Cod have been experiencing somewhat of a resurgence the past few seasons, and for many anglers in the Northeast, catching cod could be a new experience. And then there are those who experienced cod fishing during the best of times and had lots of opportunities to develop their skills when it came to putting bacala in the cooler. I was fortunate to have experienced the “good years” and I was a cod fishing fanatic back then. As a result, I can say in all honesty that I held bragging rights for frequently winning pools for catching the largest cod (and the most cod) on open boat trips out of Montauk Point, Pt. Judith and Sheepshead Bay. And while there are new methods, particularly with artificials, for catching cod, the fish have not changed. As a result, those same tactics that won pools years ago remain just as effective today.
The crux of the matter is what was it that made me successful in the cod game? Initially, I did not have much success when I began fishing for cod. However, I was a quick learner and observant, and I made it a point to find out what the successful fishermen was doing – the guys who were always high hook and winning pools. Moreover, I wasn’t bashful when it came to questioning and watching what the “old timers” were doing. As a result, I discovered some interesting tidbits of information from them that still hold true today.
They made it a point to cast away from the boat regardless of where they fished from the boat. Why was that? Their thinking was that too many anglers’ lines converged in a confined area, particularly if the current was swift. The probability that their bait would be chosen by a cod was substantially reduced. Sure, they might catch a fish. However, there was another pitfall when one’s rig was in the pack. That pitfall was the propensity for your rig to get tangled, often into a horrendous bird nest. These tangles take time to undo – a waste of valuable fishing time. Often, it’s necessary to cut all the lines requiring you to re-rig, which takes more time. Painting your sinker a bright color – yellow, orange, white, or bright red – will help you identify your rig and get back to fishing sooner if you do get caught up in a tangle.
Select a location on the boat where the convergence of lines in less. Therefore, choice locations are the stern, particularly either corner of the stern, or the bow. There’s another reason why these locations are choice ones. You can cast your rig away from the boat much more easily. It’s far more difficult to do from the sides or middle of the stern because there is no swing room. Mind you, overhead casting is never allowed on an open boat for obvious reasons. Therefore, it’s important that you learn and perfect underhand casting. It is much easier to underhand cast with a spinning reel, and while fishing for cod has long been the domain for conventional reels, some of today’s spinning reels are designed for heavy duty work in deep water for large fish. Either way, make it a point to practice underhand casting techniques. If you become proficient at it, you should be able to cast your rig anywhere from 20 to 40 yards away from the boat. The result will be more strikes and ultimately, more fish.
When comes to baiting up, don’t overload the hook. Sea clams tend to be the bait of choice on most open boats sailing for codfish. A single clam of sufficient size to cover the hook is enough. Avoid at all costs the hook’s leader getting twisted around your main line. Especially when currents are running strong, a baited hook on a long leader has the tendency to twirl, often around your main line like a flag wrapping around a flag pole in a strong wind. And no, the answer isn’t to shorten the leader because to do so will lessen your chance to catch a fish. It’s another reason for not using too much bait on your hook since the heavier bait has a greater tendency to wrap around your line.
So, what is the solution? The following rigging technique is probably most responsible for helping me catch more cod than those around me time and time again.
It begins with a three-way barrel swivel, which somewhat reduces the leader twisting around the main line. More important, is the piece of clear aquarium plastic tubing attached to the swivel (see diagram). The tubing should be cut to about 6 inches in length. Before tying your hook’s leader to the swivel, slide the plastic tube on the leader, and then tie the knot. Next, slide the tube snuggly onto the swivel. Use fluorocarbon for leader material and keep your hook leader length between 18 and 24 inches. It will droop if it’s too long.
Consider a double-hook rig when fishing relatively open bottom. To do so, attach the second hook approximately 18 to 20 inches above the lower hook. It will increase the chance of catching more fish, but will also increase the chance of fouling. By all means, bring extra pre-tied rigs. Regardless of how careful you are, you will lose rigs, particularly if fishing a wreck.
I prefer the old reliable clinch knot when fastening a fishing line to swivels, hooks, etc. Also, use lighter test line for attaching your sinker to the three-way. If the sinker hangs up, you can break it off and salvage the rest of the rig. The line from swivel to sinker should be approximately 18 inches long. Use a sinker heavy enough to get your rig to the bottom quickly and effectively hold bottom.
Fish a “dead stick!” Many of the successful “old timers” swore by this method. Time after time, I observed an old timer, after making his underhand cast away from the boat, tighten the line and then lay the fishing rod against the railing. I was taught that codfish will savor/taste the bait at first. By reacting to that first bite, the result was more often than not a stripped hook or the fish abandoning the bait. Most sharpies wait for a second pull before picking up their rod, and set the hook on the third tug.
I prefer 50-pound test line for my main fishing line, either monofilament or braid is okay, but there are advantages and disadvantages to both. Mono stretches so it’s not as sensitive in detecting slight bites. The stretching however, is also its advantage. It’s more forgiving when reeling in a large fish, especially when the drag is set a bit too tight. The mono acts as a shock absorber and reduces the risk of the hook pulling free. It’s the reason many rod and reel commercial fluke fishermen rely on mono instead of braid for their fishing. Braid, on the other hand, provides the ultimate in sensitivity, and the finer diameter allows you to get away with lighter payloads, but the lack of stretch could cost you a pool winner. Backing off a bit on the drag could help reduce that risk and setting your drag a bit on the lighter side in the first place might mean taking a little longer to reel in that “soaker” but it beats dropping a possible pool winner.
Use red line. It’s a scientific fact that the color red disappears first in water. Colors with the longest wavelengths, with the lowest energy, are absorbed first. Red is the first to be absorbed, followed by orange and yellow. The colors disappear underwater in the same order as they appear in the color spectrum. Even in water as shallow as 10 feet there will be a noticeable loss of color. Using a red line, red colored sinkers, and red hooks can help improve your catch rate. And, don’t ever attempt to land a codfish without assistance from a mate. They will net or gaff the fish for you, unless it is small enough to be lifted over the rail.
Consider having your catch cleaned by the boat’s crew members. They charge a fee but it may be worth it, especially if you have a long drive ahead of you and it’s already been a long day on the water. Besides, crew members depend on tips to supplement the generally lean wages they receive. Well, I hope some of the tips from this veteran cod fisherman will improve your chances of catching more and even bigger cod.