Frost Fish

A look back at the silver hake fishery that once existed off New Jersey.

Pictured above: It often got crowded at Long Branch Pier, with whiting anglers two and three deep along the rail.

It was a chilly November Friday, with the wind out of the northwest, as I stood outside Lincoln School in Newark. It was 3:15 p.m. and my dad was already parked outside. Hurriedly placing my books on the seat of his Ford pickup truck—the delivery vehicle of Rosko’s Fruit and Vegetable Market—I climbed aboard. Moments later we were headed south to Long Branch, via Route 35, as the Garden State Parkway hadn’t yet been built.
 
Darkness set in by the time we reached Long Branch Pier, and as we approached, it was evident that news of the arrival of the whiting had leaked out. A large group of anglers had congregated at the pier and were heading toward the end, dressed for the brisk breeze, armed with split-bamboo rods and single-gear 1-to-1 retrieve-ratio reels loaded with linen line. Each carried a galvanized bucket or a three-gallon fruit basket, destined to hold the catch.

As we entered the pier, Dad received a packet of squid bait, which was included in the dollar entrance fee. Access to the pier was free for youngsters like me.

Milt Sr. with whiting
This photo of the author’s dad, Milt Sr., was taken a half-century ago as he enjoyed fishing for whiting on a cold December night at Long Branch Pier. Fishing for whiting was a family affair in those days, with many youngsters being introduced to this fine recreational pastime by their parents.

The lights were bright along the rail of the several-hundred-foot-long structure that extended seaward 50 feet above the water. Toward the pier’s end, anglers stood two and three deep, some casting, others reeling and swinging whiting over the rail. We couldn’t have timed our arrival any better.

We each tied a high-low rig to a line, along with a pair of 1/0 Carlisle-style hooks and a 4-ounce bank sinker. Then we slipped a 3-inch-long strip of squid onto each hook, squeezed ourselves in along the rail, and let our rigs drop into the brightly illuminated water below.

My rig had barely touched bottom when Dad beamed, “I’m in!” and lifted back with his split-bamboo rod, which was so stiff it didn’t bend. As I watched him swing a 1-pound beauty over the rail, I felt a strike and immediately responded by cranking and swinging another 1-pounder over the rail.

Brooklyn party boat Pilot II
New Yorkers sailed from Brooklyn aboard the party boat Pilot II to fish the fertile whiting grounds off the Jersey coast, where anglers loaded their burlap bags and bushel baskets with the fish.

On that particular evening, we fished for about 3 hours and caught about 50 of the silvery bottom feeders. Upon our arrival home, Mom, who had handled the chores at the family store in our absence that afternoon, was delighted as she saw the almost-full apple basket of whiting. Our catch was placed in an icebox on our back porch, as we hadn’t yet come to own one of those “newfangled refrigerators.”

Because we had so many fish, the next afternoon we drove to Grandma Rosko’s in nearby Irvington and dropped off enough for several meals.

Silver hake

The Silver Hake

Silver hake, commonly called whiting, belong to the family Merlucciidae, which means “pike of the sea.” They are related to codfish, ling, and other groundfish species. They are slender fish, and small in size, averaging about a foot long, with the largest specimens measuring 30 inches. They are voracious predators, feeding on a variety of fish and crustaceans, and are also an important prey species for larger fish.

Silver hake concentrate over sandy, pebbly, or muddy bottoms, preferring water temperatures between 42 and 60 degrees. The fish migrate seasonally, inhabiting waters shallower than 200 feet in the summer and fall, and deeper, offshore waters in the winter and early spring. They are most common from Newfoundland to South Carolina, but their numbers have been badly depleted, and the fish remain in relative abundance only north of Cape Cod.

It was typical of what we’d do each late fall and again in the early spring for many years. Indeed, it wasn’t long before we learned of a smokehouse up in Belford that would smoke your catch and have it ready for you in a couple of days. While you could pay them to smoke your catch, if you were willing to surrender half of your catch for them to sell at their highway stand, they would smoke the other half for you at no charge. It was win-win for both the anglers and the smokehouse.

Eventually, we began fishing for the tasty whiting on party boats, and the smokehouse was a regular stop on our way home. After a number of years, the municipality forced the smokehouse to close because of the constant smoke that emanated from their operation.

Milt Rosco aboard party boat with whiting
The author regularly fished aboard party boats during the whiting runs, when many of the boats would sail on a half-night, or four-hour trip, enabling anglers to get to the boat after work, make a good catch, and get a good night’s sleep.

Shortly thereafter, we traded the icebox on the porch for a refrigerator. We’d gut the whiting, place enough for a meal in wax paper, and freeze them in the refrigerator’s ice cube tray section. We sacrificed ice cubes for the delightful dinners that we’d have once a week for several weeks. We also purchased a smoker, and I smoked the whiting, which kept well in the refrigerator for a couple of weeks. However, they were such a delight that they’d be eaten before they ever had a chance to go bad.

The whiting population was still plentiful when we purchased our first boat, Linda June, a 24-footer with twin stern drives, in 1976. Our summer home was in Mantoloking by that time, and whiting, ling, herring, and mackerel were unbelievably plentiful during the spring. We’d clear Manasquan Inlet, and by the time we’d reach the sea buoy, the air would be alive with gulls feeding on sand eels. It was just a matter of shutting down and using a diamond jig for mackerel or a high-low rig baited with strips of squid or tiny pieces of clam for whiting and ling. It was just that easy.

Bob Rosko catching whiting
The author’s son, a young Bob Rosko, is bundled up to ward off the cold, but it was the activity of catching whiting off the Long Branch Pier that kept him warm. He’s busy here with what was nonstop action on a cold December night.

In fact, I vividly recall some party boat regulars aboard Capt. Frank Cline’s party boat Gambler out of Belmar, who devised a homemade rig that frequently scored with four of the species during a typical day on the water. It consisted of a high-low rig with a pair of snelled hooks baited with strips of squid or small pieces of clam. Instead of a sinker, a diamond jig made up the weight to improve the chances of tempting a mackerel. The unique part of the rig involved placing a three-way swivel between the line and the top of the high-low rig and firmly securing a 7-inch-long piece of stainless steel leader wire by wrapping it around the remaining eye of the swivel. This kept it extending away from the rig at a right angle. At the end of the wire, a small loop was made with five or six tight turns. Instead of breaking off the tag end, as one would normally do, the wire would be cut with pliers, leaving about 1/8-inch extending out. Then the wire would be unwrapped so a homemade teaser could be added before re-wrapping the wire.

The teaser was merely five or six pieces of white feathers about two to three inches long and tied securely to a hook. This rig, which I haven’t seen used in many years, consistently had both whiting and ling assaulting the baited pair of hooks, mackerel walloping the diamond jig, and herring or hickory shad engulfing the teaser. All this was happening at the sea buoy just off Manasquan Inlet!

author’s wife with whiting
The author’s wife, June, regularly accompanied him on fishing junkets when they dated. Barely a week has gone by that she hasn’t prepared a delicious fish dinner from the catches they’ve made together during their 62 years of marriage.

The fishing was so good that my entire family of aunts and uncles, and neighbors too, enjoyed our bounty. Smoked whiting was regarded as a Christmas treat for visitors to our home, and my wife June would always ensure people left with some of these tasty treats. To this day, we try to have some fish smoked by Christmas, but unfortunately, it hasn’t been whiting for many years.

Of course, in the old days, there would be times when we’d already have enough whiting and ling in the ice chest so we’d switch to jigging mackerel. We’d smoke some of the macks, and save the remainder for use in our dockside blue-claw crab traps during the summer. While jigging for the macks, we’d often score with herring and hickory shad.

Historically, our families, including my grandparents from Czechoslovakia and my wife’s from Germany, welcomed in the New Year with a champagne toast and pickled herring. So, I regularly pickled herring and hickory shad. As a result, most of our family and friends who visited us for Christmas went home with a bonus of pickled herring to welcome in the New Year at midnight!

Big whiting
Big whiting like this one being unhooked by the author were not only fun to catch, but excellent for dinner. Their firm, white meat was used in a wide variety of recipes, but was especially good
when smoked.

Today, fishing like that is hard to imagine, as the population of whiting—properly known as silver hake—has declined so drastically that I haven’t caught one in the last 20 years. Overexploitation by commercial trawlers that, in those days, came within three miles of the coast, was a major factor in the depletion of the species. Legislation was eventually passed to keep foreign trawlers 100 miles from shore, but the whiting never recovered. Just this past spring, I saw one caught aboard the Dauntless out of Point Pleasant while fishing for sea bass, the first I’ve seen in a score of fishing seasons. The angler didn’t even know what it was and what a rare treat he’d just landed.

Cooking The Catch: Smoked Whiting (or Ling)

With the home smoker I once used for whiting, I still smoke ling, which are tasty as well, using an original recipe from the booklet that came with my Little Chief Luhr-Jensen electric smoker.

INGREDIENTS:

  • 2 quarts water
  • 1 cup non-iodized salt
  • ½ cup brown sugar
  • 2 tablespoons lemon juice
  • ¼ tablespoon garlic powder
  • ¼ tablespoon onion powder
  • Gutted whiting, ling or mackerel that weigh around one pound each

PREPARATION:

  1. Mix all of the ingredients until dissolved, pour over the fish and brine in a non-reactive container in your refrigerator for 4 to 6 hours.
  2. Rinse the fish, pat dry with a paper towel, and allow to air dry for one hour.
  3. Smoke over apple or cherry chips for 4 to 6 hours, or until fish achieves desired texture and taste.
  4. Refrigerate the fish after smoking.
  5. To serve, you’ll be able to easily remove a whole fillet from each side of the fish, peel off the skin and remove the rib bones.  Don’t hesitate to experiment with the ingredients and time of smoking until you achieve a flavor that satisfies your taste.

15 on “Frost Fish

  1. Conrad Romeli

    I remember the whiting
    gleaming
    Pulling the rail
    point Judith

    Hard hands
    Caked with salt-scum
    Leather
    Calloused working the reel

    Grandma and Aunt Flamingo
    Dipping in flour
    Deep fry
    A hazy gold

    Sitting in silence
    Eating abundance
    As if
    Our secret would come to an end

  2. tom palmer

    Thank you for writing such a detailed and descriptive article. It is so nice yet, sad to read of the great old days of fishing the Jersey shore. I am 63 and remember so many great times with great friends fishing Manasquan and Point Pleasant. To read your article filled with memories warms the heart! Keep up the fine writing. And again …Thank you,
    Tom

  3. Bart DAverso

    Those pictures of the long branch pier bring back old memories. I lived three blocks from there. I spent so many days there when i was a kid. im 72 now and really enjoyed them. Do you remember old John Gazinkas? he was the man with the grappling hook.

    1. Harry Finhals

      I remember as a kid seeing that old man throwing out that grappling hook and asking him what he was fishing for. He replied with a grin, “heh heh, alligators, heh heh.” Never forget him. Also remember the clam chowder in the little bar/restaurant on the pier, best ever. Good memories.

  4. Steve Santini

    Great article. A trip down memory lane. My dad (RIP) and I fished for whiting on party boats (Brooklyn V, Helen H) out of Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn. Good times!

  5. Ryan

    Hey it looks like that concrete hasnt set yet, must have been a hot bite…

  6. Reed Riemer

    We used to go Frost fishing which was taking a little red wagon Long Beach on an outgoing tide in the middle of winter. The whiting would Chase The bait fish on to the beach and when the waves went out they would be beached and we would just pick them up put them in the wagon and bring them home.this occurred 55 to 60 years ago doesn’t happen anymore obviously the fish are wiped out but those were the good old days

  7. Mark

    Caught a bunch on the Paramount back in 81. I’ve sinced moved to Texas.. Sad to hear whats happened to the fishery.. Similar to what happened with Red Snapper down here.

  8. john angel

    oh how I miss the 70 s out of sheepshead bay. the whiting, the ling, the mackerel fishing

  9. Donnell Wright

    I enjoyed reading the article which reminded me of partyboats (Capt Bill Van & Super Spray III) I went on with my Dad. The sinker would barely be on the bottom before a whiting would hit.

  10. Juan Rivera

    Thank you for sharing your story. I’m 56 now and have fond memories of fishing the Jersey shore. From Atlantic city, long branch, Belmar and northward. We lived in N Y C but my dad always made time to take me fishing for whiting. They were abundant. Ling, brown hake were also abundant. It’s sad some will never know about this fish. Tommy cod were also fun to catch. Haven’t seen them or croakers ( spots ) for years. I live in Rhode island now and fish spring, summer and fall. I hope for the return of the species I mentioned. Again, Thank you for bringing back such great memories.

  11. VINCENT SCALIA

    It,s always a pleasure to read any article written by Milt Roscoe. He defines that inner feeling we have for fishing that evokes fond memories forever inside of us. Also the technical education he passes on. Had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Rosko once on the Mantoloking beach and once on the Dauntless. Talked with me like he knew me for a long time. The best of health to you and your family Mr. Rosko

    Keep fishing, keep writing,
    Vin Scalia

  12. Dennis McMahon

    Back in 1974 about 5 of us were all nice and snug in the neighborhood bar in Brooklyn during a terrible ice storm. The bar was nice and quiet and above all, it was warm; and the film “Captains Courageous” was on the TV. We sat marveling at the film clips of fishermen being lowered into dorys who would then row out for cod. As the beers were consumed the idea that those fishermen had the best of all occupations was agreed upon. Finally 4 am came an one of the guys said ” Hey, lets go down to Shepshead Bay and go fishing “. This was a great idea at the time, so we agreed to go home, gather our gear and make our way through the snow and ice to Sheepshead Bay. The owner / bartender of the bar took a bottle of blackberry brandy, a bottle of Scotch and a case of beer and off we went just as the seafaring men in the movie aforementioned did. We arrived at the bay and went to the first boat we saw and asked the Skipper if he was going out today. He replied,
    “Are you guys nuts? Look at this weather !” We got the same answer at the next boat, and the next, and the next. Meanwhile, we were joined by about 12 other guys – who may have watched the same movie ! Finally we found a boat and asked the skipper if he was going out, and he replied ” Are you guys nuts? Look at this weather… how many of you guys are going to go out ?? Seventeen was the number. After rubbing his chin for a minute or two, the skippr said ” If you guys are crazy enough to go out today, I’m crazy enough to take you. Get aboard !” Well, we hammered the whiting; each man filled a huge burlap bag with whiting. The scotch and the blackberry brandy allowed us to stay warm throughout the day. When we docked we each looked at one another and began to think ” What are we gonna do with 200 -250 fish “? There were several bar patrons who were in the trades and layed off, so we offloaded much of our catch to them, each guy took what he wanted, and then back to the bar for an enormous fish fry. Many of the patrons of the bar never had whiting, or for that matter – fresh fish, So, we were heroes ! We fed people who could benefit from a few meals to feed their kids and by offering a gourmet treat to our friends at the bar. Now, 45 years later, I could never do that again – remaining awake for almost 48 hours or venturing out in frigid weather, but it was a memory that I’ll always cherish.

  13. Jim Kozik

    When I was young my Dad and/or Uncle would take me frost fishing along the New Bedford shore. I’d dress for cold weather and pull on waders. We had a V light and a trident spear. We’d have a bucket up on the shore. We’d walk waist deep in the water and spear the light dazzled fish. Usually a wave would overtop the waders. Talk about cold ! Lots of times we’d hear them flopping about in the receding tide line and just pick them up and toss them in the bucket. We’d usually give the catch away to some guy up in the parking lot who wanted them. We never heard of smoking them. The story brings back lots of great memories.

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