That sure is Christmas music on the radio, another sign the boating and fishing season in the Northeast is drawing to a close for even the heartiest anglers. Most everyone else is long ashore.
Days are shorter; nights are cooler, with the first snow soon on the ground, and the boat, forlorn, under wraps in a marina or the backyard. It’s down time for many, but not all. Some have hope; others are looking forward to a fishing trip or two.
While glamorous game fish often grab the headlines, many anglers are only too happy to drop a lure to the bottom and catch a nice supper. How many times have I watched tuna boats, rigged to the max, stop in 200 feet of water east of Stellwagen Bank in Massachusetts Bay for cod, or in 280 feet further east for haddock. If the tuna are elsewhere that day, a fresh broiled haddock fillet that evening is a fine substitute.
Ground fishermen in our region have the option of continuing their sport by boarding party or charter boats that sail right through the winter. The weather in January can indeed be awful, but it can also be downright pleasant if you happen to book a trip on that special day when the fish are biting — not to mention any day out can provide a welcome retreat out of the house.
Options, cold and warm
The Frances Fleet out of Point Judith, R.I., (800-66-CATCH) and the Helen H out of Hyannis, Mass., (508-790-0660) offer large, safe party boat trips of various durations (weather permitting) and there’s also a year-round charter boat operation from Kayman Charters (888-752-9626) out of Gloucester, Mass. All offer fishing when others fret about the end of pro football.
Winter cod trips are a small respite for the area anglers who don’t head to Florida. The pull of the water is just too much for some snowbirds to withstand, along with the appeal of fishing in a T-shirt in February.
Capt. Pete Shea of Gloucester leaves his 35-footer under wraps in a boatyard, then heads down to the Florida Keys after Christmas where he just built a retirement home and keeps a 24-foot Rampage tied up behind his sparkling new house.
Shea delights in leaving port sometime after a good breakfast, long past sunrise, heading out to the many patch reefs that dot the Keys, fishing only 1 to 4 miles out, returning around supper with a keeper grouper or enough snapper for a meal, in plenty of time to get the boat and fish cleaned, along with sips from a cool beer. Dinner is often the freshest fish on God’s Earth and a great meal eaten while maybe plotting another trip the next day.
Patch reefs dot the south side of the Keys, making them easy targets for smaller boats, as well as offering a lee in north winds. These allow for safe fishing while waters outside the reef are too rough for a 20-footer, especially if the current outside the reef is running to the east, right up into a 10- to 15-plus mph northeast wind, which is a common condition during the winter.
Some of your neighbors trailer their boats south, to cut their teeth in the Keys, fishing on the patches.
Local tackle shops provide information galore, and serviceable ramps dot the Keys with lots of elbowroom for a 9 a.m. launch on a Tuesday morning.
My good friend, Al Golinski, can’t stay away from the Keys in the winter. He is again planning to trailer his 25-foot Sea Vee south, heading down in late November to store the boat at a friend’s house, then returning in February for two months of fishing from his own boat. Al and his wife, Emme, shopped around and came up with a very reasonable cottage rental in the lower Keys, saving some dollars, spending quiet nights away from the noisy party palaces that turn some people off. If you look around, you can still come up with quiet retreats on either side of U.S. Route 1.
Being the gracious host Golinski is, he invites fellow striper anglers from Rhode Island to the Keys, letting them sample all manner of Florida fishing, including taking a bag full of fresh snapper fillets over to Bob-A-Lous on Big Coppitt Key, where the cook will prepare the fish to your direction — a great, simple meal in a family atmosphere, one of several places in the Keys that offer such service.
Last winter, Capt. Ben DeMario, a school teacher from Misquamicut, R.I., joined us for a week and experienced all manner of catching, including that of a false albacore (called bonito in the Keys) that grabbed one of his striper lures, dancing across the top on a patch reef a few scant miles southwest of Key West.
Best of all worlds
Another good friend of mine may move his 42-footer from the Keys back up to the north shore of Boston to enjoy haddock catching in the summer. In its place, he is looking around for a second “Florida” boat to use in the winter for bottom fishing on the patch reefs and beyond that is close to his home so he’ll save gas dollars.
Many head south looking for sailfish and jumping tarpon, but like bottom fishermen in the Northeast, many are satisfied with snapper and grouper, followed by a great Southern meal. As a bonus, they can take delight in the weather forecast back home that calls for snow or freezing rain during the morning commute.
Capt. Tony Barone of Clinton, Conn., is working on a boat he plans to take to the Keys to fish out of the Key West Naval Base, one of the benefits of being a retired Navy chief.
Barone delights in fishing in Boca Grade Channel, about 18 miles east of Key West; sheltered from a noisy east wind that keeps many in port. His catch includes all manner of small snapper and some legal groupers, along with lots of grunts, hard-fighting critters that are a delight for the kids with constant action to keep them occupied.
Plan B in your pocket
On the blowout days, however, you can pass time by sightseeing or traveling around to all the tackle stores, looking for an idea to import back home, or maybe another reel to sneak into the bag if your wife isn’t checking close. The premier places of late are the three Bass Pro Shop stores in Islamorada, Miami or Fort Lauderdale.
Some folks plan a day around a trip from the Keys when cold fronts roil the waters and drop the night temps below 60, sometimes below 50. The Bass Pro shops are extravaganzas with all manner of gear, clothing, marina accessories, fishing tackle and full lines of two or three boat brands. You wouldn’t be the first visitor to Florida that went home towing a new sea-foam green SeaCraft that you fell in love with at first sight.
The Fort Lauderdale store is next to the International Game Fish Association Hall of Fame, both requiring more than one day to see all. Some stay over, get a meal and begin looking anew the next morning. Keep in mind the Miami store is roughly four hours driving from my humble trailer near Key West. The Islamorada store, right in the Keys, might be a closer choice even if its the smallest of the three, but nevertheless the parking lot is usually near-capacity with cars from all over the U.S.
Winter without water is dull discontent, but for those with a bit of adventure you can escape the house and the calendar on the kitchen wall, which, despite your best mental efforts to move it along, still says you have another 60 days until spring refitting. The choice is yours.
Tim Coleman died May 3, in Weekapaug, R.I., doing what he loved to do best at that time of year: scouting the salt ponds and outer beaches for spring striped bass. He was an exceptional saltwater angler and a prolific writer. Thousands of readers lost an advocate and authentic storyteller for fishing in the Northeast, and anyone fortunate to have known Tim lost a good friend.