Bottom-bouncing for fat ling and tough tautog is going on this month all along New Jersey's coastline. Read on for top fishing areas to try right now!
By Milt Rosko
The new year heralds in New Jersey's winter party boat fishing. Right now, packets sailing from Atlantic Highlands to Cape May are targeting two of the state's most popular bottom feeders: blackfish and ling.
Blackfish or tautog top the list as the most targeted winter species these day. It was only back in 1998 when Anthony Monica landed a 25-pound tautog while fishing off Ocean City. His fish is not only the New Jersey state record, but the current International Game Fish Association world record for the species as well.
A close second in the wintertime popularity poll are ling, more properly called red hake. Natalie Jones currently holds the New Jersey state record with a trophy fish that pulled the scale down to 11 pounds, 1 ounce, which she caught while sailing from Brielle during the 2002 season.
To be sure, fishing for both these species during the cold weather months requires dedication. But the rewards are great, as both blackfish and ling are gourmet treats on the dinner table. Understandably, during the cold weather months, the packets are carrying fewer passengers, which makes for fishing fun. There is camaraderie among wintertime anglers, which is second to none.
Blackfish and ling prefer somewhat different bottom habitat, and equally different techniques are employed to catch them. Depending upon the action being experienced, it's not at all unusual for a party boat skipper to spend part of a day targeting tautog and then switching over to red hake to top off the coolers. This approach is often used during the Jan. 1 through May 31 period, when there is a four-fish bag limit on blackfish, with a 14-inch minimum size limit. In the case of ling, there are no season, size or bag limit restrictions.
Good-sized ling, like this one, have big mouths and will take your offering readily -- if you keep it on the bottom. Photo by Ken Freel
The same basic party boat outfit you're accustomed to using when targeting fluke and bluefish during the summer months will hold you in good stead in this wintertime fishery. A rod measuring 6 1/2 feet or 7 feet in length and rated for 20- to 30- pound-test line is a good choice. A reel capable of holding a couple of hundred yards of 30-pound-test line is more than adequate.
However, instead of spooling monofilament line, I'd strongly suggest you consider the new braided lines of Spectra or Dyneema. Braided line has virtually no stretch, and its extremely fine diameter enables you to use half the sinker weight that you're normally accustomed to using with heavy diameter mono. This proves to be a distinct advantage, as you can readily feel the strike of a ling in 250 feet of water, and all the while using just a 6- or 8-ounce sinker as opposed to 16 ounces of lead were you using mono. This is especially advantageous when there's a strong current running on the offshore grounds, as you can still hold bottom with relative ease.
I began using braided line during the winter fishery many years ago while fishing with Captain Howard Bogan Jr. aboard his Jamaica. On a memorable day I'll never forget, I was high-hook of all the anglers on board, some of who had nary a fish, as they simply couldn't hold bottom. Since then, there has been great improvement in braided lines, and I most often spool Power Pro in 65- pound-test or the new Stren Super Braid in high-visibility yellow. I use the heavier pound test because it has a bit more diameter than 30, which I find easier to work with.
A word of caution if you spool braided line. Carry a 6- or 8-inch-long piece of wooden broomstick with you. If you foul bottom, wrap the line around the piece of broomstick and while holding it with both hands, give a hard pull, which will rip the line or rig free of the snag. By all means, avoid using bare hands to try to pull braided line from a snag, as it can cut your hands to ribbons due to its fine diameter and super strength.
As blackfish will be the target of your first stop aboard most party packets, let's discuss this species first. Blackfish most often take up residence over patches of rocky bottom and on ledges and around wrecks in particular. Among their favorite haunts are the artificial reefs located the length of the Garden State coast. Blackfish feed extensively on mussels that cling to rocks, ripping them from the rocks with their canine-like teeth. Crabs, such as blue crabs, green crabs, fiddlers and calicos are also a substantial part of their diet, as are sand fleas, often called sand bugs by many anglers.
Blackfish are very adept at ripping their food from where it's anchored on rocks or crushing the hard shells of crabs, and they're equally adept at ripping bait from your hook if you're not paying attention.
When selecting terminal rigging for blackfish, simplicity is the key. Remember that you'll be fishing on the bottom, which is littered with wrecks, rocks or other debris. As such, you want a rig that has minimal hardware. I make up my own blackfish rigs, using a pair of Virginia-style hooks that are snelled to 12 inches of leader material. I tie a dropper loop in the center of one of the hook's leaders, onto which I slip the second snelled hook.
Tie a surgeon's loop in the end of your line, with a dropper loop a few inches up from the terminal end. Slip the snelled hooks onto the dropper loop, and then slip a bank-style sinker onto the surgeon's loop. Rigged in this matter the rig is unencumbered by snaps and swivels, which are apt to foul on the bottom. The result is a neat rig that presents a pair of baits right on the bottom. While using 65-pound-test braided line, I can usually pull this rig free of the bottom with ease, albeit occasionally with a straightened hook.
The majority of party boats will supply green crabs or clams as bait. The crabs vary in size, from half-dollar specimens on up to some measuring 4 inches across their backs. The smaller crabs may be used whole, and with the larger ones you can use a pair of scissors to cut several baits from the crab.
There are several ways to impale the crab on a hook. Some anglers insert their hook in the bottom of the shell and out the top, while others rip a swim fin or claw from the crab and insert the hook in the hole and have it protrude out the shell. Many anglers employ a piece of elastic thread to help secure the bait to the hook.
Clams may also be used as bait, but because of their soft texture, blackfish will often rip the bait from the hook with ease. Many veteran anglers who prefer to bait with clams will place their baits in a salt brine solution of half kosher salt and half fresh water. This hardens the clam meat and makes for more resilient bait, which c
an also be secured to the hook with elastic thread. Conch and snails have extremely tough meat, and I've purchased these baits in a fish market and used them effectively when seeking blackfish.
Hook size is a matter of personal choice. I've found Virginia-style hooks in No. 1 through 3 sizes well suited for the average size blackfish you're likely to encounter. Here you can adjust, either upward or downward in size, to suit the size of the fish being caught on the day you are fishing. Sometimes a patch of bottom will be populated with predominately 2- to 3-pound fish, while occasionally you'll be into 7- to 10-pound tautog, especially on the deep-water grounds.
Populating the same grounds as blackfish are sea bass, porgies and the ever-present, often annoying, bait-stealing bergalls. Veteran blackfishermen have learned to recognize the light strikes of a bergall, which are often received as soon as the bait reaches bottom. Savvy anglers will resist attempting to set the hook, instead delaying until such time as they feel the more forceful strike of a blackfish. One thing is for certain when blackfishing, and that is you've got to be always alert and vigilant. For as soon as you're off your guard, a hefty blackfish will strip the bait from your hook in an instant.
Be ever alert to always maintain your line perpendicular to the bottom. Captain Willie Egerter of the Point Pleasant-based Dauntless impresses his anglers with the importance of using adequate sinker weight, along with small baits as opposed to too large a bait.
As soon as the sinker touches bottom, lock your reel in gear, and be prepared for a blackfish to take the bait. Keep your rod tip low and pointed downward, and as you feel a firm, substantial strike, lift back smartly with the rod tip to set the hook. Maintain a firm drag and immediately put pressure on the fish; it takes any good-sized blackfish, but it will dive in an instant to seek sanctuary in the rocks or wreck, if you don't move it up from the bottom quickly.
Being alert is perhaps the single most important requisite to success, avers Captain Chris Hueth, who sails the Big Mohawk from the Belmar Marine Basin. "Anglers who persevere at the rail are the ones who consistently post fine catches."
A glance at any good nautical chart will readily disclose some of the more popular blackfish locales along the coast. The Ambrose grounds and 17 Fathoms have long been favorites of party boat skippers. The Shrewsbury Rocks, extending seaward from the shore at Monmouth Beach, hold a sizeable population of blackfish and are a favorite spot for packets sailing from Atlantic Highlands and Belmar.
The Shrewsbury Rocks look like underwater mountains on your fish finder. The Rocks are located off Elberon and Deal. This location is loaded with blackfish that remain on the inshore spots and move progressively farther offshore as the water temperatures drop.
Also, all of the artificial reefs located along the central Jersey coast are popular with party boats sailing from Belmar, Brielle and Point Pleasant Beach. There are many small wrecks within sailing distance of the Manasquan Inlet, which also produce many fine catches.
There is a plethora of offshore wrecks and several excellent artificial reefs that hold an abundance of blackfish for boats sailing from Barnegat Light. Not to be overlooked are the wrecks off Ocean City and especially those fished by the boats sailing from Cape May, which is where Dave Arbeitman and Grant Toman of the Reel Seat experience fine catches of big blackfish. They regularly fish with Capt. Bob Meimbresse aboard his Down Deep sailing from Cape May. Capt. Bob hits a lot of wrecks, some of which date back to the Civil War and are located three to four miles off the beach in 40 to 70 feet of water, ranging from the area of the old Hereford Inlet to Cape May.
Ling regularly set up residence around rocky bottoms, preferring the muddy bottoms of offshore depths, where they're caught on the bottom adjacent to wrecks and rocks. Many of the tankers, freighters and submarines sunk off the coast during World War II constitute the grounds regularly fished by party boats during the winter months. By far, the favorite haunt of ling at this time of year is the Mud Hole, which extends from the Hudson River in a southeasterly direction as it makes its way seaward toward the Hudson Canyon.
The Mud Hole has a variety of bottoms that ling find to their liking, especially around the many wrecks. This is deep-water fishing, where it's not unusual to ply depths ranging from 200 to 300 feet or more. Once you've fished these depths with braided line, you'll quickly become a believer, for it's uncanny how readily you can feel the telltale strikes of hungry ling.
Because the bulk of the winter ling fishery occurs in very deep water, I prefer to use a three-hook, high-low rig. The rig has a snelled hook about 6 inches above the sinker snap, with a second 12 to 18 inches above that, and a third hook the same distance above the second hook. Using a three-hook rig will save you from having to constantly retrieve in the event of lost bait. After all, you're sending three baits into the depths. Oftentimes ling are so plentiful that it's common to catch a double-header and even an occasional triple-header.
Use long-shanked Carlisle hooks in 1/0 or 2/0 sizes, baiting with a strip of squid or piece of clam. Strips of mackerel or herring also make very effective baits. From my observation, the biggest mistake many anglers make when seeking ling is to use too large a piece of bait. Most ling weigh from 1 to 4 pounds, so a 1/2-inch-wide strip of squid 3 or 4 inches in length is more than adequate. When using clam, cut the bait about the same size and permit some of the muscle tissue to hang freely. With either strip or clam bait, the fish should be able to inhale it with ease.
In this deep-water fishery it's extremely important that you always maintain the line as near perpendicular to the bottom as possible. If you're not holding, the current will sweep your rig toward the stern, and on a party boat this causes tangles galore. Just change to a heavier sinker until it holds, even if you have to use 16 ounces, not uncommon with a strong current running in the depths of the Mud Hole.
Captain David Bogan of the Paramount out of Brielle emphasizes that using adequate sinker weight, small baits and being alert is the key to a cooler full of tasty ling. Bonus catches on the ling grounds include codfish, pollock, sea bass and blackfish.
Not to be overlooked in the quest for blackfish and ling during January is creature comfort. I always make it a point to monitor the Weather Channel and look for a high-pressure front. Often this is accompanied by a day or two of strong northwest winds, which tail off. That's when I like to sail, as the seas are calm and even if it's cold you don't have to contend with wind and rough water.
It's very important to wear warm clothing. Several layers are best, including insulated long underwear, thermal socks, a hooded sweatshirt and warm outer jacket. Always include a rain suit, for even if there's no rain, the rain gear will act as an insulator and help keep you warm. I always wear insulated knee- or
ankle-length boots. The decks of party boats are often wet and slippery, and good boots will ensure dry feet, an extremely important consideration. Don't forget a pair of warm, insulated gloves, as these will keep those fingers from becoming numb. Many of the packets have heated handrails, which also is a help on cold days.
Most of the party packets participating in this winter fishery have a galley on board, serving hot chowder, hamburgers and hot dogs, all a welcome treat on a cold day. The heated cabins provide warm comfort as you travel to and from the fishing grounds. They also provide a great opportunity to swap tales of catching trophy blackfish and tasty ling destined for the first fresh fish dinners of the New Year.
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