Scenes of anglers sprinting for tip-up flags or hunched over holes in the ice are what my brain conjures up when thinking about wintertime fishing opportunities. While ice fishing is my favorite winter pastime, it’s also dependent on the mercy of Mother Nature. Most of last winter was pretty much ice-free on the prime bodies of water that I wait all year to freeze. Instead of making a few halfhearted ice trips to secondary spots, I could have been capitalizing on an angling opportunity that has made a rebound across the region over the last several years: winter cod fishing.
Anglers in the Northeast are fortunate in the fact that, for a number of months each year, they can hop aboard one of several head boats in Rhode Island, Connecticut or Long Island and be dropping down lines for cod in under two hours. I asked Captain Chris Cullen of the Island Current in Snug Harbor, Rhode Island for a crash course in wintertime cod fishing. Thankfully, he was as generous as usual with information and spilled the beans about all things codfish, from rigging to tactics to proper attire for enjoying a full day on the water during the second month of the year.
With over 25 years of cod-fishing experience under his belt, Captain Chris put in laymen’s terms why we have this unique opportunity so close to home. “The waters off Block Island are prolific for wintertime cod fishing because they hold so much bait and feature an extremely well laid-out terrain of structure,” said Chris. “There are high mountainous regions where concentrations of mackerel and herring build up, and obviously the fish are after the bait. Another great thing about our winter cod fishery is that you’re not fishing tremendously deep water like you would be up in northern New England. The fishing is generally done in 90 to 130 feet of water.”
The size and the amount of fish you can encounter on a solid winter day are impressive as well. “We’ve been very lucky over the last eight years with the comeback of cod during the winter season. As far as how many one can expect to catch, if someone can go out and catch five nice Atlantic cod, that’s a great trip, but there are days when anyone can come out and catch 20 fish (the limit is 10), which is nice because you see people throwing a lot of fish back and being selective in what they’re taking. As far as size, upper teens to mid-twenties (pounds) are fairly common pool-size fish. There are days in February where we tend to get bigger shots of fish. We had several cod last year in the forty-pound class.”
The two common approaches for catching cod in our local waters are bait-fishing and jigging. Chris said that newcomers typically learn the method of fishing bait first because it’s a little easier to get the hang of. Aboard the Island Current, the bait of choice is always Atlantic surf clams, also called “skimmer” clams. The quality and cut of the clams is essential. “The bait we use is all fresh bait. When the mates are cutting the clams up, they’re still moving,” said Chris. “Sometimes, guys like to put globs and globs of clam on and that’s actually counterproductive. You want the clam bait to be narrow and well cut, leaving a little streamer hanging off the hook. Don’t bury the barb of the hook—leave it exposed, which will help with the hook-ups.”
There are endless variations for rigging when bait fishing, but the two-hook system Chris recommends is a simple high/low rig. It consists of a long leader of 50-pound monofilament with a heavy bank sinker attached at the bottom by a double-overhand knot. Generously spaced above the weight are two octopus hooks attached by 8-inch dropper loops that jut out perpendicular to the leader. “Imagining the sinker is on bottom lying flat, my top hook will be waist high and my bottom hook will be about a foot above the sinker. You don’t want the two hooks interfering with one another,” explained Chris.
You can also spruce up your clam presentation by adding rubber curly-tail grubs to your bait hooks. “The more popular colors are pink, strawberry, bubblegum, chartreuse, and even glow-in-the-dark colors,” said Chris. “The big thing is to watch and see what’s going on in the boat. There will be certain days when cod want the strawberry; other days they’ll go with white or a hot pink color. But be prepared to change. If you see something not working, don’t be afraid to make a change.”
Jigging can be another extremely productive way of taking cod and is the preferred method by many of the more experienced crowd. “With the jig, I try to fish the lightest I can: 8-, 10-, and 12-ounce jigs are the mainstays on the boat,” said Chris. “We prefer the diamond jig with a hammer finish and a single hook. And it’s not the power jigging like you would do in the Gulf of Maine. This type of jigging is more like squid fishing, where you’re trying to bounce the jig on the bottom. The fish tend to stay closer to the bottom. You don’t have to aggressively swing your rod up and down. You’ll hit the bottom, yo-yo it a little bit or maybe take a couple very slow turns of the reel, and you’ll feel the cod jump on it.” Chris also suggested sprucing up the jig presentation by adding a dropper about a foot and a half above your main offering, such as a curly-tail grub, a Mylar teaser fly or stinky Berkley Gulp baits.
A number of factors can come into play for deciding when to fish bait and when to jig, and some of it has to do with current, tide and personal preference. The same goes for when the captain decides to drift or anchor up. “We’ll generally start off drifting and see how fast the drift is, what the current is like, if the bait’s moving around a lot or if it’s concentrating in one particular area,” said Chris. “If the fish are basically scattered, then drifting is fine. If things are starting to get tight on the pieces where fish are really congregating on one side of the mountain, then we’ll anchor up.”
Another thing to think about before embarking on a mid-winter fishing trip on the ocean is dressing properly. The right clothing and layering could be the difference between fishing in comfort and sitting in the galley while others around you are bailing cod. “You really need to dress in layers,” said Chris. “You want to be comfortable, but you don’t want to overdress where you stop circulation or can’t move around. Your feet, your hands and your head are the most important areas to protect. Gloves are good to have, but I always have a pouch where I put my hands to keep them warm.”
So why are anglers drawn to this type of cold-weather fishing? To break up the monotony of winter, to stock their freezers with delicious fillets, and to take a chance at catching a trophy cod are a few reasons.
Another is because it’s extremely accessible, especially for a newbie like me. I don’t own a lot of gear suitable for this kind of fishing, but I still can go any day of the week, weather permitting, and have everything provided for me from tackle to fresh bait to expertise, all for a reasonable fare. When the symptoms of cabin fever begin setting in this winter, call up your buddies and book a trip to go cod fishing!