On a late January morning, chilly darkness enveloped the quiet harbour at Point Judith in Narragansett, Rhode Island. At 5 am, the inky water was indistinguishable from the black sky above it, except for a few brightly lit fishing boats tied to the dock. A group of recreational fishermen gathered in the main cabin of the Lady Frances, yawning and sipping coffee, as the crew prepared the vessel to travel about 15 miles offshore in search of winter cod.

Some of the crew readied the boat for departure while others untangled fishing line and cut up gooey chunks of clam for bait. The 105ft-long diesel-powered vessel, part of the Frances Fleet, was built for function, not fashion. Though relatively clean and comfortable, the boat is a bare-bones operation. Tables and benches line the main cabin, and the open galley offers beer, chips, burgers, and egg and sausage sandwiches for purchase, though it was not immediately evident who should be cooking. But those aboard were not looking for a luxury harbour yacht cruise; they were there to fish for the next 10 hours. By the day’s end, most of the dozen or so passengers caught at least two fat winter cod.

Cod fishing in the northeastern United States has been an important source of revenue and nourishment for hundreds of years. Cape Cod, a peninsula that juts out from the state of Massachusetts, was named after the fish, which was abundant when the Pilgrims first arrived there in the 17th Century. A wooden “Sacred Cod” even hangs in the Massachusetts State House. However, the fish’s population has declined in recent years. In a 2011 report, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration listed the Atlantic cod as “overfished stock”, and there are threats of strict federal regulations on quotas and the revamping of fishing practices.

But local fishermen tend to disagree with the studies, often angrily, saying that they have been catching more cod over the past few years than ever before. On a recent night at the Hammerhead Grill in Narragansett, not far from the harbour, a stocky and slightly tipsy fisherman-turned-house painter animatedly made his anti-regulatory feelings known after overhearing a conversation about the next morning’s voyage. “The government won’t be happy until [the cod] are crawling up the beach!” he exclaimed, before drifting away to join his buddies for a game of pool. It seems that everyone in this coastal community has strong feelings about the cod fishing industry, a historically vital part of their economy and culture.

Passengers napped as the Lady Frances headed about one-and-a-half hours off the coast, travelling just a few miles past Block Island, which could be seen in the distance as the sun rose over the horizon. The weather was warm for January, as it has been most of the winter, but the seas were just short of roiling, with swells of about four to six feet. Even after taking anti-motion sickness medication, some passengers battled seasickness, lying down on cabin benches with eyes shut as the boat cut through the chop. When the engines slowed and the ruddy captain gave the order to “Drop them!” in a strong New England accent, everyone came alive.

Cod are bottom-feeders, so fishing for them at a depth of about 100ft is relatively easy. You bait your hook with a piece of clam, making sure to double-snag it to keep it from falling off, and drop the weighted line into the depths below. When you feel the hook hit the bottom, you lock your reel and the drifting boat drags the bait along, an enticing meal for the hungry fish lurking beneath the whitecaps.

Unfortunately, a good portion of those hungry fish happen to be dogfish, a type of small shark which seems to travel in the same circles as cod. The large dogfish population is actually the result of federal regulations put in place in 2000, when they were considered to be overfished. Now the levels are high enough that many fishermen consider them to be pests. Every time someone pulled up a thrashing dogfish, Chris, one of the boat’s helpful crewmembers, came around to remove the hook from its razor-sharp teeth and drop it back into the water.

Morning on the Lady Frances started out slowly, with more dogfish than cod being caught. If one spot proved unfruitful, the captain ordered passengers to pull up their lines and set off in search of new waters. Around 11 am, the Lady Frances hit fishy gold, and for about 45 minutes, nearly everyone pulled up at least two cod.

The beautiful, spotted, green fish, which must be at least 22 inches long to keep, were fat and fleshy. Their mouths gaped in perfect circles as they were hauled aboard; the odd whiskers on their faces make them look a bit like catfish. They wriggled and thrashed about on deck before being thrown into bags to await their ultimate fate, presumably on the dinner table.

Even when there are no bites, deep-sea fishing is a very pleasurable activity. There is something hypnotic and relaxing about the repetitive task of baiting your hook, dropping your line, feeling the weight bump along the bottom of the ocean floor and reeling it in to hook some fresh bait, over and over again.

On one side of the boat, the ocean spread out to the distant horizon, with untold squalls, storms and cloud formations stretching to the European coast. On the other side, Rhode Island and Connecticut promise warmth, rest and dry land to weary fishermen. Reeling in these robust fish is a strenuously satisfying activity, and when the captain announced that the boat would be returning to land, everyone seemed ready.

Government numbers may differ from the recounting of recreational and commercial fishermen, but most people agree that it is responsible and important to monitor the populations of cod and other fish in order to ensure schools remain healthy and can be fished for years to come. 

How to
The Frances Fleet leaves daily, weather permitting. Reservations are recommended. Other outfits that offer winter fishing trips include the Marilyn Jean IV, which leaves from Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn, NY, and the Helen H which departs from Montauk on Long Island.

The crew of the Lady Frances will fillet the fish for you on deck as the boat heads back to port. They work for tips and put in a great deal of effort throughout the trip, so this is a good time to give whoever has been helping you about $20.

Cod are a delicious, firm, white-fleshed fish that can be prepared a variety of ways – baked with herbs and vegetables, fried, topped with a tomato sauce, or cut into chunks and cooked in a chowder or curry.