Are Codfish Stocks On The Rebound?

Is this most important winter groundfish species making a comeback all along the Northeast coastline? Here's the latest on cod stocks from Maine to New Jersey. (February 2008).

Photo by Ken Freel.

Cod. It's the fish that built America. It was the omnipresent stocks of codfish in the Northeast that filled the bellies of our early Pilgrim countrymen and gave them the energy to build a nation. It wasn't too long ago when everybody and anybody could go out and reap the rewards of the prolific cod fishery called the Georges Bank. Times have changed. Mismanagement of stocks and overfishing in the 1990s decimated cod stocks down to a level where they may still not be recoverable by a generation, or so it seems. So, how do codfish anglers fare right now along the New England coast?

GEORGES BANK

Georges Bank lies east and southeast of Martha's Vineyard; it is a monster shoal off Massachusetts larger than the state of Massachusetts itself, extending for about 200 miles off the coast of southeastern New England. The bank is a historically rich fishing ground for cod, haddock, herring, yellowtail flounder and sea scallops. Historically, it is known as the cod playground where both recreational and commercial anglers could continually reap a bounty day after day, year after year, to load up coolers and nets. Nowadays, closures have finally been enacted to protect breeding stocks and to rebuild the fishery after a drastic drop in catches.

Captain Joe Huckmeyer of the Helen H out of Hyannis, Massachusetts, has built a living on the species. He well knows the plight of codfish.

"Up to about 2002, it was easy pickings, and anyone could go out basically anywhere, drop down and find nonstop action with cod. Then it became an issue of finding where the schools of cod starting bunching up and you had to find where they were located. There was easily a point to say that the cod were being overfished and were not as abundant."

Many blame the commercial fishery for years of intense fishing pressure on the stocks, but more than anything, it has been an issue of not enough regulations enacted quickly enough to stop the decimation.

As it stands, there are three main areas closed off permanently to commercial and recreational fishing. Area 1 extends in the deep waters off Nantucket shoals to Georges Proper. Area 2 is the Eastern End closure. Area 3 entails the Nantucket Lightship closure, which has an exemption for recreational anglers pending a letter of recommendation from the authorities.

"The NMFS (National Marine Fisheries Service) was too late on putting the closures into place; they're about five to eight years late. If they did it then, the program could be working full force, but it took too long through bureaucratic legislation to make it happen that it truly hurt the premise of it. A small cutback 20 years ago would have given us plenty of fish today. The days of thinking that cod are an inexhaustible resource are gone. That's old thinking, but at least the effort is there now," Captain Huckmeyer said.

SOUND THE SIRENS?

Make no mistake, it's not like codfish have gone the way of the dodo bird. That's just not the case. Codfish trips to Georges Bank are still choked with incredible catches of fish anywhere from 6 to 60 pounds.

"Through everything, cod fishing is excellent here, we just have to look a little bit now, find them and then set up on them. We used to be able to drop anywhere and start bailing them," Captain Huckmeyer remarked.

Cod comprise 85 percent of all the fish caught on the Helen H. The rest of the 15 percent is spread out among assorted species like haddock, pollock and wolf fish. With cod, the pattern usually follows suit that the steakers, those fish in the 40- to 60- pound class, are caught mostly in the dead of winter.

From December through February, these fish tend to stay in closer in 30 to 120 feet, where the big cod will be caught. February through April, the fishery moves into the 120-foot range, and the larger cod are taken over by an influx of medium-sized cod, the 12- to 25-pounders, moving in large numbers. May through July, the cod schools shift outward into the 180- to 200-foot depths and drop in general size, with a mix of small cod of 5 pounds and mediums, but there are plenty of them around to keep the rod hot all day. Other fish such as haddock run anywhere in the 5- to 10-pound range, and pollock usually fall anywhere between 3 and 25 pounds.

JERSEY STYLE

Jersey captains never really had to deal with tons of monster cod, except in the "good old days," back before most of you reading this were born. Now, Garden State bottom bouncers are seeing more cod numbers than in recent memory. From 2003 through 2006, cod began to show up in some impressive fashion on the 20- to 50-mile wrecks.

Captain Joe Bogan of the Jamaica II out of Brielle said, "New Jersey used to have a great cod fishery in the early 1980s; we had numbers where you could see a few hundred fish on deck on a trip. Then it all went downhill, as the 1990s saw them pretty much gone from the overfishing off Georges Bank. There simply weren't enough fish to come trickling down our way any more."

After the closures were put into place at Georges Bank, there seemed to be somewhat of a resurgence of fish from 2003 to 2006. That's when Bogan ran special cod trips out to some secret and not-so-secret 25- to 45-mile wrecks. Reported catches of 100 cod or more were coming up onto deck, and they weren't any sissy size cod either -- many went in the 30- and 40-pound class, and even a few 50-pounders were hauled in. Most of the cod ranged from 5 to 12 pounds, and it was good to see.

"It wasn't like we'd go out everyday and clean up. I'd run one 12-hour trip. We'd pick away at the wrecks. Once you caught them on the wreck, they wouldn't be replaced by any more fish until a new stock moved in."

The Jersey cod line used to be down into Cape May, but now the line seems to be off Manasquan Inlet for the farthest south the cod are willing to travel.

"I think the reason we were able to catch them in recent years is that no one else is going out for them; we're basically the only ones who run special cod trips. I don't think there's enough around for everybody to target them. There's just aren't many swimming our way yet, but the fishing we've experienced definitely shows some kind of rebuilding going on. We head out and test the waters, and if they're there, we'll run trips," Bogan noted.

The shift of stocks down into the Garden State also seems to have been triggered by colder winter periods, where cod would follow the cooler waters down the Eastern Seaboard.

DROPPING DOWN

Most tackle and gear is provided for a small fee on party boats. The Helen H offers anglers the choice of rod rentals with Loomis 6 1/2-foot Pelagic Series, affixed with Shimano Torium 30 reels or Shimano Tallus TLC 70H 7-foot series rods, strapped with Shimano TLD 25s. All reels are lined with 40-pound Berkley Trilene Big Game monofilament.

If you bring your own gear, generally a 6- to 7-foot stout rod, with a moderate flex on the tip, seated with a size 4/0 or comparable reel will do the trick. High-speed reels, like those with 4:1 to 6:1 ratios are favored, since the depths can become cumbersome when reeling up to check your bait.

On the taboo topic of braided line on party boats, Huckmeyer expounded, "We welcome braids on the Helen H -- if you are familiar with them, but it's not the place to learn how to use them. The currents that sometimes rip fast at two knots are too fast for an inexperienced braid angler to effectively work the line and keep out of everyone else's line."

It's all about jigs or bait for these bottom battlers, depending on the conditions. "The amount of bait in the water determines what tactics we use," Huckmeyer said. "When herring, mackerel and sand eels are abundant, we move right for the jigs to bring them up. Cod tend to feed more aggressively with more bait in the water, and I've seen cod come up from down deep to chase bait and jigs up to the surface."

Huckmeyer uses Luhr-Jensen's Crippled Herrings extensively on his vessel. "Normally, Viking jigs dominated our arsenal, and they are still used regularly. We found that when raising and lowering the rod steadily, the Crippled Herring jigs are designed with a flat profile that slashes through the water and specifically mimic herring. But the number one factor is they get you back to the bottom quicker. Put it this way, when you are in a stiff current, you can use a 20-ounce Viking jig, or you can get away with using a 16-ounce Crippled Herring. The Viking jig definitely gives off more flash reflecting sunlight from its three-dimensional triangular form, but the Crippled Herring gets you to the bottom quicker.

"Braid jigs, Norwegian jigs, and Spro jigs all work just as well; just be mindful that if it has a greater surface area and three planing sides, it may create more flash, but it will take a bit longer to return to the bottom."

Twelve to 20 ounces is the norm for this type of fishing. All jigs are fitted with size 6/0 to 8/0 Siwash hooks. Iridescent colorations in mackerel colors, fluorescent green/ silver or bright orange/silver will work their charm on Atlantic cod.

Captain Greg Mercurio operates the 90-foot Yankee Capts out of Gloucester. He implements the use of jigs to tackle groundfish species when bait is present. "The Atom Vike jigs are a standard metal on the Yankee Capts. The jig rig consists of a 36-inch, 50-pound monofilament leader. A 100-pound barrel swivel is tied to the first tag end, and then a dropper loop is tied between 12 to 18 inches down. On the dropper, we like to use 8-inch twistertails of any color on a size 6/0 hook. On the remaining tag end, a 12-ounce Vike jig is tied on."

Jigging technique on the Bank is tailored to the presence of bait in the area. If baitfish are scarce, then a raising and lowering of the rod tip at a steady pace in a 2- to 3-foot swing is the more productive method, in that the upward and downward motion will usually get a cod, haddock or pollock to come off the bottom to strike. When the groundfish are coming up onto deck, spitting up bait, you know they are chasing baitfish and actively feeding. It is then that a slow retrieve method is implemented where the jig is dropped down, and the reel is cranked in about 10 turns slowly, then is dropped back down and repeated. Actively feeding fish will home in on the jig drifting through the water, moving at a slow, wavering pace, sort of like slow trolling, and will whack the metal on the move.

When baitfish are in short supply, the action turns over to using hook baits, such as fresh clams, or cut mackerel and herring, as the fish aren't moving and will sit on the ground floor waiting for a stone crab or morsel of clam to drift by. A textbook Georges Bank bait rig consists of a 100-pound barrel swivel, with an 18-inch section of 80-pound mono tied to another 100-pound barrel swivel.

About 9 inches up on that leader a dropper loop is tied and an Eagle Claw or Gamakatsu size 6/0 or 7/0 Octopus-style hook is looped on fixed with a red or pink feather or curlytail grub. From the second barrel swivel, a second leader consisting of an 18-inch section of 50-pound mono is tied with yet another dropper loop fixed with another feather or grub hook tied 9 inches up. An overhand loop knot is then tied onto the remaining tag end.

On the bottom sinker loop, a small section of 20-pound mono is looped to affix the weight onto, so that if a fish is hooked on one of the upper hooks, and the 16- to 20-ounce bank sinker is rooted deep into a mussel bed or wreck structure, the 20-pound mono loop breaks off -- you lose the weight, but you still get your fish.


Overall, codfish stocks seem to be on the mend, so long as certain zone regulations stay in place, this will allow the stocks to rebuild as time passes. If all goes well, there's a chance that we could see the once glorious cod rise to the great numbers of the not-so-distant past. Only time will tell for sure.

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