New Jersey'™s Inshore/Offshore Winter Wonderland

Baby, it's cold outside! But fishing continues to be hot along the Jersey Shore for blackfish, cod, sea bass and more. Here's where you should try right now. (January 2008).

A good-sized tautog, like this one caught onboard the "big Mohawk iii" out of Belmar, will put a smile on the face of most any cold-weather angler.
Photo by Ken Freel.

You've got to have some serious ice cubes in your veins to play in this game. Any fisherman can lay claim to putting in time in the spring, summer and fall. After all, what's more fun than live-lining bunker during the springtime striper run? Or bouncing bucktails for summertime fluke? Or surf-casting plugs to bass, blues and weakies during the explosive fall run?

The point is, where are you when the bitter cold of December and Ol' Man Winter rolls in? Step away from that fireplace! Get hardcore and forget about hibernation. It's time to head straight into Jersey's promised Winter Wonderland!

RED LING

The anchor of the wintertime fishery rests on the shoulders of one aesthetically challenged critter with bottom-feeling barbels -- the ugly, yet tasty ling. These fish populate near-shore wrecks in the 10- to 30-mile range and give the wintertime anglers a really worthwhile ride through the winter seas. Catches can range from 15 to 60 fish per man, per trip.

No, sir, ling aren't known for their vicious rod-bending fights. Once you get them about 30 feet off the bottom, their air bladders pop out, and they give up. But they will give the bait a good initial whack, and a 3-pound-plus ling will definitely give you a little jolt when reeling it in.

Ling mainly weigh in between 1 and 3 pounds. But 4- to 6-pound "baseball bat" specimens are not uncommon and will usually win the pool money for the day.

A standard two-hook rig works best to bring up the feisty scrappers, with a snelled 2/0 hook tied right above the sinker, with another snelled hook on a dropper 12 inches up from that hook. Small bits of clam work well to take most fish. But if you have strips of sea robin, bergall or bluefish, cut them in 3- to 4-inch slices and lance them on the hook for a shot at a 4-pound-plus bracket ling.

Capt. 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 it's a cyclical thing with bottom-fishing. Right now, we are seeing a serious presence of ling every winter on the inshore grounds around the dumped rock and wrecks. I specifically make charters now to target ling, as people are happy going out on a trip and filling coolers.

"My only problem now is for the fares to have enough ice to keep all the fish cool!"

Spinelli says that in December and January, ling can be caught in the inshore depths of 100 to 125 feet. But they will 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 up your advantage, I'd say to drop down with a 2/0 beak-style hook. 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 find the bigger ling."

COD & POLLOCK

Mud Hole, Scotland Grounds, The Arundo Wreck
Granted, it's not a constant free-for-all on cod and Pollock as it is off the Georges Bank. But in recent years, Jersey winter wreck-pounders have been delighted with the increasing presence of both species on the 40-mile wrecks.

It used to be that cod and pollock were a gratuitous bycatch on ling and blackfish trips. But captains have become savvy to the idea that organized trips could actually be structured to target these bottom bullies.

January and March seem to be when cod begin to root down in the holes and tunnels of shipwrecks. Ambitious boaters will find that anchoring above one of the structures and instituting a clam slick will usually bring the cod out of a wreck to feed actively. This type of fishing is different than Jersey's northern counterparts in Hyannis, as they tend to set up on a drift over shoals and ledges to bounce for cod. But the method works well in Jersey waters.

After all, cod aren't as numerous or spread out over a large area. They're more penned up in a few select spots. You just have to knock on their door.

A good trip out to the 40-mile wrecks for cod could have the boat into about 12 to 48 keeper codfish up to 30 pounds -- if the bite is right.

Happily, pollock have really made a comeback of sorts in the Garden State's waters. Any offshore trip could find the pool winner with at least a 20-pound caliber pollock. In 2007, pollock bit even through the spring and summer months. Bluefish trips out to the Mud Hole saw anglers catching 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 up to jig above the wreck. Place some strip baits from bergalls or herring on both hooks.

If pollock or cod are there, they'll be on it. And if you do happen into one, more will be hanging around the structure, since pollock tend to school up. High-speed retrieve reels with 6-to-1 ratios are a must in this type of fishing, as you may be over depths of more than 240 feet.

BRAWLING BLACKFISH
28-Mile Wreck & Texas Tower

These guys aren't going to win any beauty pageants, either. Blackfish are the brawny bucktoothed brawlers of shipwrecks. These species undoubtedly give up some of the most hardnosed battles of the winter season.

Tautogs will 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 even fresh clams.

When the proverbial bulldogs pounce on your baits, the real key to landing one is to immediately set the hook on the second tap. Hoist the rod up high and reel immediately before that tog can nestle itself back into the wreck -- once it grabs your bait, it'll be swimming full-bore back to its lair. If you don't get that 'tog up and out of the wreck, it'll likely be Game Over on your tussle for the makings of a fine dinner.

Tautogs will average from 3 to 5 pounds, but any trip can produce a 'tog exceeding the 10-pound m

ark even up into the 16-pound range. The world-record tautog of 25 pounds was caught on a southern New Jersey wreck. What a whopper!

Capt. Sam Rescigno of the Mary M III knows about whitechins. His all-time best checked in at just over 14 pounds. But the sharpies that drop lines in off his boat have put togs up to 20 pounds, 9 ounces on deck! How do they score on such big fish?

"If you can get 'em, hermit crabs are the best bait, hands down," said Rescigno. "I get 'em from lobster fishermen, but you can find 'em around rocks if you put your time in.

"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 than you think on the open bottom. You can explain this by noticing the colors of the larger togs: They are white on the bottom and light gray on top. Why? They blend in better with the sand and clay bottom.

"The smaller 'togs are a dark black because they are hanging tight in the dark 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 specimen of blackfish hang on the edges of the wrecks, and not so much inside them."

Capt. Sam's go-to rig consists of a 40-pound-test, 5-foot double leader, with a snelled 4/0 beak hook or No. 3 Virginia hook looped on.

To find those big ol' donkeytooths, Sam recommends a different type of fishing 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 togs on each one.

"My favorite time to hit it up is from mid-December through January, when you can pull off a few 10-pounders on almost every trip."

HUMPBACK BLACK SEA BASS 50- To 80-Mile Wrecks
Two to 3-pound sea bass are legitimate fighters. But you can't claim to have caught a true humpback black sea bass until you break the 5-pound mark.

Have you even seen a 30-inch sea bass? I did on my first offshore trip for sea bass a few years back, and when sea bass break the 5-pound mark, not only are they formidable fighters, but they take on a truly majestic look with flowing tail filaments, and vibrant blues, greens and purples throughout their skin. Not to mention the humps on their heads that make them look like raging bulls!

The 50- to 80-mile wreck trips are relatively new. During the past eight years or so, some adventurous captains decided to do some exploratory trips to find out what bites way offshore when the mercury dips below freezing. Capt. Howard Bogan of the Jamaica was one of the first offshore sea bass pioneers. On the special offshore 50- to 80-mile wreck sea bass trips that he runs, everyone usually comes up a winner.

"When the water temps dip into the mid to low 40s, black sea bass begin to move offshore to their wintering grounds, out near the continental shelf," Bogan said.

"There's not too much fishing pressure hounding them day in and day out 50 to 80 miles out during the month of January. That's where to go to find the larger sea bass."

Bottom-bouncing around jagged structure will ultimately mean bunch of lost tackle and rigs -- and when setting out, expect to lose a lot. For the most part, bottom-fishing rigs consist of a high-low setup. A 4-foot section of 40-pound leader material is attached to a 100-pound-class barrel swivel. Then a dropper loop is tied 18 inches down, and then 18 inches more where the next dropper loop is tied. A final overhand loop for the bank sinker completes the rig.

This setup is a good one, since many times, you'll have to break off your sinker only without losing the entire rig. Place size 3/0 to 4/0 bait-holder style hooks on the loops.

Bait-holder hooks tend to hold clams better, but you may also opt for Gamakatsu Octopus-style hooks in the same sizes. Hooks may be adorned with a variety of white or chartreuse bucktails, curly grub tails, Berkeley Gulp! Baits, or Mylar flash to attract attention from down below.

Sea bass should be played with caution, as anglers who horse around may find themselves losing the battle midway up. Keep a semi-tight, semi-loose drag on, as you need the muscle to bring them up from the bottom, but too much power may pull the hook from their mouths.

There are a mess of other species you may encounter -- tilefish, silver hake, conger eels, ocean pout and so on, but most anglers do not target these species intentionally.

Jersey's winter playground is gaining more notoriety as the years pass. It's amazing that you can actually catch more fish during the subzero temperatures than you can during the sultry heat of summertime. Forget about the sunscreen and flip-flops. Pull on your insulated underwear and sock hats, because it's high time you found out what the meaning of winter fishing is all about!

Neither rain, nor sleet nor snow will stop the hunger pangs of the Atlantic's fishy inhabitants. Nor will it dampen the expectations and desires of the true salt-seasoned fisherman. As a kid, I remember wishing to ride the high seas in the coldest, nastiest weather, breaking through whitecaps in the dead of winter in search of a shipwreck to pull fish off of.

It was a rite of passage to manhood, or at the very least, an adventure! The wintertime saltwater fishery is an exercise to challenge and better yourself, but remember to be prepared and pack up the proper gear for a long day on the frigid Atlantic. After all, you don't want to be too cold to fish when the fishing is hot!

Magazine Cover

GET THE MAGAZINE Subscribe & Save

Temporary Price Reduction

SUBSCRIBE NOW

Give a Gift   |   Subscriber Services

PREVIEW THIS MONTH'S ISSUE

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Get the top Game & Fish stories delivered right to your inbox every week.