Story by Tom Pagliaroli
Unlike the bipedal invasion which begins the Memorial Day weekend and this year concludes September 3rd, these visitors show up later and stay through most of October. This summer the general arrival date was somewhere around the Fourth of July, with numbers no doubt swelling into August.
Yep, the Jersey shore’s Neurotic Exotic Trio has arrived and is coming to a buoy, wreck, reef, rock pile, bridge abutment and jetty near you. This group includes cobia, gray triggerfish and sheepshead, with lesser known but equally eclectic southern clime kin amberjack and spadefish also in the mix.
To be sure, these pugnacious (in the case of cobia and amberjack, outright aggressive and bicep and lumbar-testing) visitors add a lot of oomph to the staid summertime fluke/sea bass/ling scene, while at the same time providing luscious fillets that you’re not going to find in the Shop Rite or ACME seafood department.
For the most part, it’s the triggers, sheepshead and cobia that are the most numerous, with spades and the infrequent inshore visiting ‘jacks unexpected bonuses when they appear around buoys and flotsam.
Of the top tre’, it’s the cobia that has the restrictions on harvest. The season remains closed in federal waters (3 miles to 200 miles), but within state boundaries, the daily limit is one per angler, no less than 40-inches, and no more than three per vessel. Still, a 40-inch cobia represents a lot of muscle, a lot of fight and a lot of meat.
You’ll need a boat to find and catch the broad-headed and broad- shouldered cobia. Many times they’ll be found close to the surface hanging around buoys and floating structures, including weed lines. The dorsal fin will sometimes cleave the surface, much like a shark’s. They’re especially fond of live eels, but will inhale small spot, snapper blues, and 2-6 ounce bucktails with 6 to 8-inch dark trailers such as the Berkley Power Bait Eel or Gulp! Eel. No party boats sail for cobia. A charter skipper chasing these is Capt. Al Crudele III on his 36-foot Everglades Bayhound (609-602-2662).
The much easier to reach triggerfish are caught from jetties and sea walls, and also frequent inshore wrecks and reefs as well as patches of rocks and rubble. There’s no mistaking the round shape of a trigger nor the parrot-like dentition. Around the jetties, figure them to top at 2, maybe 3-lbs., with those frequenting the deeper haunts reaching close to 5-lbs. If not more. The current inshore state record is a very hefty 6-lbs. 11-oz, and was nailed at the Sea Girt Reef. Triggers are caught on fresh or salted clam, mussel or squid baits, but owing to the small mouth, keep the meat on the littler side, basically just covering the tip and bend of a No. 4 hook. By all means go with a heavier metal hook, as thin wire versions are often snapped by the razor sharp teeth and powerful jaw snap. No length or bag limit applies, and while a pain to fillet because of the tough, leathery skin, the succulent flesh is well worth the sweaty effort. Check the Dauntless out of Point Pleasant (908-433-3629) for party boat triggering, with the Barnegat Light-based 36-foot Henriques Robin Ann (609-879-5269), and Laura Sportfishing (856-341-6562) adept at pulling triggers from the closer rocks, rubble and wrecks.
Sheepshead, aka “convict fish” because of their black bars-on-white coloration, concentrate around bridge abutments, pilings and the top ends of jetties. They get big, oftentimes averaging 4 to 5-lbs., with fish to 10-plus pounds not uncommon, even along the jetty tops. The existing Garden State record stands at an amazing 19-lbs. 3-oz. and was dragged from the rocks off Longport. With the equine dental structure complete with a crushing bite, they are caught on green and Asian crabs, shrimp (cooked or raw) and sand fleas (mole crabs), either on single or double hook rig, or on the specialized Bottom Sweeper jig heads. Created by Capt. Dan Shafer of Insomniac Guide Service (609-780-5124), the unofficial Jersey shore Heavyweight Sheepshead Champ, this is a true ‘head banger that has hooks strong enough not to be snapped or twisted by the fish’s extremely strong bite and fight.
Expect excellent fishing for all three species as summer heats on.
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