New Jersey’s Winter Wrecking Crew

Ling, cod, and pollock keep rods bent in New Jersey right through the winter months.

Man, it’s cold. It’s the middle of winter, so your rods are all put away, right? You are cleaning all the reels and tying rigs in preparation for spring flounder or bass, I bet. What the heck are you thinking?! This isn’t the time to sit by the fireside and enjoy marshmallows and hot cocoa—this is the time to pack your bags for the offshore wrecks because some serious bottom-fish brawling is happening right now. Cod, pollock, and ling are eagerly awaiting a baited hook dropped to the bottom. Here’s the lowdown on fishing opportunities to make your winter one to remember.

Cod Squad

Whether it can be attributed to a southern migration of the George’s Bank stock or a steady replenishment of breeding stocks in our own waters, New Jersey has seen a major cod comeback in recent years. Fishermen can enjoy year-round action on the “baccala”.

Cod of 25 to 30 pounds are a possibility when fishing the wrecks in winter.

Cod of 25 to 30 pounds are a possibility when fishing the wrecks in winter.

Most Garden State codfish fall into the 5- to 15-pound range, with larger 25- to 45-pounders taking pools on any day out. Come wintertime, cod root down in the holes and tunnels of shipwrecks 25 to 40 miles offshore, in 180 to 220 feet of water. Anchoring above one of these structures and instituting a clam slick will usually bring the cod out of a wreck to feed.

Set anchor over the major part of the structure and start out by lowering a three-hook dropper rig consisting of a 150-pound barrel swivel, a 50-pound monofilament leader tied with three dropper loops spaced 18 inches apart, and an overhand knot for a bank sinker of 6 to 12 ounces. Equip with size 5/0 to 6/0 baitholder hooks and lance the hooks with 4- to 6-inch red or pink curly-tail grubs, then tip with clams or strips of bergalls.

Three-Hook Cod Rig

Three-Hook Cod Rig

If your gig is to jig, hammered diamond jigs are money, as long as you work them correctly. Drop a 6- to 14-ounce hammered jig to the bottom and simply twitch it on the bottom, lifting up only a foot or two, then dropping it back down to bounce on the sea floor. Try to work the bottom of the seafloor first. If you have no action, reel up a few cranks and work 5 to 10 feet off the bottom. Tie a dropper loop 24 inches above the jig and lance on a 6/0 baitholder hook and 6-inch red or pink curly-tail grub for a teaser. When a cod bites, the battle to the surface is dogged, so be sure to have your drags set tight enough to pull the fish out of the structure but light enough to prevent a pulled hook or breakoff.

Prime-Time Pollock

Pollock have really made a comeback in the Garden State’s waters. Anglers pounding winter wrecks can expect to see catches of 8- to 15-pound Pollock, with pool winners pushing the 20- to 30-pound mark. Pollock are schooling fish that usually hang above the wreck feeding on mackerel, squid and herring. One glance at the fishfinder screen and you’ll easily be able to discover the depth at which they are staging.

Big pollock hang over the tops of wrecks and will aggressively attack jigs worked through the water column.

Big pollock hang over the tops of wrecks and will aggressively attack jigs worked through the water column.

As pollock are aggressive predators, it’s all about the jig when targeting them. Be prepared to start with a 100-pound-test barrel swivel, 48 inches of 50- to 60-pound fluorocarbon leader, and a heavy 8- to 16-ounce Viking or Crippled Herring jig with a 6/0 bucktail teaser tied 3 feet up. Place strip baits from bergalls or herring on both hooks for added attraction.

Pollock love a fast presentation and will track down a bouncing jig like a live torpedo. Start with bluefish tactics to see where the fish are feeding, dropping the jig down to the bottom and cranking it up with a steady, fast retrieve. If you don’t get hit on that approach, look to the fishfinder to see where the fish are holding and drop the jig to that depth, working it with long sweeps of the rod. Pollock tend to hit the jig at the start of the fall when it is fluttering and flailing, but they may follow the jig down and strike before the next sweep.

Pollock Jig Rig

Pollock Jig Rig

If you want to fish bait, go with the same three-hook dropper rig used for cod, but tip the hooks with 4- to 6-inch strips of bergall, bluefish or mackerel and set the rig at the depth where you are marking the fish, which could be 30 feet or more above the wreck. Let the rig sway in the current and give it a couple of twitches to get the attention of the pollock. Many bait rigs will get hit by pollock as they are reeled up to rebait.

Ling Fling

Though cod and pollock get the pictures and bragging rights, the anchor of the wintertime fishery rests on the shoulders of the ugly, yet tasty ling.

The author had his hands full with winter ling.

The author had his hands full with winter ling.

Populating nearshore wrecks in the 10- to 30-mile range, coolers can be filled with catches from 15 to 60 fish per man in 100 to 150 feet of water in January, but the hordes of ling move into the depths of 150 to 200 feet in February and March. Ling aren’t known for their vicious rod-bending fights because once you get them about 30 feet off the bottom, their air bladders pop out as they give up the battle. However, they will give the bait a good initial whack, and a 3-pound-plus ling will definitely give you a little jolt when reeling it in. Ling mainly weigh between 1 and 3 pounds, but 4- to 6-pound “baseball bat” specimens are not uncommon, and will usually win the pool money for the day. For bigger ling, you have to be in the right place at the right time. Louisville Slugger-caliber ling find the nooks and crannies of wrecks, and lodge themselves into derelict nets, ground-outs underneath wrecks, holes and cavities they hide under and within.

Two-Hook Ling Rig

Two-Hook Ling Rig

A standard two-hook rig works best, and here is my favorite: To your braided line, tie a 15-foot section of 40-pound monofilament leader with an Albright knot. Double the last two feet of line with a spider hitch and loop on a bank sinker to hold bottom. Pinch the line 6 inches up from the sinker and loop on a snelled 2/0 beak hook, then secure it by tying an overhand knot with the bank sinker behind the snell to lock it in. Repeat the process with another snelled hook added halfway up from the first.

For bait, small bits of clam work well, but to improve your odds of landing a legendary ling, bait your hook with a 3- to 5-inch strip of bergall, sea robin or mackerel. Strip baits seem to attract bigger ling, and no matter what bait you throw down, always use a 3- to 4-inch Berkley Gulp Swimmin’ Mullet in white or chartreuse. These baits can take the beating and will stay on the hook, keeping you fishing even if you miss a bite or two.

You wouldn’t think that January and February means full coolers of fish, but it’s a reality. Pick the right boat, whether it’s a charter who specializes in the “secret” numbers to put you on those out-of-the-way wrecks, or a tried-and-true bottom-brawling party boat where you just simply know you’re going to get on fish in the Mud Hole and surrounding wrecks. If you choose to head out yourself, target anywhere from 10 to 40 miles offshore from January through March, and enjoy the fruits of your labors!

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