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Scouring the ocean bottom for ‘spots’

That bountiful trip on a party boat only comes after hours of preparation by the captain

The results of searching for a new spot pay off. You are lookin at 69 cod - all over 30 pounds, some approaching 50 pounds - found on a site 60 miles off Nantucket.

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Each day along the East Coast, hundreds of people board party boats for fishing trips. Some only go out for the day, others head off for multiday adventures - a kind of a mini-vacation with a fishing rod. All who go assume their captain knows where the fish hang out, but many would like to solve the mystery of how they find these spots. Here are some answers.

Many of the target species of party boats are tasty bottom fish, species that put up a tussle on the end of a line and then provide a great seafood dinner. Lots of these fish live around some type of structure on the ocean bottom: a shipwreck, reef, hump or just junk of some type that made its way to the seafloor.

The Atlantic Ocean, off the Northeast coast of the United States, is a big place - so big one wonders how new fishing spots are found given the vastness of the target area. Enter commercial fishermen, those who captain draggers: boats that tow nets along the bottom, encountering all manner of obstacles along the way.

When an expensive net is snagged or lost on an object, that spot is immediately logged, usually electronically, and is an area to be avoided lest more gear is lost. Over time, quite a list of "hangs," as these spots are called, are kept on board the dragger, providing a shortcut to locating spots (but only if permission is given to share the hang log with other parties).

Party boat captains and dragger captains often meet both before and after their daily endeavor to make a living off the water. Their boats may be side by side in the shipyard when it comes time for haulout, or bow to stern at the fuel dock before a day on the water. Conversations often develop and the matter of "hangs" often comes up.

A few times I've overheard such a conversation take place over the VHF after a party boat captain warned away a dragger towing its gear toward an approaching wreck. There are an estimated 6,000 wrecks off the New England coast alone - a lot of hangs. Saving a net worth thousands of dollars, I have found, is an ideal way to start a conversation, with the commercial guy usually more than happy to repay the kindness by letting his benefactor know the location of other similar spots.

These numbers, or sometimes pages of numbers, are put together in ascending or descending order on a computer, hopefully with custom software that permits easy sorting. As logs are combined (this happens slowly during a period of years) you begin to see patterns, where several different boats snagged their nets on a certain bearing. While the commercial guys seek to avoid them, those locations are prime spots to start looking for a new fishing area.

Snags in the plan

Active dragger nets can be some distance behind the boat in deeper water, so even with a bearing, you still have to hunt around to find the snag. And just because there was a wooden shipwreck in a spot 40 or 50 years ago is no reason to assume you'll find one today. Fishing draggers like the Sea Ranger, sunk off Block Island; and the Star of The Sea, off Martha's Vineyard, are just about gone, victim of years underwater. The sea methodically breaks down wooden hulls to literally nothing. A hang number doesn't guarantee a fishing spot.

Today, captains have the added problem of converting years of fishing with a Loran receiver into today's more accurate GPS numbers. Some do this by merely computing the change on an expensive GPS plotter system that makes the conversion with minimal loss of accuracy. Others use a program called Windplot, available at some marine electronics stores typically located next to large commercial fishing ports. This system converts the old to new while also guiding you accurately to the suspected location.

Just this summer, I watched my friend of 20-plus years, Capt. Greg Mercurio of the Yankee Captains, use Windplot to steer to the wreck of a tanker sunk in World War II roughly 45 miles off Nantucket. He tried using a Loran-to-GPS conversion on a couple of GPS receivers on the boat set up to display Loran numbers. Neither worked to his satisfaction so he switched to the software he purchased up near Gloucester, Mass. That system worked like a charm, putting the boat right atop the collapsed remains of the 495-foot tanker.

I've been with Greg on lots of trips during the last 20 years where he would run the boat all day on the first day of a two- or three-day extended trip into the Gulf of Maine, offshore Nantucket or Great South Channel, usually after cod and pollock. After the fares were done fishing for the day, we would steam off looking in the dark for new spots to fish. Though tired, Greg pressed on, seeking that new area that would bring customers to his boat. Such was the case on the night of Aug. 24, 1994.

The mother lode

We searched from sunset to after midnight, finding one small possibility. Greg's day started the next morning at 5 a.m. so we had one more hang number to check out prior to turning in for the night. It was a place where a New Bedford, Mass., dragger lost a net and we began our systematic search around the number, trying to account for the layback of the bottom gear from the boat in that depth of water roughly 60 miles off Sankaty Head Light.

Ten minutes into the search, we started marking fish, then small bumps that might be just rocks (they snag a net, too). Another 150 feet on the same search line, our fishfinder began to show a 15- to 20-foot rise, marking a wreck and quite a large one, with clouds of fish hovering along the sides and over the top. We marked the spot and retired for the night.

The next morning, in calm, flat seas, Greg started the first drift, blowing the whistle to drop the lines around 5:30 to 6 a.m. By 6:10, every one of the 30-plus anglers aboard was fast to a cod or pollock, the fishing continuing into mid-morning when the fish boxes were full, and we started our 110-mile trek back to Gloucester.

I asked Matt Earl, the boat's backup captain, to save just the large cod for a picture after they cleaned and filleted the smaller fish. That night after supper, Matty approached me, saying they were ready for the photo. On the back deck lay 69 codfish, all over 30 pounds, a couple approaching 50 pounds. That kind of catching is good for business and the reason party boat captains put in 20-hour days looking for new spots.

During the last 20 years, I've been fortunate enough to be on many of these exploratory sessions.

Last fall, three of us were the only people on the 100-foot Helen H as she slipped out of Hyannis Harbor in the early morning. We looked around Nantucket Sound for new bottom hangs, finding five, one of those providing Capt. Joe Huckemeyer with a week of good porgy catches this summer.

I was on one trip from Point Judith on the 100-foot Lady Frances when we ran over a wreck known to its captain, Frankie Blount, but not the rest of the world. Subsequent diving on it showed it to be the long-lost Nantucket Lightship, which was sunk in a collision with an ocean liner in 1934. The dive party was the first to ever dive on that historic wreck, a site off limits now because once the true nature was discovered it was also learned the ship is still U.S. government property and Uncle Sam does not want the site disturbed.

Believe me when I say a lot goes into finding those sites people often take as a matter of course when they pay to board a party boat. Lots of time and fuel goes into searching for precise hang numbers, and still more lost sleep and boat hours are used up scanning around the area where a commercial fisherman snagged his net on something unknown on the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.

This article originally appeared in the November 2010 issue.