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September 08, 2010

Northeast Cod Classic

Finish out the season at Jeffreys Ledge with a mixed bag of groundfish - and tasty fillets.

We were loaded, if not for bear, at least for anything with fins that might swim under us in the Gulf of Maine. We had commandeered the Airmar company boat for a day of sounder and transducer experimentation, and what better place for that than the storied grounds of Jeffreys Ledge.

Don Kinnett, Airmar's new-products coordinator, was at the helm as we headed out Piscataqua River against a fierce tidal current, and Airmar's Mark Reedenauer and I switched and cross-switched a formidable array of fish finders wired through selector switches to a full selection of transducers.

It was a perfect gray Maine day as we cruised through the Isles of Shoals and headed 25 miles off the coast for Jeffreys Ledge, the legendary cod, pollock and haddock ground in this part of the world. It's not a bad place for bluefin tuna either, but that's another story.

Gulf Signature
Jeffreys Ledge runs northeasterly off the shoals of Cape Ann, Massachusetts. Technically, it is about 20 miles long and about 4 miles wide. The depth of the bank runs from 150 to slightly more than 200 feet, falling off to 300 and 400 feet at the edges. Though a small piece of geography in the expanse of water that is the Gulf of Maine, it occupies a significant role in the region's fishing. "It is a substantial part of the fishing around here," says Mike Cleary, who captains the charter boat Scout out of Portsmouth, New Hampshire. "It gathers and holds the bait, and it is important structure. Without it, the fishing around here would be much different."

Abundant Structure
The 25-mile run from Portsmouth to Jeffreys is peppered with other productive structure, Cleary explains: "We have great humps between here and there, spots we stop and check on the way out to Jeffreys, such as the Outer Flag, Inner Flag, Old Scantum - they are about 12 to 14 miles out. These are humps that come up to 180 feet of water, out of 400 feet."

These humps are easy to plot. Even on the NOAA1:500,000 small-scale Gulf of Maine chart 13009 they stand out with dramatic relief, rising from 55 to 28 fathoms. When prospecting for groundfish, Cleary uses his sonar to find the structure first. "I use my electronics to navigate to a spot on the structure that I know holds fish," he says. "I start by zooming in tight on the bottom and looking for any separation from the bottom, and specifically looking for bait and marking the schools."

Once he finds marks he thinks will be productive, he checks the wind and current along the structure and sets out a sea anchor to slow the drift. "If it is productive, I'll go back and drift it again," Cleary says. He'll cover a productive edge until it plays out, then find another. "I may move 25 times in a day," he says. "Rarely does one spot produce all day, so you might get half a day out of one spot and then go look around for another."

In this fishery, success is measured not in fish but in pounds of fish. "On good days, we'll get a couple of boxes of cod, haddock, and pollock - 150 or 200 pounds, and you can have 400-pound days," Cleary says. "But then there are days when you are lucky to get 50 pounds. If it's a tough day, I'll go fish the cusk in the rocks. They always bite."

Theory Into Action
Kinnett backed off the throttles as Reedenauer and I watched the edge of Jeffreys climb the side of the fish finder screen, from 400 feet to just under 200. We weren't fishing totally blind, as there was an icon posted atop Jeffreys Ledge on the chart plotter, a little knife and fork sitting in the middle of the ledge in 190 feet of water. Kinnett checked the drift, motored a bit upwind of the little knife and fork and cut the engine, and we were fishing.