Fishing - Location, location, location

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Proven tips to finding where the fish are biting

Proven tips to finding where the fish are biting

Like the placement of a retail store, catching a mess of blackfish, porgies, sea bass or (to the north) codfish, a fishing trip needs places to drop a hook. The chances of having a successful Saturday drifting around the buoy at the mouth of the harbor with some bait dangling on the bottom are not in your favor.

Most bottom fish take up residence around some type of structure. These are wrecks, big and small, reefs, rock piles or places where mussels or other live growth dot the Sound or ocean floor. Bank-robber Willie Sutton allegedly replied to a question about why he chose to rob banks with, “Because that’s where the money is.” Like Sutton, you must go to the structure because that’s where the fish are. But how does one go about finding such places?

Drawback to charts

Many tackle shops sell charts with GPS numbers of wrecks and areas of fishing bottom highlighted. These might be a good starting point but consider the drawback: If 100 people have the same chart then that many boats will fish the spots. The more a small wreck is fished, the fewer fish will build up on it, the poorer the catch. On the other side of the coin, if you hit a spell on bad weather, keeping most boats in port, the first good days after a week of wind might offer some success on even common locations.

And, we might add, some of the numbers on these charts are not accurate. Many have the GPS numbers for the wreck symbol, the little blue ovals with what looks like stitching from a football in the middle. Shipwrecks, though, have a habit of not being where they are supposed to be. The numbers on the chart may guide you to the symbol but in reality the wreck lies elsewhere.

Turn to the pros

During the winter many boat and fishing clubs offer speakers that come in during a cold blustery weeknight, giving members a chance to get together, maybe enjoy a meal then listen to what the local pro has to say. Some of these people have years of experience and may just point you in the right direction or maybe even bring their book of numbers with them, offering a few to novices as part of the show.

If you or a friend is on good terms with commercial fishermen, especially some that own draggers, ask their help. When fishermen drag their nets along the bottom they encounter all manner of bottom obstructions that do damage to the gear, resulting in lost time and money. They make a note of the position or the “hang” as they call the obstruction so they can avoid it in the future. Many of the places are gold mines for fishing, some close to shore with surprisingly good results.

A few years back Capt. Roger Jarvis and I fished such a place roughly 10 miles off Scituate, Mass., a location one of the local draggers hung up his net. It turned out to be a wreck that produced a 53-pound cod on a bluebird August day with nary another boat in sight. Politely asking for help from such people pays dividends.

If you do get some numbers, be ready to search out the area around the number a bit. Remember that the commercial man’s net is dragged along the bottom thanks to wire cables strung out behind the moving boat. The number for the obstruction might be where the boat was, not where the hang was located some distance astern. You might also find the number in Loran while most small boaters today use GPS. You’ll need to find an old Loran receiver to search out the area or invest in a GPS with good phantom Loran, that being the conversion by the machine of one number to another. Cheaper units will do this, but with loss of accuracy. The more expensive units will put you within 50 feet of the original bearing.

Chart your own spots

Another way to find new spots is to spend a winter evening looking over charts, especially those with the bottom curves shown on them. Let’s say for the sake of this story the shoreline where you fish is oriented east and west.

As you follow, say, the 15-fathom line (90 feet) on the chart, you notice it also follows the same east to west orientation, thanks to the efforts of glacial moments eons back. But, if you come to an area where that same 90-foot line bends off to the southwest then comes back to the northwest, resuming its original “course,” you’ve found a plateau that bulges outward. Somewhere around that bulge in the curve might be harder bottom that holds some type of bottom fish.

This is a little tip that will help you find finny creatures from Kittery to Key West. One of my favorite mutton snapper holes off the southernmost U.S. city is such a bulge in the 20-fathom curve off Pelican Shoal. We anchor on the east side of the plateau when the current is running west into the structure, drop a few live pinfish down just at sunset, and await the pull of a tasty 12-pound mutton.

High spots and drop-offs

Many computer programs are offered in marine stores that feature a cursor overlaid on charts showing all the contours, the ups and downs of the bottom. By moving the cursor, you get a GPS position anywhere on the chart with an accuracy of 50 feet in real time.

These programs make it easy to scout prospective locations some cold winter evening, giving one lots of numbers to check out once the weather turns.

Many of today’s plotters feature the same deal. You only need put a cursor on a high spot or drop-off; press the right sequence of buttons and the machine will give a course a bearing to that spot. The arrow that is the boat shows you exactly your position when you arrive, allowing you to make the same drift over the structure or anchor on any given area of the lump.

Another way to find spots is to look at the depths on a conventional paper chart. If you see an area of say 100 feet deep, surrounded by deeper water, that’s a hill that can provide bluefish jigging when the tide is running, or maybe some sea bass at the end of the tide on a high-low bottom rig baited with strips of squid.

Watch the fishfinder

Always, always keep your fishfinder running as you motor or drift along. When you see a rise in the bottom or even small lump, save the numbers. Scout the area then and there or come back when there is time; you might have stumbled on to a honey hole worth having. A friend of mine with an offshore party boat fleet posts a reward of $150 per trip to anyone of his crew who runs over a wreck on the way to a far fishing spot. My friend would run the boat for a while then retire to a bunk until sunrise. The backup skipper kept his eyes glued to the fish finder and then ran along, hoping to up his paycheck.

If you don’t visit a diner, you’ll likely go hungry. The same can be said for dropping baits on a featureless bottom; the fish are elsewhere as you soon find out back at the dock, your cooler empty, the other guy’s full of fish for the coming cookout. It’s time to change your luck, use your noggin, find some structure, do some detective work and catch more fish, selling your goods at the right location.

Tim Coleman has been fishing New England waters for more than 30 years. He was managing editor of The Fisherman magazine’s New England edition until 2001, and is now a freelance writer based in Rhode Island.