Codfish On The Comeback Trail

Closures of specific areas of the ocean, and the cod's prolific nature, may be bringing this great fishery back to almost like it was in "the good old days." Here's the latest! (February 2007)

Don't expect to catch a cod of this size on every party boat trip; however, if you do, you put yourself in the running to win the day's pool.
Photo by Milt Rosko.

I must in all honesty admit that as the day drew to a close, both my arms, and especially my left wrist, ached. For relief I rested the rod's foregrip on the rail of the party boat as I continued to apply pressure to the stubborn thumping of a codfish. The cod was understandably annoyed that it had mistaken my chromed Viking jig for the herring that were schooled some 150 feet below.

Constant pressure and a moderately set drag finally took its toll, and soon I saw color in the clear offshore water. Moments later, the codfish was just a couple of feet beneath the surface where the mate's gaff found its mark. It was but one of several beauties weighing in somewhere in the teens that I'd landed already. Indeed, it was the final catch of a fine day's worth of cod fishing, something that just a half dozen years ago I would never have thought possible.

It seems like only yesterday that Georges Bank was closed to cod fishing as a result of the population of winter kings having been severely depleted. The Georges Bank codfish population, along with an equally important population of cod located in the Gulf of Maine, had suffered from many years of both commercial and recreational overfishing, which when coupled with normal cyclical anomalies could well have resulted in the complete demise of this once thriving fishery.

Just recently, I had the opportunity to read an extremely well-written article penned by Ben Neal a couple of years ago that appeared in the Working Waterfront. In it Ben posed the question, "What's going on? Are the codfish, once king of the New England fishery and a mainstay of the economy, indeed recovering? Are they stable but depleted, or are these important fish perhaps even declining further in their abundance?"

His extensive article traced the happenings in recent years that had a direct impact upon codfish stocks. Indeed, as one traces the actions taken, it becomes apparent that it was fortunate that the powers that be finally realized that something was amiss with this important groundfish. Measures were finally put into place to (hopefully) resurrect what was once a world-renowned fishery. Remedial action of complete closure, spawning season closure and other actions by the state of Maine, the National Marine Fisheries Service and the Canadian government have all in their respective ways contributed to the comeback of what many of us call "the winter king," the majestic codfish.

Suffice to say, the codfish hasn't made a total recovery and will continue to be classified as overfished. But in the view of both commercial and recreational watermen and captains, the men who are on the water all seasons of the year, the situation today is much improved, with what appears to be a gradual but slow process of codfish on the comeback trail.

This observation is taking place all along the coast, from Maine's rocky shoreline even off Maryland, where codfish stocks are showing marked signs of improvement. Simply stated, while catches of codfish have improved, the biomass has improved, too, with more fish being added to the population than are being removed.

Such positive results should bode well for anglers who decide to target what many term one of the tastiest groundfish in the ocean. The bulk of codfish inshore movement takes place during the cold weather months, at a time when many private boats in this region are up on blocks in the boat yard. As such, the codfish fishery is dominated by party boats, which are built to withstand the rigors of winter while providing creature comforts to anglers for their trips to and from the grounds.

Most of these boats specialize in fishing water depths from 75 to 120 feet. These vessels have heated cabins, bunks for taking a snooze to and from the grounds, and heated handrails to ward off numb fingers. They've also got galleys that will serve up a tasty bacon, egg and coffee breakfast to a hot chowder or hamburger for lunch.

Codfish caught by recreational anglers range to upward of 50 pounds. However, the majority of the populations landed by anglers the past several years have been in the 5- to 20-pound class, with a size limit of 21 inches prevailing. The size of the fish, coupled with the wide range of waters in which they're found, from inshore reefs to deepwater wrecks located in waters 200 feet and even deeper, require that you have tackle adequate to the task at hand.

Most veteran codfish anglers favor rods made of either fiberglass or graphite that measure between 7 and 8 feet long, and are rated for 30- to 40-pound-test line. These rods have a rather stiff action, for at times prevailing conditions may require that you use 16 ounces of sinker weight to hold bottom, or 24-ounce jigs to probe the depths while keeping your line perpendicular to the bottom. A favorite rod that I've employed includes a substantial foregrip, a stripper guide, six ring guides and a roller tiptop.

For a rod of this type, you're best served by using one of the newer models' high-speed reels having a 4.9 to 1 or 6.2 to 1 gear ratio. Many of these reels, such as the Daiwa Saltist and Shimano Torium, are capable of retrieving 46 to 48 inches of line with a single turn of the reel handle, which helps out a great deal when working a jig in the depths, or hauling a stubborn codfish up from the bottom.

During the past couple of seasons, I've noted the use of electric reels powered by portable batteries in use on some of the party boats. While I've used electric reels for grouper and snapper in tropical waters, it's only recently that they've been brought into play throughout the Northeast. These reels are a viable option if you tire of retrieving several hundred feet of line, especially around deepwater wrecks located far from shore.

In recent years, I've switched from monofilament to braided line, as I find that in deepwater fishing the fine diameter and no-stretch quality of the braid proves superior. Both Sufix and Ande make an excellent braided line in a high-visibility yellow color. I've opted for 50-pound-test as being ideal, as its diameter is that of 12-pound-test monofilament. Importantly, the heavier test enables me to pull free of bottom snags with ease, without breaking off terminal rigging.

You'll need a supply of high-low rigs in your tackle box, along with a selection of chromed jigs. Most times, natural bait fished on the bottom will prove most effective, but on occasions, especially when cod are feeding on herring or sand eels, the ji

gs will catch you more fish.

Most coastal tackle shops stock a standard high-low rig that enables you to fish a pair of hooks, one directly on the bottom and another 18 to 24 inches off the bottom. I prefer rigs with minimal hardware, foregoing a sinker snap for a simple surgeon's loop for attaching the sinker. Such a rig is less apt to become snagged.

Select hooks in claw or beak styles with baitholder shanks, in sizes from 5/0 through 7/0 snelled to 15 to 18 inches of 40-pound-test monofilament or fluorocarbon leader material.

You'll need a selection of sinkers, with weights of 6 to 8 ounces, which are usually sufficient for inshore cod fishing. When probing deep-water wrecks or reefs, you should have 12- and 16-ounce models available, which will enable you to keep your line perpendicular to the bottom when strong winds and swift current prevail.

Clams are provided as bait aboard most party boats, although some anglers prefer squid, chunks of herring or conch as bait. A tough bait is preferred, as it is less apt to be easily ripped from the hook. Some old timers regularly soak their clams in a heavy salt brine solution -- half coarse cooking salt and half fresh water -- which toughens the clam meat during an overnight stay in the refrigerator, resulting in excellent hook baits.

Last season, I tried Berkeley Gulp! synthetic baits while cod fishing, and enjoyed fine results. The Gulp! emits substantial scent, and while biodegradable it has a very firm consistency, which makes it hardy hook bait. Gulp! is now made in a size that replicates a small surf clam, and so it is worthy of inclusion in your tackle box.

You just never know what size cod will be inhaling your bait. It's best to stick to moderate size bait, 3 or 4 inches in length by 1 or 2 inches in width. Allow some of the muscle tissue of the clam to hang freely, which enables a cod to inhale it with ease.

Generally speaking, codfish aren't an aggressive bottom feeder. They probe the bottom, searching for anything that's edible, finding crabs, shrimp, lobster and small fish like cunner -- popularly called bergalls -- or members of the hake family, to their liking. You should always be prepared for a strike, but an instant response isn't as essential as when you are after blackfish. I've enjoyed my best results by hesitating for a moment when I feel the initial pickup, lowering my rod tip, and when the cod has inhaled the bait, I begin reeling. This sets the hook in the process.

Line control is important in this fishing. Remember that on a party boat there may be 50 anglers on board. You want to always keep your line perpendicular to the bottom. Anglers who use too heavy a diameter line, coupled with too lightweight a sinker, will never hold bottom in deep water. The result of this is usually a gosh-awful mess when fishing deep- water locations. I prefer to opt for too heavy a sinker, as opposed to too light, even while using braided line.

Party boat skippers will carefully monitor the color scopes of their fishfinders to position the boat directly over a choice bottom of wrecks and reefs. Once they've got the boat in position and anchored, they'll continue to monitor the scope for activity. Cod are often observed cruising right along the bottom. However, when schools of herring show up on the color scope, there are also readings of pollock as well. At such times, using a jig to probe the water column often brings exciting results.

By far the most popular jigs used on the codfish grounds are the Viking and diamond. About the lightest weight jig you'll be able to use will weigh around 6 ounces. Most often, I'll use models ranging in weight from 12 to 16 ounces, although on rough days I've occasionally used 24-ounce jigs to score.

An effective leader can be tied using 40- or 50-pound-test monofilament or fluorocarbon leader material. I'll often use a rubber-tube or soft-plastic squid with a 6/0 or 7/0 O'Shaughnessy hook as a teaser, fished 3 or 4 feet ahead of the jig. Tie the jig directly to the end of a 5-foot-long piece of leader material. Then tie a barrel swivel inside a dropper loop about 12 inches from the other end of the leader. This will leave a 12-inch-long dropper, to which you tie your teaser. Then tie your line to the barrel swivel and you're all set to go.

The skipper will often announce the depth where he's reading fish. Then it's a matter of concentrating your jigging efforts above, through and below the depths at which the bait is congregated. Let's say the fish are spotted 100 feet from the surface. Let out about 75 feet of line. Then stop the jig and smartly lift your rod tip, causing the jig and teaser combo to dart toward the surface, then falter and settle, much like a wounded baitfish.

Next, allow another 5 or 10 feet of line to slip from the reel and continue the procedure until you estimate that the jig is at around a depth of 125 feet. Begin a retrieve, stopping every 5 to 10 feet while working your rod tip. Continue this procedure until the jig is within 75 feet of the surface, and then begin sending it back down again. It takes patience and is admittedly tiresome, but when the cod have moved off bottom to feed on herring, it's the best way to go.

You'll be pleasantly surprised at the number of cod that will wallop a teaser. I suspect they're attracted to the jig, but then see the rubber tube teaser or fluttering squid and just can't resist it.

Codfish are absolutely delicious table fare. Those that weight 15 pounds or more are often referred to as "steakers" for they're of a size that lends to easily being cut into meal-size steaks, usually an inch thick. Smaller cod are best when filleted, with a fillet from each side of the fish. The white meat of the cod is firm with a very mild flavor. Cod can be prepared using any of your favorite seafood recipes.

My wife, June, loves codfish cakes, which are made by simply steaming chunks of codfish and then shredding it and combining it with mashed potatoes, some sautéed onions and egg. Make the mixture into a codfish cake utilizing 1/3-cup measuring of cod, and dust them in seasoned breadcrumbs. Deep fry until golden brown, and enjoy a treat that can't be beat. Surplus codfish cakes can be frozen, and then placed in Food Saver bags and vacuum packed for later use.

Codfish are on the comeback trail, make no mistake about it. So long as the population continues to increase, and if we maintain limited commercial and recreational fishing pressure, the species is likely to rebound fully. Optimist that I am, I believe that future generations will be able to enjoy catching and eating this delectable seafood treat for many years to come.

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