It was right out of a scene from Deadliest Catch. The nearly three-hour ride through rough seas put enough spray over the bow of the 65-foot party boat, Rosie, that salt ice had built up and encrusted everything on the front third of the boat. My first challenge was to make it from the cabin to the bow, where my rod waited in a rodholder welded to the rail.
The deck resembled the surface of an ice rink, and the mates were hustling to spread ice melt ahead of patrons. I made my way as carefully as possible, but we were positioned to make a drift and were taking the seas broadside, resulting in lots of lateral movement as we rocked and rolled between the waves. Coolers of all sizes, which were stowed neatly before departure, were scattered and slid back and forth across the deck. Only the slightest hint of a new day was visible on the eastern horizon. As I did my best to get to the rod, I made frequent glances at The Viking, another Montauk party boat that was already fishing. I was hoping to see bent rods, but there were none among the several-dozen anglers at the rail.
I made it to the rod in one piece, but nearly dropped it overboard as its ice-glazed fore-grip slipped through my neoprene gloves. I did my best to stay vertical as I attached a pound of lead to my sinker loop. The mates had small buckets of shucked and cut skimmer clams ready to go, and I grabbed two pieces while being careful not to soak my gloves in the semi-frozen clam juice. With my thumb on the spool, I disengaged the clutch of the 4/0 Penn Senator to send the heavy rig to the bottom, but nothing happened. The frozen salt spray had locked the spool in place. Pulling on the line accomplished nothing, but I managed to work it loose by grabbing the spool and putting significant turning pressure on it. It was a long way to the bottom, and once there, the best I could do was wrap my forearm around the front of the reel and pin the butt of the 7-foot rod against my body. My hands were already too cold to hold the icy rod. The chemical heat packs inside my gloves were the only things that had gotten me this far. The ones in my boots could be thanked for my ability to still feel my toes. Nonetheless, my bait was on the bottom, and now I was cod fishing.
As hostile as the conditions were, it was the first time in five days that the weather was good enough for the boat to make it from Montauk to the grounds southeast of Block Island. The forecast of mid-20-degree predawn temperatures was dead on, but the prediction of 5- to 10-knot winds and 2-foot seas wasn’t even close. I’ve never been shy about downing a couple of motion sickness pills, and this was one of those times when the drugs kept me from adding some chum to the water. Not everyone onboard was as fortunate.
It was 6 a.m., but I had already been on the boat for five hours. I arrived two hours ahead of the 3 a.m. departure as much for a choice spot in the cabin as for a good selection of rail positions. When I made my reservation, I asked the captain what the preferred side of the boat was on the drift, and he indicated the starboard side. Inside the cabin there was bench seating for 20 of the 35 anglers booked for the trip. The rest dragged buckets and coolers inside for a place to sit, sheltered from the elements. With a bench under my bottom and a wall to lean my back on, I had been able to catch some sleep on the way out.
At around 11 a.m., I began discussing with the angler next to me what they would likely do with the pool, given that not a single codfish had been brought over the rail. No one blamed the captain. Out of the 20-plus other party, charter and large private boats on the grounds, we had yet to see a cod. The most excitement on our boat was caused by a conger eel. Maybe that ugly thing would take the prize.
On the boat’s previous trip, the Captain steamed for port after only three hours of fishing because, “There was no place left to put all of the fish.” Reasons floated for the poor fishing ranged from being only two days away from the full moon, to the suggestion that the cod were spawning and not interested in eating, to the draggers had cleaned them out during the rough weather of the preceding days when there were no sportfishing boats in the way. It was looking like the upside of the trip was going to be an easy cleanup.
The first positive sign came at around 11:30 a.m. when a single charterboat anchored in the middle of the fleet could be seen picking away at small cod. Captain Mark had a superb reputation on the cod grounds and he was earning it on this morning. Speculation was that his chumming technique, which looked like it involved downriggers, was making a difference. It wasn’t long before bent rods began appearing on other boats, and then, in the span of about 30 seconds, we went from our first hookup to having half of the anglers on the boat cranking on a cod.
I had spent hours carefully preparing my rigs for this trip. A 6-inch dropper loop was tied 18 inches above the sinker loop, and a second dropper loop 18 inches above the first. Each loop had a 7/0 Gamakatsu Octopus hook with a teaser. A half a clam on each hook would complete the offering. I made sure I had a variety of teasers in different colors. Four-inch squids, six-inch grubs and nine-inch Jellyworms were standard teasers on the boat, and I had them all. If the cod wanted green, pink, red, or white, I was ready to oblige. When it came right down to it, none of this mattered as the cod jumped on anything that made it to the bottom. It had been the same way on a trip that I had made on the Miss Montauk a couple weeks earlier.
If you didn’t want to get your hands dirty with bait, the cod readily hit 12-ounce hammered jigs. These were rigged with a teaser about 24 inches above the lure. The technique was simple – give it a sweep toward the sky, then let it flutter to the bottom while following it with the rod. The trick was to lower the rod in such a way that it didn’t alter the fluttering of the jig, but was in a position to detect and react to a strike as the jig fell. Most of the hits came on the way down.
I had jigs ready to go, but stayed with the bait rig because I didn’t want to lose any time. As had happened many times over the recent weeks, the best scores were made by those who could spend the most time in the water during hot bites. Even if you were on the fish for only one of seven hours fishing, you could bring home an impressive pile of fillets if you were efficient, careful, and prepared.
With almost everyone fishing the same side of the boat because we were drifting, we were packed in pretty tight. I had my third fish about halfway to the surface when it suddenly became more difficult to reel. Cod aren’t known for getting a second wind (they barely have a first wind), so I knew my line had crossed my neighbor’s, as he too was pulling up a fish. Cod have a nasty habit of spiraling on their way up, and when they’re coming up 20 at a time in a span of 60 feet, tangles are inevitable.
You can have the highest quality rigs and the best of cod fishing techniques, but your ability to avoid and deal with crossed lines can often be the most important thing to consider on a party boat. This tangle was unavoidable, but my rigging made it a little easier to recover from. Braided lines are superior for most fishing applications, especially for bottom fishing in deep water, but braid tangles are a nightmare. The compromise is to use a “topshot” of 20 feet of monofilament over the braid. Mono is much easier to untangle, and most tangles will occur closer to the terminal end. In this case, my 50-pound-test mono had crossed the topshot of my neighbor, and we were both able to get back in the water with little delay.
I wasn’t so lucky when the braid of another angler tangled my rig. He had a fish on, so I cut away at my rigging and then grabbed my spare rod that needed only a sinker and some clam to put me back in the action. When someone fishing the wrong side of the boat with an inappropriately light 8-ounce sinker ran under the boat and snagged my line, I cut my 50-pound braid, retrieved my rig from the other side of the boat, then grabbed a pre-tied rig from my tackle bag and put the first rod back in service. Preparation was the key, and it kept me hauling cod while the getting was good instead of wasting precious time trying to tie knots in a hurry with cold hands.
Each time I dropped to the bottom, I surveyed where the lines of the other anglers were. Since we were drifting, they were usually scoped out a bit from the boat so I needed only to drop straight down to avoid them. In an anchoring situation, the lines may be out or pointing a bit under the boat and taking a second to determine which it is and then dropping away from the others will help reduce tangles. It’s also a good idea to try to use the same size weights as your neighbors so that everyone’s line moves the same way.
The bite lasted about 90 minutes, and when it was over, I had managed to get 10 cod over the rail, with nine of those beating the 22-inch minimum. The largest was around 12 pounds. The best on the boat was a 20-pounder. At a little after 1 p.m., the captain blew three horns, and we began the journey back, this time in conditions that made traveling outside the cabin fairly comfortable.
Before the mates could reach the cleaning table in the stern, anglers were lining up with their coolers and totes to make sure their fish would be reduced to fillets before we reached the dock. I watched the cutting for a while and noted an occasional worm in the fillets. Cod worms are quite common, especially when the fish are schooled up thick like they had been for the preceding six weeks. While the worms might carry a significant gross-out factor, they’re pretty easy to find and remove if you hold the fillets up to the light, and they won’t harm you should you end up eating a few.
It was a long day, but it felt great to be out and using the fishing part of my brain during the winter. Back in the early 90s, cod were plentiful enough that I loaded my freezer with trips out of Moriches Inlet, while head boats sailing out of the western Long Island inlets enjoyed a solid fishery. That fishing dried up in the mid 90s, but it is showing signs of recovery. The more dependable Montauk fishery also experienced some very lean years, but has seen the fishing improve to the point that the period between late January and mid March of 2009 was the best that even seasoned cod skippers could remember. Hopefully, the trend there will continue, and a dependable winter fishery for all of Long Island’s South Shore is on the horizon.