Comeback cods

Cod has long been a target species in the northeast, especially in New England. From a fisherman's standpoint, not only do they taste good, they are aggressive and eat most everything.

Although cod can be caught throughout the year, the cold winter and early spring months yield excellent fishing.

In New England, some of the best fishing occurs in early spring as boats limit out on respectable sized cod regularly. Off New Jersey and Long Island, the cold winter months of January and February provide good catch rates for those that venture offshore.

However, populations in New York, Delaware and New Jersey are rebounding and in a growing stage with plenty of fish just under the legal size limit for their respective state.

Cod Background: Delaware, New Jersey and Southern Long Island

During the 1950s, Russian commercial fleets blanketed our coastline targeting Cod and other bottom fish. Fishing an area called the 'Red Square' (and not necessarily for the name of the wrecks they fished but the devastation left behind) by recreational fishermen and charter boat captains, Russian commercial fleets destroyed most of the U.S. fisheries and bottom structure.

"German and Scandinavian commercial fleets rarely if ever ventured into American waters in those days" said Walter Neumann, a former German commercial boat deck hand and now Keyport, N.J., resident. "We had no reason to."

According to Neumann, in those days, commercial fleets used trawl nets to drag the ocean floor when targeting cod, much like they do today.

"We caught everything in our path, even what we use to call ground sharks," he said. "I look back to those days now and realize it did not take long to wipe an area out. It takes even longer for the population to rebound."

The Russian fleet that sat off the New Jersey coast in the 50s consisted of big mother ships with many smaller working vessels. Cod were netted by the smaller working vessels and processed later that same day by the very large mother ships.

"Even back then, it was an efficient operation supplying the masses with fresh cod," Neumann said.

Through the 1960s and 70s, anglers such as Neumann (now 76) turned to rod and reel fishing aboard the Jamaica II owned by the well known Bogan Family in central New Jersey. Neumann and his rod and reel toting friends rarely caught more than one cod on a particular party boat outing.

"We would catch maybe one cod every two trips," he said.

Then the 1980s and 90s came and catching a cod off Delaware, New Jersey or Long Island was like winning the lottery. Cod stocks were at an all-time low and fishermen were forced to target other species of fish.

"Catching a cod 7-10 years ago was unheard of," said former commercial fisherman and now charter captain Frank Masseria of Vitamin Sea Charters on Staten Island who said there has been a resurgence in cod numbers and size over the past five years. "Most cod are shorts with a few keepers at 21 or 22 inches, depending upon the port in which I sail from, but plenty of short fish is a good sign for things to come."

So, as our fishery here in the northeast is on the rebound, professional captains like Masseria cannot understand why states, including New York and New Jersey, do not place a daily catch limit on cod now like some New England states do to protect this growing populations of fish.

"Anyone can come out here and catch all the cod they want," Masseria said. "The law in New York and New Jersey says they can. The fishery does not stand a chance, especially when other fisheries such as black sea bass are being closed prematurely. The cod do not have a fighting chance to rebound."

As much as I would like to say that cod stocks are closely monitored by state and federal agencies, they really aren't. Sure a size limit exists, but what good is that when we as anglers can keep every sexually mature cod we catch?

Kill the spawning class of fish and throw back the shorts? It's a hard one to swallow for some and leaves many of us wondering who is minding the store.

Editor's note: Capt. Chris Gatley can be found with his fishing clients chasing striped bass in front of the Statue of Liberty, or heading offshore to the Atlantic Ocean canyons off the NJ/NY coast for tuna. His articles on cutting-edge fishing techniques can be found in The Fisherman Magazine, and he's a regular presenter at key sports shows during the winter months (when he's not pursuing whatever he can find in East Coast rivers).