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Off Fortescue, fishermen continue the quest for weakfish

By ANDREW JOHNSON Staff Writer, (856) 794-5111
Press of Atlantic City


DOWNE TOWNSHIP - Charlie Higbee grew up on Downe Avenue, during the heyday of this town when cars used to line up and wait to unload their boats into the Delaware Bay from Higbee's Marina.

Fortescue, Cumberland County, then was the weakfish capital of the world, and printed up signs saying such, Higbee said.

Bob Cooley remembers those days, too. He waited in the lines with his father, he said.

That was then, this is now, according to the Deptford, Camden County, man.

"This hasn't been the weakfish capital of the world for a long time," Cooley said.

Cooley, who works at Underwood Hospital in Woodbury Township, said it's been two years since he caught a weakfish in the waters off Fortescue. The 56-year-old says the area hasn't been good for weakfish for two decades, he said.

Fishermen said Sunday that they now aim to catch other fish in the Delaware Bay - a place where some recall filling up 35-gallon barrels with 100 of the good-eating white fish.

Cliff Higbee manages the bait-and-tackle shop next to the marina that his younger brother manages.

"We created our own monster," said Cliff Higbee, describing the lack of weakfish. Now, when someone catches a weakfish, it is broadcast on the radio. "We are still the weakfish capital of the world, it's just a small world," he said.

Cliff said that some - mostly die-hard, old-timers - cling to memories of the old days, and still anchor up for hours in one spot, hoping to catch the now-elusive weakfish. But most everyone else has moved on, he said.

"There's other fish that they're starting to catch now." Those fish include bluefish, blackfish, stripers and flounder.

Gene Edmund said that he spent the morning fishing for flounder. So did Sam Gager. So did Larry Hart.

Charlie Higbee said the lack of weakfish has hurt his business.

Now, instead of 100 boats going out in a day from his place, there might be 50 boats in one weekend, he said. The young guys who want action now jet-ski or do something else off the beaches of Sea Isle City and Ocean City, according to Charlie Higbee.

That's not entirely true, though. The lure of weakfish still draws fishermen of all ages to Fortescue even if current reality doesn't match yesterday's stories.

Ray Kaiser, 21, of Voorhees, took his brand-new boat out Sunday with friend Keith Chew, 22, of Gibbsboro.

He said that he has recently been trying out different fishing areas off Fortescue - ones that include weakfish - on the advice of his stepfather.

"Nothing," Kaiser said, is what he caught after a morning spent throwing lines loaded with squid into the water.

Kaiser said he did catch a couple weakfish, but that they were puny. The flounder weren't too big either, he said. He let them go also.

"We're fishing for anything, that's the way it is today," said Cooley, who went fishing Sunday with his wife Delores and his 25-year-old son Jason.

He said he doesn't expect to catch anything these days. "I just go out for the H-mmm," he said, acting as if he was meditating, alluding to what he gets out of a day of fishing.

There are different reasons offered why weakfish are no longer prevalent in the area.

Cooley's is that the increase in commercial fishing near the mouth of the Maurice River took a big chunk out of the weakfish population.

Charlie Higbee said that he has often heard that, but thinks that some of it might be karma.

He said that back when fishermen were catching barrels of weakfish, the tendency then was to be gluttonous and take more than you could possibly need.

"What do you do with a 100 weakfish? he asked. Nobody around him had an answer.
 

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commerical fishing doesnt help but either did the rod and reel guys who where taking home trash cans full of fish everytime i hear stories like this and from old farts like my step dad and it upsets me because alot of the old timers thought that the ocean was so huge that it would keep replenshing itself but now we know it doesnt and we are in a world of trouble if we cant stop how its going.
 

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The good old days were the best, BUT, as recent as the late 90's the weakfish were making a very strong showing in all size categories. The tiderunners were there in May through early June and then the mid-sized weaks came in along with the spikes and were available all through the summer. There is no doubt that the era of "keep anything & everything" hurt populations of all fish but what concerns me the most is the most recent drop in weakie numbers. We go from "everything looking real good" in the late 90's to "where are the weakies?" in as little as four years. This drastic change in such a short time period is the most alarming by far.
 

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I'm not an expert on fish populations but here's my take on the lack of weakies. Remember this is just my opinion. There is no science behind it. When the weakies were abundant the stripers weren't. You were lucky to catch a striper. Sort of like the weakies now. Then when the stripers were protected they made a huge comeback and are very abundant now. It seems to me that there is only enough food to go around and the stripers being so abundant now they are eating most of it so there is less for the weakies and the population of the weakies has gone down. The competition for food has to be great and the striper being a much bigger fish I would assume it would eat alot more than a weakfish. I don't think you can have huge numbers of both fish. Maybe people remember how good the weakie fishing was back before the striper made a comeback and they expect it to be like that now. Well I don't think it will ever be like that again. Not with this many stripers around. I know that things are never as simple as they seem and there are alot of other factors that come into play here but thats just my opinion.
 

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Discussion Starter · #6 ·
Very Good Point,Channel Runner.....
I always felt much the same way......
With the lack of Food,these Species of Fish
just cannot co-exist with eachother in the
same area's at the same time......


Thanks,,
 

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Here is mine. Out of the dozen stripers that I have caught this year, not one of them has had weakfish in their stomachs. I always check to see what is in them and have not had one with weakfish in two years. At certain times you find different things in them. This year I caught a 37' bass that had 11 ling in it's stomach up to 10"s long. Some times around the moon you will find crabs in them. But the most common thing I find in them is usually the type of bait fish that is the most abundant that week. Don't forget that the weakfish, stripers, and crabs were around for a long time before we as fisherman came into play. I spoke to a game warden at the ramp last weekend and he told me two stories One was about some commercial fisherman this past winter that came across a large school of weakfish in the ocean that was surrounded by very cold water. He said that when they got there to look at them most were dead and some were dying from the drastic temp change that had surrounded them. He also told me that weakfish have started showing up off the cost of Africa and that maybe their migration routes have changed. Probably one of the worst things effecting this situation is the continued dumping in the oceans. I remember not to long ago dolphins were dying on our beaches at a high rate.
 

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Well, not only do the stripers eat the weakies' food, they eat the weakies! In the fall and winter, it is not uncommon for stripers to have small weakfish in their stomachs or even drive them up onto the beach in NC. Doesn't really explain the lack of larger fish, but could contribute to the lack of smaller fish. By the way, we have had plenty of spike to maybe 3 pound weakfish this year, but no large ones.
 

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Just a thought.While the stripers are on there way out of the bay, and the weakies are on there way in,would they take a significant chunk out of the weakfish population over the years,while the striper pop continued to grow? Just Curious.

Scott
 
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