Kings of the Spring
The recent inshore haddock boom offers anglers fast action, light-tackle bottom fishing, and tasty fillets at the beginning of the season.
Photo by Steven DeNeef
A few years back, the night before a group fishing trip on May 1, a plan was set in motion.
“Let’s head out at dawn and try to find the first push of stripers up on the flats. Next, we’ll move out front and drop jigs around muddy structure and limit out on haddock.”
We were in agreement, so that was the plan.
This type of high-expectation planning is a common occurrence the night before a fishing trip, often proclaimed in manic text chats or after-work phone calls with fishing buddies. I’ve found this to be especially true for early-season fishing trips. With spirits high, confidence off the charts, and a whole winter of pent-up angling energy just waiting to be exercised, these types of naïve predictions come easy. When you haven’t fished the salt in five months, delusions of grandeur are to be expected.
I don’t have to tell you that these plans rarely work as envisioned. When is the last time the fish were exactly where you thought they’d be? Success in fishing is about using all of your data points, gut feelings, and intel to make the most educated decision possible, and then to have the humility to get back out there the following day after everything goes exactly the opposite of your plan.
To our surprise, on that calm May morning, everything went according to plan.
At first light, we found a fresh push of slot-sized stripers blitzing on every shoal and flat we fished. Then, we moved three miles offshore and made a slow drift over the first muddy plateau on the chart, dropping 6-ounce sand-eel jigs to the bottom. We tripled up, then we tripled up again. The four quarts of clams we brought (just in case) sat defrosting and unused in the corner of the aft deck and were eventually dumped overboard. Much of the morning went exactly that way until every cooler and livewell on the boat was filled with fat haddock. We took our time getting back to the dock and spent even more time filleting the full limit of fish, basking in the warmth of success at the very beginning of a brand-new fishing season. I love it when a plan comes together.
The modern history of haddock fishing in the Gulf of Maine is riddled with crashes and rebounds. Commercial demand for haddock boomed in the 1920s due to the proliferation of faster, steam-powered fishing vessels capable of delivering fresh fish to port. Before that, all fish were salted at sea, making cod the more desirable fillet. Over the course of the following decades, haddock became an incredibly important food fish in the Northeast, nearly outpacing cod in commercial landings in the Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank. You can guess what happened next.
In the 1960s, haddock landings exploded, primarily due to the presence of foreign fishing vessels. By 1976, the stock had crashed, prompting the creation of the Magnusson Stevens Act, which dictates fisheries management and practices to this day. Over the next several years, the haddock stock rebounded to historic levels.
Currently, while the stocks of other groundfish species in the Gulf of Maine are at various levels of overfished status, namely cod and flounder, haddock are at a 40-year high, nearly 10 times the stock abundance that existed in the early 2000s, according to the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries.
The recent population boom has quickly turned haddock into the kings of the spring for anglers north of the Cape looking for a bend in the rod and some tasty fillets. For those with a boat, a friend with a boat, or a ticket to fish on a local party boat, haddock fishing represents the vanguard to the saltwater fishing season, a chance to brush off the rust and thaw the ice after a cold and fishless winter.
When to Start Your Search
On our micro, recreational-fishing level, the haddock boom means that starting around mid-April, and peaking around mid-May, you’ll be able to find haddock along the entire coastline from Cape Cod Bay out to Stellwagen and along the coast all the way up to Maine. In recent history, anglers hoping for a limit of haddock needed to head to Stellwagen Bank or the deeper water north and east of it. But in the past few years, our “inshore” bottom-fishing areas have slowly begun to fill with haddock—sometimes only a few miles from shore.
The best way to start your search is to identify the depth at which haddock are feeding. In the early spring, when the sea surface temperature approaches 50 degrees, juvenile sand eels begin emerging from the sand. Due to this enormous bounty of baitfish and the warming muddy bottoms, haddock will move inshore to feed. Spring sand-eel “hatches” are determined by water temperature, which is why particular depths fish better at certain points throughout the season. Early in the haddock season, typically around mid-April, it’s best to start as deep as 250 feet. As waters warm in May, look in depths of 100 to 140 feet. By mid-June, the haddock will move deep again.
Though most bottom fishing for other species is focused on finding distinct hard structure like wrecks, reefs, and rock piles, spring haddock tend to inhabit more subtle structure. Often, you’ll find the greatest number of haddock “in the mud.” Unfortunately, much of the bottom composition of Cape Cod Bay and along the South Shore features muddy or sandy bottom, so finding the concentrations of bait and haddock can be challenging. Typically, the haddock congregate around plateaus and steep changes in depth along a short distance. Once you’ve identified haddock at a specific depth, follow the contour line until you find larger concentrations of fish and bait.
Look for “interesting bottom” on your sonar. Side-scanning sonar is incredibly helpful for finding bait concentrations in the lower third of the water column. You may not always be able to mark individual fish on your sonar, but schools of bait should show up if you have your machine tuned correctly. If you do locate a concentration of haddock, spend some time tuning your sonar so that you can identify the bait. This will make your future search easier.
I don’t think there is a hard and fast rule when looking at hot feeding times and their correlation to tides. Often, the best bites come around times of fast-moving water. But, remember, haddock fishing can be difficult with a fast drift because it means using heavier jigs to keep them straight up and down. You may have to drop the anchor to capitalize on these opportunities.
In some cases, it pays to wait out the bite. Often, it will suddenly turn on for a half hour before shutting down again. If you’re on a concentration of bait and you’ve been catching haddock, give it an hour. When in doubt, get away from the fleet. When a school seems to have dried up and you have waited a sufficient amount of time, move a quarter mile along the same depth line and cruise until you find another concentration of sand eels.
In an effort to minimize cod bycatch of cod, the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries has posted a series of informative maps that show anglers where to find the highest concentrations of haddock in state waters (shaded in green above). There is a map for each month of the season, and there are separate maps for northern and southern Cape Cod Bay. DOWNLOAD: MADMF Haddock Recreational Fishing Guide PDF
When haddock black out the lower third of your sonar, fishing can be automatic, meaning just about any presentation or strategy will work. When the fish are finicky or spread out, getting them to eat can be surprisingly technical. When this is the case, presentation is everything—meaning you have to change up your drift speed, jig weight, or jigging technique.
While drifting is preferred due to the ability to cover water, most of the time it is advantageous to anchor up. This will allow you to better present your jigs or bait straight up and down, as opposed to scoped out away from the boat. Jigs must constantly hit the bottom to draw attention from the haddock. Jigs drifting behind the boat will ride higher in the water column and won’t present naturally as a forage food.
Jig Weight and Style
Use the lightest weight jig as possible while still holding the bottom. Around slack tide, you may be able to get away with 3 to 4 ounces, depending on depth. During times of heavy tidal movement and wind, you may need to move up to 12 to 16 ounces of weight; deeper water may require up to 20 ounces. Modern metal jigs designed for speed jigging or slow-pitch jigging are slimmer than the old Norwegian cod jigs, helping them get to the bottom faster. The thinner diameter of lighter braid and leader will also allow you to use less weight to hold bottom.
If fishing bait, experiment with elongated rod lifts and drops, which will cause a big puff of sand on the bottom, drawing fish in. Often, dead-sticking the bait rod and putting it in a rod holder triggers more bites. If fishing jigs, dead-sticking a rod also works surprisingly well. Other times, the most effective jigging method is a long, slow rod lift and drop followed by a few cranks of the reel handle to bring the jig up the water column. Slow-pitch jigging is a technique that has recently become popular in the United States. A slow-pitch rod is much more parabolic that a traditional rod so it can unload and move the jig in a much more nuanced manner.
The wonderful thing about haddock fishing is that you can go as new-school modern or as old school as you want. Lighter bottom-fishing gear commonly used these days means you can use lighter jigs and make the fight more sporting and enjoyable. But, if you prefer to hearken back to your early days and use Dad’s old Penn Senator and a high-low rig loaded with clams, that works too.
When haddock fishing, it’s always advantageous to have as many contingency plans as possible. A few quarts of fresh clams are indispensable when the bite is spread out. Gulp curly-tail grubs make an excellent substitute for clams if you’re short on bait. Clams on a high-low rig also serve as excellent fish finders. We typically have a rod rigged for bait and the rest rigged with metal jigs. At a new spot, if the bait rod doesn’t get hit within 15 minutes, it’s time to pick up and move.
The mantra these days with any type of fishing is to go light when it comes to tackle, and inshore haddock fishing is no exception. Modern-style jigs (outlined below) let you get to the bottom with much lighter lure weights than what has been used in the past. Narrow-spooled conventional reels paired with a short, traditional jigging rod or a slow-pitch rod will allow you to jig for haddock all day without tiring. A traditional conventional jigging rod has more versatility to fish jigs and bait in different ways. Haddock have smaller, more downturned mouths compared to cod and pollack, which means we often downsize our lure offerings. Light gear is essential, especially when the bite is tough. Thirty-pound braid means less weight to hold bottom and keeps your presentation vertical, which is key. Lighter gear also allow you to feel lights taps often associated with haddock. Bites can be very subtle and easy to miss. Lighter braid, leaders, and rods help capitalize on more bites.
There’s something comforting about bottom fishing. It feels primitive, feeding our ancient human instinct as hunter to eat what’s caught; it’s also nostalgic. Dropping a substantial chunk of clam down to the bottom on a calm spring day is a surefire way to bring you right back to childhood. Spring haddock fishing is low stakes and low risk, which is the perfect way to start a saltwater fishing season.
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