Mad About Haddock

Capt. Ty Macallister with a keeper haddock from Stellwagen. Photo Tom Richardson

The spring haddock bite on Stellwagen Bank is a great way to kick off the fishing season and put some fillets in the freezer. Text & Photography by Tom Richardson

To the general public, there seems to be no shortage of doom and gloom concerning New England’s once-vaunted groundfish fisheries. Yet while Gulf of Maine codfish stocks have foundered over the last several decades, haddock have become more abundant, to the point where anglers are all but guaranteed a limit (15 fish per person in 2018) of these tasty, white-fleshed bottom fish.

This is especially true during the spring run of haddock on Stellwagen Bank. Beginning in April and running through May, haddock gather on the bank in large numbers to spawn and feast on the abundance of sand eels, crustaceans and other prey. It’s game on for anglers who have their ship and tackle together!

Metal jigs will take hungry haddock, but they don’t always need to be large. Photo Tom Richardson

Take it to the Bank

“It’s like the old days of cod fishing,” states Captain Rich Antonino of Black Rose Sportfishing. “And, somewhat sadly, it’s really the only viable early-spring fishery we have north of Cape Cod.”

Antonino begins targeting haddock in mid-April, launching his 25-foot C-Hawk cuddy cabin out of Green Harbor in Marshfield, some 15 miles from the southern portion of Stellwagen. This port, as well as nearby Plymouth Harbor, also puts anglers reasonably close to the middle and northern parts of the bank should the fish be staging farther north.

Antonino points out that haddock move around quite a bit, so it’s helpful to have some local intel on their whereabouts before making the run. “That said, I usually find that the fish start off on the western side of the bank and make their way to the eastern side as May progresses.”

Cod are often caught alongside haddock on Stellwagen, but must be released. Photo Tom Richardson

Where to Find Them

In recent years, haddock have gathered in good numbers on or near the southern edge of Stellwagen by early May. The easiest way to pinpoint them is to look for the fleet of drifting boats. Otherwise, Antonino recommends starting at the southwest corner of Stellwagen and working north along the western edge of the bank in a zig-zag pattern. Drift from deep water to shallow, or vice versa, depending on the current and wind, and use your plotter trail to mark your progress. Continue making drifts along the bank edge and onto the bank itself until you find the fish.

Naturally, the presence of bait is a good sign that you’re in the right place, so watch your depthsounder for clouds of sand eels coming off the bottom or dimpling the surface. “I know it sounds strange, because haddock are bottom feeders, but look for working birds,” adds Antonino. “The birds indicate bait, and that bait can be spread all the way from the surface to the bottom.”

Party boats from Plymouth ply these same waters. Photo Tom Richardson

Down to Business

Once you’ve found the fish, catching them isn’t too difficult. Simply lower a metal jig, such as a Vike, Gibbs, Daddy Mac, Crippled Herring or diamond jig, to the bottom and make gentle lifts of the rod to give it some action. It usually doesn’t take long before a fish climbs aboard.

“Haddock in particular seem to be attracted to turbulence on the bottom,” Antonino says. “I’ve put a GoPro camera on the bottom in front of a jig, and when we dragged the jig along, kicking up mud, the haddock swarmed it and really attacked.”

Haddock Light

Antonino loves the spring haddock fishery because it allows for the use of light gear. “In some cases, you’re only fishing in 70 feet of water on top of the bank,” he says. “Plus, the average size of the haddock is four or five pounds, so there’s no need for heavy gear. And lighter gear encourages kids and grandparents to come out and have some fun with these fish.”

 

Go with a Pro!

If you’d like to learn the basics of haddock fishing, especially with light gear, book a trip with Capt. Rich Antonino of Black Rose Fishing Charters. Capt. Rich is an enthusiastic host, and loves to fish with families. Give him a shout at (508) 269-1882.

 

As long as the drift speed isn’t too extreme, fluke and sea bass gear is perfectly suitable for spring haddock fishing. Start with a 6 ½- or 7-foot rod in the 15- to 30-pound-class range and match it with a light conventional reel filled with 30-pound-test braided line.

The terminal rig is equally basic: Tie a barrel swivel to the end of the main line then tie on four to five feet of 40- to 60-pound-test mono leader. One to two feet above the end of the leader, tie in a six-inch dropper loop for attaching the teaser. For the teaser, Antonino prefers flies tied on 5/0 to 7/0 Gamakatsu octopus circle hooks, as they last longer than soft-plastic grubs and shrimp tails (which are also effective). In both cases, pink, red and orange colors generally get the job done, but bring a variety in case the fish show a preference for one type. If bites are hard to come by, try dunking the teaser in a fish-attractant, such as Berkley “Gulp!”

Many haddock anglers launch from the Sandwich Boat Basin on on the Cape Cod Canal. Photo Tom Richardson

Tending Bottom

To fish effectively with light gear, Antonino has his anglers cast “into the drift” (downwind or downcurrent) and free-spool their jigs to the bottom. This allows the jig to reach bottom by the time the boat is directly overhead. “When the line is vertical, slowly lift the rod tip, just enough to stand the jig on end. That’s usually enough to draw a strike.”

If you choose to stick with more traditional, heavier gear, you’ll want to fish on the upcurrent/upwind side of the boat. The main goal is to make sure the jig is tapping bottom, which means letting out more line every so often as you drift along. When the angle of the line exceeds 30 degrees from the rod tip, reel in and repeat the process. Also important is keeping the rod tip low to the water, allowing plenty of room to set the hook when you feel a bite.

Once you hook up, hold the rod at a 90- to 45-degree angle to the water and reel steadily. Don’t pump and wind, as this may allow the jig hook to fall out of the haddock’s soft mouth.

Cod Alert

Speaking of hooks, Antonino rigs his jigs with single hooks, which usually result in less damage to undersized fish or any cod his clients happen to catch. He also points out that haddock and cod caught and released in relatively shallow water have a much higher rate of survival than fish taken in very deep water.

In recent years, the number of codfish on Stellwagen seems to be increasing too, and you’ll likely catch a few while jigging for haddock. However, check the regulations before making your trip, as they change often, and you may not be allowed to keep any cod in federal waters. This has been the case in the last two seasons. If you find yourself hooking a bunch of cod, try moving to a different spot that only contains haddock.

Also note that all fish racks (carcasses) must be retained if you choose to fillet your haddock on the way to port, so that law-enforcement officials can determine the species and size of the fish if you happen to be inspected. The alternative is to leave a portion of skin on each fillet to allow identification. Oh, and remember that you’ll need a saltwater fishing license for all anglers over age 16.

Yes, there’s no shortage of complicated regulations governing today’s fisheries, but at least there’s some good news where the haddock fishery is concerned. Give it a try next spring and you could find a new way to start the season.

 

Watch the New England Fishing TV episode on catching haddock on Stellwagen Bank.

 

 

Got a Rider?

If you plan to fish the spring haddock bite starting in April, check your boat-insurance policy. Standard polices for New England boaters only cover the period from May through October, so you may need a rider to extend coverage before the policy start date. Fortunately, such riders cost very little, if anything at all, and can usually be established the same day.