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The Winter Wrecking Crews
by Richard Henderson

ffshore wrecks play host to a wide assortment of fish during the winter months and these fish thrive in the icy temperatures that cause most marine species and anglers to become dormant. The fact that cod are capable of breaking the 200-pound mark and 30-plus pound pollack are occasionally pulled from the frigid depths is what lures many anglers from their warm homes into the arctic-like conditions that typically characterize offshore winter wreck trips.

Cod and pollack aside, the fish you are likely to encounter around an offshore wreck site are much larger than their inshore brethren. With humpback sea bass and plate-sized porgies a common occurrence, it pays to employ terminal tackle that is aimed at catching larger fish. A basic offshore wreck rig, primarily designed for cod, consists of two Mustad 5/0 or 6/0 bait holder hooks individually snelled to 12 inch pieces of 60-pound mono leader material which are attached to a 60 inch piece of 60-pound leader material via dropper loops. The 5’ rig line is attached to the main line with a barrel swivel to prevent line twists. The first hook should be about 18 inches from the sinker while the second hook should be about 48 inches above the sinker -- 30 inches above the first hook. Occasionally, I will augment the basic cod rig with a snelled #5 Virginia style hook about an inch above the sinker. I will then bait the hook with either a small clam strip or a green crab chunk to tempt ling and blackfish. Sinkers for offshore trips usually run in the 12-ounce neighborhood but expect to increase or decrease your weight depending on conditions.

Keep in mind that it is very important, especially when you are fishing in waters in excess of 150 feet, to keep your hooks sharp. The sheer distance between your hook and your tip dictates a sharp hook because a dull hook will not penetrate as deeply due to dullness and distance. Filing your hooks during the 3 hour + trip out to the wreck sites can make all the difference between setting the hook properly and grazing the fish’s mouth. You also want to remember to periodically examine the first twenty or so feet or line from the sinker. Wrecks have a habit of fraying monofilament line. Cod are strong fish to begin with and the powerful surges they make will push your line to the breaking point. They do not need the luxury of a slight nick! Once you power the cod off the wreck, keep in mind that the cod will make some strong pulls, when it attempts to return to the wreck, and if your drag is not set properly a decent sized cod can and will either snap your line or pull your hook.

Some anglers choose to complete their rig with a splash of color - - squid skirts and surgical tubing. The tackle store bulk variety squid skirts work well, but I will occasionally employ a Yo-Zuri octopus skirt in the 4 ” size. Yo-Zuri octopus skirts come in a large array of colors and though they are longer than the regular squid skirts, you can trim them to whatever length you want with scissors. By the way, red sparkle and chartreuse are my two personal color preferences for squid skirts. In the squid skirt clad hook versus bare hook debate I have seen an even split. Within reason, I have noticed that the bait you have at the end of your line is more important than what you have garnishing it.

Whole surf clams are the commonly supplied bait on a party boat offshore wreck trip. Party boat supplied clams tend to be tough, either due to salt or age. They will certainly catch cod, but if you really want to catch a lot of cod, it is a good idea to bring live unshucked surf clams on a trip if you are able to obtain any prior to leaving. The times when I fished fresh surf clams, that were actually still alive and pulsating, I noticed a huge difference in the action compared to when I fished the salted-down clams supplied by the boat. Some tackle stores, such as Capt. Bill’s Bait & tackle located in the Belmar Marine Basin, carry live surf clams well into December. One clam is usually sufficient, but many anglers like to fish two or three clams at once.>

Regardless of whether you choose to fish one or three clams, you want to “thread” your clam or clams onto your hook so they look somewhat natural rather than haphazardly shoving two or three clams in a glob that resembles the Blob more than it does an actual marine organism. Start by inserting your hook through the clam’s foot, the large fleshy part that resembles a pointed tongue, and pull the hook through the clam so that the barbs that run along the hook’s shank will provide some support in the face of hungry bergalls. Make sure that the clam’s ligaments hang off from the main glob so they will sway in the water. The “sway” of the ligaments plus the fresh shucked clam smell is what will really grab the attention of a “beer belly” cod.

If you have your sight set on cod and are not able to obtain live clams or just want to try something different, I would recommend fresh herring for bait. You can venture down to the Belmar Marine Basin or some other estuarine area and catch a day’s worth of herring on shad darts. Herring will readily strike a shad dart if you retrieve the dart steadily with an occasional flick of the wrist to make the lure dart. You can also sometimes catch herring a scant distance above an offshore wreck site with a mackerel tube rig via the same up/down jigging method employed for catching mackerel during the spring. Over the years, I have caught several 25-plus pound cod while fishing whole herring and fresh herring strips. Another bait that makes a good cod bait is false albacore strips.

A false albacore strip, with its firm texture and chrome-like glow, strongly resembles a herring -- a cod staple. Unlike herring, however, false albacore strips can withstand more punishment from the bergalls and ocean pouts that often take a liking to strip baits. When you are fishing in sub-zero temperatures, it is a lot easier to rig up a strip, and know that it is secure on the hook and likely fluttering, than trying to rig up a soft-bodied herring properly so it resists getting ripped off the hook by a bergall.

During the late summer and early fall, you can catch false albacore near shore and one fish can usually supply enough bait for a few winter wreck trips. To fashion a strip to strongly resemble a herring, you want to slice the strip near one of the false albacore’s purplish side markings. Specifically, you want to cut the strip so that the purple runs along the top of the strip mimicking the herring’s two-toned color. Cut the strip about six or seven inches long so that it is long enough to resemble a herring but short enough to resist getting pulled off by a bold bergall. Mackerel, prepared in the same fashion as the false albacore, and squid, whether whole or in strips, round out the bait selection.

Offshore winter wreck trips are a good way to beat cabin fever while also partaking in a great type of fishing that many anglers never take full advantage of. Remember to dress warm before going out on a trip because you want a big cod or pollack to push you to the limit and not old man winter!

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