The wrecks far offshore are where hardy winter anglers do battle with hefty cod, pollock, sea bass and other tasty game fish right now. Don't miss out on the fun! (February 2007)
Big pollock, like the beauty caught by this skilled angler, are part of the mixed bag found offshore. A pollock of this size will frequently win the day's "pool" while providing for a great meal later on.
Photo by Milt Rosko.
It seemed as though the sinker would never touch bottom. It plummeted past the usual 30 or 40 feet that I'd been accustomed to during the summer months. Fully 200 feet or more braided line slipped from the reel's spool before I felt that telltale thump of sinker and bait finally reaching the sand.
I instantly locked the reel in gear, and while lowering the rod tip, made a couple of turns of the reel handle to keep the line taut.
Bam! Then bam again! Almost simultaneously, a pair of strikes was telegraphed to the rod tip.
Almost by instinct, I set the hook.
Just as forcefully, the rod tip was yanked downward by a pair of stubborn adversaries that wanted no part of being drawn to the surface.
So began the arduous task of regaining a couple of hundred feet of line and ultimately swinging aboard a pair of black sea bass. Both weighed close to 4 pounds -- each larger than any I'd caught inshore during the summer and fall season.
It was the beginning of another exciting offshore adventure aboard the party boat Jamaica, with Capt. Howard Bogan Jr. at the helm. We'd sailed from port around midnight and now, just before first light, were anchored some 60-plus miles from shore.
Some might question the sanity of the contingent aboard, but we'd all watched the weather reports and chosen to sail when moderate temperatures and light winds were predicted. That combination assures a pleasant day of fishing over the deep-water haunts of black sea bass, porgies, codfish, pollock and red hake as well.
Some of the party-boat skippers head to Florida ports with their packets for the winter season, and others will drydock their boats for the winter. However, each of Jersey's major ports has a handful of dedicated skippers and weather-hardened crews who delight in heading to the wrecks.
You'll find that most of the boats specializing in this exciting fishing are those in the 70- to 100-foot range, with heated handrails and cabins, full galleys that can provide three square meals during each trip, and comfortable bunks where you can catch some shuteye during the four or five-hour trip between dockside and the fishing grounds.
Among the Jersey ports with boats that specialize in this fishing are Atlantic Highlands, Belmar, Brielle, Point Pleasant Beach and Barnegat Light. If you haven't yet experienced this adventuresome fishing, you might consider opting for a trip rather than being a couch potato during the winter. Indeed, if such a trip piques your interest, I'd like to share with you some of the approaches I use in selecting the tackle, clothing and related gear that make for a comfortable trip and ensure a good catch.
Advances in fishing equipment have added to the pleasure of this endeavor. During the past season, I've moved up from the vintage tackle I'd used for years to outfits designed expressly for this type of fishing. Inasmuch as you're fishing in extreme depths, sometimes 300 feet or more, a reel with a high gear ratio -- but which still retains pulling power and lets you retrieve line with ease -- is most helpful.
I've settled on a Daiwa Saltist, which has a 4.9-to-1 gear ratio and retrieves a remarkable 36.2 inches of line with each turn of the reel handle. You can appreciate the energy savings over the course of a day when you may be retrieving several hundred feet of line, 50 times or more during a trip!
This reel is small compared to many other saltwater models. Cupping nicely in your hand, it's designed primarily for braided line, which has an extremely fine diameter and virtually no stretch. Indeed, I load my reel with 300 yards of 50-pound-test Sufix or Ande braid, which has a diameter equivalent to 12-pound-test monofilament.
Using the 50-pound-test enables me to pull free of the many snags often encountered while fishing deep-water wrecks, which results in less attrition of terminal tackle. Additionally, I find its diameter easier to work with than the sewing-thread-thin diameter of line half its test.
The reel is mounted on a Daiwa Eliminator rod that measures 7 feet long, which has a stripper guide, six ring guides and a roller tiptop, which is very effective. On occasion, I've used a custom-made rod of similar design that measures 8 feet in length overall, which is ideal for party-boat fishing, as it lets you keep your line farther away from the boat's hull -- a consideration in a rough ocean where wind and tide cause the boat to swing a lot, often resulting in your line getting beneath the hull.
Capt. Bob Bogan of the Gambler, based in Point Pleasant Beach, regularly emphasizes the importance of keeping the line perpendicular to the bottom. "Keeping the line straight up and down, so it doesn't drift, is easily accomplished with the kind of outfit recommended here. When used with adequate sinker weight, it gives you total control, for there's no belly in the line."
There are numerous ready-made terminal rigs available for this type of fishing, but by far most anglers who make these offshore runs will tie their own. Simplicity is the key, with minimal hardware being employed. A favorite rig of mine is a basic high-low setup, tied to accommodate three hooks instead of the normal pair that are customarily used.
Begin with a 5- to 6-foot piece of 40-pound-test monofilament or fluorocarbon leader material. Tie into one end a surgeon's loop, of sufficient size that you can slip a large bank-style sinker onto it. About 15 inches from the surgeon's loop, tie in a dropper loop, followed by two more dropper loops at 15-inch intervals. Then to the remaining end of the leader, tie a small barrel swivel -- onto which you'll tie your line.
Complete the rig by slipping a snelled hook onto each of the dropper loops. If you snell your own hooks, use 40-pound-test leader material, and have the leader and hook measure approximately 12 inches in length overall. With the 4-foot-long leader and dropper loops spaced at 15-inch intervals, you won't experience any difficulty with tangles.
A final tip: As you slip the snelled hook's leader onto the dropper loop, make certain to slip it through twice. This will
enable you to pull it up tight and snug, which will help hold it at right angles to the leader.
If you're accustomed to fishing inshore wrecks, no doubt you've been using small-size hooks to accommodate the fish ranging from 1 to 2 pounds. On these offshore grounds, you'll be best served to move up to size 3/0 or 4/0 hooks, especially when targeting sea bass. Use larger hook sizes ranging to 5/0 or 6/0 if codfish and pollock prevail.
Today's technology provides excellent quality hooks by manufacturers such as Owner, Gamakatsu, Eagle Claw and Mustad, to name a few. Each manufacturer assigns a name to its particular models, but for the most part, these hooks are designed for bait-fishing.
There are times when conditions are ideal, with little wind or current. That's when you'll be able to hold bottom with sinkers as light as 8 ounces. But it's good to be prepared for times when 16 ounces of weight must be used. Remember, too, that it's not unusual to lose several rigs in a day, so better to have more that are rigged and ready to go. Having extra rigs ready will save you time, too. The party boats also have rigs and sinkers available on board.
Those boats generally provide clams or squid as bait. Most often, the mates will cut the baits to an ideal size. To this end, I'd caution you to not place a big glob of bait on your hook. You want moderate-size bait, 3 to 4 inches in length by 1 inch in width, so it can be slipped onto the hook and held securely. Hooked in this manner, a bait is easily inhaled, enabling you to lift back promptly and set the hook.
Last season, I experimented with Berkley's Gulp! synthetic baits on the offshore grounds and had extraordinary success. The Gulp! disperses 400 times greater scent than plastic baits, and I found their shrimp, crab and strip baits extremely effective. The Gulp! is very tough, which works to your advantage, as fish can't easily rip it from your hook.
When seasoned anglers hook a fish that doesn't feel too big, they'll hesitate for a minute or two, anticipating another strike that frequently occurs. This technique enables you to score with a doubleheader -- or even a tripleheader on occasion.
Veterans of this exciting fishing include captains Alan and David Shinn who pilot the Miss Belmar Princess and Royal Miss Belmar to the offshore grounds from Belmar via Shark River Inlet.
Both concur in saying, "The key is anticipation, and being always alert as your rig touches bottom. It's especially important when we first anchor on a wreck. When all of the baits are reaching bottom, it often creates a feeding frenzy. If you're asleep at the switch and there's slack in your line, the sea bass -- and especially the porgies -- will strip the bait from your hook in an instant."
In the excitement of hooking up and being eager to get their fish aboard, some anglers make the mistake of fishing with too tight a drag. Make certain to set your drag with a little bit of give. If you respond quickly on receiving a strike, and get a couple of turns of the reel handle, you can usually get the fish up and away from the wreck or bottom debris. You'll still have latitude if it happens to be a big cod or pollock that isn't about to give up easily. And relinquishing line via a moderately set drag will lessen the chances of losing a trophy-size fish.
The bait rigs and techniques just described dominate offshore fishing, but there are times when jigs may be brought into play. Often, a skipper will announce that schools of herring are located at mid-depths in the water column. That's often an indication that pollock and codfish may have moved off the bottom to feed on them, and that gives you an opportunity to use jigs to probe for these species if you so desire.
I regularly carry a variety of Viking and diamond jigs in my tackle kit, and some custom-designed models turned out by Skip Smith. These jigs are heavy and probe the depths with ease. Include models from 6 ounces to upwards of 24 ounces in your tackle box. Most often I'll use a 4-foot leader between the jig and line, which works nicely.
Capt. Charlie Eble sails his Doris Mae IV from Barnegat Light and regularly posts many fine catches throughout the winter months. For those who are about to embark on one of these offshore trips for the first time, he emphasizes comfort.
"You've got to remember that it's wintertime. And while we've got comfortable, heated cabins on board and a great galley, there are many personal-care items that you should bring to ensure a day of enjoyable fishing, irrespective of the conditions we encounter offshore. You may be impacted by wind and/or near-freezing temperatures."
Keeping that in mind, I fill the trunk of my car with items to ensure I'll be comfortable. I actually have a checklist, so I don't forget anything. In addition to my tackle box, which is filled with an assortment of rigs, sinkers and other items, I also bring a 64-quart wheeled cooler, which can be transported on board with ease. On these trips, it's not at all unusual to have it well filled with fish before the boat heads back to the dock.
Among the most important creature-comfort items are proper clothing. I always wear a hooded sweatshirt, long underwear, and a couple of layers of clothing, including an insulated shirt, and waterproof outerwear with a hood and a warm hat to retain body heat. A pair of insulated gloves is a must, as is a pair of ankle or knee boots, since often the decks are wet and hosed down by the mates to keep them clean and to prevent an accident. You just never want to get your feet wet at this time of the year.
You'll have plenty of time to sleep on the trip to and from the grounds, and most of these party boats will have bunks available. I bring a sleeping bag, which I find ideal for comfortable snoozing, and have a cushioned pad to place under it. I also have a plastic box of personal-care items. Included is a toothbrush and toothpaste, liquid soap, a washcloth and towel, aspirin, and any medicine I take daily.
Include motion-sickness medication or an electronic Relief Band or wrist band if you're susceptible to mal de mer. Include a couple of Band Aids, first-aid cream and lip salve, too. These items are taken for granted at home, but you'll be glad you brought them along on an offshore junket.
Within range of the ports where these party boats sail, each skipper has a collection of wrecks that he visits regularly. It's always exciting when everyone on board is anxiously waiting for the anchors to take hold and the skipper to signal that it's time to let their rigs go to the bottom.
It's important not to put your rig in the water until he gives the go-ahead. On a couple of occasions, I've observed anglers who did not heed this advice, and they wound up with their rigs in the propellers or anchor line -- or in a tangled mess with others who jumped the gun.
Once the baits and jigs plummet to the bottom, the excitement begins. The catch that comes aboard varies from wreck to wreck. Sometimes it's strictly sea bass, and other times it's porgies. Often
a number of pollock are hooked, some on jigs at intermediate depths, and others just above the wreck.
Red hake, popularly called ling, are regularly encountered. Last January, we were even catching big bluefish -- tough 10- to 15-pound fighters that we never expected to catch at this time of the year. Atlantic cod, which are making a fine recovery off the Jersey coast, are still another species to hit the deck, as are blackfish.
Most anglers avail themselves of the filleting services provided by the mates, who will neatly fillet your catch and place it in plastic bags. When you arrive at dockside, you're ready to head for home, with a cooler of the most delicious fillets you'd ever want for midwinter meals.
I regularly use a Food Saver vacuum system, and freeze my surplus fillets for use until the species return to the inshore grounds later in the spring. The vacuum-bagged fish that my wife June regularly prepares taste as fresh as though they were caught that very day. Just the memory of those fine meals makes me want to board and head east for another overnighter!
(Editor's Note: Though I don't often become seasick, on one particular trip onboard the Dauntless out of Pt. Pleasant Beach, I was becoming a bit woozy. Fortunately, a kind fellow fisherman offered me a natural remedy of ginger root in pill form. I didn't believe it was going to work, but what the heck -- what did I have to lose except my lunch? So I took a pill and a swig of water. Amazingly, within minutes, I felt perfectly fine again. I now believe in the ginger root remedy!)