North Fork anglers are always restless in the winter. Tautog and sea bass are memories, winter flounder are virtually extinct and fluke are at least four months away. If you are lucky like one of our Southold friends who heads far enough south, you can contemplate sunny skies and good snook fishing, but what about Long Island cod fishing?
To be sure, overall Atlantic stocks of cod are in poor shape, with many traditional northern grounds either problematic or shut down completely in desperate attempts to restore depleted stocks. However, our local cod population has been pretty stable during the past few years and still offers opportunities for those hardies who need to stave off cabin fever.
Cod fishing opportunities during the winter months are available everywhere on the island, with boats sailing from many ports west to east: Sheepshead Bay, Freeport, Point Lookout, Captree and Montauk, and now even from Hampton Bays. Captain John Capuano’s Shinnecock Star is a welcome addition to the fleet because it cuts travel time for most North Forkers. In years past, whenever we saw a nice stretch of winter weather coming up, we were usually forced to contemplate a 60- to 70-mile run from Mattituck around the horn to Montauk, for example, or even further, back west to Captree boat basin or even Point Lookout.
Cod boats usually sail around 6 a.m. in order to be on the grounds (often 25 or more miles offshore) in dim light and (relatively!) calm seas, and newbies must reconnoiter the boat to find spots along the rails. If you board early enough and are lucky enough, you squeeze into the stern corner or onto the bow where you can cast (underhand) and adjust for tidal currents and drifts. If not, you’re dropping your rig down amidships, trying not to get too far under the moving hull. You get the picture! A 3 a.m. departure from home on short sleep is never fun, and you’d better be sure to catch some sleep on the return voyage so you can make the drive home safely!
If you are polite and reveal your ignorance or are modest about your knowledge, the old salts and the crew will usually fill you in on the best way to rig and bait up on that boat for that trip. Take a good look at the rigs the sharpies have on rods tied to the rail. How are those baited hooks set up to stand away from the leader on the drop? Any snell that wraps around the leader is a disaster, killing any chance of a bite on most days. Is the snell a foot long? Six inches? Only a dropper loop? How high is the hook set above the sinker? Any swivels, standoffs or three-ways on the rig? Two hooks (high/low) or one? Bring plenty of extra leader, snells, sinkers and swivels to re-rig in case of breakoffs. Even better, rig a spare outfit to get right back into action if you break off your entire rig or lose it in a spaghetti tangle of lines. The farther east you fish, the heavier the sinkers you’ll need.
While six ounces may suffice at times off the South Shore, Block Island waters may require “lead boots” to 20 ounces. (If heavier than 20, I put the rod away.)
Wrinkles abound in the modern cod fishing trade. At times, the tried-and-true diamond jig (hammered finish or butterfly jig) with a teaser set a foot or more above the jig can work wonders when a gentle lift-and-drop is applied. Because the key word is “gentle” and because cod have rubbery lips, not hard jaws, some folks still prefer the cushion that a main strand of monofilament line provides, even though thin super braids cut the water column better and allow for lighter sinker or jig weights. Although the shock leader at the bottom of your rig has to be thick mono or fluorocarbon to avoid twist, the main strand can be as light as you want. Cod generally are found somewhat removed from wrecks and won’t head for hidey-holes like tautog. Many years ago when cod were plentiful in European waters, we had lots of fun with school cod to 10 pounds using schoolie striper gear and mono testing six to 12 pounds.
Always, always call a few days ahead to make reservations and then check again the night before to be sure your boat is sailing the next day. If the skipper is hesitant about weather conditions, don’t hesitate to postpone. Rough weather not only beats you up, it often roils water on open bottoms and makes keeping baits still an impossibility. In the past we’ve enjoyed trips with the following boats: Paul Forsberg’s Viking Fleet in Montauk, the Captain Al in Point Lookout and some Captree boats, e.g. the Laura Lee Fleet. Check the listings in the Fisherman, Long Island Metro Edition (thefisherman.com) for other boats as well.