Codfish keep me thinking. They are the reason I walk the winter docks, and why I have older fishermen as friends. Cod are the reason I sometimes spread worn paper charts across my dining room table and run my fingers along the fathom curves.
I remember my first cod. This fish came well after I’d caught my first largemouth bass, striper, bluefish, scup and mackerel. It came after my first albacore and bluefin and mako. After my first blue marlin. I caught my first codfish at age 19 on the deck of a lobster boat. We had taken a break from hauling pots on the north side of Coxes Ledge, east of Block Island, Rhode Island, and made a couple of cod drifts for fun over a piece of broken bottom. It wasn’t long before I felt the hit as the fish inhaled the clam, and I set down on it. Soon it was on the surface, a fish that went 19 pounds.
I caught my first cod in December 1989. It was snowing, and the silver ocean pressed in around us, with its iron gleam and sharp horizon. My adolescent head drank it in: the open deck of a commercial boat, barrels of lobster bait down the port rail, pitch forks, shovels, the banding station by the exhaust pipe, men in oilskins. And I had my first cod.
There’s no confusion about the look of a codfish. The arrangement of fins; the chin barbel; the large head, mouth and eye; the sweep of the white lateral line down its sides. As the snow fell, I looked down at the cold-water beauty. That image will always represent the fish to me. Maybe it was youth, or why so many of us enjoy remembering our “firsts” — first goal, first love, first cod.
It’s true some people might not even consider cod a gamefish. They’re not wahoo or redfish, not a white marlin on a spinning rod. No one goes after cod for the fight. There’s no long run of drag, no head-shaking jumps. The mate is not a hero at the transom with a gaff. Cod hook us in other ways, and yet for me, they’re right up there with striped bass, brook trout and Atlantic salmon.
Cod represent the New England ocean and the very grounds themselves — the banks, ridges and rockpiles. They symbolize Georges Bank, Nantucket Shoals, Stellwagen Bank and Coxes Ledge. In the Gulf of Maine, cod embody Cashes Ledge, Platts and Fippennies. To me, they also stand for diamond jigs and clams, high-low rigs and dropper loops. They represent cold and wet days, November gales, wrecks and wolffish. They are seafood and bacalhau.
A commerce in codfish helped join the countries of the eastern Atlantic with the countries of the western. Even more, they have long been the focus of state and federal fisheries management, standing-room-only meetings on quotas and catch allocations. They represent decline, greed, climate change, confusion, shame and finger-pointing. Codfish raise an endless current of questions.
But this isn’t an elegy for a dead fish, a portrait of the past. Codfish are still around; they’ve just become more difficult to find. I run my fingers along the fathom curves on an old chart. I look for rocks on the edge of sand. Last year, around Thanksgiving, I was hunting codfish and catching black sea bass. I talked with an old fisherman friend. “This time of year the cod are moving,” he said. “You want to be near the 490 line, where that meets the 850.”
I broke out my old Loran-C charts — another thing you should never throw away. I saw where he was talking about, and I later fished the spot but caught nothing but sea bass.
I decided to try a piece of bottom a mile northwest. Not another boat was near. The bluffs of Block Island were in sight. As soon as I started jigging, I got hit. For the next 20 minutes I caught codfish after codfish. My center console became a wooden dory. My body hummed. And for a moment on that afternoon tide, it felt as if I had awakened one of my Norwegian relatives, some great-great-grandfather who stood straight up in his grave and declared: “That’s a good fish, a good fish. Better get them, boy, while they’re coming.”