Story by Tom Pagliaroli

Wow! Did that season pass in the blink of a bucktail?!

Yep...the 2018 summer flounder (aka “fluke”) season concludes a minute before midnight next Saturday, September 22, and to many fluke enthusiasts, it was a so-so to fair stretch at best. Sure, it seems more keeper (18-inch and greater) fluke found their way into live wells, coolers and buckets, but catches could have been greater were it not for the weather systems that happened to plague the Jersey shore during the prime June-into-September prime time.

It happens in cycles, just as with fish populations, and this summer, the prolonged “south wind syndrome” (SWS) showed and stayed in force. Remember all those strings of hot, stifling days of temperatures in the low to mid-nineties? These were delivered by days and days of sustained south and southeast winds that, while turning the air into an oven, turned inshore waters into a refrigerator. The bottom welling caused by this pattern brings up the cold water and it stays around for days, dropping water temperatures five or more degrees, sometimes as much as by double digits. Ever wonder why on a blistering day the beach is packed but, save for kids who are seemingly impervious to cold water,  no one is in the water over their ankles? The SWS is why.

The fluke react accordingly, feeding only sporadically, and this primarily by the smaller specimens. Sure, a keeper is caught now and then, but on the overall, the fishing stinks, plain and simple. (There is rumor that a keeper fluke caught from the Island Beach sands during a particularly blistering day was wearing mittens and a wool cap, but this has yet to be substantiated.)

And, true to form, September’s first prolonged nor’easter is upon us, bringing days of rain and buffeting winds, effectively killing the next-to-last-week and weekend of the ‘18 season. Yeah, tomorrow does not look good sea condition wise, and many boats have announced they will not be sailing. Sunday is a possibility. Rain is forecast Monday and Tuesday, but the seas and inlets may be fishable. Remember, the fluke are already wet, so don lightweight weather gear and get at it. Wednesday through Saturday of next week represent the final decent shots at some Fluke Florentine, and figure the reefs and wrecks to be the best areas to drift. No float? Check any one of the party boats that will be in last chance fluke mode next week through Saturday. Out of Barnegat Light, it’s the Carolyn Ann III and Miss Barnegat Light; in Point Pleasant it’s The Gambler; in Brielle, the Jamaica II and in Belmar, the Captain Cal II. A charter boat is an option for those who don’t like the shoulder-to-shoulder scenario that sometimes exists on last shot trips. In that case, figure the Miss Liane (Forked River), and the Robin Ann and Laura Sportfishing (Barnegat Light).

Blowfish Are Back: Oh, man! What a perfect early autumn bay bounty! Blowfish, or the northern puffer, have showed in big numbers around Barnegat Bay, and this self-inflating black, yellow and white buck-toothed bristle can not only be caught by the dozens, but is arguably one of the finest eating bay species. It’s called “Chicken of the Sea” for a reason and will have your tongue slapping your brains out either deep fried, sauteed or baked. One middle bone (no rib bones) is all you have to deal with when enjoying the sweet succulence, and the more esoteric blowfish epicures take the time to gently fillet the meat from the skeletal connection.

While blows can be busted from docks and bulkheads (the Barnegat Municipal Dock is a hot spot, as is the pier next to the Dock Outfitters on the bay in Seaside Heights), they are best pursued by boat. Dropping a chum pot over (we’ve done this successfully from docks and bulkheads) loaded with a clam chum log and then dropping hooks baited with clam, squid or Fish Bites will soon result in the tell-tale tug of a hungry puffer. Eight inches is our minimum possession length (this will yield a 4 to 5-inch wad of meat), but you can expect blowfish up to the “whale” 12-inch size. However, be careful removing the hook as painful, blood assured nip to the finger awaits the careless.

Don’t be intimidated by the cleaning part. Merely make an incision behind the head through the backbone, pull some of the skin back and firmly grasp the meat with a pair of sturdy tongs. Then grasp the head and pull slowly one way while pulling the tong the opposite way. The skin will come off like a stubborn banana peel.

Again, if you have no float, you can rent one from the Dock Outfitters, or Bobby’s Boats (Barnegat Light). Capt. Dave DeGennaro on his HiFlier (Waretown) offers bucket-to-bushel filling blowfish charters.

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