BLOCK ISLAND COD FISHING on the CELTIC QUEST
For the last five years, a resurgent inshore winter cod fishery has sprung up in the waters south and east of Montauk Point. During this period, an ever growing migration of codfish have made their way and set up residence from the most eastern end of Cox's Ledge, to as far west as the CIA grounds. Fishermen have experienced some of the most remarkable open bottom cod fishing in decades with a fishery that now stretches for a three month period. For today's trip, Captain Desi O'Sullivan owner and operator of the CELTIC QUEST, along with the rest of the Montauk and Rhode Island party and charter boat fleet, have made their way down to an area south east of Block Island where the hottest codfish bite of the season has been going on since the beginning of the year.
Captain Desi who is one of the partners here at FISHING UNITED.COM, has allowed me to present a in depth look of this fishery as we fished throughout the day. As much as this is an insider look at just one day of winter cod fishing, it has to be pointed out that this fishing can noticeably change off of Block Island from day to day in the fish preferring either clam baits or jigs, along with what pieces they set up on. As much as many may believe that this is lock and load fishing each and every day, what goes on behind the scenes will give you an idea what actually goes into making it a successful fishing day.
The waters around Montauk and Block Island have some of the most tidal conditions in this region and it has a great effect on codfish, especially when it comes time to anchor and chum. It is at these times that the captain has to become as skillful as a chess player, constantly adjusting for the conditions, tide, and how the codfish are biting during the day. Some might find it almost similar to the way a party boat looks for bluefish and on whether he sets up on the anchor and chums or starts hunting around and getting over a school then drifting to, and over them. But with codfish, it can be much more complex as we saw on this day.
As much as has been the habit over the last few season to measure how good a party boat did during a day of fishing by the daily fish count and pictures of totes full of codfish racks, one should realize that it can come down to one party boat being on the right piece and pulling the fish to their boat, while other boats only a sinker throw away, watching and barely picking away like they are fishing in a different ocean. The pressure is on these captains each and every day in this fishery, as the hottest bite can quickly change from one that occurs during the night and shifting to false dawn or possibly much later in the day, and the fishermen adjusting to fish with either jigs or bait for most of the trip.
Hopefully you may walk away with a understanding on how the game plan can change from when you make your plans for a trip to Montauk or Rhode Island, as what you hear and read about the fishing at the start of the week, can be somewhat different to the fishing you may be doing at the end of the week. That is a big part of the game to remember when cod fishing during the winter off of Block Island.
When George 'Fish Pro', Al 'Double D' and myself got out of a warm comfy truck at 2 am in the morning, we were struck by a stiff 20 mile an hour, shockingly cold north wind which made Ice Station Zebra conditions not only in the Uihleins Marina where the Celtic Quest is docked, but also out on the fishing grounds for most of the morning. Already it seemed that Captain Desi had filled up another one of his limited customer trips, and everyone on board huddled together in the Celtic Quest cabin, rigging up their rods and storing away their gear.
Captain Desi along with Captain Paul Risi, Captain JP, Captain Chris, and Tommy, make up the very experienced crew that Desi has put together during the winter cod fishing season. Captain Desi carries this many crew members as each takes positions from the bow, starboard and port side, and stern on these trips so that attention is immediately given to each and ever customer. During this day, it was needed with the wind chill creating an outside temperature of below 10 degrees, requiring everyone rotating for a minute or two inside of the cabin to warm their fingers and toes up.
It seemed their were a number of customers who needed help with rigging up for codfish, as many thought it was going to be a jigging trip as many of the fishing reports have led these customers to believe. Interestingly though, to illustrate the unpredictability of the winter Block Island cod fishery, the fishing now would be done primarily with skimmer clams as bait, with jig rods at the ready when necessary. Captain Desi had already prepared for this by bringing on board 15 bushels of skimmers for a days fishing.
Captain Paul Risi, familiar to many of us as the owner and operator of the TRADEWINDS out of Captree during the warmer months of the year, was right behind the galley and rigging everyone up with the Montauk bait rig that everyone should have started off the day with.
A few customers stood in line as Captain Paul quickly pulled off a arms length of pink Ande line on a 5 lb spool, made three dropper loops, two of which the OE TACKLE 5/0 & 6/0 Beak Bait Holder hook was placed and a black 125lb swivel at the other end of the line. A Flo Pink 6" curly tail was then threaded upon the hook and all the rig needed was to be tipped with a piece of skimmer clam. With all the various strange teasers, colors and setups cod fishermen rig their rods up with, there was nothing fancy here as each rig was made up within two minutes, and the next customer with rod in hand, watched as Captain Paul reached into the tackle kit that the Celtic Quest uses for winter cod fishing.
I flipped open the lid of what is a standard size plastic tackle kit, and made a further inspection of what it contained. It made me wonder if anything more in tackle box had to be brought along as I looked at a few different color curly tails and the OE TACKLE BEAK hooks that Captain Greg of the Ocean Eagle V had donated for this trip. It again reaffirmed what many of us have been saying about the Block Island cod fishing in that it is not about having 2 dozen different pieces of terminal tackle in your box, but in having the terminal tackle that has been found most productive by those who do this daily throughout the season.
I made my way to the stern and saw Tommy cutting the skimmer clams for this trip, but also in preparing the wire mesh chum pots ready. With numerous bags of skimmer clams on board, I immediately knew that the codfish had now made a transition over the last few weeks from chasing down every piece of metal cast their way, to now sucking on the hi-lo bait rig that most had rigged on their rods.
Finally the 3 am witching hour came, one Viking boat along with the Helen H were pulling out of their dock. Captain Desi backed the Celtic Quest out and made the hard turn to the north and lined up behind the rest of the party boat fleet right up to and out through the jetties at Montauk. It is a scene that has faded away from many ports, where a number of party boats would line up at certain times in the morning, each one behind the next on their way out to the fishing grounds.
The crew and myself bounced between the wheelhouse and the galley, as many of us were already pretty hungry, and some nice hot meals were in the process of being whipped up. It did not matter that the Yank built Celtic Quest was fighting a beam sea for most of the way out to the grounds....the smell of hot beacon made a aromatic chum slick, as Captain JP was enjoying chowing down on a tasty eggs, beacon and cheese sandwich.
Back up in the wheelhouse everyone had settled down, with some catching a little nap between all the various conversation on fishery issues, codfish and some of the neat things you could do with an iPhone. Al 'Double D' joined us up in the wheelhouse, and he began to tell stories of his catches of codfish that he had for years during the spring and summer months off of Moriches and Shinnecock. Everyone listened intently to a man who might of had the most rod and reel codfish landings from the south shore of Long Island between the late eighties through mid 1990's..
It became quiet once more as everyone watched the flickering lights on the Viking and Helen H who were now a good distance ahead of us, making their way to south of the noted Appletree area. The night was so clear and crisp that you could literally pick up every ships light on the water for miles. My attention was now drawn to the bottom machine where the only thing that changed was the depth of the bottom as we were now almost due south of Southwest Ledge.
Slowly the bait readings started building up along the bottom, and Captain Desi pointed out that they were not as thick as they had been in previous weeks, but one could clearly see the difference as the 'yellow hairs' becoming more common as we went along on our south east course.
The wheelhouse started to empty out as everyone knew that it was time to get ready, gearing up and getting the bait pails ready. I also made my way back down to the main cabin and Captain Paul was already suited up and ready to go. No one was really looking forward to being out on the deck as it was so cold, it figuratively felt like your bare flesh was burning. Yes it was frigid cold, but one has to remember that this is winter cod fishing off of Montauk in January.
Slowly the lights of the fishing vessels ahead of us became larger and more steady as we finally had come to our first drop of the day. Captain Desi pulled the sticks back and now started scanning, looking at were he was in relation to his preset way point and the readings he saw along the bottom. The bait readings which over the past weeks have been off the bottom, now had settled down and were compressed to a point where they looked like they were part of the sea floor. The only difference was in the color they showed up on the Lowrance bottom machine.
It was only a couple of more minutes before he finally decided to anchor up east of where the Helen H and Island Current were now set up. The anchor went down and the cable let out as I watched Captain Desi slowly bring the Celtic Quest onto his intended spot. Contrary to what many would think when cod fishing, their would be no double anchoring in this area as he usually does with the wrecks he fishes in Long Island Sound. This was not wreck fishing, but 'hard bottom' cod fishing where a single anchor would suffice, just like all the other party boats in the fleet were now doing.
Captain Desi gave a blast of the horn, but it really didn't matter since everyone was out on deck with rod baited up and lines dropping down to the bottom. It was as cold as anyone could bare, but it seemed that each and every fishermen on board was out along the rail and waiting for the first codfish to bite on someone's hook. The wire mesh chum pots were dropped over and now the clock would be ticking on till the codfish followed the clam chum stream right up and under the Celtic Quest.
It was only a matter of a few minutes when the first few codfish started coming up. The night bite had not been as productive as it was in the past, but as everything in this fishery, things can change very quickly. The sound of hurried steps with sinkers and fish hitting the deck became more common. I watched Captain Desi go back and forth between both sides of his boat, watching and then encouraging as more cod started coming up.
The mix of codfish ranged up and over 5 lbs, to those 'net slippers' which were tossed back. Everyone seemed to be on the same page as codfish that were questionable in size, were measured on pre-made boards, and those under the legal size limit, returned.
The bite became more ferocious as the night sky gradually gave way to false dawn. The outline of the party boats that were anchored near us became more defined as the black sky became a dark red, then slowly a flame brightening yellow.
Most did not pay much attention to the sky as it became lighter, since the fishing had become even better. Now it seemed that bait along with those bouncing a diamond jig on the bottom catching fish. George Fish Pro was catching fish like a machine, dropping down to the bottom, locking up and literally counting to between 10 and 15, lifting and hooking another fish. I was inside a warm cabin, chatting away with Al and Desi, as the mates were running back and forth helping customers. As cold as it was, we all marveled at the beautiful early morning sky which lit up brilliantly as the sun rose in the horizon.
It was bitter cold but most of the fishermen on board stayed at the rail. Thankfully they did since this particular period of our 14 hour fishing day, was by far the best as the codfish were coming up as quick as anyone could ask for. No one hesitated to get a bite to eat, as the only fishermen coming into the cabin were for making up, or changing their rigs. One poor soul was laid out on a forward bench, sleeping off what he said was an upset stomach.
As the sun came up, the fishing started to slow down. Now it seemed everyone had to wait a few moments for a bite and Captain Desi was now back up in the wheelhouse talking to another captain about how the fishing was going on his boat. More fishermen started to come into the cabin, either to warm up or to grab a hot bite to eat. No doubt it was possibly getting close to the time to pick up the anchor and start looking for another school of codfish to set up on. It was time for Captain Desi to draw on his experience on where these fish would now be. Having a good book of numbers would help, but other factors as the time of day, stage of the tide and where the fish had bit the prior few days would now be assembled into one big formula that he would have to quickly figure out and compute as the anchor came up.
It was at this time that Captain Desi started to talk about the difficulty at times in finding another big body of codfish to set up on. Some days it was as easy as going to the previous days hot bite, dropping an anchor over and then proceeding to beat on the codfish for the next few hours. Other days, he would have to draw on his personal 'fishing sense', and that could be in either driving around near productive rock piles and ledges and watching the bottom machine for readings, or making a move to one past productive spot and sitting on it with the chum pots in the water.
We all watched as he followed the previously days track lines, then veering off in a new direction in hopes of finding a pile of fish that set up on a different rockpile in the area. The bait had now become pretty scarce, as over the last few hours the readings became less and less on till all you saw was the hard bottom that exists south of Block Island. It can be pretty frustrating as you look along the old 40, 30 and 20 'TD' lines area, with numerous pieces of distinct rocky bottom jutting up off the ocean floor. One has to keep in mind that the Block Island winter cod fishery covers a rather large area, and that any random rock pile could hold a good quantity of codfish.
Most of the crew was back up in the wheelhouse and talking about what had already transpired, and Captain Desi wanted a fish count of what they already had on the boat. The number given sounded decent for this time of the day, and if this was just ten years ago, it would have made big news all around Long Island in the number of codfish that were caught. But this was 2011, and the winter cod fishery has noticeably changed as it has now become a yearly ritual over the last half of the decade of codfish making a easterly migration from Georges Bank and Nantucket Shoals, traveling inside of the 30 fathom edge starting in January and showing up anywhere from Cox's Ledge to west of Block Island and countless points in between.
As Captain Desi was scanning the bottom he also had binoculars at the ready, at times looking at some of the boats from a distance and seeing if the talk on the vhf matched what was being brought up along the rail. All of a sudden he pulled the sticks back as he found something that stood out from the rest of the bottom around it.
The conditions had settled down from early in the morning and now he set up on a drift. A flurry of fish started to come up and the Celtic Quest keeper fish signal, the rapping on the boats rail, was heard all the way up in the wheelhouse. Now more jigs went flying through the air, but those who stuck with the bait rigs were still picking away fish.
As I walked around the deck, this one outfit in particular caught my eye.
It looked like the setup I would choose, rigged up with Flo Pink curly tails and a chromed diamond jig. No doubt it was a terminal tackle setup that I recently talked about, with an added swivel to the hi dropper loop hook.
The totes and coolers were filling up, and despite the cold weather it seemed everyone was very upbeat. The day was getting warmer, the wind was letting up and the seas laying out as Captain Desi continued making drifts throughout the area and fishermen picking away.
Yes the short to keeper ratio was rising, but enough keepers were coming up to help get everyone on board to their ten fish codfish limit. At this time it did not really matter if you were using a bait rig or jig, as a respectable pick continued for the next few hours.
It was time to make another move and I was with Captain Desi in the wheelhouse as he was setting his course in a new direction. Even with what he saw coming up, combined with what he heard over the radio, he still kept on the hunt to get on something that would make this a trip where he could have everyone 'limited up' by a reasonable time of the day. All of a sudden he had a another good reading as he passed over a piece, so he stopped and set up on the anchor for a while. This going back and forth between jigging and anchoring, is something you will see most captains fishing for codfish in the Block Island and Cox's Ledge area do throughout the day.
The size of the fish did not change, but no one complained. I was now casting out with a number of different jigs and saw that our favorite 7.5 oz Nickel Plated Tuna Candy jig was not heavy enough due to its flattened design and the strong running current at this time. All that was needed was to bump up to a heavier 8oz chromed hammered jig and that seemed to be the ticket to be able to work the jig properly along the bottom. It became apparent that as we approached noon, the codfish were not taking the jig, but the teaser up above it.
As I was beginning to see, finding consistent cod fishing throughout the day meant having a combination of patience, skill and now luck in finding a pile of bait and cod sitting on a piece. A number of the fleet started to cluster in one area and again Captain Desi made a few drifts and then set up on one spot in this particular area. Some captains will set the chum pots out and sit and wait it out for hours if a pick of fish is coming up. It all depends on the whims of the captain, but also in what the codfish are doing that day. Many customers find it tough to remain at the rail when this type of cod fishing is done, but at times this is the most productive method to be used on many days.
A number of larger codfish came up, but that lasted only a few minutes and it was again time to move on. Even JP was all smiles with this fish.
Captain Desi decided a bold move was in place and he pointed out that he had done a little prospecting away from the fleet and had some limit filling catches over the past two weeks. Everyone settled down for a bite as it was already well after one and Captain Desi had no intention of going home early. Away the Celtic Quest went, leaving the fleet in the horizon.
It was time to walk around and take a few pictures with the customers. Everyone was pretty content that if the day came to an end, enough cod were caught to make it a very good trip.
Both George Fish Pro and Al had a nice catch of cod in their big cooler, much of it due to staying at the rail and gradually picking away at keeper fish throughout the day. It is one of the keys to remember on these trips as you may only have a small window during the trip where there is a hot bite, while the rest of the day becomes one where you have to stay at the rail and pick away, hopefully putting a limit catch together.
The time now was approaching two in the afternoon. Other boats were still out on the grounds and Captain Desi decided to make a move to his final spot of the day. He would set up on the anchor, put the chum pots down once again and try to top off the catch. He slowed the boat down as the depth started to rise on this spot
As I made my way to the rail, I passed one rod that caught my attention. The work was very familiar, and was from one very special rod builder who I have bought so many custom rods from. Immediately I knew that the thread work was from Ralph Rodwinder.
I myself had brought along only one rod, a SUPER SEEKER that Ralph calls the MONTAUK COD ROD. I can tell you that it is one special rod blank as it surprisingly lightweight and sensitive, but can work a 10-12 oz jig, or be able to handle a 16 oz sinker on. I was using a reel that is now gradually becoming my favorite, slowly replacing my beloved Newells. For this trip, a Daiwa Saltist 30 spooled with clear 30 lb AN-40 Silver Thread mono line. Many may think this is light line for cod fishing, but remember this open bottom, not wreck fishing where heavier lines should be used. This combination is lightweight, but smooth and powerful enough to handle the biggest cod you may encounter during these trips.
A few more cod came up and most had their limit by this time of the day. Captain Desi finally gave the 3 whistle signal to go home since we now had a two and a half hour ride back to the dock.
I walked around and had another angler with some fish he caught during this trip hold them up for a quick shot. He was pretty happy.
A line had now quickly formed in the stern as Paul and Chris were cutting fish. It seemed they had their work cut out for them with catches like this.
Even though the temperatures had noticeably warmed up from the morning, it was still bone chilling cold for anyone to be cutting fish without their gloves on. Piles of fillets for each customer started to pile up during the time I was watching them cut fish before I made my way up to the wheelhouse to talk with Captain Desi.
We both talked about the resurgence of this winter fishery off of Block Island over the last few years, and it has been a boom not only to the fishing fleet, but also to thousands of fishermen who enjoy cod fishing. As Captain Desi stated, the fishery has changed so much from when he first started working with the Viking Fleet during the nineties, and now running his own boat the Celtic Quest. As he said to me 'what more could you ask for in local cod fishing, just a reasonable ride from the dock?'
Finally we were pulling into Montauk and everyone was preparing for their trip home. Captain Desi and the crew had put in a long 14 hour day on the boat so far, and after the boat was tied up, the cleanup and prep for the next trip would begin. But it did not deter them from talking with every customer as they walked off the boat.
This season, the cod fishing has started a few weeks earlier then in the past, and one can only imagine the fishing we could see in February and March. New schools of fish keep pushing through, first with signs along some areas of Cox's, then a few days later off of the winter spots at Block Island. Just a few years back, no one could imagine the cod fishing that would be in this area at this time of the year. No doubt the fishing day we had on the Celtic Quest reflects a very healthy fishery with all signs pointing that it is only going to continue to get better and better in the years to come with fishermen and fishing boats again winter fishing for codfish within site of Block Island.