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Doing Battle with Blackfish
by Gerry Zagorski

Blackfish are one of the more challenging yet rewarding fish to target in our NJ Coastal Waters. Although the fishing usually gets into high gear in October with a 1 fish limit, most people don't target them until November when limit gets pushed up to 6 fish and usually lasts well into the early spring. Be sure to check the regulations before you head out at https://www.state.nj.us/dep/

These fish are very hearty, make excellent table fare and are perhaps the most challenging inshore fish to catch. Most are in the 2 to 3 pound class but several are caught each year into the teens. They are notorious bait stealers and once hooked provide one of the best pound for pound fights of all the inshore fish. They also require some skill in terms of anchoring, bait presentation and hook setting.

The first order of business is to start out with a stiffer rod that has good strong backbone. The backbone of the rod is important since you will be fishing reefs, rocks and snags and you need backbone to set the hook and keep the fish from taking you back into the snags and cutting you off. A good stout conventional reel is your best bet here too. Don't go with too heavy with your outfit... This ain't Bluefishing... You don't just throw out your bait and let it sit... You'll be working your rod all day and a heavier outfit will wear you out.

The next order of business is a good strong rig... The standard rig you buy in a bait shop usually has a Virginia Style hook. Other people who tie their own prefer a good quality 4/0 or 3/0 J hook. It's important to use a thicker hook since these fish are very powerful and can snap or straighten a small diameter wire hook in short order. Besides that, your hook will often snag the piece and as you try and work it out you will straighten a soft hook. These fish are not line shy either, so I usually use a minimum of 40 pound leader material and the stiffer the better. This helps keep your bait away from the main line and getting tangled in it. Simple is best in my book. Tie a sinker loop and your hook around 4 – 6 inches below the sinker. You're going to loose a lot of rigs so what I usually do is pre snell the hooks and if it breaks off, it's one less thing I have to tie. I also usually tie on a 10 – 15 foot piece of leader material off of the main line with a uni to uni knot. If I break off I use this extra leader to tie my rig. As far and sinkers, I typically use a few ounces more then I need to hold bottom. I say this because you want your sinker lying as still as possible on the bottom.

OK now for baits... Green and Asian Crabs are the most popular and White Leggers are the most sought after. To each his own here... I like Greens since most tackle stores carry them and they are fairly inexpensive. First thing I do it cut off the legs using a pair of scissors. Depending on the size of the crab, I will either cut it in half or use the whole crab. I will sometimes leave the top shell on or take it off and see which works best. What you do is take your hook and run it through one leg socket and out another. Some people like to use whole smaller crabs with the shell on and smash the top shell with a sinker. Some like to fish with the legs on... Once again, to each his own but when you find a pattern that works stick with it. Fiddler crabs, although smaller, make excellent baits as well. They are easy to work with since all you need to do is pick one up and run your hook through it.

Lets move on to choosing and getting set up on a piece. Just like the real estate business, the 3 most important things in blackfishing are location, location and location. You need to anchor the boat on a good piece of rock, rubble or snag or you are not going to catch fish. In fact a foot or 2 either way can mean the difference between fishing and catching. Best way I have found to set up is to search the bottom with your fish finder and hone in on the rockiest lump you can find. Once you find that spot, drop a marker buoy over. Pull the boat up along side the marker and let your boat drift 20 feet or so, so you can see which way the current and wind will eventually make you lie on anchor. Take a straight line back to the maker buoy and continue on that line past your maker, Drop your anchor so that when it comes tight you are on or near your marker. Many sharpies use 2 anchors, one in the 10 o'clock position and another in the 2 o'clock position... This does 2 things, it keeps the boat from swinging off the piece and it allows you to adjust your position over the piece by letting out or taking in scope from one anchor or the other.

Wreck anchors are almost a must here. They are designed specifically for this sort of fishing since the rebar tines are soft. If they get stuck in the reef, all you need to do is tie you line off to a cleat and put some pressure on them with the boat and the tines will straighten allowing you to get your anchor back.

OK now that we are all set up, let's talk about hooking these critters. It does require a lot of attention, skill and some luck... You'll know when the fish are around when you hear all your buddies stomping their feet and cursing. As mentioned above these fish are notorious bait stealers. You'll feel the hit, take a swing and come up empty often. The bite can be very different each time you go out ranging from aggressive to scratchy. When they are aggressive I usually let the bait get whacked a few times before setting the hook. When it's scratchy I will set the hook on practically every slight bump. Here is my theory... If the hits are aggressive that usually means there are lots of fish competing for your bait. Based one some underwater footage I've seen, when you drop down the smaller fish come in first, they hit your bait and it causes a ruckus. That gets the larger fish interested and they swoop in and take it from the smaller ones. If you were to try and set your hook on the first hit or 2 you will not have waited out the larger fish and once you move your bait the fish get suspicious and retreat. It's kind of like the opposite of cat and mouse. If you've ever teased a cat with a toy, you'll notice it's very rare that they hit something while it's still, they get interested when it moves, right? Well, Blackfishing is the complete opposite as they rarely hit moving baits. When it moves they back off. When it's still they go into they're stalking mode. They come in cautiously at first and check out the bait... They will then take a quick strike and retreat.

A scratchy bite is when you barely feel the strike... This usually happens when there are fewer fish around since they don't have to compete for your bait... That's why when it's scratchy I swing at almost everything since strikes and fish are few and far between. Having said all this, I've seen some sharpies that target large fish take no more then a few swings in an hour. Everyone around them is bailing 2 and 3-pound fish and they are seemingly not catching a thing. Fact is they are not waiting for a bite, they are waiting for the right bite. This requires great deal of patience and skill, 2 attributes I don't happen to have J

We have many sponsors on the site that specialize in this fishery and will keep their boats in water all year long. Please check out the Charter and Party Boat sections of the site and support them.. Watch the Main and Open Boat sections of the Message board www.njfishing.com/forums for their reports and sailing times. You can also go to the Message Board and check out the “Best of” and “Recipes” section. There is a lot of great detailed information there contributed by some of the best Blackfishing sharpies in our state.

Well, I hope this helps and encourages you to brave the cold and get out Blackfishing. It's a great way to cure cabin fever and put some great tasting fish on the table. One warning... There is good reason grown men and women leave the comforts of home when it's freezing cold and the wind is howling... The challenge of getting on a piece, hooking these tricky fish and their drag wrenching runs is addicting.

Have fun, dress warm and please support our sponsors.

Appendix 1

NJFishing.com Blackfishing Slang

I rolled him - You had a good bite, got a few cranks on the fish but lost it
Roller Skating - Moving around the boat from spot to spot looking for other people's fish
Mugging - The act of stealing, pushing or bullying someone out of their spot when they catch a fish
Puller - An older and wiser Blackfisherman. Opposite of Young Blood
Snafu Rig – A rig consisting of 2 hooks some that some purists regaurd as cheating
Slide Rig – See Snafu rig except with a hook that slides up and down the leader
Stellious – A famous skating, mugging puller that sangs fish using Snafu and Slider rigs
Piece – A specifc spot on a rough rocky or snaggy bottom where you donate your tackle
Weight - Lead or Sinker
Pool Fish – The largest fish that takes all the money in the pool
Yo Dolla – The first keeper fish caught where everyone (even cheap skates when forced to) pays you a dollar

Appendix 2

Putting Slang into the Proper Context

Said in Brooklyn Accent:
     I was fishin wit Stelly and dat SOB is skatin around the dah whole boat. I'm fishin on a good piece wit some otha Pullahs and I roll a fish. I go to bait up and outa no weah Stelly comes in and mugs me. He drops down a slidah, snags dah yo dolla fish in dah chin and he wins dah friggin pool... Fogetaboutit!