Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Go Fish

I made my big fishing trip out to Georges Bank on Sunday. The first surprise was that we weren’t fishing on Georges Bank. We went a bit further north around the top of Cap Cod’s fishhook and were actually on Stellwagen Bank in the Gulf of Maine.

I left the house around 8:30 Saturday night and pulled into the parking lot for the Helen-H at around 12:30 AM. One of the “Groppe” genes I am most grateful for is the one that allows me to fall asleep almost anywhere, so I was able to put the car seat back and catch about an hour’s worth of shuteye. At about 1:30 a fair number of maniacs (I mean fellow fishermen) had arrived and were milling around waiting to board. The Helen-H allows you to board in order of when you made your reservation. People have favorite spots on the boat, some swear by the bow, others are convinced that the stern corners are best. I’ve seen more than one shoving match erupt over fishing spaces. I was the second name called and I immediately staked out the starboard stern corner. I think I disappointed some of the “regulars” by taking a spot they wanted, but they didn't seem to mind too much. Since there were only 27 anglers on the boat, we all got bunks, a key when you leave the dock at 3AM. After staking out my fishing spot and claiming a bunk, I rigged up with a 14 ounce LavJig, and crossed my fingers that all the knots I tied would hold.

I woke up a little after 6:30 and went out onto the deck to look around. The sun was low in the sky and the ocean was a dark, dark blue. Even more important, the seas were only 2-3 feet, since I tend to get seasick, this was a big win. As I looked out at the horizon, I saw something I had never glimpsed north of Florida, a pod of dolphins swimming alongside the boat, maybe twenty yards off the starboard side. Since stepping on a fishing vessel makes the most hardened science loving atheist as superstitious as a medieval villager with a pitchfork and a bonfire, we all immediately agreed that dolphins were good luck. The lone dissenter was immediately thrown overboard, which is also good luck. For us, not him obviously. Though it may end up being good luck for a passing shark. (OK we didn’t really throw him overboard, but don’t you hate people who try to harsh your buzz?)

Anyway, we started fishing a little bit before 7. Now jigging for cod is pretty straightforward. You drop your tackle over the side and wait for it to hit bottom. You can either let it bounce along the bottom as the boat drifts, quickly lifting the rod tip six inches then lowering again or you can go with a more aggressive up and down lifting the rod tip three or four feet. I didn’t have much time to decide what technique to use, I had a fish on as soon as my jig hit bottom. (I think I hit my fish on the head)

The cod was maybe about a foot long, well short of 24 inches the legal minimum, but still a great way to start the day. Five minutes later I had my first keeper fish in the cooler, I don’t know what felt better, knowing that the knots I tied had held up or that I wouldn’t have to stop off at a fish store on the way home to avoid being mocked by a five year old and a three year old who expected, nay demanded, a fish dinner.

We had a steady, if slow pick of fish for most of the morning, by noon I probably had five keepers maybe 8-pounds each. At that point, the fishing really dropped off and the captain decided to head to another spot. When we arrived there was another party boat and a large catamaran from the New England Aquarium. I assumed they were whale watching, and they seem to have picked a good spot for it. Suddenly a pod of whales surfaced about fifty yards off the stern. I had never seen a whale in the wild before, it was an amazing sight. For about twenty minutes the whales surfaced to around us, I think they were feeding, but since I can't do the Mr. Spock Vulcan/Whale Mind Meld I couldn't ask them directly. At one point they must have decided to go a little deeper, the suddenly raised their massive tails above the surface and headed down. The whales were gone. They probably ate so many sand eels that the cod left with them- anyway we weren’t catching anything, but I certainly didn’t mind. It was worth it to be close to something that amazing.

While I was happy with a nice catch and a glimpse of Moby Dick, some my fellow fishermen weren’t all that thrilled. They blamed the whales for eating all the bait and chasing away the cod. When you make one of these offshore trips you expect to catch a massive amount of fish and at least a third of the boat was getting skunked (no fish). The captain moved a couple of more times, then finally around 3:00 or so he put us on a nice patch of fish. For the next two hours I was into cod pretty much nonstop. A couple of my nearest neighbors still hadn’t caught anything, I’ll give them credit, they were nice about it. Not everyone can manage to be civil when their cooler is empty and the guy standing next to them is complaining his arms are sore. Not that I did that (loud enough for them to hear).

By the end of the day I had nine keepers on ice; I probably threw back at least three borderline legal fish. I had more than enough and didn’t see any point in keeping more. All in all a great trip. Next on tap is flounder or maybe fluke with Megan and Devon.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Gadus morhua

So this Sunday I am going codfishing- I hope. Like most saltwater fish, cod has greatly declined over the last thirty years, one of the only places you can reliable catch fish is Georges Bank. Georges Bank is basically a flat-topped underwater mountain off the end of Cape Cod. It holds an abundance of marine life, but the same conditions that fish love- the mixing of cold and warm water combined with a rapid change from abyssal depths to rocky shallows makes the weather completely unpredictable. These trips get cancelled a lot.

I have no logical reason for enjoying codfishing. They’re hardly gamefish, like tuna or striped bass, they fight for a few seconds then you’re pretty much hauling dead weight to the surface. You usually go in the dead of winter when the guys fishing on the bow (and it’s almost always all guys- women are generally much too smart to codfish) actually have to bring their rods into the cabin to melt the giant iceblocks that formed on their rods during the ride offshore. I like eating cod, but there are better tasting fish a lot closer to home. Still, if I could pick any trip as my favorite, it would be this one.

Maybe it’s because my Dad always enjoyed codfishing. When I was small he would take my older cousins out to Montauk. I was insanely jealous even though I knew I was much too young for an offshore fishing trip of any kind, never mind one where ten foot seas were considered pretty normal. When I was finally old enough to go I felt so adult I didn’t even mind not catching anything. It wasn’t until I was in college and we made a trip out of York Beach in Maine one summer that I actually landed my first cod.

The trips out of Hyannis to Georges Bank are a bit different than the ones I went on with my father. Most of the fishing is done with HUGE metal jigs. These suckers can weigh more than a pound and you tie them to your line with some extra hooks located anywhere from six inches to two feet above the jig. It’s not unusual to catch two fish at a time. Even a rank amateur like me has done it a couple of time. For most types of fishing you can buy ready made rigs (that’s the part of your fishing gear with the hooks), not so for these trips, you have to tie your own. My know tying skills are. . . well.. let’s just say I wouldn’t have gotten a merit badge for knot tying even if I had joined the Boy Scouts.

I do get a charge out of the, (and I’m keeping a straight face here), historical value of codfishing. There is a good chance Basque cod fishermen were landing on Newfoundland a couple of hundred years before Christopher, “Thanks for the corn and potatoes, here’s some smallpox”, Columbus blundered across the Atlantic, though some think he got the idea of a short westward journey to land from those same Basques. Since cod can be salted, dried then sold hundreds of mils inland, it was an invaluable source of portable protein for Europeans. The prospect of catching cod was one of the main lures of settling in New England. Mark Kurlansky wrote a short but great book called Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World. A fun read, highly recommended even for those who wouldn’t go fishing on a bet.