enough for a beginner to master quickly, and exciting enough to have an experienced fly fisherman hooting and hollering every time the reel begins to buzz.

Lee likes to find activity before he drops a line in the water. He recommends seeking out bird play, but if there’s none to be seen, he’ll turn to the fishfinder, then instinct.

Regardless of the skepticism sometimes directed toward the fly-rodder in the rips, a trip Lee and I took last fall demonstrated the long rod’s effectiveness.

We set out on a balmy, almost-70-degree December morning. In the predawn cruise out of Cape May Harbor, fog lightly blanketed the darkness. Far out on either side of the boat, high jetties form a channel leading out to the ocean. There’s a splashing, jostling patch of rough water at the mouth of the channel, then we’re out on the ocean. Lee sets the coordinates for one his favorite rips and keeps an eye out for small boats or debris in the dark water.

By the time the sun is rising, we’re completely alone, halfway between Delaware and Cape May, near the imagined line where the Delaware Bay meets the Atlantic Ocean, above an immense network of undersea rivers. A few minutes later Lee is into the first fish of the day.

His technique is to find bird play. Then he heads for the top of a rip, being careful not to cruise up the rip itself and put the fish down. At the top of the rip, he drops the boat into neutral and strips out about 60 feet of heavy sinking fly line with a small lavender Deceiver-like fly on the end of about eight feet of 15-pound-test leader or stronger. Then he drifts.

There is no need to strip the line in this kind of fishing. The drift of the boat down the rip gives the fly forward motion. Lee adds a little action, but doesn’t overdo it. The hits are solid, chunky. The fish fight hard in the strong current, and even fish under the 28-inch keeper size take a few minutes to bring to the boat.

We spend the morning alternating. One drift down, Lee catches a fish, the next, I catch one. Toward noon we are losing the tide, and we motor up toward Wildwood to try another of Lee’s favorite spots. There’s no surface action, so he stops the boat to wait for bird play and I ask him take a few casts so I can take pictures. On his first cast he hooks a large striper. There was no reason to expect a fish to be here. No birds, no sign on the fish finder. He is hugely amused and shrugs, explaining that sometimes there’s no predicting.

Talking to another captain on the radio, Lee finds we have out-fished with our flies a guided group of four men with their live eels.

Although Schilling is the only charter guide who specializes in fly rod fishing, other captains will accommodate fly rodders, and some even have experience doing so. The names of various charters can be obtained from the Cape May County Party and Charter Boat Association. It is a good idea to spend some time talking to a captain before you book a trip so you can get a sense of how much he actually knows about fly fishing. The captain you choose will also depend on how much you need him to know about fly fishing.

You can reach the Cape May County Party and Charterboat Association on the Internet at http://www.fishingnj.com.

The jetties

The Cape May area’s jetties and beaches also provide excellent opportunities at fall stripers and bluefish.

The jetties on Cape May’s beach front (along Beach Drive) produce fish, especially in the morning and the evening, but they can be crowded, especially the large 2nd Avenue Jetty. A combination of early morning and a falling tide often produces fish here, and if it’s early enough, there won’t be many people to hinder backcasts. It’s impossible to recommend a single jetty that is consistent along the beachfront. It’s better to reconnoiter a little before putting lines in water, looking for bird play. Any place you fish in Cape May, it is best to approach during a moving tide. I’ve found that falling seems to produce best for me on the jetties.

Along the Cape May beach front, I like to use an intermediate line to keep the widest range of presentation options open; the water is not too deep, nor is the current tremendously fast.

At Cape May Point, on the southern tip of the island, a sinking line is more productive for striper fishing. The jetties at Cape May Point are more popular than Cape May’s. They jut into deeper water and stronger currents, and can hold big fish. Beginning at the Convent Jetty at the edge of Cape May Point State Park and working down to Sunset Beach in Lower Township (still on the island), the fisherman can find nice runs of stripers, weakfish and blues.

These rockpiles are not smooth, dry or easy to walk. It is advisable to wear cleats. The jetties are also relatively high, and there’s not always a way to get down to the water, so it’s important to use heavy enough leaders and tippets to lift the fish from the water, or to bring a long-handled net.

Access to most of the jetties during the summer requires beach tags, but after Labor Day it’s free. In the fall, anglers don’t have to worry about parking meters when accessing Cape May’s beachfront jetties – they are shut off until spring.

Outside of Cape May, there are a vast number of places worth pursuing stripers along the southern New Jersey shore.

The entire southern Cape is riddled with inlets and back bays between the barrier islands and the Garden State Parkway. It is possible to access some of these, like Grassy Point in North Wildwood, by car. Other prime spots can be reached in small boats. Close to Cape May, Ocean Drive leading from the Cape May Bridge to the Wildwood toll bridge provides several excellent spots to park and explore. Many anglers pay particular attention to the places where the backwaters flow beneath bridges, and around pilings. This structure holds medium to small size stripers year round.

There is also the Delaware Bay, where tremendous stripers and bluefish are taken every year, although many by fishermen "chunking" with cut bait. A couple hours to the north on the Atlantic Ocean side is Tom’s River, a legendary seat of striper fishing.

But it is hard to imagine needing to stretch too far north. The fish are here, and when they are not hot on the bite, or when spouses want to reclaim their men or women from the surf, the tiny island on the southern tip of the peninsula offers unique pleasures. Carriage rides along the narrow, tree-lined streets, elegant dinners and the romance of a place so firmly entrenched in its own history, provide a fine backdrop for a productive, yet unexplored (by fly fishing, anyway) striper fishery.


Sidebars


A big season expected

Last year, fishermen in Cape May caught a great number of almost-keeper-sized stripers. This year many of those fish should easily have reached the 28-inch keeper size or greater.

The entire East Coast striper fishery is on the rebound after being decimated in the eighties. A moratorium on commercial fishing, recently slightly relaxed in other states, but still enforced in New Jersey, helped bring the fish population back.

According to New Jersey Division of Fish, Game and Wildlife Biologist Tom Baum, the juvenile catch index, measured in the Chesapeake Bay, was 40 in 1993, an astounding climb over an average of about 10. This Baby Boom generation of striped bass was five years old in 1998, meaning the fish would be about 26 inches long. This year, Baum says, most of these fish will have achieved keeper size, and that means a big year for striper fishermen.

Tackle and advice

The only serious drawback to the limited number of fly fishermen in Cape May is the limited supply of gear available. Most of the area tackle stores carry some flies and an extremely limited selection of leader and tippet material. To take advantage of all of Cape May’s fishing opportunities, it’s best to have both a floating and sinking line, or at least a sinking tip, but if you need to pick up a sinking or shooting head or a new fly line, best do it before you leave home. For the jetties and the beach, a 9-foot, 9-weight rod will suffice. Some off-shore action may call for an 11-weight rod.

Where it’s hard to find gear for fly fishing in Cape May, it’s not as difficult to come by local advice. Both Bob’s Tackle (609-884-2248, just over the bridge in Lower Township) and Jim’s Bait and Tackle (609-884-3900, on Lafayette Street, across from the Lobster House) have knowledgeable staff, some of whom actually fish with flies. Both stores carry a decent selection of flies.

Even those tackle employees who don’t fly fish can usually give enough information on the type of bait in the water and where the fish are biting for the fly rodder to make good decisions on how to approach the day’s fishing. If the spin fishermen are catching stripers on bucktails or the bait guys are catching them on minnows, you can take them on a fly rod.

Where to stay

Cape May can be expensive, but for fans of Victorian architecture, elegant food, and comfort, it’s worth it. By late fall, some bed and breakfast rates will have fallen, but Cape May enjoys a stronger off-season than most of the other island resort towns, so don’t look for stellar bargains.

If you are trying to plan a trip in advance, you can call the Cape May Reservation Service at 1-800-884-9396. They list about 75 percent of the accommodations in Cape May. To look for lodgings off the island (and possibly less expensive), you could also call the Cape May County Chamber of Commerce at (609) 465-7181.