This is my way but what is your way?
Yes, blackfish stocks are on the rise, thanks to more restrictive harvest rules for commercial potters. Did you know, that blackfish stocks were stable before potting them for the live fish market became a common practice in the 1980s? When potting began, dedicated conservationists and recreational fishing groups tried hard to have it banished on the grounds that the fishery wasn’t traditional. Blackfish are slow growing, potting removes large numbers of fish from a small area. These efforts were fruitless.
It’s helpful to remember that blackfish migrate inshore and offshore seasonally, and once they enter a suitable inshore habitat they stay there until water temperatures force them deeper. That means, unrestricted potting can remove a lot of blackfish from a limited habitat in a short period of time. Recent limits on potting means that more blackfish survive an inshore season and return next year.
Most of the blackfish caught on inshore grounds in autumn are small, because blackfish grow slowly. In 2019, the majority of the fish we caught were 13 to 15 inches. In 2020, the fish were an inch or so larger with some bigger ones caught too. In a few years there should be a decent number of 20-inch blackfish available during the fall run. Imagine what blackfishing might be like if we banned potting completely? There is precedent to do so. In Florida the potting of grouper was banned some years ago, and grouper stocks rebounded, so why not do it here for blackfish? By the way, the live fish market is basically for overseas consumption, restricting the benefit to East Coast users.
For those of you who are sick of my stories of yore, you might want to skip this section because you’re about to get another one. However, you might want to cut me a little slack considering that I’ve been saltwater fishing since before 1950. That makes me two things: old, and loaded with historical references that might help younger anglers get a better sense of what saltwater fishing could be like if management were more judicious. It might seem strange to you, but in spite of the fact that freshwater bodies of water are smaller than oceans, in general, freshwaters are managed more effectively. Something to think about, don’t you think?
Decades ago, we caught blackfish in the spring and fall. Finding them wasn’t difficult. We caught them from the beach as well as in a boat, and size was never an issue. Most of the fish we caught were at least 3 pounds and ranged well beyond 6 pounds. The last time I enjoyed one of those “good old days” trips was in the 1970s fishing with then LIF editor Glenn Voparil off Eaton’s Neck. We did not have a depth finder, and with far fewer fishermen, blackfish reports were skimpy. Nonetheless, we headed out in a small aluminum boat and anchored in the vicinity of buoy 11B. We caught blackfish after blackfish until we ran out of a half bushel of green crabs.
For most of my adult life I’ve fought for fish species and their habitats, but make no mistake, I have also fought for the rights of recreational anglers to have access to reasonably good catches, regardless of what venue they use or where they live. Recreational anglers support many national, regional, and local businesses—many of the latter are family businesses, and although most of us do not make a living from catching saltwater fish, we do have a right to this common property resource and should be given credit for our contribution to various economies.
The title of the article is “Blackfish, My Way”. What does that mean? Well, it means I’ve never wanted to just catch fish. If I didn’t care how I caught them I would use a net or a trap. No, I want to wrest every ounce of fun out of every fish I catch. That means I don’t want to get seasick in the winter on offshore wrecks with tackle stout enough to pull a tractor trailer. It means I don’t want to catch only large ones. It means I want to fish in reasonable comfort, in shallow water, use light tackle and, whenever possible, employ jigs instead of hooks on leaders and sinkers. Am I being too fussy? I don’t think so and now that stocks are more robust, I think I can do it, perhaps not every trip, but most trips. I also recognize that the size of a stock is not the only factor affecting success, because weather and sea conditions also influence catching. For example, there’s nothing like gusty winds to ruin a blackfish trip.
Steady As She Goes
This is a nautical term for the hand that guides the wheel of a ship, when fishing for blackfish—above all other bottom species—preventing the boat from swinging is of the utmost importance. Although blackfish can be aggressive feeders, they aren’t thrilled chasing food that moves rapidly in one direction and then another. Thankfully there are ways to keep a boat reasonably still.
My favorite way to counteract a gusty wind is to double anchor and when I owned a boat that’s what I did. In my experience, fishing on other people’s boats, has been that most anglers don’t like to do it. I can understand their reluctance to some degree. With fewer fish, it often takes three, four, or more drops to find the blackfish. Time consuming, double anchoring can become a drudgery. However, sudden gusts or even boat wakes are enough to push boats off a hot spot when using a bow mounted single anchor. Often, the fish are never relocated. Some anglers are blasé about this, but I am not.
Another, and perhaps more convenient, way to keep a boat over the target is to anchor and tie the line amid-ships. This method is much less laborious than double anchoring and has almost the same efficiency. There’s an angler in the western Sound that I have watched with considerable interest. I do not know him, but I admire his skills at anchoring and blackfishing. He fishes the same areas that Rich Lazar and I fish in the fall and he always outfishes us. I’ve studied him for several years and I believe his way is my way. Perhaps more importantly, I think I’ve come to understand at least a few of the reasons why he is so successful. First, he anchors amid-ships. Second, he enters the area and is patient. He slowly glides around until he is satisfied with the bottom. I’m certain he is not using GPS, rather watching the recorder screen intently. His body language changes when he sees the bottom he likes, but he does not anchor immediately. Instead, he makes a turn to reposition the boat so that when he sets anchor he will be over the spot. He isn’t always successful, and the anchor doesn’t always hold, but he wastes no time. He doesn’t even try to fish if he doesn’t like his position. Instead, he pulls anchor, goes around again, and adjusts the throw of his anchor for another try. I’ve watched him make as many as five attempts on the same piece before he was satisfied. This kind of attention to detail pays off for him bigtime.
A Skilled Angler
He is a light tackle angler, just as we are, but there are differences. He uses a very light jig which is something Rich has preached in recent years. Depending on sea conditions, Rich uses the lightest jig possible, and I believe our nearby friend does the same thing. He drops his baited jig next to the anchor rope. At first thought that may seem to be an easy way to get tangled, but it’s actually smart because this is the place on the boat that will move the least. Next, he retrieves a few inches of line, and keeps his jig moving—not a fast dramatic movement, but small subtle moves. Recent underwater video evidence suggests that baits kept slowly moving will receive more attention from blackfish than baits resting motionless in the structure. It’s never long before he’s hooked up. I speak from experience when I say that fishing next to this guy and watching him catch fish after fish is humbling. I have since learned that he has moved to another state. I regret I won’t be able to watch him and learn, but I’m glad not to be outfished by him anymore.
His penchant for light tackle means he fishes for fun first. For sure, if he does hook a really big blackfish in that rubble, he’s likely to lose it with his tackle. He understands this I’m sure, but would rather enjoy the fun of angling even if it means he’ll lose a giant fish. I’ve also noted that although he keeps a legal fish here and there, he throws back legal fish and little ones, too. That means more legal fish are available to other anglers while also providing him with a few nice meals.
I noticed that he fishes small windows in the tide. When he arrives, there’s usually a fleet of boats already on the grounds. He seems unperturbed and unworried that he’ll be shut out of favorite spots. I guess he has lots of favorite spots on that rubble, because regardless of how many boats are present, he always cruises, locates, drops anchor, and starts catching blackfish. He fishes intensely for a few hours and then, while the rest of us are still laboring to catch fish, he’ll pull anchor and leaves
I also admire his focus. His body language and the way he attends to his rod signals an intensity that one only sees in a dedicated angler. Boat wakes, questions, or whatever, he remains riveted on the bite. He gives each blackfish absolutely no quarter. He sets hard, lifts hard, and fights hard. Sometimes, the bend in his light rod is a little scary. When he loses a fish half-way up, as we all do, he stomps his foot even though he’s already caught a mess of fish. I can relate to this kind of desire to catch every fish because when I drop a fish, I do the same thing. As “Crazy” Al Knie is fond of saying sarcastically, “I hate fishing!”
Frank Sinatra sang about his desire to do “it my way,” and I feel the same way. I want a shallow water bite. I want to use light tackle. I want to use jigs when condition permit. I also want to bring home one nice blackfish for the table because they are so good to eat. This is my way but what is your way?