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Back again—and hungry

Some folks feared that the weakfish had swum off into semi-extinction, but now they are here, sizable as ever and biting as never before

The scene at Brandywine Shoal lighthouse—out near the mouth of Delaware Bay and seven miles off Cape May, N.J.—looks like a reenactment of the evacuation of Dunkirk. Collected there are small aluminum cartoppers risking dangerous seas from the Atlantic, sport-fishermen with their high-rise tuna towers and grimy old party boats. At daybreak there may be 100 of them, and at noon on a weekday there may be 1,000, some from as far away as Virginia, Pennsylvania and Maryland. On a weekend the bay is jammed with several thousand boats, so close together that it seems possible to walk from one to the other all the way to the rock jetty around the lighthouse. Anglers are casting their plugs, jigs and cut bait of mackerel and squid in every direction, and lines frequently become entangled. "Panic City" is the name that startled observers have applied to the vast, milling assemblage out of sight of land and, apparently, out of mind.

The boats and the fishermen are drawn to Brandywine Light by what Lou Rodia calls "the biggest run of weakfish ever, with the biggest fish in the memory of anyone alive." Rodia, happy flack for Cape May County and columnist for the Angler's News, a weekly for zealots, should know: the world-record weakfish, a monster of 17 pounds, eight ounces, was caught near Cape May in 1944. What makes the present run especially remarkable is that until a few years ago weakfish were just about given up as semi-extinct. An angler who caught a couple of two- or three-pounders was followed down the street back home by admiring colleagues, and that solid reference work, McClane's Standard Fishing Encyclopedia, published in 1965, made wistful reference to the 11- and 12-pound lunkers of the past, noting that "the era of those large weakfish appears to be over."

Not so, now. Off Cape May, fishermen are throwing back the three-pounders and heading for port laden with fish that run from four to 10 pounds. Occasional fish run up to 13 pounds. The biggest weighed in so far at the annual Cape May tournament was taken last week and hit 12½ pounds, not bad considering that the fish will be around, feeding and growing, until October or November, when they migrate deep offshore.

Ranking close in popular esteem in Eastern waters to the unpredictable striped bass and the voracious bluefish, the weakfish is slender and shapely, its back burnished with purple, green and gold, its flanks dappled with spots. The term "weakfish" reflects no lack of gameness but refers instead to the very soft and tender mouth parts that easily shed a hook. For every weakfish caught, one or two escape.

Relatively little is known about the life cycle of this valuable sport and food fish, but according to Stuart J. Wilk, a biologist with the Sandy Hook Laboratory of the National Marine Fisheries Service, there may be two or three main contingents roaming up and down the Atlantic Coast from Florida to Massachusetts. Weakfish generally travel north in the spring in schools of similarly sized fish, and aggregations of schools may extend "over tens of square miles along the coast," says Wilk. The fish supposedly spawn in the spring and early summer near the mouths of estuaries, notably Pamlico Sound in North Carolina, Chesapeake Bay and Delaware Bay, and the young use the estuaries as nurseries.

In the late 1950s the abundant schools up and down the coast suddenly went into sharp decline, and hundreds of thousands of anglers were forced to look for other fish. Although weakfish have historically been subject to cyclical fluctuations in population, nothing like this slump had ever been recorded. Part of the blame fell on trawlers netting so-called "trash" fish off the Carolina coast for the pet food industry; these vessels swept up huge numbers of the young, which were pulverized for the house cats of America. Other factors, like the environment and the effects of predation, were also at work. Says biologist Myron Silverman of the Sandy Hook lab, "Bluefish are big predators of weakfish, but in the last few years bluefish have been further offshore in the spring, which might have allowed young weakfish to survive. Then there are the factors of weather and the temperature of the water. If the weakfish spawn at just the right time, and the weather and the temperature are right and predation is low, the young should survive in large numbers."

Whatever happened, the unusual 15-year decline was suddenly replaced by exceptional resurgence. In Sandy Hook Bay the commercial catch of weakfish jumped from 13,570 pounds in 1970 to 312,712 pounds last year. This year the poundage should be much higher. The weakfish being caught now are the products of successful spawnings three to five years ago.

Anglers have been quick to seize the opportunity. Dewey Powell, a gas-station owner in Ocean City, N.J., and his pal Dick Wood, an ad man for two tackle companies—Gudebrod and Lew Childre—are striped bass enthusiasts, but in recent weeks they have taken time off from stripers to go after weakfish in Delaware Bay. "This fishing is a pure bonus for us," said Powell one dawn last week as he headed his 20-foot Sea Craft out toward Brandywine Light from Cape May. Two days before, he and Wood had boated 200 weakfish ranging from five to nine pounds. The fish ate up jigs on the bottom, hit at mid-depth and finally struck with a frenzy, during a tumultuous ebb tide, at surface plugs. "You'd throw a plug out," said Wood, "have a weakie whack it, and there would be 15 to 20 more fish following alongside right up to the boat. That's the time to break out a fly rod."

At Brandywine Light, Powell eased in between boats and dropped anchor. The tide was flooding, white water splashed on the rocks and Powell and Wood began casting white bucktail jigs attached to a snap swivel up to the jetty. A weakfish has two large canine teeth in the roof of its mouth that can sever a line without a swivel. The jigs, shaped like a football and weighing an ounce and a quarter each, were allowed to drop to the bottom below the jetty, where they bounced and swirled in the current. The weakfish were feeding on spearing, a slender, silvery baitfish, and hopefully the buffeted jigs resembled crippled spearings. The weakfish struck even before the retrieve, and in half an hour Powell and Wood landed a dozen weighing four to five pounds. "We don't use cut bait on the jig," Powell said. "That's what most of these other fishermen are using because that's what they think they have to do. We're doing what we'd do for stripers in some situations, and these weakfish will just gobble the jig right up."

After prowling up the bay a bit, searching for bigger fish, they returned to the light and let the boat drift in a rip. This time Powell and Wood snapped on three-quarter-ounce ball-shaped jigs. Letting the jigs sink to the bottom, 20 feet down, they began gentle retrieves, lifting the lures perhaps a foot and then allowing them to fall back. More often than not, a weakfish would grab a jig as it sank on the cast or when it fell back in the retrieve, and by the time the boat had drifted up to the light in the now ebbing tide, the anglers had landed 15 fish, the largest six or seven pounds.

Wood, with a stiff bait-casting rod and Dacron line, took more than Powell, who was using a spinning rod with 12-pound-test monofilament. "There is a stretch to mono," Wood said, "and after you feel the strike and go to set the hook, the fish might be gone." Finally, with 30 fish in the box and the wind kicking up, they agreed to call it a day.

Back at the launch they expressed mock chagrin at their catch, but Lou Rodia, who had followed along most of the day in another boat, said in all truth, even for a flack who happens to be a fisherman, "In a lifetime, you may see this kind of fishing only once. I've been fishing for 30 years, and I've never seen anything like this anywhere, anytime." Hopefully, this will prove to be only the beginning, not the end.