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Volume 16, Issue 3 - January 17 - January 23, 2008

What’s a Fisherman to Do in Winter?

Look back on the best catches of yore

Here’s to good old Boston,

The land of the bean and the cod,

Where the Lowells speak only to the Cabots

And the Cabots speak only to God.

The codfish is held in high esteem in Boston. When small, its flesh is tender with a fine texture and goes by the name of scrod. Scrod, many a New Englander brags, is the only swimming thing that tastes better than cod. Order any of those newly popular, exotic and expensive fish from far away and it can’t compare with even the bigger cod, certainly not the scrod.

Forty years ago at this time of year, this writer and countless other fishermen would be monitoring fishing and weather reports from Ocean City for any mention of cod, which fresh is the tastiest fish anywhere.

Another exceptionally tasty fish soon would be moving into waters off Ocean City; it usually arrived as the cod run was waning. We had codfish from December through February, then Boston — or Atlantic — mackerel from a sometimes early run in January into April.

John Greenleaf Whittier gave us an idea of the popularity of macks, as many fishermen refer to them, in his poem “The Fishermen”:

There we’ll drop our lines and gather

Old ocean’s treasures in,

Where’er the mottled mackerel

Turns up a steel-dark fin.

Maryland’s Cod Rush

In the late 1950s, headboat skippers were looking for a winter fishery to bring in more business. If headboats out of New Jersey and New York were packing their craft to carry parties for cod and mackerel, why couldn’t they?

I got a call from Capt. Eddie Brex who sailed the headboat Pisces out of West Ocean City. He had an idea, and he wanted me to try it with him.

He had sailed some winter days to check where commercial fishermen were catching some cod and wanted to learn if sportsfishermen could do the same. Boat electronics were in their early stages, and it wasn’t easy to get to the exact place again, but Eddie had the reputation of being able to find a needle in the mid-Atlantic. I agreed, and we set Valentine’s Day of 1959 as the date.

Snow was falling briskly when we arrived at the docks, but waves were no more than three feet, so Eddie, my companion Reese Layton and the mate decided to go. Though visibility was practically zero, Eddie figured he might be able to locate the marker he had set out. After a couple hours we were on it, and without loran or GPS in what was by then a blinding snow storm. I wouldn’t have believed it had I not been there.

First we set out a long line with all hooks baited with sea clams dropped to the ocean’s floor, each end flying a pennant. Then with rod and reel we started fishing. On my first drop, I took a cod of about 25 pounds. In two hours, the deck was covered with cod of up to 35 pounds.

Then we had to locate the pennants to retrieve the long lines in blinding snow. Again, Eddie was up to it. About 35 cod were attached to it — plus one big shark that didn’t want to give up a big cod in its mouth. A poke in the snout with a long handled gaff convinced the shark it might be better to go look for a swimming cod than to hang on.

Within a few weeks, all the headboats at Ocean City were sailing for cod. A long line or two were set up first to catch cod, which were divided among the fishermen with those who caught little or nothing first in line.

Codfishing lasted nearly seven years. Then something happened; no one knows what, but they became scarce as a thank you from a toll both attendant.

The Days of Mackerel

As it waned, the late Capt. Hoss Hatter out of Talbott Bunting’s docks, was looking for something to fill the void. He called me and several others, and we went about 15 miles offshore where we bailed mackerel on jigs and Swedish worms. By day’s end we had several hundred macks for six fishermen new at the sport. Later, when Hoss got the idea of using canned cat food as chum, the catches were even better. Another new fishery busied the docks at Ocean City.

Alas, mackerel have virtually disappeared from off Ocean City, too. If anything, we have a spotty run of a week or two, where once it lasted for a month or more. When on a school of macks, an angler would catch several at a time, go home with a hundred or more fish to be eaten fresh or pickled or used later for bluefish or big gamefish baits.

It is said bluefish migrated up the coast on the tails of mackerel, and one can’t argue that. Mackerel are to bluefish what menhaden are to rockfish. Soon after the last of the mackerel, the Atlantic is packed with bluefish fattened by their mackerel diet.

Macks are more fortunate than codfish, currently at least. While the cod fishery is in big trouble due to the popularity of the fish and commercial exploitation, the macks are still around — though not where we can catch ’em.

A few degrees on the compass can make a big difference over a great distance. Macks make long migrations, often along the same path, but if they are just a few degrees off, their new path over the long haul can take them many miles from where they are expected.

This appears to be the case with Boston mackerel. They’re out there, but too far offshore for headboats to sail for them.

Fished Out

So Ocean City in wintertime is like Chesapeake Bay: not much to fish for other than sea bass and tautog, perhaps an occasional pollock — but those fish are in trouble. Length and creel limits and periodic closures have been implemented, and only one headboat sails for them — by reservation only. The docks of Ocean City are as vacant of sportsfishermen as those of the Bay.

I think of those days as things get wintry hereabouts with little to fish for other than pickerel in the Magothy, South and Severn rivers or trout in freshwater streams, which I can’t try because my foot is still in bandages. Hunting seasons are winding down, good fishing is limited, and I decline invitations to join in the slaughter of rockfish just off the mouth of the Bay. So what am I to do?

The thing about fishing is that you can always look back on the best catches of yore while preparing for the next season. It can’t match catching, but it sure beats a blank.

Enough said.

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