It was the beginning of the Labor Day weekend, but we weren’t at the marina, the beach or a cookout. We were 80 miles off Gloucester, Mass., dropping lines as the sun came up on Parker Ridge, a rocky high spot that, along with Cashes Ledge and nearby Fippennies Ledge, offers anglers their best chance to catch a load of New England groundfish — a mix of cod, pollock, haddock and cusk.We had left Rose’s Marina the night before on the 85-foot Yankee Capts, a party boat that specializes in offshore trips to places well beyond the range of small boats. Capt. Greg Mercurio, a friend for more than 20 years, owns and operates the vessel. He has been running offshore trips since 1988, and his thorough knowledge and digital charts of the bottom take a lot of the guesswork out of locating structures where fish hang out.
Through the years, Greg has seen a shift in his business from people in small groups booking space on open boats to groups that now charter for as many as four days. Many of those come through various websites and fishing links on the Internet.
I was invited on a four-day outing that spanned the Labor Day weekend. The trip was put together and supervised by Steve Cannizzo of Brooklyn, N.Y., through his website, www.fishingunited.com. One of the benefits of such a long trip is that it gives Greg plenty of time to make certain everyone aboard catches their share of fish.
Mother Nature threw some wind at us on the first afternoon, coupled with a heavy tide that made tending bottom in the usual fishing depths of 220 to 350-plus feet a bit difficult. Greg’s answer was to steam off the top part of the ledge to an edge where seas and current weren’t as strong.
Jumping ahead a bit, we pushed through the whims of Mother Nature, everyone getting plenty of seafood meals, including Brett Kangas of Dover, Del., and Bob Kursawe of Torrington, Conn. They landed a combined 109 fish, all filleted and iced in coolers aboard the boat, ready for transport home when we got back to port about 4 p.m. on Labor Day.
If you are new to this game and like the sound of catching all those fish, tackle is available for rental on board and the mates, Matty and Gino, are experts at the game who can teach you how to reel in New England’s tastiest sea critters. You can catch these fish in two ways. One is by lowering a metal jig (also available for rental) to the bottom and then yo-yoing up and down until something grabs on. The other is a heavy sinker with two hooks on top — the hooks baited with pieces of clam (supplied). That rig is dropped down, and when something pulls, you set the hook and reel in your prize. Jigs catch cod and pollock, but the bait rigs often produce tasty haddock, the best eating of the four target species.
On one stop at sunset on the second day, Greg anchored over a rocky spire known to hold clouds of pollock — blackish-silver fish that pull like horses and grow to 30 pounds. They are a favorite of mine because they patrol above the bottom and will hit a jig being speedily reeled up. This technique is called squidding, and it’s widely used for blues on fishing grounds from New Jersey to Block Island, R.I. The pollock slam the jig hard, then put on speed back to the bottom — great fun on lighter tackle.
Breakfast, lunch and dinner are available for a fee (beyond the charter cost) from the boat’s galley. Joe the cook serves up a satisfying eggs and bacon while you watch out the cabin windows as your peers start catching more fish. At night, we had pork, chicken and, on the last day, meatloaf, mashed potatoes with gravy, corn and bread pudding with whipped cream, washed down with soda, water or iced tea.
After dark, Greg anchors for the night while the mates in the stern clean your catch (for a per-fish fee), then bag and ice it for you, ensuring that it’s in prime condition when you put it in your own coolers for the trip home. Some of the people on the trip elected to fish awhile longer, catching haddock and some cod after dark, while others watched preseason NFL games or other shows on the boat’s satellite TV.
The day starts between 5:30 and 6 a.m., when the lights go on in the cabin below, where people are sleeping on Navy-style bunks on pipe frames, many bringing their own pillows or sleeping bags. Some move toward the head, others the coffee urn, where fresh joe (the fuel for many a fishing trip) is brewing.
Sometimes on these trips the weather is passable, but not postcard-like, so if you’re prone to seasickness, take your pills or put on the patch. There’s nothing worse than being 80 miles out at the start of a multiday trip you’ve looked forward to for months and then upchucking everything but the kitchen sink.
Mother Nature can throw wind and current at you, even though it’s the time of the month when tides are predicted to be at their slowest, and she can also send blue sharks your way. Several times on our trip we had 100- to 250-pound blue sharks grab a hooked fish on the way up, either getting hooked on a jig or giving the angler back nothing but a ragged head. Some of the sharks were brought boat-side by those with heavier tackle, but most were just broken off. (They have no food value whatsoever.) On one stop, Greg estimated that sharks took 30 percent of our catch away.
In addition to the cod, haddock and pollock, we landed lots of cusk on some of the real hard bottom on Cashes Ledge. Cusk are a yellow-brown, eel-like fish that aren’t much to look at, but they make superb chowder for those who can get past their ugly appearance — and the mates will fillet anything you catch.
One of the things I can never quite get over on these trips, even after many years, is how the sea floor goes up and down like a roller coaster. At one point on Cashes Ledge, you find Ammen Rock, a ledge that comes up to a scant 24 feet. It’s a little disconcerting to watch the fishfinder in the wheelhouse in that depth of water 80 miles out.
Although the accommodations are more than up to the task, they are not yacht-quality, so expect a bit of roughing it if you decide to go. But you might return home with enough cleaned fish to feed your family and neighbors many meals. There’s a great feeling closing the door of your home after days at sea with a load of fish to put up, along with the “thank yous” of your neighbors ringing in your ears. Time for a shower and, hopefully, memories of a great trip at probably the best producer of groundfish we have in New England.
Capt. Greg Mercurio’s website is www.yankeecapts.com, or he can be reached at (305) 923-3926.
This article originally appeared in the November 2011 issue.