The New Year: Month-One Cod Odds

What can cold-weather codmen expect out of the early stages of this winter’s Block Island bite?

A brace of quality market codfish pulled off a high spot on Coxes Ledge in the early stages of the bite. Photo by Capt. Chris Cullen.

It’s tricky business predicting—based on previous seasons’ results—trends in any winter fishery. Where it’s fairly straightforward making a call on, say, the striped bass situation at Block Island for the months of May or June, our winter angling opportunities unfold amid almost endless variables: water temps, fishing pressure or lack thereof, fluctuations in baitfish abundance or migratory patterns, evolving codfish migratory patterns, the superabundance or lack of dogfish, or our famously volatile winter weather, among a hundred others. Bottom line—and I’ve watched carefully for the last six-plus winters—is that Block Island’s winter cod fishery seems to be forever in flux. Just when it looks like there’s some discernible pattern emerging, everything changes.

Be that as it may, there are some elements of our winter cod rush that have remained fairly steady—steady enough that most of our sources feel comfortable committing to at least a couple rough trends. There have also been enough guys out poking around on the grounds east or south (or southeast) of the Island, mainly in pursuit of late- autumn tautog, to provide a reasonably clear preliminary picture of what’s where relative to the usual cast of BI bottom dwellers—not just cod, but tautog, black sea bass, scup, ling and so on.

As of this writing in mid-December, the consensus among the skippers we consulted is that there are decent shots of market-sized and some larger codfish scattered across a wide range of hard-bottom structures, both tight to the Island’s east and south sides, and out on deeper pieces from the East Grounds to the Fairway Buoy to the Gateway, the Mountains, and Coxes Ledge, as well as points further west—the 30 Line the Pinnacle and the Acid Barge, among others. As is typical for the December fishery, it appears that much of the bait, the herring and mackerel that have fueled cod action in recent winters, is still up in Block Island and Rhode Island Sounds. Of course, it’s impossible to know what forage will eventually pile up south of the Island—or even whether such an event is in the cards this winter. Assuming that the pattern of other recent seasons holds, the early bite— from late December through the first few weeks of January—could well prove to be the most concentrated and reliable action. As Capt. Andy Dangelo, who has run the Point Judith-based Seven B’s the last two winters, noted, “If we don’t get the big bodies of bait this winter, the fishing could deteriorate pretty fast.”
What has happened for a number of winters now is that the cod fishing has intensified with the arrival of the larger bait schools, mainly herring and mackerel. That scenario typically marks a transition in the bite as well, with codfish arriving in larger numbers, and the bait serving to concentrate the scattered shots of fish from across a significant area. When the cod start chasing the bait, the fishing approach typically evolves from a pinpoint-structure fishery involving a ton of anchor-work to an open-bottom affair that calls for drifting with the bait, and often swinging jigs rather than soaking clam baits on high-low rigs. Until this winter’s bait situation comes into focus, mates across the fleet can count on spending quite a bit of time coiling anchor rode on deck, setting, hauling and resetting.

“So far,” noted Capt. Chris Cullen of the NY-homeported Island Current Fleet, three of whose boats will sail for the winter out of Snug Harbor Marina, “we’ve been seeing some positive signs of life up on the hard pieces, but no huge concentrations in any one area. We anchor up, we mark a few fish, get a flurry, pick a few fish, then pick up, look around, reset, and pick a few more. It’s definitely not one-drop fishing yet, but by the end of the day, we’re winding up okay.” Cullen—and others we consulted—added that he’s been pleased with the quality of the cod crossing the rails: “There’s been some nice stuff around—most of what we’ve been catching has been keeper-sized, with some bigger fish from the teens on up some days.”

In fairness, at the time of this writing, most of the boats that will eventually be working on straight cod have been encountering the fish primarily as bycatch on late-innings tautog trips. “It seems like the cod are showing up a little better and in shallower water every season,” said Capt. Russ Benn of the Seven B’s V. “It’s tough to say whether the cod we’re seeing up inside— off Narragansett, Newport, or Sakonnet— while we’re blackfishing, using crabs for bait, have much bearing on the fishing later at Block Island, but it does seem like the codfish numbers are improving across a pretty wide area.”

Our sources agree that the best bet is probably to get in gear now if you’re hoping to put some cod fillets in the freezer for the winter. While the odds are pretty good we’ll see fits and starts of solid fishing right through February, there’s no telling what lies ahead where Mother Nature’s concerned.

We know there are some respectable piles of nice cod around now, and we know that there haven’t been a hundred boats pounding on them for months. Unfortunately, there are also still some nice sea bass and scup around that we’re not allowed to keep, but there are worse problems we could have. For those who hit it hard last winter, the good news to this point is that the dogfish that all but wiped out whole tracts of bottom in unusually warm water last January have yet to pile up on too many prime cod hangs this season.