A few important steps can ensure that you don't lose any of your gear fishing an old sunken vessel
Shipwrecks, large or small, attract all types of marine life. The wreck of the old pleasure boat that didn't make it back, now lying in 35 feet of water about two miles outside the river mouth, can offer striped bass that call the structure a temporary home just like they do on the Shrewsbury Rocks off New Jersey or the Green Hill Reef off Rhode Island.
To catch them off a wreck, one might troll the lure of the day over the top of the wreck, in this case putting out enough wire line to keep your lure within easy reach of any bass around the wreck, but not deep enough to get snagged in it. You might substitute a trolling plug or jig and pork rind for the time-tested red tube and sandworm. The only drawback there is all the porgies that set up housekeeping around the wreck just like a striper. They will chase the lure just like a bass 10 times their size.
On that note, it's very possible to catch legal porgies, then use them as live bait, drifting around the wreck with the porgy weighted enough to get it near bottom. Jumbo bass love live baits like porgies, but don't be surprised if a bluefish chops it in half before it reaches bottom. Like bass, blues at times hang around shipwrecks for the food they offer.
If the wreck is too deep for wire-line trolling, you can still test the waters by dropping a diamond jig with a single hook or surge tube on the back, then crank it slowly about 10 turns above the wreck. During the heat of a Rhode Island summer, my friend Al Golinski has caught both jumbo blues and 36-inch bass on a diamond jig on the wreck or the big coal barge Lake Crystal in 120 feet off Watch Hill. Another friend, Capt. Eric Takakjian of Fairhaven, Mass., tells me he always sees 36-inch-or-bigger striped bass when he dives on the wreck of the Grecian in 90 feet of water off the south side of Block Island.
The same pleasure boat that housed striped bass a short run from the dock might also hold keeper fluke. Try drifting a fluke rig with shiner and squid strip around the edges of the structure. Fluke like to lie in wait, ready to pounce on a nice-looking munchy that comes close enough to their feeding zone.
Farther to the north of fluke country, anglers will stop off shipwrecks between the west side of Stellwagen Bank and the south shore of Massachusetts, sometimes catching the largest keeper cod of the day on the wreck. Instead, though, of dropping a cod jig with large treble, replace the treble with a single hook, cutting down on the amount of lost gear. You should also raise the jig slowly when it hits bottom, reducing chances of driving the point of the hook into a lost fishing net or other debris around a wreck.
One hot day at the end of August several years back, Capt. Roger Jarvis and I stopped on a wreck in the bay, lowered our lures and started jigging. Roger caught a 10-pounder and I caught the wreck. Jiggling the line up and down, not trying with brute force to free the hook, I worked the lure free only to have it grabbed by a 53-pound cod - not a bad way to start a trip only a dozen or so miles off Marshfield.
Today most of your peers in Key West, Fla., regularly run their SeaVees, Conches, Intrepids, Yellowfins and Invincibles 60-plus miles in a day down past Tail End Buoy, catching all manner of fish around shipwrecks.
They drop down Butterfly jigs to land big amberjack or the standard egg sinker and live bait for large muttons and groupers once the January-to-April grouper closure runs its course. If the current is running a bit, many put their stern into the sea, kicking the engine in and out of reverse, slowing the drift, the fishing aided by the new thin super braid lines that keeps their bait or lures down near the wreck.
Up in southern Maine, anglers aboard Capt. Timmy Tower's Bunny Clark are using the new thin lines and cod jigs or sinker with bait to fish deeper and deeper in the Gulf of Maine. A couple of seasons back, Timmy anchored his party boat above the wreck of a dragger nicknamed "Ole Smokey" near Shearer Ridge, catching a 46-pound white hake in 106 fathoms of water - that's 636 feet down for us weekenders. That same year, Timmy fished a wreck in 400-plus feet off the north end of Jeffreys Ledge where one of his fares landed a 36-pound cusk that is now a Maine state record.
Fishing on a wreck goes on all season long, maybe wrapping up in the late fall, catching blackfish on the tugboat wreck off Norwalk, Conn., by following the advice of Ricky Mola of Fisherman's World tackle store. You want to anchor near the edge of the wreck; fishing right on top is a sure way to lose rig after rig.
Nothing will cut down on the loss of some fishing rigs/jigs if you target shipwrecks, but those places often produce the largest fish of the year. So the aggravation is often forgotten as you rise during the annual fishing club winter dinner to accept a trophy for largest fish in a certain category.
This article originally appeared in the New England and Connecticut and New York Home Waters Sections of the April 2010 issue.