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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.