|COD: THE MEAT AND POTATOES OF THE SEA|
By: Micah Ackerman ("Mad Mike")
Basically, there are three different types of serious cod fishermen. There are the diehards. These are the individuals who will go cod fishing all year round. They will go and fish the deep water humps and bumps of Cashes Ledge on 3-day overnight head boat trips, spending hundreds of dollars on high-tech tackle and long range trips. They will fish bundled up in multiple layers of Gore-Tex or neoprene in the icy cold water of February or they will fish in shorts and tee-shirts cursing the tourists standing next to them off the coasts of Maine in August. These same individuals will be dropping their cod jigs on Coxes Ledge in July while the others on the boat are shark fishing. To them it doesn't matter, while most fishermen are thinking stripers, tuna or bluefish -- or some other hard fighting, highflying glamorous gamefish -- they're thinking about mud brown, whiskered, bottom grubbing cod.
The second type of cod fisherman is the "Meat Hunter.” These individuals think about the flaky white, delicious flesh of a fresh steaker cod. They look forward to April and May when the herring and the mackerel are coming through and the newly turned on cod congregate to gorge themselves on the abundance of baitfish. They book their party boat or 6-pack charters when they have the absolute best chances of filling the boxes and later the freezers with fillets. These fishermen will study the fishing reports closely whether it will be Georges Banks or StellWagen Bank and find out just where they can fill the boat with the maximum yield of fish. They will then put away the cod gear and target other species ‘till either the following season, or possibly a fall trip (Late October, November) when the baitfish again make a strong appearance.
The last group of cod fisherman is the "Only Game in Town" fisherman. These Individuals love to fish for saltwater fish no matter what the species and no matter what time of year. For these few it starts when they pull their own boats for the year, or the fish move out from casting ranges off the beaches. The weather gets cold, the days grow short and they start to get the "shakes.” These "shakes" aren't from shivering on a frosty night; this is the first symptom of fisherman's withdrawal. They need to have something pulling on the end of their line. It needs to be something, anything, but these guys are "salties.” Ice fishing to them just doesn't do it. They are used to live-lining the size fish that are available through the ice (no offense to the ice fishing guys, I'm sure it’s a tremendous sport in its own right). They can't quite afford to hop a plane to the Caribbean to catch a wahoo or a marlin. Jonesing for something, anything fishing, they read the local fishing rag and see a report from a party boat that’s into a decent catch of market cod with a 40-lb. pool winner and the light bulb goes off. They bundle themselves up, book a trip and they’re off. Soon it becomes a tradition.
Cod aren't ferocious fighters and they certainly aren't something you'd want hanging as an expensive fiberglass mount over you fireplace. In fact, they’re ugly. Cod though are delicious, maybe second to none as far as non-pelagic white-fleshed fish. So when someone asks, "Why on earth would anyone want to go cod fishing”?, you usually fall into one of those categories. Some people may be a combination of a couple of them, or some may have a different reason altogether, but the majority of cod fishermen are aligned to one of these groups.
Two Universal Methods of Catching Cod
Although there may be many different ways to catch cod there are two basic staples of recreational cod fishing. On all the boats I've ever been cod fishing on, you have a choice of how you want to go about catching your cod. You can either fish with bait or jig. Each method has its benefits and each has its drawbacks. Each can be more beneficial than the other depending on the conditions. Some fishermen prefer one method to the other no matter what the conditions are and depending on their ability.
The first thing you should do when boarding a boat, or even when calling and booking a trip, is to ask the captain if the fish have been hitting bait more or jigs. If the answer is both have been working, there are usually a couple rules of thumb to use when deciding what method to start with. First, try and find out if the boat will be anchored or drifting. Generally it’s less effective to jig from an anchored boat than it is to jig from a drifting one. Second, ask which type of bottom you'll be fishing. An open bottom or a gravel to sand bottom is usually best for jigging. If you’re fishing a rock pile or wreck, bait is usually the preferred choice.
There is of course one big variable and that’s the presence of natural bait. If the capt. says he's marking a whole lot of bait, or if the cod coming up are spitting up herring, mackerel, whiting or the like, then jigging would be a good choice. This is not to say that bait would not work in a jig situation or vice versa. Of course it’s fishing and sometimes all bets are off and things turn out the opposite of how they're supposed to. This is just a good indicator.
Cod also are far from particular on most occasions. You'll still catch if your using bait in a good jigging spot, it just could be a matter of catching a few less or a few more depending on what you’re using. Some people -- due to physical conditions (injured / sore shoulders, arms, back problems, etc.) or simply lack of ability -- who can't jig can still catch on bait alone. The idea though is to increase your odds by matching the hatch and environment.
Bait & Rigs
For rigs you can buy the “Off the Shelf” pre-tied rigs which are basically a two-hook Hi-lo rig with a piece of red surgical tubing ahead of each hook. You can easily make your own bait rig as well. I prefer to make my own in most cases, unless I’m in a real hurry. This way I can customize the rig to my own specifications using higher quality hooks, leaders and swivels.
The rig is simple to make. Take a piece of 50 to 80-pound leader material, either monofilament or fluorocarbon. (Fluorocarbon is unnecessary and expensive, but if your personal preference is to use it, feel free). Next, tie a barrel swivel on one end and a loop for the sinker on the other. In the middle, tie two dropper loops about 18 inches apart. Take your hook of choice (I prefer a 6/0 Extra Sharp non-plated J-hook) and put the dropper loop through the eye of the hook. Then put the loop over the entire hook and pull it tight. Do this on both Dropper loops. I then pick a teaser and slide it up the hook. For teasers I use 4 or 6-inch curly tail worms in red, pearl or blue (chartreuse has been a favorite color recently as well). Now when you’re ready to fish, put a sinker on the bottom loop of your rig using the same technique you put the hooks on the droppers. You’ll need to ask a mate on the boat how much weight you’ll need, or knowing your own line weight, depth and current, go with enough to maintain bottom consistently.
Bait up your hooks with plenty of clams. I prefer the pieces that have a tough chunk along with a good portion of the “strip,” which is the stringy membrane. As I mentioned before, cod aren’t that particular so you can really glob it on there. There’s no need to worry about hiding the hook or having a pretty looking presentation. You want it to stay on the hook and you want it to stand out down there.
Now drop it to the bottom. Make sure you have solid contact with the bottom. If your line starts to scope out after you’ve hit the bottom you may need more weight. You should be straight up and down. Some fishermen like to softly bounce the bottom lifting the sinker about 6 inches off the bottom then dropping it back. I personally don’t. Once I hit bottom I keep it there tight to the bottom. I keep my line taught and try and move it as little as possible. I will even move my rod with the boat as it rides the swell to keep my sinker firmly on the bottom.
I’ve noticed two distinct different bites or hits from cod. One is a slight tap, like you’d get from a porgy or a sunfish in Freshwater. The other is a more dull, solid tug, like someone underwater has grabbed my line and yanked it two feet back. I always set my hook on the latter. If I’m getting lots of the tapping variety I try and let the fish take it a bit ‘till I feel the weight of the fish, or at least a more solid hit. Most of the time if you try and set the hook on the first tap, you’ll swing and miss, which has a good shot at leaving yourself without bait. Believe me, I swing and miss a ton. It’ll take a couple tries to get the touch down. That is one drawback of bait -- with jigging you never have to sit and wonder if you’ve lost your bait or not.
I personally prefer a jig that gets to the bottom quickly, has good action and has a lot of flash. For this I prefer the Norwegians or tube jigs. It’s very important to keep as much contact with the bottom on as many pulls of the rod as possible. Therefore, jigs with a lot of water drag need to be reeled up and re-dropped more frequently. In a strong tide sometimes you may only get a handful of pulls on the rod before your line scopes out and its time to re-drop.
For technique, I drop to the bottom and give a steady stroke up till my rod is nearly vertical then lower it till I feel it bounce bottom again. Keep repeating this ‘till you feel a hit. After you drop back and you can no longer feel bottom you need to let out a little line to make contact again and repeat. Once the line is at about a 45-degree angle you are scoping out enough and its time to reel up and re-drop.
Another jigging technique, which can be very effective, is called “squiding.” To do this you drop your jig to the bottom reel it up 5 or 10 cranks as fast as you can and drop again. You keep repeating this until you get a hit. This method can be deadly if there are big schools of pollock around, which tend to hang further off the bottom than cod.
For teasers, I tie a dropper about 18inches above my jig. There I place a 6/0 hook and either a Mylar fly or a plastic bait. Most any rubber worm, Slug-Go, Finesse Fish, Power Bait or curly tail Jelly worm is adequate. I use plastics in the 4 to 6-inch sizes, with “Gotcha Shrimp” being my favorite. You need to find out what color is working that day. I usually start out with orange, red, pearl or blue. Mylar cod Flees are also very effective. This is like a big streamer fly on a heavy hook with some glitter and shine in it. I prefer blue or white in Flees.
Rods, Reels and Line
For a reel, the Shimano Toriums have become the reel of choice among a lot of “sharpies”, but I use a Penn 330 GTI. The level wind is a nice bonus, plus the drag hasn’t failed me yet. The old standby Penn Senator 4/0 113 models are still an excellent choice. Remember when cod fishing, having the high gear ratio, speedy reel isn’t necessarily a good thing. You want a slow steady wind to the surface when fighting a fish so as not to tear a cod’s mouth.
For line, the new braided line can’t be beat. Some party boats still have a small problem with it, but almost all of them have come around to allowing it. The line is great for holding bottom because of the small diameter, and the fact that it has no stretch allows you to feel every little tap, and even the rocks on the bottom. Spectra and Power Pro both make excellent lines, and the 65-lb test size is the perfect strength and diameter. Aany rugged abrasive resistant monofilament line in the 40 to 60-pound test class works well. Remember with the mono you will have about twice as much scooping as the Braid, and you need to pay extra attention to the subtle taps.
In the early spring, starting about in April, Stellwagen Bank is really the place to be. The main ports for charter fishing include Green Harbor, Lynn and Plymouth. Usually the cod start out “grubbing” on the bottom and clams are very affective. But slowly, as the herring and mackerel move in and the pesky dogfish attack your baits, jigs become a better choice .The peak for this area is late April ‘till early July, when the dogfish simply become too much of a problem.
During the summer months there is a good run of cod, pollock and delicious -- although smaller -- haddock on the Banks in the Northern Gulf of Maine. The most popular areas to hit in the summer are Jeffries and Tillies Ledge, as well as long-range trips to Cashes Ledge .The ports that harbor the most charter activity are Gloucester Massachusetts, Portsmouth, New Hampshire and Ogunquit, Maine.
In the fall, the fish will work their way back down the coast through Stellwagen and even inshore of that throughout October and November. Some truly monstrous breeding cod know affectionately as “Steakers” can be caught quite close to shore in the Nauset area.
Late fall and then throughout winter, it’s Georges Banks time. This is primarily a jig fishery and it can yield your greatest output of fish in terms of shear numbers when the bait is there. The last couple years have been a bit slower, however.
March has been a good month for the boats out of Montauk, New York and Point Judith, Rhode Island. They hit the waters to the Southeast of Block Island around Coxes Ledge, and while the fishing isn’t what it was two decades ago, it does seem to be rebounding to the point where a nice day’s catch can be had, especially for the private boat owner.
When it comes to all forms of fishing I’ve found that you can never stop learning. The best resource for cod fishing is in-fact the hardcore fisherman him or herself. Many of the party boats you will go on will have their share of regulars or “Sharpies.” You can truly learn a world of information simply from fishing next to these men or women and asking questions along the way. I don’t consider myself an expert, and most everything I’ve picked up and passed along in this article has come from watching some expert cod fishermen wielding their jigs up on the pulpit of head boats, or from asking captains and mates on charters as many questions as I can. Hopefully this collection of methods and techniques can help those seeking their first cod or those looking to improve on their catch.