Garden State'™s Big Blackfish Bonanza

Garden State'™s Big Blackfish Bonanza

Read on for top bottom-fishing hotspots along New Jersey's long coastline, where you'll find big (and tough) tautogs this winter season.(February 2008).

Photo by Milt Rosko.

"This one's a big one!" said Sue Pavel excitedly as her rod was pulled down to the rail. Bundled in several layers of clothes and a bright orange foul-weather suit, she persevered, gradually gaining line.

Moments later, she brought a big blackfish to the surface. In a flash it was netted and brought aboard the party boat Voyager, which sails from the Fisherman's Supply dock in Point Pleasant Beach.

"Bet I win the pool with this one!" she beamed, adding her fourth and final blackfish of the day to her cooler. "These are all big, beautiful fish that are just great on the dinner table. They're a wintertime seafood treat second to none!"

The only lady on board, Sue didn't profess to be a gourmet cook. She just loved fresh blackfish prepared with a lot of old family recipes, plain and simple.

Capt. Jeff Gutman's spacious party packet was anchored on a rocky patch a few miles southeast of Manasquan Inlet, with Capt. Kenny Namowitz at the helm. Located in 50- to 60-foot depths, the blackfish will take up winter residence on this and similar patches, where there's an abundance of crabs, lobsters and other forage to satisfy their appetites. It's the kind of spot where a skipper can anchor, and then periodically adjust the anchor line to position the boat over different sections of the bottom.

There were fewer than a dozen of us on board. Most of us were veterans at this midwinter pastime, as was evident by the proper clothing we wore and the gear we employed. Nothing fancy, just our favorite rod and reel, and the same outfits we used to target fluke while wearing shorts during the summer.

Most of us spooled with braided line, and a single No. 3 Virginia-style hook snelled to 12 inches of leader material, with 3 or 4 ounces of sinker weight -- just enough to hold bottom.

These were not tourists, out to enjoy the sun. These anglers stood at the rail, ever intent to catch big blackfish or annoying bergalls (cunners), which were after the single green crab bait. Indeed, some of those bergalls measured only 3 or 4 inches, yet they were pecking away at a piece of crab half their size. Tolerate them the party-boat veterans did, for they recognized that patience is the key.

And while a bergall may be working on the bait, a big blackfish may suddenly cruise by and decide to have the green crab for lunch.

The Weather Channel had predicted calm seas with a light northwest wind, which was pretty much the same as the prior two days. It was just what I'd been waiting for. During the winter months, the cold can be tolerated, but wind and a rough ocean can be uncomfortable.

When I boarded the Voyager, I wasn't surprised to find so few anglers on board. This is typical of mid-winter fishing, which makes for plenty of room to fish.

At most of the major party-boat ports, from Atlantic Highlands to Cape May, some captains take their craft to Florida for the winter, while others just take a respite from the fishing and don't begin again until the spring's winter flounder run.

Throughout the winter months, providing the ports aren't locked in from ice, you'll find boats sailing regularly ranging from Atlantic Highlands to Belmar, Brielle and Point Pleasant, Barnegat Light, Atlantic City, Ocean City, Sea Isle City and Cape May.

By now, most blackfish have moved offshore into the 50- to 75-foot depths, with some tautogs down 100 feet or more. This makes for a rather short ride to the fishing grounds, and provides ample time for anglers to work towards bagging a limit of four tautogs measuring 14 inches or larger, during the Jan. 1 through May 31, 2008 season. (Continued)

ATLANTIC HIGHLANDS

During winter, inshore temperatures plummet as a result of the cold water emptying into the ocean from the Hudson and Raritan rivers. Along the North Jersey coast, blackfish often move offshore to 17 Fathoms Bank. This renowned patch of broken, irregular bottom becomes home to a sizeable blackfish population, which feed on the abundant crabs, lobsters and other forage that inhabit this rugged bottom area.

So long as Atlantic Highlands Municipal Harbor isn't locked in ice, there's always a couple of party boats ready to sail to these grounds for a day of midwinter fun.

"It's cold fishing," laments Capt. Don Hager, Jr. of the Sea Fox. "But the rewards are sizeable blackfish."

SHARK RIVER INLET

"Last winter the water temperatures were moderate," noted Capt. Chris Heuth of the Belmar-based party boat Big Mohawk III. "As a result, the fish hung in the 60- to 70-foot depths throughout most of the winter.

"Our biggest problem has been the commercial pots and traps being placed on the prime fishing grounds, but hopefully this will be resolved soon, as this constant pressure can't be sustained by the fishery."

Capt. Heuth is confident he'll be able to put his anglers into good catches because he has a huge log of Global Positioning System (GPS) and Loran coordinates, with some hotspots being barely the size of his boat.

MANASQUAN INLET

The Paramount and Jamaica II from Brielle, and the Gambler and Dauntless from Point Pleasant Beach, sail daily throughout the winter from the Manasquan Inlet. Good bottom for finding blackfish exists from close to shore to well into the deep.

These skippers can pretty much judge where the fish will be by the water temps -- the colder it is, the farther offshore they are.

Capt. Willie Egerter Jr., who with his dad is at the helm of the Dauntless, alerts anglers to dress warm for this fishing. "If we get a strong northwester, it can bring temps around the freezing point. But the blackfish don't mind, and it usually isn't too difficult to put together a limit, while spicing the cooler with a bonus of ling, too."

BARNEGAT INLET

During the summer months, Barnegat Inlet is one of the busiest inlets along the Jersey coast. But at this time of the year, many of the private boats and charter boats are snugly under wraps for the winter.

The commercial draggers continue to probe the depths, targeting squid, surf clams, and scallops.

There are also the party boats Doris Mae IV, with Capt. Charles Eble at the wheel, and the big charter boat Searcher II, skippered by Wayne Eble. Both of them make the trek to the blackfish grounds, weather permitting.

Charlie always smiles when the subject of blackfish angling comes up. "These are dedicated fishermen who are much like the postman's motto: 'Neither rain, wind or snow deters them from putting together a catch of these fine bottom feeders.'

"They've got all the comforts of home on our big boats, including a galley with a hot chowder to take off the chill."

ATLANTIC CITY

It's noted for its casinos, but a sizeable fleet of party boats heads seaward during the winter months from Atlantic City, where the chance of scoring with a good catch is better than winning at the slots.

This section of the coastline enjoys slightly warmer winter water temperatures than to the north. The Atlantic City area also has miles and miles of choice bottom. For the local skippers, the key is their logbooks of bottom coordinates -- often of patches just a 100 or 200 feet in size, where the blackfish find plenty of food to sustain them for the winter. Most of these fish will be found in depths ranging from 60 to 100 feet.

SEA ISLE CITY

Anchoring is the key to successful blackfish action. The 70-foot Captain Robbins, with the good skipper of the same name at the helm, has a new two-anchor system that enables him to pinpoint even the tiniest piece of bottom when he's seeking the blackfish. His two-anchor method allows the captain to stay put over the smallest bottom structure. This lets his anglers drop their bait right into the lairs of tasty blackfish.

During the cold weather months, Dave Arbeitman, the impresario of the Reel Seat Tackle Shop in Brielle, likes to visit many of the ports I've included here, where he's regularly enjoyed superb tautog fishing.

Once the tourists have vacated this tourist town, a relative handful of party-boat captains ply these spots. These captains regularly put their anglers into fine catches. During this off-season for his tackle shop, Dave gets out on the party packets.

"Simplicity is the key to a successful bottom rig for blackfish," said Arbeitman. He ties his favorite rig by starting with a 2-foot long piece of 60-pound-test monofilament leader.

He ties a SPRO 230 barrel swivel to one end of the leader, and a surgeon's loop at the other end, onto which he slips a bank-style sinker sufficiently heavy to hold bottom. He then ties a single dropper loop about 6 inches up from the sinker.

On the terminal end, he slips a Mustad 4011E Virginia-style hook snelled to 12 inches of leader material onto the dropper loop. When small and medium-sized blackfish prevail, it's better to opt for a No. 4 or 5 size hook, as opposed to the larger sizes.

Arbeitman then baits up with either a half of a small green crab or a fiddler crab. He breaks off the claws, inserting the hook into the body of the crab where a claw was removed and exiting it from the hole left from the other claw.

"Too large a hook and too big a bait will cause you grief, as the blackfish's mouth is small relative to its size. Even a big tog can be handled on the smaller hook size. Just make certain you call for the net as you bring a big blackfish to boat."

While the standard bait aboard the party boats is either green crabs or fiddler crabs, last season I employed Berkley Gulp! -- a synthetic bait that resembles a green crab. Gulp! is tough and emits a great amount of scent. I enjoyed fine results while using it. Indeed, I could feel the bergalls chewing on it, yet the bulk of the bait would survive their onslaught, enabling a blackfish to inhale it with ease almost every time.

Important to note is sage advice offered by many skippers, which is that mastering the technique of hooking blackfish takes time. Experienced anglers stand at the rail and have their timing down pat.

The first "strikes" you receive are often the bergalls pecking at the bait. Then a blackfish will move in to take over. As it inhales the bait, it will crush it in its mouth before swallowing. At this time, you set the hook by lifting smartly -- and promptly begin reeling, getting the fish up and away from the rough bottom, to prevent it from fouling your line on the rocks or debris.

Each winter sees some mighty big blackfish landed from Garden State waters. Indeed, the current New Jersey state-record blackfish weighs an impressive 25 pounds and was caught by Anthony Monica while fishing off Ocean City.

Fish of this size are an exception, and an age-to-length table notes that a 30-inch long black fish is 20 years old! What with the commercial and recreational fishing pressure on this species, it's a small wonder that that a fish can survive to this age.

I spoke with many veteran anglers and skippers along the coast. Many are of the view that the big blackfish get to reach their ripe old ages because recreational anglers never fish their primary residences. Indeed, divers I've spoken with have often told me of observing big blackfish year after year on patches of bottom barely the size of a car.

Just a few boulders extending up from the bottom, or a hulk of an old dory, or other debris on the bottom often provides enough forage to satisfy a big blackfish's appetite.

Most of the party boats fishing the northern grounds throughout the winter had pool-winning fish averaging from 8 to 10 pounds, although a few fish weighing into the teens were landed.

Indeed, those tautogs over 15 pounds are the exceptional pool winners. Here, too, the skippers feel that the commercial pots and traps on key bottom areas off the northern coast have taken many of the bigger fish.

The waters from Atlantic City south to Cape May contain lots of prime blackfish-holding bottom.

Much of this water is miles offshore, where there is only limited fishing pressure during the winter months. I suspect this contributes to the southern area of New Jersey producing heavyweight blackfish regularly. Indeed, there are myriad spots that seldom see any fishing pressure at all.

While catching blackfish is fun and sure beats being a couch potato in front of the television set, the real delight is in the eating. I like to fillet and skin blackfish. I set aside those fillets we'll be using immediately for dinner. Then I package the rest in meal-size Food Saver vacuum bags, which removes all the air from the bag, and freeze them.

This keeps the fillets in prime condition until my wife June is ready to prepare them for dinner.

She then makes up a sauce of equal parts of mayonnaise and mustard and just a

touch of horseradish. The fillets are placed in an aluminum-foil-lined pan, smothered in the sauce and dusted with Parmesan cheese.

Fillets one half to an inch thick take only eight to 10 minutes to broil. You'll know they're finished when the sauce takes on a golden color and is bubbling, with the cheese turning a light brown. Serve them with a baked Idaho potato and a liberal helping of sour cream, with a side of broccoli with a butter and breadcrumb sauce, you'll have yourself a midwinter delight that's a super bonus after a day on the water.

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