Saltwater lessons

I’ve always been a shore based freshwater fisherman but living in Salem I decided to take up saltwater fishing. Fishing from shore proved a failure, I caught only rocks, so I got a used kayak and have been exploring the inshore waters around the city. I’ve learnt a few things.

Lesson 1: This aint New Jersey

The saltwater fishing I did as a kid was mostly around Cape May in New Jersey, where my family (being refuges from Philadelphia) had a vacation home. The main targets there are fluke, porgy, black seabass, and weakfish. When I started fishing in Salem I bought tackle I recognized from those days in South Jersey but that was a mistake. South Jersey waters are warm, influenced by the gulf stream. North of Cape Cod there is no Gulf Stream, this is the Gulf of Maine whose waters are about ten degrees colder than the they are to the south. The targets offshore are cod and haddock, and inshore fishermen (like me) go for winter flounder, mackerel, pollock, and the locally hallowed striped bass.

Mackerel are best targeted with small lures, and winter flounder have tiny mouths incapable of swallowing the large hooks I once used for their southern cousins, the fluke (which the uninitiated also call flounder, to my early confusion). Stripers will eat anything which is one of the reasons I don’t find them interesting, I mostly get them as bycatch.

I’ve found that Cape Cod is a huge dividing line not just for seasons and species, but also for fishing culture. Stripers are everything to the local recreational fishermen, for reasons I’ve not yet discerned. Lobster, cod and clams are essential to the coastal economy, maybe only blue crabs and squid are analogous in importance South of Cape Cod. The same species of fish can have different names on different sides of the Cape: for example, menhaiden become pogy, but porgy (note the ‘r’) become scup. Say the wrong name on the wrong side of the Cape and people have no idea what you are talking about. The names originate with names given these species by the local Indian tribes and since the fishing culture is so different, one name never generalized along the whole coast.

Lesson 2: Purchases

I’m probably about $1500 into this hobby over three seasons. The big expenses of course were the kayak, seat, and paddle, and two seven foot spinning rods but there are a few dozen other bits of gear. Some stuff I use a lot, other stuff was a waste of money.

The best purchase I made was a big nautical map of Salem Sound, including the Beverly, Salem and Marblehead harbors. Besides containing great information it looks nice on the wall. Also informative was a used copy of Bigelow’s Fishes of the Gulf of Maine, a classic publication of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Other equipment I never leave home without:

  • A 5 gallon bucket ($1.99), which fits neatly in the back of the yak and which holds any fish I may catch. It is also useful for washing down the kayak at the end of the trip. Before using the bucket I would keep the fish on a stringer but the metal stake and ring only looked like brass and they rusted out after a few uses. Hanging the stringer over the side also put drag on the kayak and tended to damage the fish. The constant pull from the kayak would almost decapitate smaller fish.
  • a $10 stainless steel Leatherman multi-tool. It is so cheap I don’t care if it rusts (all but the highest grade stainless steel rusts) but it has actually held up pretty well. I just rinse it in the sink and spray it with WD-40 after every trip. It cuts bait, removes hooks and slices gills for bleeding.
  • Spray-on sunscreen for my cheap Irish skin.

The most useless piece of equipment was a fish finder ($85, plus another $30 for a waterproof container, battery, and wiring). Wiring and setting up the fish finder was a fun project but overall the fish finder didn’t do much for me; unless the transponder was perfectly sealed to the bottom of the kayak I got garbage readings. Also, Salem Sound isn’t that big and I can only cover a few miles in a kayak anyway. Once I was familiar with the geography of the Sound I didn’t really need it for depth.

That having been said maybe I’ll try it again next year. I could see it coming in handy for exploring new areas father afield, and also for locating rock piles and ledges rather than just guessing based on a map. I just have to figure out how to get a better seal on the transponder.

Lesson 3: Bait (and simplicity).

I prefer lure fishing as you can target specific species and avoid the hassle of storing fresh bait (especially for an apartment dweller like me) but but lately I’ve been using sea worms. They are fairly cheap at $7 for a dozen, keep for a couple of days in the fridge, and the flounder love them. They will also pick up any other opportunistic fish that might be around. Frozen squid and clams are cheaper at about $7 a pound but are less effective for my targets and there is no way I can use that much bait before it goes bad.

There is probably a lesson to be had about keeping it simple. I didn’t want to use live bait so I tried every way around it, and didn’t catch anything the whole month of May. One day a non-fishing friend commented “Oh, I love flounder fishing. So easy, dad and I would just hook on a worm and catch them all day from the bridge.” So I got me some worms and started catching flounder.

Saltwater fishing is more complicated than freshwater as far as location and timing: the areas are huge and there is the constant calculation of tides and currents, as well as the effects of wind and moon. As far as presentation however saltwater is simpler as the fish are more aggressive.

Of the two, I’m enjoying saltwater more, every outing is an education.



  1. Billy Jack · · Reply

    Great to see a fishing post! The world might be insane but fishing is as good as ever.

    Before my second came along I took my older boy out to lakes just about every other day during the lockdown.  Didn’t catch much since he preferred throwing rocks and I just wanted to watch him be happy and enjoy the outdoors.

    I never ended up doing much saltwater fishing during my time on the East Coast, and I guess I won’t be doing any for a while.  There is Great Lakes-influenced fishing here though.  Not just in the Great Lakes themselves: the salmon run up as far as Lansing, MI which is about as far “inland” as Michigan gets (and into many other MI and IN rivers).  I can’t wait to catch a few, and to take my oldest to the fish ladder during the run.

    When I was in Maryland it seemed that striped bass–locally known as “rockfish”–were second only to crabs in their importance to the Chesapeake Bay fishing culture.  I think the whole point is that they aren’t too hard to catch and are easy to cook so everything about it becomes an occasion to build community and drink a lot.  You can take a bunch of people out on a boat, everyone catch one, you grill them, and you can be drinking the whole time.

    1. I’ve heard stripers are good eating but I’ve never caught one big enough, I get them 12-18″ and the slot is 24-36″.
      I think another element in their popularity is that they have little commercial value – too far inshore for commercial trawlers. They are managed as recreational species, not commercial. There is no commercial species whose population hasn’t been overfished… but the abject failure of US fisheries management is a rant for another day.

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