Wintertime's Saltwater Smorgasbord

From cod to sea bass, red hake and more, the cold weather doesn't cool off the hot winter bite of many tasty denizens of the deep. Here's how to catch 'em right now!

Pollock are a favorite quarry of the subzero hero crowd due to their fighting abilities as well as their taste.
Photo by Nick Honachefsky.

Brrr! Boy, is it chilly outside, right? Might as well put a log in the fireplace, slip on those warm, fuzzy slippers, kick back in the recliner and wait for spring to start fishing. Horse jack! So what if your breath comes out white and the ground crunches underfoot? After all, the saltwater arena beckons in a big way! More than ever before along the Eastern Seaboard, a grand resurgence of subzero heroes have been pounding the decks of party boats all through the frigid winter months in pursuit of a variety of hard-fightin', salty fare.

Wintertime fishing for the most part is all about bouncing on bottom. Shipwrecks, reef sites and hardscrabble structure will be holding all sorts of groundfish and bottom-fish that are eager to bite despite the chilled-down waters that range from 38 to 48 degrees. There's a veritable smorgasbord of muscle-headed, big-shouldered fish that sure don't mind the cold water awaiting the saltwater hound. From Maine to Maryland, the fishing menu is magnificent.

Ling, aka Red Hake
The ling is one aesthetically challenged critter. The affable, yet tasty ling, with its bottom-feeling barbels, populate nearshore wrecks in the 10- to 30-mile range. Ling, or red hake, give wintertime anglers a real deal worthwhile ride through the winter seas, as catches can span averages of 15 to 60 fish per man per trip.

Though ling aren't known for their vicious rod-bending fights, as once you get them about 30 feet off the bottom, their air bladder pops out and they go limp; however, they will give your bait a good initial whack and a 3-pound-plus red hake will definitely give you a little jolt. Red hake mainly weigh between 1 and 3 pounds, but 4- to 6-pound "baseball bat" specimens are not uncommon and will usually take the pool money for the day.

A standard two-hook rig works best to bring up these feisty scrappers, with a snelled 2/0 hook tied right above the sinker and another snelled hook on a dropper 12 inches up from that hook. Small bits of clam work well to take most fish, but if you have sea robin, bergall or bluefish strips, cut them in 3- to 4-inch slices and lance them on the hook for a shot at a 4-pound-plus bracket hake. Red hake to 10 pounds have been taken through the winter months.

The bottom rig consists of a bank sinker on an overhand loop, two 10-inch leadered and snelled 3/0 Gamakatsu Octopus, or 2/0 beak-style hooks looped on 1 inch above the sinker, which allows the baits to rest on bottom.

Atlantic Pollock
Pollock are one of the hardest-fighting fish on the wreck scene. These tasty bottom-fish do not actually hang inside a wreck like blackfish, but above and around it, feeding on the baitfish that congregate around the structure. Pollock are more active feeders and will readily take down a metal jig or strip bait. (Continued)

Be prepared to drop a heavy 4- to 8-ounce Viking Jig down with a 4/0 teaser tied about 3 feet up to jig above the wreck, or drop down some strip baits from bergalls or herring. If a pollock or haddock is there, it will be on it. Offshore pollock usually range in the 10- to 35-pound class and tend to school and hover 30 to 40 feet above a wreck. Try dropping down to the bottom, then crank in 30 feet of line and begin jigging.

Use 6/0 baitholder-style hooks fixed with bucktail teasers and 5- to 6-inch strip baits 3 feet above a Crippled Herring jig of 8 to 12 ounces.

Cod & Haddock
January and March seem to be when cod begin to root down in the holes and tunnels of shipwrecks. Ambitious boaters will find that anchoring above one of the less plied wrecks and instituting a clam slick will usually bring the cod out of the wreck to actively feed. You can drift over prime spots with clams, strip baits or jigs, but if you are anchored over a wreck, big gobs of fresh clams will work best.

A good trip out for cod to the deep-water wrecks will usually produce a fair share of keeper codfish to 30 pounds -- if the bite is right. Haddock will also be on the bite, mixed in with cod.

A three-loop dropper rig, tied with a dropper every 18 inches up, with the bank sinker on bottom, is your best bet. Size 5/0 to 6/0 baitholder hooks tipped with bucktail teasers are usually effective choices. Use fresh strip baits on the higher hooks, gobs of whole fresh clams on the lower hooks. Don't forget to jig with 8- to 10-ounce diamond jigs about 1 to 10 feet off the bottom.

Blackfish, aka Tautog
These brawny bucktoothed brawlers of the shipwrecks undoubtedly give up one heck of a battle, as they lie within the structure poking their big lips out to suck down morsels of green crabs and even fresh clams. Thee proverbial bulldogs will pounce on your baits, but the real key to landing one is to immediately set the hook on the second tap, hoist the rod up high and then to reel immediately before that 'tog can nestle itself back into the wreck. As seasoned bottom-fishing nuts know, when a tautog grabs your bait, it's running full bore back to its lair.

Tautog will average from 3 to 5 pounds, but any trip will produce blackfish exceeding the 10-pound mark even up into the 16-pound range. For a little tidbit of info, the world-record tautog of 25 pounds was caught over a southern New Jersey wreck. Look for 'tog no deeper than the 60-foot depths and know that they will begin to migrate inshore as the winter season wears on.

Use a double overhand loop to make a 4-foot section of double line. Loop on a bank sinker. Six inches up from the bank sinker, loop on a 6-inch leadered and snelled size No. 2 to 6 Virginia-style hook, so that the bait rests just off the bottom. Green crabs, Jonas crabs, fiddler crabs, or fresh clams are best choices right now.

Black Seabass
When the water temps dip into the mid to low 40s, black seabass will begin to move offshore to their wintering grounds, out near the continental shelf. There's not too much fishing pressure hounding them day in and day out 50 to 80 miles out during January. But that's where monster 5- to 8-pound humpbacks await. Two to 3-pound seabass are legitimate fighters and can be found more inshore, but the larger seabass that hang out on the offshore wrecks are worth heading to.

Deeper wrecks in the 150- to 200- foot depths house these "humpies." Big black seabass can be caught with consistency on almost every drop. If you feel a bite, leave your rig down an

d another black seabass is prone to pounce on the other hook, as these fish tend to feed aggressively.

A 4-foot section of 40-pound leader material is used to begin the terminal end, along with a 100-pound-class barrel swivel. Next, a dropper loop is tied 18 inches down, and then a space of 18 inches, to where a second dropper is tied. A final overhand loop for the bank sinker completes the rig. On the droppers, use size 3/0 Octopus hooks for best results. Hooks may be adorned with a variety of white or chartreuse bucktails, red curlytails, beads or Mylar flash to attract attention.

Bergalls are the "bait stealers" of the wrecks, and the small ones make great strip bait; but if you can catch a few over the 1-pound mark, they are great eating! By the way, though it isn't something that should be shouted from the mountaintops, this author does hold the world-record bergall to his credit!

Bottom-bouncing bait in the winter months requires a rod with backbone to pull out snags and muscle fish up from the depths, as well as a high-speed retrieve reel with shoulders to wrestle fish up efficiently and effectively out of the structure. Decent setups include a G.Loomis PSR78-50 CSU, 6-foot, 6-inch Pelagic Series, affixed with Shimano Torium 30 reels or Shimano Tallus TLC 70H 7-foot series rods, strapped with a Shimano TLD 25 conventional reel.

Your reels can be lined with 40-pound Trilene Big Game monofilament or 65-pound braided line. Generally, a 6- to 7-foot stout rod, with a moderate flex on the tip, and seated with a size 4/0 or comparable reel, will do the trick. High-speed reels in a 4:1 to a 6:1 ratio are favored, since the depths can become cumbersome when reeling up to check your bait.

Now that braided lines are commonplace, I wouldn't fish with anything else when bottom-fishing. Be sure to spool up with at least 150 yards of braided line, and then proceed to tie on a 20-foot shot of 50-pound Quattro Triple Fish monofilament line for a shock leader with an Albright or Uni to Uni knot connection. The monofilament's stretch prevents hooks from pulling out of feisty battlers down below, as they tend to hard nose it back into the wreck. Yet, this short connection does not take away from the sensitivity and pulling power of the braid.

More ambitious jigging anglers will drop down 10- to 16-ounce Crippled Herring or Vike jigs onto the wreck to attract the attention of a roving cod or pollock in the midst. Fifty-pound fluorocarbon leader is recommended here. You may also tie on a 5/0 bucktail or grub teaser about 3 feet above the jig. A high-speed retrieve reel with a 6-to-1 ratio spooled with 30-pound running line is recommended. Match it with a stout 7-foot rod, as the 180-foot-plus depths can become quite a hassle when you're consistently checking baits.

The wintertime arena is all about bundling up and proving everybody else wrong. Sure, you can buy that ticket to the Keys or the Bahamas and vacate the area for the winter months, but don't give in! February and March means serious bottom-fishing business on the Eastern Seaboard. Get in on it!

Get Your Fish On.

Plan your next fishing and boating adventure here.

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