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Spring Groundfish Basics - Haddock and Cod


A picturesque day on Cape Cod Bay. Photo courtesy of Ryan Collins of MFCC

An annual ritual of spring when I was in University, was the celebration of 'Dragon Day'. The architecture department would build a dragon our of recycled parts and pieces and a department of 75-80 students would guide and operate the body and carry the large tail section of this mobile float through campus before setting in the middle of the main quad and setting it ablaze. The birth and life of the dragon is a symbol of spring on the Cornell campus and I looked forward to participating every spring in it.


In my adult life, my spring rituals have this birth/rebirth each year as well and I suppose I carry out my own metaphor in the unwrapping and preparation of my boat. I'm not building it from scratch each year and I hope to never see it on fire, but each spring is a 'rebirth' of the fishing season and the preparation and reparations made are a seasonal occurrence. This year is no different. It's unwrapped and I generally try to have it ready to go by Tax Day, including a freshwater test at the local lake.


I have blown the dust off my gear and begun the process of putting backing on reels. On a select few, I have gone ahead and put braid on as well. The reels that get spooled first are those that end up going with me for haddock and another set for Tautog. I'm reading that there is a rumor of decent weather next week. I'll keep an open mind about this and hope that the prognosticators are correct and I'm happy to even make a sacrificial lipation towards it as well. Anything to get back out on the water. I find myself eager with anticipation to get into the mindset of 'fishing' again. It's sleepless nights before a trip. It's spending hours before a trip preparing gear, preparing the boat, and best of all strategizing.


One of the best parts of fishing for me is the mental part. Every trip has a puzzle to unlock. I try to formulate a game plan for every trip. Based on data available to me before the trip, such as, tide, moon, sea conditions weather conditions, available species (seasonality), I go into just about every trip with a plan. Inevitably things don't go to plan. Sometimes they do, but that is rare. More often than not there is some sort of improvisation or problem solving that happens in real time while on the water as it relates to the tactics of fishing.


Over the last couple of years, I have issued this blog on haddock to go over some of the basics of what I look for early season for haddock specifically, but some of this applies to spring cod and also in some ways to black sea bass as well. I hope you can enjoy.


THE HADDOCK


My friend Bill Mitchell, in a recent article he posted for OnTheWater labeled haddock, 'the underdog fish.' Often overlooked and passed over for the iconic Cod or the harder fighting Pollock, the Haddock finds itself today, in relative abundance compared to the Cod and other bottom fishing species in the Northeast and specifically in the Gulf of Maine and neighboring waters. Once overfished due to intense commercial fishing pressure, the haddock, over the last ten years has made a comeback after the enactment of the 1976 Magnussen Stevens Act. The management and regulations that came with that piece of legislation has helped the haddock rebound. As the Cod fishery sits in an often confusing patchwork of regionalized stocks with mesh areas, seasonal closures and strict bag limits, Haddock are an option for early season anglers to bend the rod after a long winter and to bring some very tasty fillets to the table. These fish can be targeted from a small boat or a head boat and many options are available for those seeking some time on the water looking for these fish early season.


Credit for this image goes to Ryan Collins of MyFishingCapeCod
Spring Haddock caught near shore in Cape Cod Bay

TIMING


You've got your gear. You've secured a seat on a party boat or got a band of friends with a boat to head out for a day of fun in an appropriate weather window. Haddock are available during the winter, but often times the steam out to those winter haddock grounds and the general weather patterns can make a trip difficult to plan.


Generally, my search for haddock begins on 'Tax Day'. April 15th I'm looking to have the Steigercraft ready. I'm staring at the water temps and I'm looking for a solid weather window with light winds. Most years, the time between April 15th and May 15th can present opportunities to target haddock. It's always difficult to predict when and where they will come to following their winter stay way offshore. In April, when the water near shore is still cold in the 40's, the haddock bite is generally north of Stellwagen Bank and East of the Bank in water depth that can be from 200'-250'. Popular areas include Jefferies Ledge, Tillies, and the drop-offs around Stellwagen. There are obviously others and vast areas of water to explore, but I find that seeking an edge or cliff with the se depths in mind is a good place to start early season.


Things get interesting in late April and May when the inshore waters begin to warm up to what is a benchmark temperature of around 50 degrees. At 50 degrees the haddock come closer to shore and areas west of Stellwagen in Cape Cod Bay and in parts closer to Boston Harbor can become solid destinations for haddock fishing.


I have learned that there are two primary factors for this. One factor is that this temperature seems to be the point where sand eels begin to emerge out of the muddy bottom areas. The second factor seems to be that the haddock come inshore to spawn. As mentioned above, the early fishing for haddock occurs in deeper water, but during these sand eel hatches in the muddy areas more 'inshore' the haddock can be targeted in 90' to 150' of water. The near shore bite is what makes haddock fishing truly sporting and fun in the spring and some of that will be discussed later in the blog.


https://vimeo.com/803452878

For more information on the reasons for haddock moving inshore, please reference Season 6 of MyFishingCapeCod TV, Episode 2 with Captain Jimmy Koutalakis on OnTime Fishing Charters. Minute 12:15 of the episode is where to conversation with Jimmy occurs specifically concerning his thoughts on why the haddock come in near shore.


The fishing in shore is fairly consistent until mid-May and at times into late May before the fish move out offshore to their home turf in deeper waters.


WHERE AND WHAT TO LOOK FOR


One of the biggest challenges of haddock fishing is that the haddock are not usually tied to a distinct 'landmark' on a chart. Sure there are wrecks or ledges that are worth trying, but the fishing of a specific spot on a wreck or ledge will not necessarily mean that haddock will hold their for the duration of their stay inshore.


Because their presence is held by a sand eel hatch in muddy areas and spawning behavior the bottom structure they will usually be found is less specific. Inshore bottom on the west side of Stellwagen along the southern and western areas of Cape Cod is predominantly muddy, sandy, or partially gravel bottom which could at various times be areas for sand eel hatches and areas for the haddock to spawn. It's this search for the haddock that makes fishing for them a challenge. The Massachusetts Division of Fisheries has done their part in trying to assist anglers with identifying areas in Cape Cod Bay and Stellwagen with bottom better suited for haddock versus cod. They have produced a series of maps accessible here.


Sample Map from the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries showing areas known to predominantly hold haddock and/or cod


Finding plumes of bait on your radar just above this subtle 'scratchy' bottom or finding the concentration of haddock hovering over a generally nondescript area is the key to a successful trip. Depending on the day and your sonar, you may or may not mark fish. You may mark the concentration of bait or you mark certain dots or lines along the bottom that will give you the 'tell' of fish.



Courtesy of Tuna.comcharters Instagram page.  All Right reserved to Dave Carraro and FV.TUNA.COM
Haddock along the bottom

BUILDING THE BITE


Once the haddock have been located and you have generally identified the area to fish, you're finally ready to drop rigs with bait or jigs down to your target. Generally the fish are going to stay within the area you found them. They are feeding or in the midst of their spawning behavior over a particular patch of bottom. Staying with the fish is key and keeping the fish interested is also key.


When fishing with bait, it can not be overstated or overemphasized the importance of fresh bait and in the Northeast this generally means clams. Fresh shucked clams will help you greatly in getting fish to your rig.


Image courtesy of 'The Fisherman' magazine
Freshly Shucked clams can be the key to catching on a given day

The bait is one component. Patience is another. A concept emphasized to me by Bill Mitchell and Captain Jimmy Koutalakis is the idea of building a bite. Dropping bait and being patient in an area allowing the bait to soak and set up a chum slick of bait and scent is very important to keeping the bait in your area. Captain Bill Mitchell notes that this is very important for Tautog fishing and he feels that it is also important in haddock fishing and I agree with him. If the bite doesn't happen immediately, its advantageous to stay patient and to remain in the area while your bait offerings hold the marks you observed on your sonar in your area and ultimately, hopefully, lead to catching fish.


It's impossible here not to talk about drift and current. As with all fish, movement of water, particularly current below the surface factors greatly into the effectiveness of the bite. In general, fish are more inclined to feed in moving water, in current. This is true in haddock fishing as well.


If you have identified a concentration of fish, dropped your bait down and have effectively 'built up' your bite, if you have landed a few fish, its best to consider giving the location up to an hour. Within this hour, the bite may heighten or lessen. After the time passes and the bite has perhaps dried up, it is likely time to move. If you are in a fleet of boats, it may be useful to move away from the fleet and find a different concentration of fish or sand eels to target. If you are relatively alone and the bite dries up, your move to find fish may not need to be very far at all. You may just need to refocus your location over the fish again.


ANCHORING VERSUS DRIFTING


In an ideal world, you find the haddock on your sonar, they are feeding aggressively, the drift is light, you can hold bottom with a 6 ounce jig and you are filling your cooler with haddock. I can count on one hand the occasions that has happened. Haddock fishing gets technical in some key aspects and the question of 'anchoring versus drifting' is central to this.


I am not a huge fan of anchoring. In the majority of fishing that I do over an entire season, there are really only two times I consider anchoring and that is during the squid season and during my times haddock fishing.


Drifting allows you to cover more ground and is simply easier to do. I have had some very, very good days fishing for haddock while drifting, using a jig and a baited teaser and getting to my limit and fishing at the same effective catch rate as other boats that are anchored.


There are an equal number of days where dropping the anchor and remaining directly over a spot holding fish is the key to catching them. Generally, I will try drifting first in an attempt to locate fish, determine if the marks on the screen are in fact haddock, and to determine if anchoring is going to be needed for the presentation.


If your drift is too fast or if you find that you are moving away from the fish to quickly, you will have to consider anchoring. at that point, I try to determine which way the drift and current will take my bait and the scent of the bait I'm trying to 'build' and position the boat and drop the anchor. In the podcast below with Captain Bill Mitchell 1/2 to 2/3 of the way through the podcast we have a referendum on our positions of anchoring versus drifting.


Overcoming my stubbornness last year and anchoring my boat and dropping a chum basket down led to one of most surprising and amazing fishing memories I will perhaps ever have. I hooked and brought along boatside the halibut pictured below. The fish was photographed in the water and released, unharmed.



If you are looking for a chum pot to use while you anchor, I would recommend the wonderful people at Ketcham Supply in New Bedford, MA. I purchased from them last year the chum pot shown below and I found it to be very well made and simple to use. The facility is a shell fisher's paradise and the people there are very friendly and knowledgeable. I have no affiliation other than having an appreciation for a family run business.

Website below and image below:




RODS AND REELS

When I was younger fishing my father on party boats, the heavy rod with the venerable Penn Senator was the dominant choice of gear and it caught a lot of fish. Today, the technology of both rods and reels has resulted in a downsizing of everything and has made fishing for haddock, particularly the inshore effort, very enjoyable.


Fishing with bait versus jigging will result in some slight differences in the rod and reel you may elect to use. For baited presentations, the rod lift and rod tip motions are more subtle. In a bait setup, my primary consideration is a rod that has enough give in the tip that it will not pull the hook out of the haddock's mouth, as their jaws and tissue are softer. It's also worth noting here that the fight with a haddock does not have to involve a really heavy hookset or pumping of the rod when bringing the fish up.


If jigging, there are even more options for rod and reel. This is not speed jigging. The jigging motion for haddock often times is a lift of the rod to have the jig come off the bottom and then return back down in a fluttering motion that will cause of a puff of sand off the bottom. Slow pitch jigging has entered the picture with haddock and there are slow pitch applications that are effective, including the use of teasers. Slow pitch purists will argue that using a teaser is not really pitch jigging, and I'm inclined to agree with them, however, what I would agree with it, is that the slow pitch presentation and the gear used absolutely has a place in haddock fishing, pure or not. You may not be able to call it 'slow pitch' jigging if you use a baited teaser above your jig, but you can still do it and catch haddock to your heart's content.


For those wondering below are a couple of my setups:

  • Terez 7'0" MH rod and a Shimano Torium 30 HG. *This is a bit on the heavy side. When haddock fishing I have to be careful not to set the hook too hard and when reeling I have to make sure I am not going too fast.

  • Daiwa 6'-6" Saltwater VIP rated for 20-50 lb line with the above mentioned Shimano Torium 30

  • Quantum Boca 6' rod Jig Special 20-60 lb braid, 125-180gram jig weight with a 20 class or 30 class reel. I have on this setup also used an Abu Garcia NaCL low profile reel with the thumb release.

  • For Jigs alone, I often use spinning gear. A 6000 or 8000 class Shimano or Quantum reel on a 7' MH rod will get the job done in a lot of cases with a 4-6 ounce jig if you can hold bottom with it.


RIGS TO USE

In the early season, with the fresh clams, fishing with bait is a simple, effective method to target and catch haddock. The rigs are a simple high-low rig with or without a skirt or soft plastic. I prefer a squid skirt with the hook. I find it provides an attraction to the haddock without interfering with the gap or effectiveness of the hook. When fishing bait, a large amount of bait is not necessary. I find that this is a common detail overlooked. A giant glob of clam is not needed.


In the video below shot by Ryan Collins from MyFishingCapeCod.com, you can see the squid skirt rig in action being pursued by haddock underwater.



When the haddock are more aggressive, they may hit a jig and teaser combination. Catching haddock on lighter tackle using a slender profile jig and a simple teaser above can be a lot of fun. You can leave the large 12-16 ounce Viking Jigs in the box and opt for something lighter and more finessed inshore.









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Thank you for taking the time to read this blog. If you wish to see any of the product mentioned here or used in some of the video content, please see below.







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