As the weather gets downright cold in December, the winter bottom fishing is only heating up! Frozen hands and ice-block feet mean nothing to the legions of sub-zero heroes who forego conventional creature comforts to fish right through the blustery winter months. With mid-winter temperatures sometimes dropping into the single digits, it takes a big set of lead weights to venture out to fish in such frigid conditions – but make no mistake, the rewards far outweigh the risks.
An eclectic fare awaits the angler at the heated rail, including ling, cod, pollock, blackfish and more. Many party and charter boats will run all through the winter, providing you with a warm meal and good times, so why sit inside watching Dancing with the Stars and thinking about warmer times? Get up, get out, and go bail some fish! Here’s what’s on tap:
They’re quite laughable to look at, but they love cold water and dang are they good eating. An explosive comeback has made headlines in the New York/New Jersey Bight as red hake, commonly called ling, have made a monumental showing in the past four winters. Catches of 15 to 60 1- to 6-pound ling are the norm for each winter party boat angler. With their bottom-feeling barbels and big bug eyes, ling populate nearshore wrecks in the 10- to 30-mile range and give wintertime anglers a worthwhile ride through the winter seas. Ling aren’t known for their vicious, rod-bending fights, because once you get them about 30 feet off the bottom, their air bladder expands and the smaller ones give up the fight for the rest of the way. They do give the bait a good initial whack, and a 3-pound-plus ling will definitely give you some fight on the way up. For the most part, ling run between 1 and 3 pounds, but 4- to 6-pound “baseball bats” are not uncommon and are usually strong contenders to take the pool money aboard the party boat.
Captain Steve Spinelli of the Skylarker II has jumped on the ling train for his charters in the last three years. “Ling have bounced back in major numbers in the last few years. I think the population fluctuates in natural cycles, and right now we are seeing a serious presence of ling every winter on the inshore grounds around the dump rock (concrete rubble) and wrecks. I specifically make charters now to target them because people are happy going out on a trip and filling the cooler.”
Spinelli says that in December and January the ling can be caught in the inshore depths of 100 to 125 feet, but they move into the deeper waters of 120 to 200 feet come February and March. “For bigger ling, you just have to be in the right place at the right time, but to increase your odds, I’d say to drop down with a 2/0 Beak hook and put a strip of bergall or conger eel on the line, so long as there are no spiny dogfish around. The strip baits seem to attract the bigger ling.”
Captain Willie Egerter of the head boat the Dauntless out of Point Pleasant adds, “Generally, the wintertime bite will last until the water temperature gets into the low 30s. If it’s even 34 degrees, the ling will still bite.”
Though red hake will be the main fare, there is always somebody on deck who pulls up the red hake’s cousin, the purple hake. Purple hake can grow larger than ling, reaching the 8- to 15-pound mark. Aesthetically, they resemble the red hake, but they exhibit a purplish sheen on their flanks and have small teeth in their oversized mouths, allowing anglers to distinguish between the two species.
Small bits of clam are very effective baits, but if you have sea robin, bergall or bluefish strips, cut them in 3- to 4-inch slices and place them on the hook to increase your odds of attracting a 4-pound-plus ling. Berkley Gulp Swimmin’ Minnow grubs in white or chartreuse also get some serious strikes.
Some of the more popular areas where fishermen find their fill of ling are the Mud Hole, Scotland Grounds and the Arundo Wreck.
It used to be that cod were an infrequent bycatch on ling and blackfishing trips, but in the last three years, there has been a welcomed resurgence in cod stocks off New York and New Jersey. Now, party boats are running mid-range, 20- to 50-mile wreck trips specifically to target these white-bellied bruisers.
January to April seems to be the time when cod root down in the holes and tunnels of shipwrecks, and ambitious boaters will find that anchoring above one of the structures and setting out a clam chum slick will usually bring the cod out of the wreck to actively feed. This type of fishing is different from New England cod fishing where fishermen drift over shoals and ledges to bounce jigs for cod. In our area, there aren’t as many codfish spread out over a large area, and it seems like a select few wrecks, rockpiles and other structures attract dense concentrations of the fish.
Most boats will drift over a spot first to see if anybody’s home, and will eventually set the anchor over a wreck and bounce jigs or clam baits to cajole the cod to come out and bite. A good trip out for cod to the 40-mile wrecks could have the boat hauling up anywhere from a dozen to four-dozen keeper codfish from 8 to 30 pounds. Fresh clam baits reign supreme for cod, but deep jigging metals tends to catch the big boys. A general cod rig consists of a typical high-low rig with 50-pound-test leader material. Hooks such as a size 6/0 baitholder hook or a size 8/0 Gamakatsu Octopus hook work well on the cod. Cod seem to key in on the colors red and pink, so 3- to 5-inch grubtails, bucktail teasers, beads or squid skirts are all promising additions to the hook.
Much like the cod, pollock have really made a comeback of sorts, and any offshore wreck-fishing trip could return with a 20-pound pollock as the pool winner. In 2007, pollock even bit through the spring and summer months as bluefishing trips out to the Mud Hole had shots at 20- to 35-pound pollock using diamond jigs. Be prepared to drop a heavy 8- to 16-ounce Viking or Crippled Herring jig down with a 6/0 bucktail teaser tied about 3 feet above it to jig above the wreck. On both the jig and the teaser, it helps to sweeten your offering with a strip bait of cut bergall or herring. If pollock or cod are present, they’ll most definitely strike this offering.
If you do happen into one pollock, more will be hanging around the structure. Pollock form large schools, with most fish caught on the far wrecks averaging between 15 and 25 pounds. High-speed retrieve reels with a 6-to-1 ratio are a must in this type of fishing as the depths you may be fishing can be deeper than 240 feet. Pollock will absolutely hammer a jig or bait and the fight can be exhilarating.
Good pollock-holding areas include the 28-Mile Wreck and the Texas Tower.
Blackfish,those brawny bucktoothed brawlers of shipwrecks, undoubtedly provide the most hard-fought battles in the wintertime. Tautog lie well within the nooks and crannies of the structure, poking their big lips and donkey teeth out to crush and suck down morsels of green crabs and fresh clams. These bulldogs will pounce on your baits quickly, and swinging and missing on the hookset is common. Though you will have to get the feel for when to set the hook on your own, I’ve found that quickly striking at the second tap results in the lowest percentage of missed fish. Once the hook finds a place in the tog’s rubbery lips, hoist the rod up high and reel immediately before that tog can nestle himself back into the wreck. When a blackfish grabs a bait, he’ll be running full-bore back to his lair, and if you don’t get that tog up and out of the wreck, he’ll get you stuck, and most likely force you to cut your line.
Tautog average from 3 to 6 pounds, but any trip can see a tog exceeding the 10-pound mark, and even blackfish as heavy as 16 pounds are roaming the wrecks! Captain Sam Rescigno of the Mary M III knows all about whitechins. His all-time best checked in at just over 14 pounds, but the fishermen that drop crab-baited rigs off his boat have put tog to 20 pounds, 9 ounces on deck. How do they score? “Hands down, if you can get ‘em, hermit crabs are the best bait. I get ‘em from lobster fishermen, but you can find ‘em around rocks if you put your time in,” Rescigno says, offering insight into the minds of the mammoths. “This is my theory. I truly believe that the larger blackfish go against conventional thought and stay outside of the wreck or reef area.
They are a cautious fish and spend a lot more time on the open bottom than you think. This is evident upon examination of the colors of the larger tog, which are white on the bottom and light gray on top, allowing them to blend in better with the sand and clay bottom. The smaller tog typically have a darker black coloring because they are hanging tight in the dark, rusty structure. Big blackfish also dine on all sorts of crabs, which are, for the most part, fiddling around along the sand bottom. Even the divers I speak to tell me that the larger blackfish hang on the edges of the wrecks, and not inside them.”
Captain Sam’s go-to toggin’ rig consists of a 40-pound-test, 5-foot double leader, with a 12- to 16-inch 40-pound-test snelled 4/0 beak hook or size-3 Virginia hook looped on. To find those big ol’ whitechins, Sam recommends an unconventional strategy. “Fish out-of-the-way spots. You don’t always need to target the reef sites and big wrecks. I usually hit the small, overlooked wooden snags that lie on the inshore grounds, and find a pack of big tog on each one. In November, there are millions of 5-pound-class fish all over, but my favorite time to fish blackfish is from mid-December through January, when you can pull up a few 10-pounders on almost every trip.”
The Cape May and Shark River Reefs offer a reliable shot at a big blackfish consistently.
Bouncing bottom around jagged structure will ultimately cost even the most careful angler a fair amount of lost tackle and rigs, so when setting out, expect to lose quite a bit. For the most part, winter bottom-fishing rigs consist of a simple high-low rig.
To begin with, take a 4-foot section of 40- or 50-pound-test leader material. Tie a 100-pound-test barrel swivel to the top, and 18-inches from that, tie a dropper loop. After another 18 inches, tie another dropper loop. Attach a bank sinker at the bottom of the rig with a loop knot or other simple connection. Tie an overhand knot on the line just above the weight to aid in breaking off should the weight hang up. The overhand knot will cut into itself and make sure only the sinker is lost, allowing the angler to retrieve the rest of the rig.
On the dropper loops, size 3/0 to 4/0 Mustad 92641 Baitholder hooks will fit the bill, as they tend to hold clams better, but you may also opt for 2/0 Gamakatsu octopus-style hooks. Hooks may be adorned with a variety of white or chartreuse bucktails, curly-tail grubs, Berkeley Gulp baits, or Mylar flash to attract attention from down below. If spiny dogfish invade the area, lose the attractants and stick to pure bait, or you’ll be battling dogs all day long. Savvy anglers will also loop on a snelled baitholder hook right above the sinker to specifically target ling that crawl around the mud bottom. The bank sinkers used run from 5 to 16 ounces, and it is wise to bring a wide assortment of sizes to compensate for the currents. Bottom feeders will find the high-low rig perfect to bite on, as it covers a range of depths on the wreck. More ambitious anglers will drop down 10- to 16-ounce Crippled Herring or Viking Jigs onto the wreck to attract the attention of a roving cod or pollock. Fifty-pound-test fluorocarbon leader is recommended here, and you may also tie on a 5/0 bucktail hook or grub-tail teaser three feet above the jig. High-speed retrieve reels with a 6 to 1 ratio spooled with 65-pound braid running line matched with a stout 7 foot rod are the norm, as the 180-foot-plus depths can become quite a hassle to consistently check baits and re-drop. Personally, I employ the Lamiglas TFX7040CT and a Shimano Torium 20 reel and find that it’s ample for all of the aforementioned species.
Neither rain, nor sleet nor snow will stop the hunger pangs of the Atlantic’s inhabitants, nor will it dampen the expectations and desires of the true salt-seasoned fisherman. Wintertime wreck fishing is not for the comfort-freak, as below-zero temperatures, frigid winds and questionable sea conditions will make for a true challenge. But, if you prepare right, you’re headed for a most excellent adventure! So when the winter winds come howling through, it’s not time to hibernate; it’s time to bend the rods, fill the cooler with fish, and enjoy some good times.