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Category: Off the Hook

Off the Hook

Click, click, click, zzzzzzzz…ah music to my ears after such a long winter. It’s time to talk about my favorite type of fishing and one that I’m regarded as an expert at: Shark fishing. Cape May has some of the finest shark fishing on the east coast. Cape May is home to three tournaments that attract anglers from all over the east coast. One reason Cape May has such great Shark fishing is the number of wrecks and lumps along the 20 and 30 fathom line. Wrecks and lumps create “structure,” which is ideal for holding bait such as Mackerel and Sea Bass, which Bluefish feed on in early spring. Another reason the waters off Cape May are home to many species of sharks is that areas along the 20 fathom line and the Delaware Bay are nursing grounds where sharks lay their pup.

After the Bluefish show up and the water temperature hits the 60s it’s time to start Shark’n.

Sharks are perhaps the most perfectly evolved animals on earth as well as one of the oldest. Sharks are prehistoric, rarely ever get cancer, and they are the apex predators. Some species of Shark can smell a drop of blood in the water over a mile away. Sharks such as Makos are capable of swimming at speeds of over 45 miles per hour and jumping out of the water more than 15 feet. Thus, they are regarded by many anglers as one of the top game fish in the world. Thresher and Mako Shark also taste great.

Shark fishing requires certain “tools of the trade,” many of which can be purchased at tackle shops as well as hardware stores.

Mako Shark

The chum bucket is for – you guessed it – holding a bucket of chum. A milk crate works best with foam floats on each side to keep it from scuffing the hull of the boat. Rig half-inch line through the corners and leave enough line to tie to the cleat of the boat.

Use wireman’s dikes to cut the wire leader near the hook to release the Shark. Bring at least three pair, as they may fall overboard during a release.

A pair of cowhide gloves are needed for leadering the shark, as well as a 12-guage bang stick, available at tackle shops, or a 20-guage shotgun to shoot the shark. A tall rope with cable, which most tackle shops have, is used to control the shark at boat side.

Choosing the right tackle for Sharking is key…if targeting Makos, Threshers, Blues, Tiger, and other large Sharks 150 lbs. and up, then 6 foot 50-100 lb. rods with 50 and 80 class reels are the ticket. Spool reels with 80 lb. line. Attach a shark float with rubber bands to the line above a 400 lb. snap swivel. You will need a rig for each rod. You can buy Shark rigs or make your own. Make sure to bring extra rigs. You will also need at least two 5’-6’ gaffs with 4″-6″ hooks. Use a flyer gaff at your own risk! Last but not least, “put on a skirt”…on one of your fishing lines or two. Bright colors such as yellow, orange, red, or pink work best.

Mako shark

Bait that works best for Makos, Threshers, and most Sharks, is Bluefish, Mackerel, and False Albacore, Skipjack and, of course, fresh Tuna. For chum, I like to use Bunker and Mackerel. I fish three lines for Threshers. The first rod I set out 75 yards from the boat, and 6-15 feet down with fresh filets. Set the second rod 40 yards from the boat, 25-40 feet down with a Butterflied Mackerel or small Bluefish. The third rod is fished 8-16 cranks off the bottom with filets. I fish this line 15-20 feet from the boat.

When fishing for Makos, I fish four lines. I set the first rod with a skirt and Bluefish or Skip Jack. I set this line out 100-125 yards and 6-15 feet down. The second rod is set up with Mackerel filets, set out 50-70 yards, 30 feet down. Set the third rod out with a Butterflied Bluefish or live Bluefish. This line is set out 40-50 feet from the boat, 30-50 feet down. The fourth rod is fished at the transom of the boat with a skirt and filets. I set this line down till I barely see the skirt. Shark floats with rubber bands are used to control your depth and set your lines out. Make sure to set the clicker on the reel in free spool.

Thresher shark

A day with 10-15 mph winds and 64-71 degree water temperature is ideal for Sharking in the spring. Drifting is preferred for Makos and Threshers, so “setting your drift” over a structure is very important. First, set out your chum to establish your slick, then set out your lines and wait. When a Shark hits, let him run, count 8-20 seconds, set the drag to strike. Quickly reel the line up until it gets tight. Set the hook two or three times to get a solid hook set and “let the game begin!”

Getting the Shark in the boat requires “team work.” Boat side is where a lot of people lose their Sharks, get hurt or worse, get killed. The first rule: “when the Shark is ready, be ready.” When the shark is at the boat, the angler backs off the drag to quarter-strike. The leaderman grabs the leader. Then the shooter with a clear shot shoots the Shark on top of the head four inches behind the eyes. The shooter puts the tail rope on the fish and ties it to the cleat of the boat. The leaderman gaffs the Shark in by the gills. If the Shark is dead, put him in the boat. Tie the fish up and “head to the barn!”

Sharking is great fun but it requires both safety and skill. Things can happen so fast. The best way to learn how to shark fish is “hands on.” Charter a boat, go out with someone who knows how to shark, or ask the people who work at the local tackle shops.

steve-spagnuolaStephen Spagnuola, a graduate of Visual Arts, New York City, worked as art director for many ad agencies in New York before leaving advertising to pursue fashion photography, and worked on such magazines as Stuff, Flatiron, and Zink. Stephen is a freelance photographer and marketing director for Sea Tow Cape May.. Visit Steve online

Artificial Reefs: Insurance for Future Fishing

towing 3

An old boat is towed to the Cape May Reef for sinking

This article originally appeared in Cape May Magazine, Winter 2008.

On any given day the most popular fishing ground off Cape May is none other than the Cape May Reef, aka the Sanctuary. Located 9.1 nautical miles from Cape May inlet on a course heading of 128 °, it is home to more marine species than any other marine structure inshore. The Cape May Reef is man-made and is the largest artificial reef, at 4.5 square miles, and the oldest artificial reef site in New Jersey. The Cape May Reef was originally started in 1982 by the Cape May County Party and Charter Boat Association. In 1984 the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) Division of Fish and Wildlife took over all reef building responsibilities in the state from several private reef associations. It’s been a true success story between man and nature.

The objectives of the reef program are to provide:

  • Hard-substrate “reef” habitat in the ocean for certain species of fish and shellfish.
  • New fishing grounds for anglers.
  • Underwater structure for scuba divers.
  • Economic returns for tourism and sportfishing industries.

prep sinkingBy constructing and managing reefs, the goal is to spread the benefits of the reef’s resources to as many people as possible.

At less than 10 nautical miles from the inlet most boats have the range to fish the Cape May Reef. There are currently two other reef sites off the coast of Cape May County within 10 miles of major inlets: the Wildwood Reef and the T.I. Reef. There are a total of 15 reef sites encompassing a total of 25 square miles of sea floor in New Jersey. Part of the reef’s goal is not to change New Jersey’s marine environment, but to enhance a small controlled portion. Reefs such as the Cape May Reef are home to over 150 marine species. Some of the most common species preferred by anglers and divers are black sea bass, summer flounder, tautog, blue fish, Atlantic bonito, porgy and, of course, lobster.

sinking 2The Cape May Reef works like this: a hard substrate in the ocean provides an attachment surface for a variety of encrusting or fouling organisms called epibenthos such as mussels, sponges and barnacles. This creates a protective mat for species at the bottom of the reef’s food chain, which includes Crabs, Snails and Shrimp. In the middle of the reef’s food chain are bottom fish, like Sea Bass that feed on Crabs and Tautog that feed on Mussels. Schooling bait fish migrating through tend to like high structures such as sunken ships. Pelagic predators (free swimming) including Sharks, Blue Fish and Mahi Mahi are at the top of the reef’s food chain feeding on these bait fish and each other. Hard substrates also protect fish from not only predators but surges and current. Reefs create a cycle of life that is critical in supporting life in the ocean.

Removing the wheel house before sinking

The wheel house is removed prior to sinking

Since New Jersey has a very gently sloping, shallow coastal floor with very little hard structure such as outcroppings, and, although there are an estimated 500 to 3,000 shipwrecks off  New Jersey’s coast, many of these wrecks are slowly destroyed over time by the forces of the sea. The intentional sinking of vessels helps to replace deteriorating wrecks. As of 2007, the Cape May Reef is home to 21 sunken ships such as clam boats, Coast Guard cutters, cargo ships and tug boats. Other structures sunk at the reef are subway cars, barges, concrete ballasted tires, concrete castings and army tanks. All of these ships and structures have to be cleaned of all pollutants and pass a U.S. Coast Guard pollution inspection. All loose and floating debris must be removed as well. The next step is to vent all internal water, tighten bulkheads and, in some cases, cut holes just above the water line to assist in the sinking of the vessel. These holes are covered with a “soft patch” such as plywood to prevent leaking during the tow to the reef.

Reef balls

Concrete reef balls

Another very important structure are reef balls made entirely of concrete four feet in diameter and weighing 1,800 pounds each. These reef balls resemble small igloos with many holes. In the fall of 2007 over 500 of these reef balls will be towed by barge by Sea Tow Cape May and sunk on the reefs’ sites off Cape May County. It’s important to note that most of the sinkings of these structures are funded by the private sector such as the sportfishing fund and non-profit organizations that have raised donations from fishing and diving clubs. Without these clubs and organizations much of the success from the reef program would not be possible.


Most of the fishing on the Cape May Reef is done by drifting and fishing off the bottom and, since it’s such a large reef with so much structure, fishermen can make long drifts and the reef can handle hundreds of boats fishing the reef at the same time. Most of the drift fishing is done in the middle of the reef in approximately 65 feet of water. The northern end of the reef is the shallowest area – about 55 feet. Wrecks and reef balls are spaced far enough apart that boats can easily anchor. The lower end of the reef is the deepest at about 70 feet. Here there are larger wrecks and subway cars. This area is preferred by scuba divers. Many party and charter boats fish the Cape May reef daily from late spring through the fall. Most of these trips last between six and eight hours.


Artificial reefs such as the Cape May Reef ensure fishing for future generations. So, next time you fish the reef and your fishing rig gets snagged, think of what’s below you and all the work it took to enable you to catch that fish!

steve-spagnuolaStephen Spagnuola, a graduate of Visual Arts, New York City, worked as art director for many ad agencies in New York before leaving advertising to pursue fashion photography, and worked on such magazines as Stuff, Flatiron, and Zink. Stephen is a freelance photographer and marketing director for Sea Tow Cape May. Visit Steve online

Striper Season

steve spagnuola 2photo

This article originally appeared in Cape May Magazine, Fall 2008.

Crisp west winds awake the Cape. Yes, fall is finally here! It’s the beginning of the season, for the most sought after fish – Striped Bass! Striped Bass or “Stripers” as the locals call them, is to New Jersey what Salmon is to Alaska. Stripers have made the biggest comeback of any fish species in modern history. In the late 70s and 80s the Stripers were on the endangered list. Before the 70s they were so abundant they were used for fertilizer. The comeback of these fish has created a spark in the local economy. It’s extended the boating season six to eight weeks. In fact, up to 60 percent of boaters and fishermen keep their boats in the water through “Striper season.”

The trickle down is that bait and tackle shops are loaded with customers each morning buying fresh bait and tackle. Local bars and restaurants are filled at Happy Hour with fishermen chatting about where the “bite” is. Wawa is packed to the gills every morning at 5:00 a.m. with people going Striper fishing.

off the hook b&t striper3There are two local tournaments for Stripers held in Cape May that draw anglers into town as well. Talk to one out of three locals and, I’ll bet you, they fish for stripers or know someone that does. You might say Stripers are a way of life in Cape May.

Stripers have a lot going for them. They are very good eating, can be caught close to shore, and are great fish to catch because of their great fight. The two most common ways to catch Stripers are chunking and drifting live baits. Chunking generally starts the second week of October. Look for these fish in areas like Sixty Foot Slough, Twenty Foot Slough, Brandywine Shoal and the Horseshoe where chunking boats will anchor up and fish four lines. The tackle used is a 36 inch/50 pound leader tied to a 5/0 hook with a fish finder rig with a 4-8 ounce weigh.

off the hook B & T striperFresh Bunker is the key. The fresher the Bunker, the more fish you will catch, period! Fresh Herring also works well. The baits are fished whole and cut into parts such as the head and body. If you want to catch trophy size Striper, chunking is the way to go!  Stripers range in weight – anywhere from 20 pounds to over 60 pounds!

The second most common method for catching Stripers is drifting live baits such as Eels, Spot fish and Croakers. The areas that are most common are known as “the rips,” an area where the bay and ocean meet around Cape May Point. In this area there are numerous shoals in which bait fish school up. Stripers feed on these bait fish. Baits are drifted over these shoals using 5/0 circle hooks with a 34” leader and 3-ounce drail weight. Fishing the rips is not for the faint hearted. It’s not uncommon to have 5-foot breaking waves moving over the shoals. Make sure you initially go out with someone who has fished the rips before.

Prissywick, Eph, Middle and Overfalls shoals are the most common areas when fishing the rips. Late November through December you can chase birds like “gannets” and gig bucktails with white or pink artificial worms. Stripers can also be caught off the beach on lumps and clam beds. The bait of choice is clam. This fishing usually starts late November until mid December. You can use the same tackle set up as you would drifting live baits over the rips.

off  the hook b&t striperYou do not need a boat to catch stripers. In fact the current IGFA world record of 77 pounds was caught on a jetty in New Jersey waters. When fishing from shore, use plugs and bucktails. At night, drift live eels without the drail weight. The jetties and beaches from the “gun mount” to the point are always productive, as the jetties around Cold Spring Inlet or the Cape May Inlet, as it’s commonly called.

No matter how you fish for Stripers, the most important thing is to fish for them during the incoming or outgoing tide. Fishing around the change of tide is generally most productive.

steve spagnuola 1 photoWhen Striper fishing, there are some things to note: These fish are considered game fish and are protected. As such, the current regulations are two fish at 28” or greater per angler. Fish must be caught within three miles from shore. Three miles or greater is illegal. You will not see striped bass on any menus in restaurants in New Jersey because it is illegal to sell them commercially. If you do see it, it’s not “wild caught” striped bass, and will not taste nearly as good.

Charter and party boats all fish for striped bass. Most trips are eight hours. Boats will target these fish from mid-October until late December. So, if you have the summertime blues or football’s not your thing, give striper fishing a shot and don’t be surprised if you, too don’t “get hooked”!

steve-spagnuolaStephen Spagnuola, a graduate of Visual Arts, New York City, worked as art director for many ad agencies in New York before leaving advertising to pursue fashion photography, and worked on such magazines as Stuff, Flatiron, and Zink. Stephen is a freelance photographer and marketing director for Sea Tow Cape May.. Visit Steve online

Time for Variety

Photo by Jim Gatto

White Marlin. Photo by Jim Gatto

This article originally appeared in Cape May Magazine, August 2007.

August – the month when summer is at its peak. This is none the less true for fishing in Cape May. The month of August brings forth the largest variety of fish species caused by the large numbers of bait fish both inshore and off shore….and as they say “the big fish eats the little fish.” August is a great time for tournament fishing as well, boasting one of the largest and richest tournaments in the world – the Mid-Atlantic $500,000 (MA-500).

The ocean temperature inshore and offshore is at its warmest this time of the year. Offshore, warm bodies of water broken off by the Gulf Stream called “eddys” form a temperature break. Find a temperature break, there you’ll find a number of “pelagic” fish such as Tuna, Marlin, Wahoo and Mahi feeding on bait fish. It’s truly something, this circle of life out in the ocean. Most of the areas that are affected by these temperature breaks are from the 30-fathom line out to the canyons to the 1,000-fathom line.

Boats will fish these areas using a couple of different techniques. The two most popular are trolling and chunking. When trolling boats will fish five or more rods pulling lures and Ballyhoo, Spanish Mackeral and Mullet. The boat will be moving between five and eight knots. When trolling, you want to create what is called a “spread.” Your spread looks like a school of bait fish to the fish below, thus causing them to spark into feeding mode, and the next thing you know: “Fish on!” Expect to catch Longfin Tuna, Yellowfin Tuna, Wahoo, Mahi, Blue and White Marlin.

Photo by Jim Gatto

Dolphin fish (Mahi). Photo by Jim Gatto

The second method is called chunking, which can be done day and night, as opposed to trolling which is done at night. Chunking using bait such as butterfish, peanut bunker and sardines are most popular in our area. Many anglers will also jig, using a technique of jerking the pole up and dropping it down at a certain depth with a lure.

Another great idea when chunking is to fish live bait such as bluefish or spotfish. Most boats will fish four to five fishing rods with baits at different depths and drift or anchor over structures such as lumps, canyons and depressions. On the chunk, you’ll catch yellowfin tuna, longfin tuna, mahi, and, at night, swordfish. Both chunking and trolling involve running out 35 to over 75 miles offshore, and most trips run by charter boats are from 12 to 30 hours.

Fishing inshore is also a great way to spend some time on the water. It’s a great month for Flounder, Sea Bass, Bluefish and Bonita. Flounder can be caught in the back bays, Delaware Bay and in the ocean. In the back bays Grassy Sound and in front of the Coast Guard base are always great spots for Flounder. You’re fishing the bottom using Flounder rigs, live minnows or stripped squid as bait. This holds true for fishing the Delaware Bay as well. Areas such as Brown Shoal, and the light houses such as Brandywine, Fourteen Foot Bank Light, Abandon Lighthouse, aka the Oldhouse or Blockhouse, and Miah Maull Shoal are great spots.

Photo by Stephen Spagnuola

Wahoo. Photo by Stephen Spagnuola

When fishing for Flounder in the ocean, areas like the Cape May Reef and the Old Grounds are two of my favorites, except to catch larger flounder, but make sure you make your baits a bit longer. Do not be surprised to catch a mixed bag of sea bass and bluefish when fishing in the ocean, as well. The last couple of years have been banner years for inshore trolling for bonitas and bluefish at East Lump. FA buoy and Five Fathom Shoal are a few of the more popular spots. Both party boats and charter boats run inshore and offshore trips. Most trips are from four to eight hours long.

If fishing off a boat is not your game, try fishing under the Ocean Drive bridge and the back bay sod banks during the incoming tide. You’ll catch Bluefish and Striper using lures such as “bucktails,” plugs and jig head with artificial worms or sassy shads. On the ocean side fishing Poverty Beach and all the jetties down past The Point will produce just as well, both day and night.

Well, the month comes to the end with the MA-500 August 16th through the 21st. Boats from around the world come to compete in, boat for boat, the richest fishing tournament in the world! This is also one of the biggest White Marlin tournaments. In 2006 over 250 boats competed in the MA-500 with total prize money close to $2 million. Weigh-ins start at around 4 p.m. and are open to the public free of charge. It’s a standing room-only crowd with hundreds of people on the dock during weigh-in hoping to catch a glance at some of the biggest fish in the ocean.

So, if you’re ready to get in on some of the hottest fishing on the east coast the month of August in Cape May is where it’s at. Fishing not only makes great stories, it brings family and friends together for more than just the average everyday at the beach.

steve-spagnuolaStephen Spagnuola, a graduate of Visual Arts, New York City, worked as art director for many ad agencies in New York before leaving advertising to pursue fashion photography, and worked on such magazines as Stuff, Flatiron, and Zink. Stephen is a freelance photographer and marketing director for Sea Tow Cape May.. Visit Steve online