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Casters during the fall, tossing eels and lures into Rhode Island south shore surf, concentrate on bass and blues. As the weather heads toward Thanksgiving many are thinking about the winter layover but few, especially those under 40, are wondering if the cod will ever come back?

     Codfish you say? You betcha, back in the 1960s through the mid to late 1970s, the south beaches were the scene of a great fishery, one all but gone today, victim of poor management that turned some of the richest grounds on earth into closed zones, the stocks so far down no fishing is allowed, hoping to save the percentage that is left. In the process the beach fishing for cod is gone, gone, gone, some say never to return.

     Here's a sample of what once was, keeping in mind the cod fishing was like bass, good one day and poor the next. Mr. Del Barber of Westerly, RI is a retired Pfizer employee who spent all his life fishing the waters around Watch Hill, both boat and the surf. He's seen a time of plenty not likely repeated due to the fishing pressure of today. Our stripers are in good shape, not so other stocks.

     One December night, Del and a Joe Corneau, since deceased, dunked bait on regular bottom rigs about 100 yards west of Quonny Breachway. Fishing from roughly 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. the pair landed 17 cod to 64 pounds! Today one would be hard pressed to catch a fish that size paying several hundred dollars to go on a far-offshore party boat trip, fishing grounds well beyond the range of ordinary sport fishing.

     On a normal year the fishing would start in October and run through May. On a couple seasons though, Pete Kernicki, another old-timer in these parts, caught them as early as September in front of the Pink House. Del has a photo of a catch of three-man catch of 15 cod made at Charlestown in June, dunking bait for stripers when a school, probably the last of the cod season, moved in.

     Weekapaug was the most heavily fished, both shore and in small boat. I remember stories of people in 14-foot tin boat drifting inside the breachway, catching cod on bait, usually clams or squid. At times the fish would hit plugs, like the Pal-O-Mine worked along the same beaches people prowl for stripers today. In one instance Del remembers a fellow from Woonsocket who caught a 15-pound striper in December trading his fish for a 15-pound cod caught the same day along the same beach.

     Other hot spots for this fishing were west of Quonny, dunking bait along the steep beaches there or out front of the Blue Shutters. Yet another good hole was roughly 600 yards east of the Blue Shutters, a spot the locals called the bulkhead. Lots of surf casters from Woonsocket and points north in Rhode Island were drawn to the latter location. Other good areas were the famed Pink House and the west side of Watch Hill Point, the same perch were people dunk chunks today or catch scup during the daylight. About mid-November this location provided a shore-bound angler a chance to catch a large cod for supper.

     People drifting weighted Atom 54B plugs out of Quonny Breachway landed large cod, some over 40 pounds during ebb tides in the winter if you could take the cold when temps sometimes got to zero. Locals then would often then stay inside their buggies, heaters on, watching rod tips from their 4WD.

     Fishing with diamond jigs or Kastmasters would often produce pollock to 20 pounds in the breachways, the fish brought in close by the bait dropping out the ponds just like stripers. That fishing too is gone. Del said about the mid to late 1970s the bites got less and less; eventually people stopped trying and that chapter of surfcasting passed into history.

     Also missing are the vast schools of whiting that moved inshore from Watch Hill past Charlestown in the late fall. The fish were so numerous people often walked along a beach on a cold, dark night to find the fish stranded on the shore. Others waded into calm surf with neck light and pitchfork, able to spear the abundant whiting as they chased bait right in the wash.

     The fishing wasn't good all the time. Del spent many nights catching nothing or skates or sand sharks but when a school moved in, it was time for some fish cleaning and pictures the next morning. Cod would hit in both calm and rough surf, sometimes the rougher the better said Del. The bigger ones were often a tussle to get in; sometimes they found something out in the surf to hang up on, sometimes refusing to budge. You then would but the rod back in the spike and wait them out, reeling them in when they decided to move.

     Anglers using lead heads in the fall would sometimes catch a cod and striper on the same trip; the cod would bite best at low light or after dark most of the time. And, this fishing wasn't limited to just the west end of the state.

     Locals in Wakefield and Narragansett can tell you about all the school pollock around in the spring and late fall from the East Wall and the Short Jetty at Point Judith. The late Ron Wojick sometimes caught school cod in the November surf at Point Judith on a wooden float with Upperman underneath. I remember talking with a fellow on the West Wall one day back in the 1970s, he saying how he once caught a 25-pound cod on his Upperman casting for school stripers one spring, on the inside of the wall, the harbor side. What are the chances of such happening today?

     Due to the political climate in 2006, I doubt if the Average Angler will ever send a picture of a 50-pound cod fish caught from the beach into a fishing magazine or newspaper like he did years ago. It's a sad fact that the political pressure prizes the money generated from fishing more than conservation. Until that changes, cod catching from the beaches of Rhode Island will likely take place only in the history books.


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