For the last few decades, the late fall period signals the unofficial start to what is consider the "deep water wreck" fishing season for vessels primarily out of New Jersey, and to a lessor extent, from a few south shore of New York fishing ports.
Wrecks in over 25 fathoms of water begin to fill in with large and jumbo sea bass and scup, along with mixed sizes of cod, pollock, white and/or red hake, as these various species are either migrating offshore, or as in codfish and red hake, inshore.
As a few of the old time captains who were involved in the offshore wreck fishery in the past years would reminisce about their favorite "secret wreck" at this time of the year, becoming "real fishy", with anglers easily filling up a 151 quart cooler with enough fish to, "figuratively speaking", being able to feed themselves and a few neighbors for weeks.
Over the past few years though, the late fall and winter for-hire vessel offshore wreck fishery has been interrupted by the nonsensical and prolonged black sea bass closure, along with the NY fishing fleet, having been prevented in retaining scup in the EEZ (federal waters - more then 3 miles from the shore) for recreational anglers over the past few years.
The 2012 fall fishing season has once again experienced another NMFS (NOAA FISHERIES) mandated closure of black sea bass harvested by recreational anglers in the EEZ, forcing for-hire vessels which normally are fishing offshore at this time of the year, to either switch to inshore bottom fishing, or as in the case of Captain Jeff Gutman, owner and operator of the Pt. Pleasant based VOYAGER, to come up with a creative plan to work around certain deep water areas and wrecks which normally are not stacked up with black sea bass at this time of the year.
This first fall deep water wreck trip for the VOYAGER would leave the dock on Friday night, November 30th at 11pm which would allow them to fish all day on Saturday December 1st and then be back in at between 6 and 7pm. The "wrecks" or spots to fish on the first trip of the season though, actually involved a prospecting trip by Captain Jeff, and his crew two days earlier to a few areas which traditionally hold more cod and pollock then sea bass.
As we have all come to find out over the past two decades, our traditional offshore fishing grounds, normally where we caught cod, are figuratively speaking now "chock-filled" with sea bass, along with swarms of large and jumbo scup . As Captain Jeff experienced on that day and which we saw on this trip, make it extremely hard to keep a skimmer-baited hooked, "unmolested" to soak for a few moments in hopes of catching a codfish. As Captain Jeff told me as he was coming in from this prospeciting trip, it was pretty frustrating at times, as the crew had to fish on "old time" codfish wrecks this day using just one large hook to lessen the chance of hooking multiple sea bass and/or scup.
How times have changed with fishermen now having to avoid hooking and retaining large and jumbo sea bass. As I came to see and hear, the instructions during the pre-boarding on the night of the trip, Captain Jeff explained this very clearly to everyone at the dock.
Let me first back up a moment.......
After missing out on the crew trip, Jeff said to me to try and make this trip, and thankfully it being on Saturday, I had the time to drive to Pt. Pleasant - New Jersey, where the VOYAGER is docked right at the FISHERMEN'S SUPPLY parking lot.
It was just before 10pm that Friday night and I happened to be one of the last to arrive. The area was brightly lit with a noticeable amount of activity in the parking lot, along with a lined up row of fishing tackle, coolers, sleeping bags, and eager fishermen waiting to board the boat.
For those who have never experienced a pre-boarding for a long range offshore wreck trip out of a New Jersey fishing port, I can pass along that you will see some of the finest custom and top-tier tackle used by bottom fishermen on this coast. I even mentioned to a few guys I spoke to later on that there were a few fishing reels that I had never seen in person before!
The long time mates, Theo and Chris were hastily cutting bait on the rear Xactics box, as fishermen were told to check in one at a time with Captain Jeff. Instructions were given ever few minutes for new arrivals to check in with Captain Jeff in the galley.
I made my way onto the VOAYGER and met Captain Jeff, and his second captain, John, in the main cabin. Other then some small talk about what they intended to do this trip, it was pretty quiet as I looked around the boat.
Finally when Captain Jeff had a full head count for this sold out trip, he made his way back outside the cabin to give specific instructions to everyone on the dock.
Due to the sea bass closure on November 1st, we are not allowed to retain ANY black sea bass on this trip. Does everyone understand? If anyone has a problem with that, let me now know and I will give you a full refund, right here, right now.
From where I was standing on the top deck of the VOYAGER, I did not hear a "peep" from anyone mentioning "why not?" After Captain Jeff finished his instructions, the customer boarding list was read off, and in a orderly fashion, each fishermen dragged their gear and cooler on board and made their way into the cabin.
During this time, I did make a "once around" the boat to look at some of the rod, reels and terminal tackle fishermen would be using on this trip. One set up, brought back memories of fishing up in New England, but due to the structure that is typical fished during these deep water wreck trips in this region, jigs rigged in this manner will quickly become embedded into the wreck or caught up in lost old dragger nets hung into the piece. Just a heads-up here to keep the Norwegian style stainless, nickel plated and unplated jigs in your tackle box.
I also spotted this.....As much as some fishermen enjoy using those big spinners, its best for not only the fishermen who brought these set-ups along, but those other fishermen along the rail, to leave these hanging in the rod rack....at home.
As it approached 11pm, Captain Jeff turned over the Lugger engines and the shore power line was disconnected. A final head count was made, and lines removed off the bits. The VOYAGER slid out of her berth, just a few docks over from the big scalloper, F.V. Christian & Alexa
The back ground lights from the FISHERMEN'S SUPPLY DOCK started to fade as the VOYAGER jogged slowly towards the opening at Manasquan Inlet. What now would lay ahead of the long steam out to the deepwater wreck area was racing through our heads.
At the breakwater, the bow of the VOYAGER started to lift up and then fall into the trough, then repeated quickly once again as Captain Jeff slowly started to put the throttles down. I believe all on board were surprised by the rollers as we started to clear the inlet, and questions started about the previous NOAA weather forecast of 5-10 mph from the northeast. We were now steaming into a east wind, that seemed to blow a steady 15 mph, and which would continue to pick up along with the height of the seas through the evening hours this night.
It was time to either settle in, work on rigging your rod, or tell stories which we did up in the wheelhouse. There was a high expectation of running into sea bass on almost any drop, and with the conditions getting sloppier as the VOYAGER motored offshore, a decision was made to first stop at a wreck in over 36 fathoms. Based upon what Captain Jeff remembered from this same time last year, this drop did not have any amount of sea bass when fished at the same time in 2011.
It was a six hour plus, bunk rattling ride at times as the seas continued to build, with Captain John backing off on the sticks in the middle of the night to make the ride as comfortable as possible despite the conditions. It was still dark when the hum of the engines lowered and the VOYAGER slowed as it approached the first drop of the day.
It looked "fishy" as Captain Jeff made the first slow pass over the wreck. The wind was honking and now it was time to set anchors in the dark. First running up and quartering the wind to drop the port anchor, then letting the boat settle back as the line ran through the block. Then turning the bow and slowly running to the south, the starboard anchor went out. Both Theo and Chris worked the anchors as the east wind and Captain Jeff working the sticks and directing the crew to keep easing out or taking in on each anchor line, before the boat was eventually squared up over one part of the drop.
Even in the dark, it became evident that three fish would dominate the catch as mixed sized bluefish, large and jumbo sea bass and what we here in Sheepshead Bay call scup that bite during the night, "vampire porgies", large enough that you did not have to measure them.
It soon became double-headers of scup, bluefish and scup, bluefish and sea bass, and noticeably large sea bass were consistently coming up and over the rail. The way the fish were biting on this first wreck, whenever you sent a skimmer baited rig down the bottom, you were assured of either quickly being cleaned off, or coming up with one or two fish. One other issue was also becoming apparent, with those large and jumbo sea bass, having to be carefully de-hooked, then vented (more on this later), and discarded back into the water.
I will admit, the "crying game" was done by a few of us on board,myself included who fished the whole trip with a OE gold hammered 8 oz with a 9/0 special short shank tuna hook and tossing back sea bass up to 4 lbs. Here Vince is releasing one of the many quality-size sea bass he hooked during the trip.
Coolers started to be lined with bluefish, "ocean-going" scup, one or two pollock and what came up at the crack of dawn, a nice market sized codfish. In the picture below, notice not only the codfish on the gaff hook but the set of three waves rolling along. As the sun came up, the seas continued to build.
First codfish of this trip:
A little later there was a slight disturbance on the other side of the boat as I heard a loud call for the gaff and then the sound of a sinker and large fish hitting the aluminum deck.
Even with a shift, just one other keeper cod came off this spot before it was time to move along to the next drop.
Before the horn was blown, I took this shot, of the VOYAGER riding up and over some of the waves, that we would now head into. There is no trick photography here or awkward camera angles, as everyone on board dealt with on till midday.
It was a slow ride over to the next drop, but well worth the ride heading into the sea. Hopefully by going into even deeper depths, the sea bass would not have not made their way there at this time of the of the year. Best laid plans, right, thinking back to the prior 2011 seasons, on till we read these readings on the drop.
Captain Jeff set up quickly over this drop, and the fish seemed to start flying, Todd brought up a few nice fish in a couple minutes time, one of which went back, and one, tossed into the cooler.
After this, it was time for me to start casting out my gold 8 oz hammered jig, hit the bottom and then slowly reel off the bottom. If this was a bluefish trip, I could of filled up a few totes between catching some sea bass.
A few keeper scrod made their way into the catch by two fishermen fishing off the stern quarter.
Theo unhooking another lightly colored cod caught by a customer.
One of the strange occurrences on this wreck, is that normally fishermen will pick off the biggest sea bass and the grade of the fish will gradually become smaller. Here though, the sea bass consistently started at a good large size and then right into jumbo the longer we stayed! Notice the size of the flo-pink squids. I can pass along, that the sea bass loved these along with the bluefish.
In trying to come up with a pollock or cod, another jumbo sea bass jumped on my jig which I was squidding off the bottom ,with the big short shank hook anchored right in the hinge of this biscuits jaw.
Even at this depth, the jumbo sea bass where already here, just like "back in the day", and the crew was now racing around "pinning" or what is properly termed, "venting" of these big sea bass.
Theo was armed with a proper venting tool, which he would insert in this area of the sea bass shown, and begin as quick as possible the process to "de-gas" a fish that is exhibiting barotrauma (pressure that is builds up and expands both in the stomach cavity and swim bladder of a fish reeled up from the depths).
In the pictures below, Theo slowly inserts the venting device (whatever brand you may use) at roughly a 45 degree angle on this area of the sea bass on till you hear, and you will hear it, a "hissing" sound....stop forcing the needle deeper and allow the trapped gasses to dissipate. You will clearly notice the belly of the fish to shrink along with the protruding stomach. When the hissing sound stops, you can then release the sea bass back into the water where it should slowly make its way down to the bottom, unless hit along the way by a big bluefish.
By the way, I did send these images off to a captain who practices this procedure with all bottom fish, each and every time he leaves the dock, and said the technique shown here was text book.
One surprising treat that was hooked, then took off like a scud missile before horsed in to be gaffed.
It was again time to leave this wreck as it seemed the sea bass would not stop jumping on either a baited rig or jig. It was now time to start to go back in another direction as Captain Jeff wanted to continue to target cod and pollock, not sea bass.
It was a few minutes on till the VOYAGER arrived on the next drop. Slowly this wreck rose out from the depths, and we were keeping our fingers crossed for some pollock on this drop.
After settling up, both myself and Captain John, tossed in the 8 oz gold hammered jigs on our lines. Immediately we were ripped off the deck by what we figured to be smoker size pollock which pulled us into the wreckage. We looked at each other, and I know the same thoughts were racing through our heads...we "mooked" these fish!
A few pollock and cod did come up along with another unrelenting amount of sea bass, intermixed with big scup. It was good though to see a few pollock caught here.
A fishermen who drives up from Delaware to fish on the VOYAGER, picked up on what we were doing and started working a jig. It paid off as he caught this pollock.
Even with a shift over another side of this wreck, it became more of the same of what was going to come up. Captain Jeff could of stuck it out right here and made his day as scup and sea bass were coming up, but he continued to search for a few more cod and pollock.
The anchors were picked up, and another long move was made. The game plan now was to go back to a spot Captain Jeff prospected the other day that was stacked up with big scup.
As we pulled up to the drop, he mentioned that it did not look as fishy as the previous day. Well here is a shot taken over another hour later, when he had picked up the anchor to make a shift over to another piece of this wreck. I wish I would of taken a picture of when we first arrived here. It seemed the fish just came out of this wreck and caused these readings when we started to soak bait here.
At first as the rigs went down to the bottom it seemed to confirm what we had seen on the bottom machine that there was not much action here, even with the scup. Then a keeper codfish came up...that's a good sign for the time being.
Then it seemed the fish which had hunkered down inside this wreck, just started to come out and chew. The action picked up all around the boat and Captain Jeff now had to come down on deck to help along with gaffing duties.
After gaffing, the pollock was then placed into a "kill pail" (bleeding out purposes).
The fishing was pretty much "fast and furious" with Vince whose rod was bent all day, taking a moment for me to hold up another jumbo sea bass for this shot. That's all we can do with sea bass these days it seems!
There were also some trophy sized choggies coming up off this one wreck, which made me want to switch to a bait rig to try and catch these beauties.
It then seemed over a twenty minute period that a small school of pollock came through and were around the wreck which resulted in these fish ending up meeting the point of a gaff.
Chris holding up another customers pollock.
There was also one of the biggest pollock of the trip caught by Captain Jeff's dad, Larry near the end of the fishing day.
At this time, Captain Jeff asked if he could use my rod to make one cast. I told him to dig in as various fish were coming over the rail.
Now I want everyone to keep in mind that it was this late in the day.....
Of course, you know what happened then.....
Just one more cast, turned out to be a number more, as Captain Jeff not only enjoys putting his customers over the fish but as much, being at the rail and catching fish himself. Finally after a little jabbing about "one more fish", Jeff told me he liked the outfit as he attached the gold jig to the reel and then put it back in the rod holder. It was that time to make the long ride back home.
George was getting ready in the galley for the next rush of meals he was preparing to make. In a few moments, the smell of hamburgers on the grill, would again remind me of the aroma of bacon that carried through the boat early that morning.
I had to make my way around the boat to get a rough idea of what everyone caught, and it was pretty obvious of how well everyone had done on this trip.
With both anchors up and secured in the blocks. the twin Lugger engines were winding-up and the bow of the VOYAGER started to rise. I made my way to the stern to take a look at the wake....no doubt, Captain Midnight was making up some time.
It was now time to eat, talk, and then for me to get back into the bunk for a few zzz's before my long ride home. As the sun finally set in the horizon, Captain Jeff and myself marveled at the look of the sky and the sea ahead of us.
"Why couldn't it be this nice last night?"
Before I got into my bunk, I made my way down on deck, to see the final weighting of the pool fish. Long time VOYAGER regular Joe Nevadunsky, pulled out the pool with this steaker codfish.
As the VOYAGER was backed into its slip at the FISHERMEN'S SUPPLY dock and the fishermen lined up along the rail, you could tell that this trip met the expectations of the fishermen who were on board, even though it was extremely tough for the fishermen, the crew and as much, Captain Jeff to watch big sea bass going back.
With the black sea bass season closed, Captain Jeff was forced to try and fish wrecks that do not produce as many sea bass, which of course does not work out as planned even when the boat is shifted a good distance off the wreck to make sure that the customers would be pulling up more scup then sea bass.
Some points to remember when doing an offshore deep wreck trip at this time of the year.....
The amount of big bluefish that were on every wreck, could lead anyone fishing for them to fill up a few totes, especially with much of the fish I caught, larger then those caught by those using bait. For those who are interested, most any piece of metal tossed out in the 6 and 8 oz size will be bit. Leave the Krocs at home as chances are that you will encounter big bluefish, and will be bit off.
Incredibly, we did not see any of the NMFS greatest rebuilding success story, dogfish, on the deep water wrecks, though on shallower drops, a few did make their way into the catch, but no where near what anyone would consider a nuisance. Thus the standard hi-lo rig works well.
There was a reasonable showing of cod and pollock. Not as many as a party boat would need to put a few in each customers coolers though, in part to their being so many scup and sea bass around and hindering a cod to get to an anglers baited skimmer rig. All the cod I did see caught, were keeper size fish, and all the pollock caught were very reasonably sized fish.
For most fishermen, a hi-lo rig using 2/0 size hook works best for the size of the scup being caught offshore. The trade off though, is that you will run into a nice size cod or pollock, or even white hake. Again that is something to consider when you rig up, or use one of those fancy pre-made tackle store rigs.
Carry just a few 12, 16 and 20 oz sinkers (notice the 4 oz difference in each size).
Rig your reel with either 40 or 50 lb braid, with a long mono top shot of 40 or 50 lb monofilament.
With sea bass having to be returned, carrying a venting tool should be something carried in your tackle bag for these trips. it is truly a waste to see a trail of sea bass behind the boat, especially those "Bo's" which should be in the pail, and not being tossed over the rail.
For those using jigs, leave home all those fancy high priced butterfly and "wacka-ma-gitzit" colored jigs. Carry just three different sizes in your tackle bag from 6, 8, and 10 oz, but the 8 oz size, especially the hammered flat sided design in either in gold (preferred), or chrome platted, are "killa"...and I should add, having been so by the noted fishermen in this region for decades. Rig with a single jigging style hook of your choice. No trebles hooks here!
If you are going to jig, the two techniques are obviously jigging and squidding. There are times when you can bounce and work a jig along the bottom or just above the wreck. I and others who do this type of fishing though, prefer to slowly squid much of the time. reeling up a noticeable distance off the bottom. You will be very surprised how far a big cod and "Bo" sea bass will come off the bottom, along with putting the jig in the target zone for pollock.
The rod and reels can vary, but anything along the size of a Newell 332 or 338, Pro Gear 3500, Baja Special, Jigmaster 500 along with the popular overseas made gold and silver reel jewelry work.There is no need here for a reel that cost more then a monthly lease payment on a 500 series Beamer. For a rod, something in the seven and a half foot range, that does not beat you up when holding it for a full day along with being able to hold a 16 oz sinker.
Don't waste those colored plastic squids or curly tails here, especially when the bluefish are chewing anything that goes through the water column. I will pass along, one angler was using the GULP squids though....he was catching more then his share of sea bass which had to go back.
Though NOAA weather blew the forecast, conditions such as this will be seen at this time of the year. Take along what you need to be comfortable.
The customers on board were very understanding that all sea bass had to be returned at this time. It is extremely tough to toss back quality fish, but there is a growing understanding by fishermen to take a pic of a quality fish, vent it, and toss it back.
At this time of the year, these offshore trips are extremely enjoyable to do if you get a chance. Captain Jeff is a master at the deep water wreck fishery and it was truly a memorable and pleasure experience for not only those on board, but myself being on this trip. For me personally, there is nothing like getting out and fishing the deep water wrecks in this region.
Much thanks to Captain Jeff, Captain John, mates Theo and Chris!