Winter’s not so bad if you live along the Gulf Coast or near the best places to fish in Florida. The temperatures typically stays mild enough that something will keep your rod bent until spring. Of course, you can make like a snowbird and head South for a vacation, but many of the thousands of saltwater anglers living in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic hang it up around Christmas. By then, staples like bluefish, red drum, and striped bass are long gone, but the door remains wide open for the underdogs of winter.
Want to cure your cabin fever and put a delicious meal on the table after the New Year? Sure, you might need your best heated gloves and best heated socks, but private charters and party boats are still operating in many fishy ports. If you’re not sure what you want to chase, here’s a breakdown of your best salty northern options during the cold season.
Cod and Pollack
Where to Fish: Montauk, New York
How to Fish for Cod and Pollack
Historically, the Northeast played host to outstanding—if not legendary—cod fishing. Specimens breaking the 50-pound mark were common from New York to Maine and filling a cooler during the winter months was a piece of cake. Sadly, cod stocks in the U.S. have dwindled, largely thanks to decades of commercial overfishing by both domestic and foreign operations. Increased protection for these fish, however, have stopped them from disappearing entirely, and for those willing to brave the temperatures, the opportunity to bag what’s arguably one of the most mouth-watering fish in the Atlantic still exists. Even better, if you do get on a good cod bite, it’ll warm you right up.
Unlike other popular winter targets, cod respond to jigs. Though many are caught by simply soaking clams on the bottom, metal lures like heavy diamond jigs will get positively slammed. Jigging gets the arms working which helps quell the chill. Furthermore, cod brawl and peel drag, which gets even more of your muscles moving and shaking off the cold.
As a bonus, anywhere you find cod you’ll find pollack, a cod relative that’s equally eager to rock a jig and fights just as hard if not harder. Though pollack isn’t quite as prized on the table, it’s still white, mild, and very delicious. I’ve been on several cod trips where big pollack have saved the day and nobody complained about their rods being bent over the rails by them for hours.
Hot Winter Fishing Tips
No matter which style of metal lure you’re dropping for cod and pollack, always rig a 6-inch curly-tail grub ahead of it via a dropper loop on your leader. Sometimes this smaller teaser fluttering up and down gets eaten faster than the larger metal lure, and white, neon pink, and chartreuse are all productive grub colors.
Where to Fish: Ocean City, Maryland
How to Fish for Tautog
Tautog—a.k.a. tog or blackfish—is a member of the wrasse family that thrives among hard structures like rocks, reefs, and wrecks. Not that long ago, they were largely considered a trash fish, but advances in technology has thrust them into the spotlight. Considering that these fish can break the 20-pound mark and fight like crazy to get back into their sharp, hard lairs and cut your line, old-school tog anglers leaned on broomstick rods. Captains also had to have the ability to double anchor over likely structure to keep the boat as still as possible. But these days, the advent of lighter, stronger rods, faster reels, and SpotLock GPS technology have made it easier and more fun for anglers to target these fish. They have a growing cult following across their primary range from Virginia through Maine, and that cult will stay on them all winter.
As water temperatures drop, tog move farther offshore. This explains why Maryland and Virginia become winter hot spots, as the water remains slightly warmer inshore than it does farther north. With round heads, gnarly conical teeth, and dull gray bodies, tautog aren’t winning any beauty contests, but they’ll ace a taste test.
These fish feed on nothing but clams, shrimps, mussels, and crabs, and as they say, you are what you eat. The secret to success is keeping your bait perfectly still on the bottom, which can be done with a traditional sinker rig or by tipping a special tog jig with bait. The real skill, however, is knowing when to strike.
Tautog have the uncanny ability to clean off your hook in a fraction of a second. They’ll extended their rubbery lips and crunch a bait before working it into their mouths. Swing too soon and you’ll miss; wait too long and the fish will feel the hook and spit it out. The timing takes practice but it’s all part of the fun. And when you do connect, crank hard and fast so you don’t get “rocked up” by these cunning opponents.
Hot Winter Fishing Tip
When fishing the hard structure tautog love, your sinker is more likely to get hung up in the cracks and crevices than your hook. Instead of attaching it directly to your leader, secure it to your rig with a rubber band. This way, if your weight gets hopelessly wedged, the rubber band will break instead of your entire rig.
Where to Fish: Belmar, New Jersey
How to Fish for Ling
Ling is actually the common name for red hake, a small bottom-dwelling species found on wrecks in the winter months from the Mid-Atlantic through New England. Rarely measuring more than 24 inches, these fish may not have the arm bending ability of cod and tautog, but what they lack in strength they make up for in numbers. They also provide outstanding table fare.
Dedicated winter anglers between New York and Delaware pile onto party boats hoping to fill coolers with these oddball fish. With long, tapering bodies and long spine-like pectoral fins that they use to feel for prey on the bottom, ling aren’t exactly pretty. However, where you find one you often find more, making for drop-and-reel action. Unlike cod and pollack, ling aren’t aggressive enough to be caught on artificial lures. A simple piece of clam or squid presented on the bottom via a small, long-shank hook is all it takes, and when the action is hot, it’s not uncommon to connect with two fish at once if you’re using a double-hook rig.
Hot Winter Fishing Tip
While ling is about as delicious as cod and tautog, it doesn’t freeze nearly as well. Even when fresh the meat is softer than other winter targets, so, if you catch a pile, plan on a fish fry in the next couple days to get the best flavor and texture out of your haul.