Many novice anglers mistakenly think they can head out to the middle of Long Island Sound or two miles off in the Atlantic Ocean anywhere from the Northeast to the Florida Keys and merely drift around until some fishy creature gives a yank on their baited hook. That method is usually the express route to failure.
Fish live around structures - rock piles, humps, ledges or wrecks, something on the bottom that holds forage and also provides a home. To find fish, one must find these structures.
Most of us visit local tackle shops at one time or another and one finds laminated charts with GPS bearings for all kinds of fishing spots. Be forewarned that some of the wreck bearings are in error and some of the local fishing areas are also in error. A second strike against published numbers is that everyone has them so they get fished more often than secret places. That means you might get scant few bites on "Chart Ledge A" on Saturday morning because it's already been fished hard on two weekdays.
On the other side, if you have a stretch of windy weather that lasts through the weekend, with boats not able to get out, you may be in for a heck of a morning bite the following Tuesday if yours is the first hook the fish have seen in a week.
Today's plotters make finding hills and lumps very easy. Hills and high bottom show up as circles or areas with concentric circles on the screen - the tighter the circles the steeper the bottom. By following the machine's instructions, all one usually has to do is put the cursor on the circle, push the right buttons and the machine gives you course and bearing to the first drop of the day.
On such high spots, you'll likely find porgies, sea bass or blackfish in season, maybe fluke around the edges of the hill. On top of the hill, one might find blues waiting for the tide to bring them food; those fish usually more than willing to hit a diamond jig dropped their way. Striped bass set up housekeeping around such places, often hitting a tube and worm trolled over top or a weighted bunker dropped down and then slowly raised and lowered near the bottom. This method is nicknamed yo-yoing for the up-and-down motion of the bait.
If you still use paper charts, you can seek out high spots by looking at the bottom depths. If you spy a depth of about 95 feet, surrounded by water much deeper, that's a hill capable of holding all manner of fish depending on the season. Some of the fluke sharpies in Long Island Sound seek out those deep hills and fish them on the slower ends of the tide. These anglers typically use big bait and super-thin braided lines to catch outsized summer flounder, sometimes in depths of more than 140 feet, drifting not only over the top of the hill, but also back down the side.
Up in Massachusetts, plotter or bathymetric charts of the Gulf of Maine show all manner of hills to be fished either by drifting over them with a jig and teaser for cod and pollock or anchored up, dropping a high-low rig with bait for haddock.
If anyone is lucky enough to know a retired commercial fisherman, you might ask him to borrow his old log book of bottom hangs, places where he encountered some type of obstruction while towing his net along the bottom. Some of these are wrecks, others rocks, other perhaps something that time and tide has reduced to naught for 40-plus years immersed in salt water.
Some of the bearings on such logs must be searched out and some you will not be able to locate. But with patience, commercial fishing logs are a gold mine for locating structure. Years back, Capt. Joe Rendeiro of Stonington, Conn., lent me his log of fishing hangs, a treasure trove for locating any number of fishing spots from Block Island to Great South Channel off Nantucket. Just last summer, we used one of Joe's hangs to locate a pollock spot in 305 feet of water to the northwest of the tip of Veach's Canyon.
Another great log was the one shown me by a fellow I knew only as Capt. Jimmy, skipper of the shrimp boat Hobo that used to fish out of Key West in the winter. Jimmy let me go through his log one windy afternoon, giving me tips on dozens of spots out in the Gulf of Mexico. One of them produced some of the finest gray snapper fishing I've ever seen, so many outsized grays that legendary guide Capt. Robert Trossett remarked that it was 20 years since he'd seen a catch like that.
Snowbirds can also get GPS numbers from tackle shop charts just like up north, with numbers on both the Atlantic as well as the Gulf side of the Florida Keys. The deep wrecks on the Atlantic side can be drifted over with live bait, producing large mutton snappers, cobia, amberjack, African pompano and various groupers (those must be released under current winter regulations). The Gulf wrecks produce all manner of snapper, cobia, kingfish, mackerel, bluefish and permit in the spring.
If you get an invite to a fisherman's cookout either in the RV park where you are staying in the Keys or down the street from your winter place, by all means attend. With the right lubrication - maybe a couple of light beers - fishermen sometimes will part with a number or two for the beginner. Or they might tell you to stop by their boat later the next morning when they will go through their log book, offering perhaps a mother lode.
I know one fellow who found the log book of a charter guide on a dock. He sought out the owner and returned the prized book, the result of many years on the water, and was rewarded with enough fishing spots for the rest of his life. Another friend of mine helped a fellow boater at his dock carry a cooler to the truck of an older man. His reward was a couple of fluke humps that produced some six-pounders along with some sea bass over four pounds.
Most of us will not live out in the desert, surrounded by nothing. We choose to live around shopping centers or markets; places that help us prosper. Fish set up their water condos around the same sources of food and safety so, if you want more fish, seek out their home addresses.
Tim Coleman has been fishing New England waters for most of his life. He was managing editor of The Fisherman magazine's New England edition and is now a freelance writer based in Rhode Island.
This article originally appeared in Home Waters Sections of the February issue.
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.