From Cape Ann to Cape Elizabeth, captains are heading to Jeffreys for a late-season mixed bag of bottom fish.
As I stood on the dock in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, eagerly waiting to board The Ultimate Catch for a day on the water, I quickly realized this trip was going to be quite the learning curve. I love to fish, but I’m primarily a freshwater fisherman. I have fished the open waters of the Great Lakes for walleye, bass, trout and salmon, but this was an entirely different ballgame. There was a lot to learn, and I wanted to be up to the task.
I’m not one of those people who just throw a line in the water and hope for the best. I treat fishing the same way I do hunting. To be successful, I think you must understand the animals you are pursuing as much as you possibly can. That means learning about the fish you are after as well as the place you are going to fish.
The area we were going to was Jeffreys Ledge, which runs in a northeasterly direction from Cape Ann in Massachusetts to Cape Elizabeth in Maine. The targets were cod and haddock, but we weren’t going to object to some bonus pollock and cusk. All these fish are members of the same family (Gadidae) and have similar patterns. They tend to be found in deep water – 100 to 200 feet of water for cod and 180 to 260 feet for haddock. As a general rule, haddock prefer a soft, mud bottom while cod prefer gravel, rock and ledges. Both species, however, can be found over mixed bottom when good bait such as sand eels and herring are present. Cusk tend to be found on small areas of hard bottom, such as on the pinnacle of a rise as little as 5 or 10 feet higher than the surrounding area. Pollock are often found wherever there are baitfish, but they tend to hang around bottom structure and wrecks.
After all of the gear was stowed and we were making our way to Jeffreys Ledge (about a 30-mile trip), Captain David Bardzik gave me a rundown on the boat and the gear we would be using. The Ultimate Catch is a 33-foot center console HydraSports powered by three 250 Yamaha outboards. Its state-of-the-art electronics were guiding us to the area we were going to fish. All our tackle was Fin-nor and Penn International. The rods were smaller in length than I was used to (5½ feet), but they were as thick as broom handles. Seeing all of this heavy gear made me begin to wonder what I had gotten myself into. Being used to lighter and longer freshwater casting gear, this heavy-duty jigging gear was a bit intimidating.
Each reel was spooled with 50-pound braided line. Some of the rigs would be baited with clams and others outfitted with large Norwegian cod jigs that weighed more than some of the trout I catch in New England streams. Our bait rig consisted of an 8-ounce sinker attached to the end of the line, with a circle hook tied in 12 inches above and a second circle hook tied 6 inches above that. The bottom hook was baited with clams and the high hook rigged with red and orange curly-tailed grubs called teasers. In addition to the captain, there were four of us on board the boat so two of us decided to work the jigs while the other two concentrated on the bait rigs.
As we approached our first spot, our captain told us to make ready. Our goal was to keep the boat in 200 to 270 feet of water and drift at about 1.5 knots. After about 30 minutes with no action, the captain gave the word to bring in the lines because we were going to try another spot. As I reeled in my line, the jig took a hit. It was a 12-inch cod, much too small to keep, so it was promptly released.
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Our second spot turned into pay dirt. Both the bait and the jigs were taking hits. The first keeper was a 26-inch cod taken on one of the bait rigs, and then one of the jigs brought in a nice pollock. The bait rods were paying off as quickly as we could get them re-baited and back into the water. As we drifted out of the hotspot, the bites stopped, but in that one drift, we boated two nice big pollock, three keeper cod and an unknown number of shorts. With the bite stopped, we took time to clear the fish off the deck, re-bait lines and take some photos. After the fish had been put into the cooler and the deck cleaned, our captain repositioned the boat to start our drift again. We stayed on the same spot since you don’t leave fish to find fish.
Our second time through, our drift was a little fast and this time we started catching haddock, but the action was not the same as before. The captain repositioned again, and by using a drift sock was able to keep our speed down. This did the trick as we were once again taking hits. At the end of the day, we’d caught 22 keepers: 2 pollock, 5 haddock and 15 cod. We also caught numerous shorts, five dogfish and one wolfish, all of which were released.
By the time we arrived back at the dock, I was worn out and my arms were shot. While our captain filleted our catch, we all pitched in and cleaned the boat. It had been a long day and I was heading home with fillets in the cooler. More importantly, I left with a greater respect for those anglers who do this type of fishing on a regular basis. Much has been written about the great fisheries south of us or along the West Coast, but even with my limited experience I know that a great deal can be said about what we have here along the coast of New England. Perhaps this lack of national media coverage is a blessing in disguise … it means that we can keep it all to ourselves. Though I will never give up freshwater angling, I will keep trying my luck on saltwater as well.