New Jersey Ling & Mackerel Bounty

Red hake (ling) are the mainstay of our state's winter fishery these days, but anglers catch mackerel, cod and whiting from time to time as well.

Big ling are plentiful the length of the Jersey coast in January as evidenced by this beauty. A ling this size will put a smile on your face when you catch it — and again when you see it on your dinner plate! Photo courtesy of Milt Rosko

By Milt Rosko

Just the mention of January will send chills up the spines of many anglers who are content to wile away the winter watching others enjoy their pastime, most notably football. In reality, January isn't all that bad a time to go fishing. The key is paying careful attention to the Weather Channel, and when conditions permit, stepping aboard a party packet to enjoy what is often fast action with ling and a smattering of cod and pollock. While scarce, you'll occasionally be rewarded with some whiting (silver hake) as well.

During the past several years, however, party boat anglers have also enjoyed bonanza fishing with Atlantic mackerel. Years ago, mackerel were headed south by late November or December, but warm water and an abundance of forage in the New York Bight has, in recent years, delayed their migration to winter quarters late into December and continuing through several weeks of January. Often mixed in with the mackerel are Atlantic herring, which will readily wallop a teaser.

During the past few winters, I've been fortunate in that I've sailed aboard party packets from such diverse locations as Atlantic Highlands, Belmar, Point Pleasant and Barnegat Light. While catching plenty of the primary target species, be it ling (properly called red hake) or mackerel, I've also had the luxury to fish for the other species. This resulted in a really full, varied day of fishing.

The icing on the cake, particularly this past winter, is there were some small cod mixed in with the ling, and an equal number of pollock of the same size. At day's end, the net result was a cooler filled with delicious table fare for an early January dinner. There were other bonus fillets, too, with mackerel destined for the smoker, and ling and cod fillets for the Food Saver vacuum bags, where they provided dinnertime treats until the first winter flounder of spring graced our table.

The beauty part of this fishing is the packets often sail with smaller numbers of anglers during this part of the year. This means there's plenty of room at the rail, which on most boats is heated for angler comfort. The packets also have heated cabins and a galley for a bowl of hot chowder or a hamburger.

The same basic outfit you've no doubt used during the summer for blues and fluke will serve you well during the winter months. I like a rod that measures 7 feet in length and is rated for 20- to 30-pound-test line. Rods made of graphite, with an action capable of handling sinker weights up to 12 ounces are ideal, as often you'll be fishing in depths of 200 feet or more for the ling and cod. The heavy sinkers, even when using braided line, are still often necessary, particularly if there's a swift current running. A conventional reel loaded with 30- to 50-pound-test braided Spectra or Dyneema line rounds the outfit out nicely. I prefer the heavier test lines, as they're thicker and less apt to dig into the spool as readily as lighter tests do.

You'll need two basic terminal rigs in your tackle box should you venture forth in January. A basic bottom rig for ling, cod and pollock, and a jig and teaser rig for the mackerel and herring.

I like to tie my own rigs, and my favorite when seeking ling and cod is quite easy to make. I begin with a 7-foot-long piece of 30-pound-test monofilament leader material. To one end I tie a Duo-lock snap swivel, onto which the sinker is attached, and to the other end a small Spro power swivel, using Uni-knots. I then tie in a dropper loop about 6 inches from the snap swivel, making the loop extend out approximately 6 inches. Finally, I tie in another dropper loop approximately 15 inches from the first, and repeat with a third dropper loop 15 inches from the second one.

Slipping 2/0 or 3/0 beak-, claw- or long shank-style Carlisle hooks onto the loops extending away from the leader completes these rigs. When slipping the hooks onto the dropper loops, make certain to slip them through twice. This will enable you to pull them up snugly at the end of the loop and prevent them from moving.

Just tie the Spro swivel to the end of your line using a Uni-knot, snap on a sinker, and you're all set to go. A key consideration in this regard is that you use sufficient sinker weight to hold bottom. Captain Willie Egerter, who pilots the Dauntless from Point Pleasant Beach, stresses the importance of sinker weight when he says. "You want the line perpendicular to the bottom over a wreck or rough bottom, and it is far better to use too heavy a sinker than a lightweight one that will be carried with the currents and cause tangles."

All party boats supply strips of squid, mackerel and fresh clams as bait. The key with all of these baits is that you use a moderate-size piece, as ling have rather small mouths. Captain Joe Bogan of the Jamaica II encourages his anglers to use a piece of clam the size of your thumb, or a strip bait 3 inches long by a 1/2-inch wide. "The fellows who put on a whole clam when fishing for ling get lots of hits, but fail to hook many fish. It's far better to use a smaller piece of bait."

Many regulars on the party boats like to toughen their clam baits, and purchase surf clams a few days before their planned excursion. After shucking the clams, they place the meat in a heavy salt brine mixture consisting of half coarse kosher salt and half fresh water. A couple of days in this mixture, while stored in the refrigerator, toughens clam meat considerably. The ling readily respond to the tough baits, and they can't rip them from the hooks easily. This is especially helpful when fishing in 150- to 200-foot depths, since when your bait is stolen, it's tiresome to constantly have to reel up and replace it.

Once anchored over a choice piece of bottom, wreck or reef, you're ready to bait up and let the rig settle to the bottom. This is where regulars aboard the party boats shine, for they know that the minute their rig touches bottom, they may receive several quick strikes from hungry ling. That's why it's important to keep your rod tip pointed downward, with thumb pressure on the line, so as to avoid a line over-run as the rig touches bottom. As soon as you feel the slack caused by the sinker touching down, immediately lock your reel in gear, lifting the rod tip slightly to take the slack out of your line and come taut on the sinker.

I like to use my thumb and forefinger and firmly hold the line just forward of the reel. Braided line allows you to immediately feel the lightest strike. Both ling and cod will readily inhale a bait, and it's important

to respond quickly and lift back smartly to set the hook. Once you're hooked up, immediately begin reeling, for should you hesitate, the fish could easily tangle in bottom debris. Toward this end, there's a school of thought that after you hook the first fish, just leave the rig there for a couple of minutes in hopes of hooking a second or even third ling. I'm usually content to catch one at a time!

The depths of the Mud Hole are where the fleets from Atlantic Highlands, Belmar, Brielle and Point Pleasant congregate when seeking ling and cod. The boats sailing from Barnegat Light and ports south to Cape May concentrate their efforts over wrecks, rock ridges, mussel beds and artificial reefs located within range of their inlets, which are generally found in shallower water.

There are no bag or size limits on ling in New Jersey. Cod have to measure 21 inches, with no bag limits and an open season all year. Pollock must measure 19 inches, with an open season all year and no bag limits just as with cod.

Cod and pollock are excellent table fare, and may be steaked or filleted. Ling have delicate white meat that is absolutely delicious. I always keep several whole, and smoke them for a great wintertime snack. On board the party packets the deckhands are pleased to fillet your catch and pack them in plastic bags. Make certain, even in January, to carry a cooler with plenty of ice, as this will ensure freshness.

You might care to follow my lead as Christmas approaches. It's then that I carefully monitor fishing reports from Long Island. For as the mackerel vacate New England waters, they follow the coastline. When you read reports that mackerel are off Montauk Inlet, you just know it'll only be a matter of days before they arrive in waters of the New York Bight.

While some mackerel migrate in a southerly direction offshore, often along the edge of the Mud Hole, others will move into the inshore grounds such as Ambrose, 17 Fathoms and Klondike banks, and the Manasquan and Barnegat ridges. All of these spots usually have an abundance of sand eels and squid, both of which are popular forage for mackerel and herring.

The second basic rig you should include in your tackle box is what is commonly referred to as a Christmas tree rig. It consists of three plastic-tailed tube lures or soft-plastic teasers attached to a leader via dropper loops at 1-foot intervals. The tubes or teasers are red, green (from which the name Christmas tree rig evolved), yellow, purple or clear with a Mylar insert within and rigged on a long shank No. 1 or 1/0 Carlisle hook.

The rig is tied directly to the end of your line, and usually anglers use a diamond jig to take the rig into the depths for mackerel. In recent years, the practice of using diamond jigs from the party boats has changed in that some skippers prohibit their use. The reason is that when several mackerel have been hooked on the teasers and are being swung aboard, the diamond jig is swinging about. Numerous anglers have been hit, and in fact, hooked on the jigs, incurring serious injury. If, however, you're able to use jigs, I'd suggest carrying 3- to 8-ounce models, such as the diamond or Vike or lighter weight jigs, such as the Hopkins or Kastmaster and re-rig them with single hooks instead of the trebles with which most come rigged.

Whether using a bank-style sinker or jig to carry your Christmas tree rig into the depths, the key is working the rig until you find the depth at which the fish are feeding. Generally speaking, the skipper will locate the schools of mackerel on his electronic fish-finding equipment and indicate the depth at which the schools of sand eels and mackerel are located. Usually you'll be fishing in depths ranging from 75 feet to 200 feet or more, and the fish may be anywhere in the water table.

I like to begin by working my rig from the surface to the bottom and then back up again. My levelwind reel has a line counter, and once I hook a mackerel or herring, I then concentrate my jigging efforts at that depth.

Begin by permitting about 6 feet of line to slip from your reel, then apply thumb pressure and whip your rod tip upward causing the jig and teasers to dart toward the surface, then flutter and settle like a struggling baitfish. Then permit another 6 feet of line to slip from the reel and repeat the same procedure. Keep repeating this until you hook a fish, or the rig reaches bottom. Then begin a retrieve, reeling in 6 feet of line, jigging and continuing until you reach the surface.

Often the mackerel are bunched up in such huge schools and feeding so ravenously that it's simply a matter of getting the rig to the depth where they're feeding, and you're immediately hooked up. Mackerel will range in size from 8 ounces to upward of 3 pounds; it's wise to exercise care and release the smaller ones so they get a chance to grow up and spawn.

There are no size restrictions on mackerel or herring, nor are there bag limits. While somewhat oily, the mackerel are tasty when filleted and broiled. The key is not cooking them too long, just enough so they flake to the touch of a fork. Mackerel are also delicious when filleted and smoked. Atlantic herring are a wintertime treat that I enjoy, and I regularly pickle the fillets, then cut them into bite-size pieces and pack them in small jars with sour cream and onions for a snack time treat that can't be beat.

While checking the weather reports is important, of equal importance is that you go forth during the winter months equipped for weather much colder than you might expect. I've had many days on the water when I wore a long-sleeved flannel shirt and was perfectly comfortable on a calm ocean with no wind and bright sunshine. By the same token, I've had days when I was glad I could put on several layers of clothing to ward off the bitter cold and nasty wind, which brought the wind-chill factor to below freezing.

Always wear rubber footwear; ankle boots are fine, as they keep your feet dry and warm. I don't hesitate to wear long johns, and a hooded sweatshirt and heavy jacket. Don't forget a foul-weather suit just in case conditions turn nasty. A warm hat and gloves gets you set for an enjoyable day's fishing. You can always stow the surplus clothes in the cabin if the day proves pleasant, as most do.

Fishing aboard one of the many coastal party boats sailing from Jersey ports is a great way to welcome in the new year. Winter fishing is a great way to treat yourself to an enjoyable day's fishing for ling, cod, pollock and those bonus mackerel and herring. The real bonus is when you arrive home with the makings of a fine fresh fish dinner that you and your family can enjoy!



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