Haddock, a smaller, silver-scaled relative of cod, had been swimming under the radar of most recreational anglers for decades before cod-fishing closures in the Gulf of Maine and a concurrent boom in the haddock population brought the species to the forefront. For most of the year, haddock are considered a deep-water species, hunkering down in 200 feet of water or more, where fishermen hoping to hook them use heavy sinkers and stout tackle. The resulting fishing feels more like cooler-filling work than recreation, as the 4- to 6-pound haddock are easily overwhelmed by the gear.
But, in the spring, haddock move shallow into depths of 90 to 120 feet where, in addition to the standard clam-baited high-low rigs, they’ll also strike jigs and teasers.
“Haddock fishing is almost automatic in the early spring. The past few years, Stellwagen Bank’s Southwest and Northwest corners have been on fire. When you’re on the fish, you’ll have trouble hitting bottom with your bait before hooking up. Double-hook rigs with clams will often result in doubleheaders, though fresh mackerel strips are equally effective. Often, the fishing is so good that boats will head in before lunch with their six-person limits filleted and iced.”
– Captain Frank Pitten, South Shore Insider
HADDOCK FISHING SEASON
In 2019, haddock fishing season opens April 15. Early on, fish stack up in massive schools on shallow areas of Stellwagen Bank and Jeffries Ledge. Anglers can target them in less than 100 feet of water, which allows for light tackle, fast fishing, and easy releases. Last year, the fishing was strong into early June, at which point the fish moved into deeper water east of Stellwagen. That was expected; the shock was when they moved back into the shallows midsummer as if it was spring. Fishermen anchored up fishing for tuna on top of Stellwagen Bank were catching their limit of haddock while waiting for a bluefin to bite!
SEASONAL SPEED LIMIT IN CAPE COD BAY
The Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries (DMF) has implemented a seasonal small vessel speed limit of 10 knots for certain waters of Cape Cod Bay during the months of March and April (see map). This speed limit has been implemented to protect endangered right whales from ship strikes. In late winter, right whales migrate into Cape Cod Bay, where they surface-feed on zooplankton. This behavior leaves them particularly susceptible to ship strikes, a significant source of mortality to these endangered whales.
BEST HADDOCK RIGS AND LURES
Haddock have small mouths and feed primarily on invertebrates and small fish. Most people prefer to fish for them with bait (primarily clams), although small 5- to 7-ounce jigs can be effective when the fish are shallow. If you decide to go with a jig, make sure to add a bucktail teaser above it; haddock are notorious for taking the teaser over the jig.
Captain Rich Antonino of Black Rose Charters in Marshfield, Massachusetts, uses “big, ugly orange teasers” that he ties on circle hooks to avoid snagging small fish. He prefers jigs over bait because they don’t attract pesky dogfish, and there’s no risk of getting picked clean and fishing a naked hook. He sticks with jigs with single hooks, as trebles cause collateral damage to small fish.
Captain Bobby Rice of Reel Deal Fishing Charters in Truro, Massachusetts, is also a proponent of jigs. “The fish are stacked up so tight that there is no need for bait – it just slows you down,” said Rice, who prefers Daddy Mac Trophy Series jigs rigged with either two assist hooks or a single J-hook.
For centuries, Atlantic cod have been the cornerstone of the fishing scene in the Gulf of Maine. Unfortunately, biologists have determined their stocks are overfished. As a result, fishery managers have enacted strict regulations including a prohibition on cod possession for the recreational fishery.
At the same time, Gulf of Maine haddock is not overfished, and the stock has increased to record levels in recent years. However, cod and haddock often feed in the same areas, and cod are frequently taken as bycatch when fishing for haddock.
Researchers from the Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life at the New England Aquarium, the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries (MADMF), and Rutgers are collaborating on studies that could help recreational anglers reduce accidental mortality of released cod. Results from a study comparing the physical trauma and handling time that resulted from different terminal tackle (including J-hooks, circle hooks, and treble hooks) will be released this spring. A second project conducted this year will attempt to translate data from the MADMF Industry-Based Trawl Survey into practical guidance—a series of maps—to help fishermen avoid cod while targeting haddock.
The blossoming haddock fishery has been a life ring for many of the charter captains for whom cod has been the backbone of their business. Prime spring dates book fast. Haddock fishing charters leave from Gloucester, Boston, Plymouth, Marshfield, and Cape Cod. Inquire about a haddock fishing charter here.