Ground Fish Game Plan - Tuna


Ground Fish Game Plan - Tuna
Game Plan
Head out with confidence to find your own
cod and haddock hot spots.
f you take a look at a
nautical map, it’s easy
to see why Cape Ann is a
hub of New England groundfishing. With the prime fishing
grounds of Jeffreys Ledge to
the north, Tillies Bank to the
east and Stellwagen Bank to
the south, the waters are rife
with potential hot spots. As
fall approaches, I start to get
excited for the return of cod,
haddock and pollock to these
offshore banks and ledges.
As a captain, my job is to put the boat over
fish, and my biggest decision on any given day
is deciding which of these three grounds to fish.
Furthermore, I have to choose what specific areas
to target. How far east should we steam? What
water depth should we target? Should we fish the
flats, edges or tops of structure? Should we fish
soft or hard bottom? To best answer these questions, a captain must consider the time of year,
the weather forecast for the day, the capability of
his boat and crew, the tides, and the availability of
bait and fish on the grounds. Knowledge and past
experience will ultimately guide the way, and in
this article, I hope to impart some of mine to get
you started on forming your own groundfishing
game plan.
Follow The Tides
When we’re leaving Cape Ann Marina and
heading down the Annisquam River in the Sweet
Dream III, my crew will often ask me,
“Where are we heading?” If I say, “I
don’t know,” then I am probably lying.
The first rule of fishing is to always have
a game plan.
One of the first pieces of information
you should incorporate into your game
plan is the timing of the tide changes
and the size of the tides. Experience
has taught me that the fish bite better
when the water is moving, and therefore
I plan to have lines in the water during the more productive times. During
slack tide, I will be running the boat.
The largest tides come on new and full
moons, and in our region, where there
are two tide cycles a day, the current
moves the fastest during the middle two
hours of the six-hour change of a tide.
Large tides mean heavy current. It will
be tougher to fish deeper water, and it
might be impossible to tend bottom
when the tide is running in the middle
third of a new or full moon tide, unless
you’re in shallower water. Knowing and
understanding this information will help
you pick where and when to fish. On
most days, the bite turns on for an hour
or two during a tide. You will catch 80
percent of your fish during that time, so
it’s key to have your boat in the right
spot at the right time. Rare are the days
when the fish bite continuously, but they
do happen occasionally, so enjoy and
appreciate them when they occur.
Use Your Electronics
In late September and October, I
enjoy fishing Tillies Bank if the tides
are not too big to make tending bottom
difficult. Tillies does not see the crowds
of Stellwagen Bank, and while it is more
difficult to fish, I find I can consistently
produce good numbers of cod and haddock in the fall. There is no shallow
water like on Stellwagen and Jeffreys;
the highest spots rise to about 190 feet
and the drop-offs can plunge to more
than 450 feet. Tillies features mostly
sand bottom, although there are some
hard areas. The bottom textures and
sometimes extreme changes in water
depth create the structure that attracts
bait and groundfish.
Modern chartplotters and fishfinders
make finding this bottom structure far
simpler than in the past. But before you
turn on your chartplotter and run 25
nautical miles east, start the old-fashioned way: by studying a bathymetric
fishing chart. Locate the high spots
and the canyons. Note places where
the contour lines are close together,
which indicates a rapid change in water
depth. These charts will also specify
the bottom composition, whether it is
rock, shells, clay, sand or mud. With
this information in hand, you can
move to your chartplotter and mark
likely targets to explore. Depending
on the age and capability of your
chartplotter, you could have a wealth
of information at your fingertips, such
as two-dimensional depth contours and
three-dimensional bathymetric views.
Start at the low zoom levels to find the
major banks and ledges, and then zoom
in to find smaller, more subtle bottom
When you’re out on the fishing
grounds, locating these subtle bottom
features requires a combination of your
chartplotter and sounder. Remember,
even though these chartplotter chips
have great data, they cannot capture
every nuance of the bottom. That is why
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September 2008 page 21
valuable tool for locating productive bottoms. Most
sounders have automated fishing modes, which you
Decide how deep to fish and what bottom types to
will want to couple with their bottom zoom capabiltarget
by considering your quarry. As a general rule, hadity. I like to split my screen between a view of the
dock prefer a soft mud bottom while cod prefer hard rock
entire water column and a zoom of the lower 20 feet
and ledge. Both species, however, can be found over a
of the water column on the narrower beam of the
sand bottom when good bait like sand eels and herring
200khtz frequency. With this setup, you can see the
are present. The hard-bottom areas also attract cusk and
major trends in the bottom contour as well as the
wolffish. You will often find hard bottoms on the pinJ
texture of the bottom itself, including its nooks and
nacle of a hill or a rise in the general surrounding water
Cape Ann
crannies and any bait or fish. A good sounder with a
depth, sometimes as little as 5 or 10 feet higher than the
well-mounted transducer will allow you to view the
surrounding area. I know that Tillies has a couple such
major features of the bottom while you’re running at
hard-bottom spots, which I refer to as “cusk hotels.”
cruising speed. When you see something interesting,
There are always nice-sized cusk present in these areas,
you can slow down and make a few passes through
and on a good day, I’ll find a number of keeper-sized
the area to view the details.
cod in the mix. Find a few spots like that, and you are
On a color sounder, soft bottoms like mud and sand
well on your way to a successful day!
will show up as a thinner and smoother red bottom
As for water depth, cod tend to prefer shallower water,
echo. Hard bottoms with rocks and ledges will show
while haddock usually prefer deeper. In general, look
up as a thicker, deep-crimson bottom echo with small
for cod in 90 to 200 feet of water and haddock in 220 to
jagged spikes on the zoom. Marks up off the bottom
260 feet. Having said that, we do catch haddock in the
are fish, while small, blotchy red marks and clouds
95-foot shoal water on Stellwagen Bank in the spring
are bait. Green, yellow and red lines or arches are
when bait is plentiful. So as before, there are no ironclad
fish. Cod and haddock in 200 to 300 feet of water
rules. The more you fish, the more you will be able to
will appear more subtle and different than stripers
identify the small signs that can turn a day of fishing into
and bluefish in 50 feet of water. One thing to keep in
a day of catching. Find a hard, deep bottom around 300
mind is that it’s more important to find bottom with
feet with what looks like clouds of smaller fish over it,
the right texture than to mark actual fish. Often I will drop on a good edge with
and you may have found a great redfish spot. Redfish are bright orange, well-armored
the right texture and catch fish without ever marking them.
bottom dwellers that run 12 to 18 inches long, and they make great eating when panDon’t limit yourself to discovering groundfishing hot spots only when you are
fried. Be very careful when handling them, as their fins have sharp spines and their
actually targeting them. For example, I cover a great deal of water and structure
eye sockets and gill areas are protected by sharp, sawtooth-like barbs.
when I am chasing tuna in the summer and fall, and I’ll keep an eye on my sounder
When locating groundfish, also take into account the season, time of year and
while trolling and make notes of good-looking bottoms when I go over them. Even
water temperature. When the water is colder (generally early and late season),
though these spots may not hold be holding groundfish in July, they could be a
the fish tend to be in shallower water. During summer months, when the water is
sure thing in September or October.
warmer, look for fish in deeper water.
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Find a hard, deep bottom around 300 feet with what looks like clouds of smaller fish
over it, and you may have found a great redfish spot. Redfish are bright orange, wellarmored bottom dwellers that run 12 to 18 inches long, and they make great eating
when pan-fried.
Know When To Hold
Another consideration is whether to hold a position by anchoring. I far prefer
drifting when the conditions allow, meaning fair winds and tide. Drifting allows
you to cover more bottom and depths, helping you locate where the fish are holding on a given day. Once you find fish, you can go back uptide and repeat the drift.
You can also look for similar conditions nearby. Sometimes, however, even a light
breeze with the current flowing in the same direction can make tending bottom
impossible while drifting. On these days, one option is to “motor drift,” which
entails turning the stern into the wind and bumping the boat in and out of gear to
stem the drift of the boat. This action should only be performed when it is safe
to do so and the crew is capable of keeping their lines clear of the running gear.
Failing this, or if you find fish holding tight over a particular bottom, it’s time to
get the anchor out and position the boat over the structure. When anchored, you’ll
find that bait generally outfish jigs. Having a number of bait rigs in the water acts
Once you’ve used your chartplotter to find a promising area, use the zoom capability
on your sounder to locate schools of fish holding tight to the bottom.
as a small chum slick that calls the fish to the boat. You can really get the haddock
going this way.
Anyone can get lucky once in a while or follow the crowd to a groundfish
bonanza, and even the best and most experienced captains will have days when
the groundfish seem to have lockjaw. But day in and day out, if you learn from
what has been shared here, you will know how to answer the question, “Where
should we fish today?” The result will be more consistent cod and haddock
fishing and the opportunity to enjoy delicious fillets well into the winter months
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September 2008 page 23

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