A look at the trends and top methods in second-month cod catching
by Zach Harvey
It has been a brutal winter of weather so far, with precious few windows of windless calm in a relentless parade of gales, winter storms, cold fronts and botched forecasts. Mother Nature has been a great and terrible boss this time through, violent even by winter-in-New-England standards. There are various domino effects at work, too—extra, largely unforeseen networks of variables further complicating a fishery known to test the fleet’s will under the best of circumstances. During one recent lull that let a handful of boats clear the Harbor of Refuge, skippers shipped out without any access to the fresh sea clams that have proved so vital in putting a catch together the days anchoring’s not an option. One captain fielded pointed questions from patrons regarding the lack of what has been the standard load fresh bellies for bait and shell/scraps for chum to gather feeding cod beneath the boat. He had to explain that the clam boats that source his fresh bait clams had been foiled in every attempt to get away from the docks. The only available bait was the frozen stuff, which, to mates’ dismay, eliminated chum from the equation, leaving them to a ton of anchor work as captain made endless drops and resets to put a day together.
Futile as it generally is to consider the ways things might have been different had history played out in a way it did not, it’s been hard not to ponder where our cod resource might be now had the cards fallen in some other order a few seasons back, during what were—in hindsight—turning-point seasons in the larger context of the codfish comeback at Block Island.
It was in the winter of 2011 that we all witnessed the peak of the resurgence, as massive bodies of migrant cod, huge bait schools and an unprecedented fleet of mostly party boats flagged from at least five states converged on known cod real estate southeast of the Island, and cod ultimately bunched up for a huge, unexpected spawn in an area known to most local captains as the “Gateway.” That winter, regulators shut off the two other viable fisheries that had been keeping New York- and New Jersey-homeported headboats busy through otherwise bleak economic months; those closures effectively drew a huge bullseye on the one remaining option, cod.
And as luck would have it, the cod bite went off like gangbusters, mobilizing huge crowds of anglers and a 20- to 50-boat fleet in high gear. Word spread of “old-time cod fishing,” as boats from as far away as Jersey and the Gulf of Maine zeroed in on sorely needed winter earnings. A key feature in that cold-water gold rush—an element that got minimal press at the time—was weather.
In a typical winter, the latter is the limiting variable: loads of willing anglers and huge schools of cooperative cod are of no use to the working fleet when the wind smokes out of the SW, S, SE, NE, and NW. In that fateful February, we had long stretches of fishable conditions and, some days, a veritable floating fiberglass city, and a standing army of codmen; fish were schooled up 15 or more feet thick to spawn in an area of several square miles. It was, with the exception of a handful of days, a massacre. To no one’s surprise, the years since have witnessed a greatly diminished fishery—and, accordingly, a major constriction within the fleet.
Though the future of Block Island’s winter cod remains uncertain, this winter’s action has shown considerably more promise than last year’s. Part of that, it seems, has been the weather: the wind has absolutely wailed—and from every point on the compass—since the tail end of November. So far this season, it’s been impossible to determine whether the fishing has been strong during the elusive stretches of fishable weather because there are more cod around this season than last—or whether the improved catch rate is simply a logical product of the endless volatile conditions that have given what fish are around whole weeks with almost zero fishing pressure.
In the end, it doesn’t really matter why fish have been more cooperative so far. What is important is that the skippers who’ve managed to away from the pilings have been seeing some encouraging signs for at least the immediate future of the fishery.
Captains Chris Cullen of the Island Current Fleet and Andy Dangelo of the Seven B’s V both noted quite a bit of the all important bait around (mainly in the form of sea herring and mackerel, with some evidence of sand eels as well). This bait and the most reliable concentrations of keeper cod from late December through much of January have set up shop tighter to the Island, anywhere from the Camel Back and Acid Barge to the west, some of the ridges and rockpiles more south than southeast of Block, Sharks Ledge (the 30 Line), and so on. Most scouting missions to points farther east, from the Gateway eastward to famed Coxes Ledge, have turned up tough picking on the cod and some mind-boggling swarms of the dreaded spiny dogfish. (In fairness, these patterns were observed around deadline time mid-January, so things may well have shifted by the time you read this.)
As is usually the case when the winter bait starts to bunch up on the semi-open bottom, days that have allowed crews to fish in drift mode rather than at anchor have produced some steadier action for folks swinging jigs. Per the trend in recent seasons, Cullen advised cod hopefuls that the old, Plain Jane diamond jigs of 8 to 12 ounces, ideally in hammered chrome finish, tend to outfish the Vik-E’s, Norwegians, and Crippled Herring jigs many associate with open bottom cod jigging. Capt. Dangelo concurs that diamonds are the way to go, adding that, given the choice, he prefers very small jigs 6 or 8 ounces. These he slings well down-drift then works back toward the boat, swinging, dropping, ticking the bottom and repeating until the jig is straight down, when he retrieves and casts again. Working them this way will let you get away with the smaller metals, as will the use of lighter braided line in conjunction with a 15- to 30-foot topshot of heavier monofilament. The latter, tied into the braided running line via a modified Albright knot or uni-to-uni, will help to minimize the hassle of tangles, since you’ll be dealing with mono on mono, rather than a dreadful, microscopic braid snarl that will make your half-frozen fingers feel about as nimble as breakfast sausages. The mono topshot delivers additional advantages: It’s much easier to tie (especially on the single-digit mornings) and provides some measure of shock absorption to prevent pulled hooks (cod have somewhat fragile mouth tissue). Also, many groundfish gurus maintain that the thicker mono leader material will let you present a jig much more effectively. (Where straight braid causes a jig to sink like a stone, deadening the lure’s built-in wobbling action, mono will to bow out slightly in the current and let the jig flutter as it drops.)
Of course, jigs do most of their damage during large influxes of forage, when herring or mackerel crowd the fishfinder screen, feeding cod close in tow. Traditionally, in the longer view of the last 20 years, all this pelagic feed has thinned out dramatically by late January. With the departure or the big masses of bait, codfish feeding patterns typically transition from active hunting over open bottom back to the normal southern New England scenario, with fish piling up around bottom features like rockpiles, mussel beds, or drop-offs.
Over the last few seasons, skippers with access to fresh sea clams have noted a strong correlation between heavy chumming and lights-out fishing—usually at anchor over specific structures. In this mode, bait rigs—the simpler, the better—sporting fresh sea clam bellies take the bulk of a given day’s catch.
Contrary to the sentiments some elitists harbor about bottom fishing as an artless, brain-dead method, sharper codmen develop an eye for the subtleties of effective rigging. High-low rigs (sinker on the bottom, two hooks above hanging on dual dropper loops) are a standard, but some sharpies favor a single hook snelled to the bitter end of a longer, single-strand leader, hanging the sinker on short dropper loop somewhere between 6 and 20-plus inches up from the hook. The advantage here is presenting a bait right on bottom, where codfish root around for food. You may add a second hook to this latter rig by tying a dropper in above the sinker. The trick is to be sure there’s enough space between top and bottom hooks that they won’t foul each other.
Regardless of your rigging preferences, realize that cod won’t bite the same way. Sometimes, advised Capt. Cullen, the bite will. Be so light you’ll barely register it; you’ll feel a subtle weight or a faint tap—you have to pay very close attention and take rigging cues from what you feel. It often happens that you’ll swing at a barely discernible rat-tat, thinking you’re finally going to impale a six-inch bait-thieving choggie or ling, and wind up fast to a thick-shouldered 30-pound cod.
A major variable in south-of-the-Island cod catching is the dreaded spiny dogfish, a small superabundant coastal shark species that chops rigs to pieces. Through January and early February 2012, thanks to unseasonably high water temps and other “timing” issues, a large percentage of traditional Island cod grounds were all but overrun by the spiny, razor-toothed gray pestilence. All but the highest ground had swarms of the things. Mercifully, while there have been doggies around this winter, they have been manageable—skippers have managed to work around them or fish through them for the most part. Two things are critical if you hope to avoid them—or at least minimize their impact on your cod catch rate. First, as of this writing, the worst of the dogfish hordes have been haunting the deeper pieces, while cod have held the high ground. Running your own boat, avoid depths much over 130 feet, especially if you mark a big stack of life tight to bottom and a prospecting drop yields a gray one (most times, they will all be dogs). The second coping strategy is most critical, and very difficult for the more arts-and-crafts-minded anglers: Avoid any and all “bling” in your rigging. That means eliminating any visible flash or shine like brand-new sinkers, three-way swivels or other gaudy hardware, and especially teasers and other add-ons. Trust in the fact that, for every day you need that pink paddletail grub to catch a cod, there are five other days when a simple, unadorned hook will do the job with equal efficiency. If you want to worry about getting bites, devote all the energy you’d normally spend tweaking teasers, adding spinners, beads and so on, to checking your bait. It’s the latter—the glob of greasy, oozing clam belly—that makes the biggest difference. If you’re not convinced, try fishing a bare, unbaited hook against one with a fresh wad of clam.