Garden State Saltwater Smorgasbord

Porgies, black seabass and blackfish round out the wintertime fare these days for most New Jersey anglers. Here's the latest on this fast-paced fishing! (February 2006)

Black seabass are a prized catch right now for offshore enthusiasts, along with tautog and porgies.
Photo courtesy of Milt Rosko

As you read this, most privately owned boats are comfortably tucked away until spring, winterized and covered to protect them from snow and sleet. Such is not the case in many of the Garden State's coastal ports, however, as party and charter boats stand ready to carry anglers to offshore waters. Their targets are species such as blackfish, porgies and seabass, many of which spend the summer inshore. But with dropping inshore temperatures, these species move seaward 50 miles, and in some cases, all the way to the edge of the continental shelf to spend the winter in the warmer depths.

Scattered about the bottom in these deep offshore waters are myriad wrecks and patches of rock-strewn bottom, both of which attract marine life on which these popular bottom species feed. It's a long ride to the offshore grounds. Each successive generation of party and charter boats has grown with respect to both size and comfort levels to accommodate the anglers they transport offshore for trips of a day or two in duration.

Mind you, these trips are not what you may be accustomed to, of just hopping aboard a packet at 8 a.m., and being back at dockside by early afternoon. These offshore trips most often depart around midnight and usually return just before midnight, which makes for a long day. Toward that end, I've taken pains to ensure that I'm not only properly equipped for the anticipated fishing, but comfortable for a trip of this duration where at the rail the mercury is often near the freezing mark.

I sought the counsel of Capt. Howard Bogan Jr., who skippers his big Jamaica out of Brielle; he's forthright in the tackle he recommends for anglers who sail with him. "The light gear used inshore just has no place offshore, where you're regularly fishing in depths of 100 to 150 feet or greater. The depth, coupled with swift currents, requires stout tackle that can take a bait rig into the deep and have it hold bottom. Otherwise, you just won't catch fish."

He recommends party boat-style rods measuring from 7 to 8 feet in overall length and rated as 30-pound class tackle. Lightweight graphite rods are favored, as they have plenty of power, which is important when pumping a multiple hookup from the depths, or handling sinker weights that may reach 16 ounces or more in weight. A medium-weight levelwind star drag reel capable of holding 300 yards of monofilament complete with a depth counter mechanism is ideal.

The good skipper also recommends anglers spool with braided line, such as Spectra. Its fine diameter and no-stretch quality enable you to hold bottom with much less sinker weight than if you were to use mono. You can also feel the bite of a pesky bergall even at 200 feet, something that's virtually impossible with monofilament.

Capt. Howard cautions not to go too light, as lightweight tests are so fine they're difficult to manage. Many of his anglers spool 60-pound-test braid, which still has a very fine diameter. However, it has the added advantage of being strong enough to pull free of snags, resulting in less attrition in terminal tackle while fishing wrecks and rockpiles.

You should include in your tackle box a 6- to 8-inch-long piece of broomstick, which is a godsend should you snag bottom while using braided line. This type of line's fine diameter is prone to cut your hands when you apply pressure while trying to free a snagged line. By wrapping the line around the piece of broomstick five or six times and then grasping the broomstick and pulling, you can often pull your rig free of the bottom.

From Capt. Willie Egerter of the Dauntless sailing from Point Pleasant Beach comes some sound advice with respect to rigs.

"Some fellows prefer a pair of hooks snelled to a single leader, which puts both baits right on the bottom. Others lean toward the three-hook, high-low rig, which places one hook directly on the bottom and snelled hooks at 12-inch intervals up from the bottom. When seabass and porgies are plentiful, it's not unusual to see doubleheaders and tripleheaders coming aboard regularly, especially when we first anchor over a spot that hasn't been fished in some time."

Capt. Egerter cautions not to use hooks that are too large. Claw- or beak-style hooks with a baitholder shank in sizes ranging from No. 1 to No. 3/0 are fine for the size fish you'll most often encounter.

He goes on to say that the plain and simple two-hook rig that puts both baits on the bottom is the rig of choice when blackfish are on the bottom. Blackfish often forage head down looking for food and can readily spot a pair of crab baits right on the bottom. However, during the far offshore midwinter fishery, the blackfish are normally a bycatch. While inshore blackfish are targeted using green crabs as bait, most that are taken offshore succumb to strips of squid, mackerel or clam. Seabass are the primary target and generally constitute more than 90 percent of the contents of your cooler during midwinter offshore jaunts.

Both skippers emphasize the importance of having an assortment of bank sinker weights, including 8, 10, 12 and 16 ounces. Perhaps the most important aspect of this fishing is being able to keep your line perpendicular to the bottom, and holding, not having the current sweep it toward the stern. Both concur that the guys who use plenty of lead catch the most fish.

Remember that this is winter fishing. While there are some mild days, consideration should be given to creature comfort. I regularly wear long underwear for starters. Next, I layer clothing, with loose-fitting trousers, a hooded sweatshirt and insulated jacket that's also hooded. For footwear, I prefer insulated boots, as the deck is often wet, of necessity as the mates hose it down. Gloves are important, too. While most of the boats have heated handrails, there's nothing better than warm, insulated gloves on a blistery winter day.

I also carry what I term a "personal care kit." It includes a toothbrush, toothpaste, aspirin, comb, soap, washcloth and hand towel. While I'm not susceptible to motion sickness, a couple of years ago I did succumb to seasickness on a rough two-day canyon trip. Since then, I've carried an Explorer ReliefBand that I purchased at West Marine, which offers drug-free, electronic motion sickness relief and is FDA approved. Should I feel mal de mer coming on, I'll certainly attach the wristwatch-like band to my wrist. I know some friends who regularly carry Dramamine or other internal medication with them on offshore excursions, which is good motion sickness insurance a

s well.

Most of the party packets specializing in this offshore fishing have below-deck bunkrooms. Be aware that there are limited numbers of bunks, and when they're filled, you may have to sleep in the cabin. I find a lightweight extra-wide sleeping bag ideal, as I can snuggle up in comfort and get a good night's sleep on both the trip offshore and return, too, ensuring I'm in great shape to fish a long day.

I've learned that the fishing is often extraordinary on offshore trips, and with liberal bag limits on these tasty bottom feeders, I often have many fish to bring home for the freezer. As such, I like to use a 62-quart cooler, which keeps the two one-gallon pieces of ice I carry in it from thawing for a couple of days. A cooler of this size comfortably holds what is often a lot of fish. And the wheels on the cooler enable me to board via the gangplank and to disembark with a heavy load of fish with ease.

I'll usually pack some iced tea or soda and a few sandwiches in the cooler, too. However, most of the boats have a galley on board, where you can purchase hot coffee, chowder and soup, hot dogs and hamburgers to satisfy your craving on a cold winter day as you move from spot to spot.

Once the grounds are reached, which may be just before daybreak, the captain sets anchor over a choice bottom location. The bright overhead lights are turned on, illuminating the boat to daylight-like conditions. As soon as the skipper announces over the loudspeaker, "Let 'em go," everyone at the rail is sending their rigs down 150 feet or deeper.

The boats supply clams as bait, plus strips of squid. The key is taking care not to overload your hook with baits that are too large. Remember that the majority of the porgies you encounter on these grounds average 1 to 2 pounds in weight, with seabass averaging 1 to 3 pounds. You'll hook more fish by using bait 1/2-inch by 2 or 3 inches long. Rest assured, even a 5-pound seabass or blackfish will inhale a small piece of bait with ease and readily get hooked in the bargain.

It's exciting when you arrive before sunup, and suddenly under the bright lights practically everyone hooks up as soon as their rigs touch down. This happens most of the time, so be out of your bunk as soon as you hear the engines slowing down in preparation for anchoring. Be at the rail, dressed for the cold, with hooks baited and awaiting the signal to go at it.

Being alert as your rig touches bottom is in my view the single most important consideration. All too often, anglers don't pay attention, and line continues to slip from their reel, resulting in a slight belly in their line. Unbeknown to them, they'll frequently receive strikes and have their baits stripped from their hook. As a result, they'll waste precious time during a hot bite without even having bait on their hooks. Then, of course, they'll have to reel all the way back up to re-bait.

Toward this end, I make it a point to always begin fishing with more sinker weight than I feel I'll need. While it's tough on the wrists when reeling in, especially with a double or triple on, with the heavy sinker I know I'm in total control and my baits are perpendicular and smack dab on the bottom where they belong. Often I've seen anglers fishing with 4 to 6 ounces, and their lines are drifting all over the place, getting in tangles, and their hooks stripped clean the moment they reach bottom without the angler even knowing it. As a result, they'll often waste an hour before they get settled into the correct pattern. Far better with too much sinker weight, as you can always scale down as the day progresses.

All three of the targeted species are notorious bait stealers. If you're asleep at the switch and hesitate too long before lifting back to set the hook, you'll often miss strike after strike. In anticipation of a trip offshore, I'll often shuck half a dozen surf clams and place them in a coarse kosher salt brine solution, composed of half water and half salt. A couple of days in the refrigerator will toughen the bait considerably, making it more durable and less apt to be easily stripped from the hook.

Capt. William Hammastrom sails his Carolyn Ann III from Barnegat Light, as does Capt. Charles Eble with his 100-foot-long Doris Mae IV. Both skippers emphasize the importance of communicating with them beforehand, and even reserving a spot at the rail. In this way, you'll know the kind of action being experienced right up to the minute, with some captains communicating via cell phone with their anglers.

A most important consideration, say both captains, is watching the weather report. Try to plan a trip when moderate temperatures are predicted, with equally moderate winds, preferably less than 15 knots. While all skippers occasionally sail with borderline weather, they're the first to tell you it's far more enjoyable when it's nice.

Current New Jersey marine recreational fisheries regulations have a liberal 12-inch, 25-fish bag limit and open season all year on black seabass. With porgies (scup), it's a 9-inch minimum and 50-fish bag limit from Jan. 1 through Feb. 28. The blackfish (tautog) season during the winter offshore fishery has a 14-inch minimum size and four-fish bag limit from Jan. 1 through May 31. However, I always make it a point to check the regulations so I'm in compliance, which is easily done by calling (609) 292-2083.

"Finest kind of eating you'll ever catch" is the sentiment offered from Capt. Robbins of the Sea Isle City-based party boat bearing the same name. There's no question that black seabass, porgies and blackfish are just that. Toward this end, earlier I told you to board with a wheeled cooler, and that's because most often on offshore wreck trips you'll be returning to dockside with a more than ample supply of fish.

The deckhands and mates are always available to fillet your catch on the way in, working for tips, which relieves you of the task of having to do all that cleaning once you get home. I have them fillet and skin the fish and pack the fillets in plastic bags, and immediately place them back in the cooler. This gets the fish home in prime condition.

Then I break out my Food Saver vacuum bagging system. First, I do some finishing trimming of the fillets, removing any rib cage bones that may have been missed. I then pack sufficient fillets in 8 x 11-inch Food Saver bags for the perfect size meal for my wife, June, and me, sealing the bag and labeling and dating it. Then it's right into the freezer, with just a few fresh fillets for that night's dinner. Vacuum bagging is an excellent system. I've kept fillets for just shy of two years and they tasted as though the fish were caught that day, with no freezer burn whatsoever.

All of the major ports in New Jersey, including Atlantic Highlands, Belmar, Brielle, Point Pleasant Beach, Barnegat Light, Atlantic City, Sea Isle City and Cape May have both party boats and charter boats specializing in this exciting and rewarding fishing. There's certainly a port within easy drive of your home, which will give you a great opportunity to get away from football and the television. Instead of being just a spectator, get out on the water and enjoy some of the best smorgasbord of wintertime fishing New Jersey has to offer.

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