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Original Issue

A case for the 'Boston blue'

Another name for the pollock is 'green salmon,' and by any name this cousin of the cod is the most underrated game fish of northern waters

The Atlantic pollock is a game, graceful fish that has been hanged from its own family tree. Pollock? You're putting us on, say the trout and salmon purists, ridiculing the pollock's close blood ties to the sluggish cod, which, they reason, is an excellent source of fishcakes but at the end of a line acts like a dead cat. So must it be with the pollock. True, hardly anyone loves the pollock. Restaurants palm him off as Boston blue-fish, but the pseudonym is unintentionally apt. The real bluefish is a voracious, battling demon and the Boston blue does not exactly peck at his food, either. A 12-inch pollock can consume a hundred two-inch herring in one swim and then still snap at a lure like a starving wolf.

Pollock are occasionally called green salmon in New England, where the real thing once swarmed in rivers south to Connecticut. Today, but for a few rivers in northern Maine, the Atlantic salmon is probably gone forever from the U.S. And now the green salmon is having trouble. The dull but delicious haddock, New England's favorite food fish, is all but fished out, and you-know-who is the next commercial target. Already people are saying that pollock fishing isn't what it once was, and that is sad because so few anglers have ever sampled its pleasures.

For this fisherman discovery came in the harbor of a tiny coastal town outside Boston. Boyhood was the time. June was the month, and honeysuckle was in the air. A new craze called spinning tackle made it possible. Pollock will hit spinning lures, the salesman said, and that first cast proved him right. Reel screeched, rod bowed, fish jumped and got off. Only the fisherman suffered lasting effects. A fishing career spent digging worms to catch flounder and small codfish had ended. Pollock struck on nearly every cast that night—strong, handsome fish to 18" that ripped off yards of three-pound test line and bored deep beneath the float so that you had to stick your rod underneath. Even then they sometimes broke off. In more than 20 years since, that combination of June evening and rising tide has rarely failed. It has worked in the tidal rivers of Cape Cod Bay, on the rocky shores of Marblehead and Cape Ann, at the mouths of rivers such as Massachusetts' North and Merrimack, New Hampshire's Piscataqua and Hampton, and on into the season, north through Maine and Nova Scotia.

The pollock's principal distribution overlaps much of the Atlantic salmon's original range in the Western Atlantic, from Cape Cod Bay to beyond Nova Scotia. Though it is only 290 miles along the coast from Boston to Canada as the sea gull flies, the route is indented with thousands of pollock-lined coves and rocky points, and there are actually more than 2,500 miles of shoreline. Add another 4,600 convoluted miles for Nova Scotia, and one sees why the pollock is probably the most abundant saltwater game fish on this stretch of Atlantic coast.

Pollock are the first migratory game fish to arrive in these waters each spring, reaching Cape Cod Bay by mid-April in some years, and Maine by June. Throughout the season there are many stretches of shoreline where no other game fish is regularly available. Shad fishing is strictly a river proposition as was salmon fishing even in its best days. Bluefish are rarely found north of Cape Cod, and north of Boston the striped bass is primarily a fish of rivers and limited areas of surf. The Atlantic mackerel is probably the pollock's nearest rival for ubiquity in these waters.

The pollock is a cold-water fish, and it moves into deeper water fast when the surface temperature tops 52°. Specimens above the three-pound range are primarily offshore fish, but schools to 20 pounds do come into the surf at New York's Montauk Point for a week or two in April, and a similar run of somewhat larger fish stays only slightly longer at Provincetown's Race Point in mid-May. "People go crazy for a week or two," says one Montauker. "Those pollock fight just like bluefish." Except for the Montauk run, there is no shore pollock fishing south of Rhode Island. Ironically, the 43-pound world record was caught 50 miles off New Jersey in October 1964, and some New York, Connecticut and Jersey skippers catch quite a few on long-haul codfishing trips. This is deep fishing though, in 30 to 60 fathoms, and sometimes it is more work than fun.

Strangely, there is little such fishing in the cold-water centers of pollock abundance, where the species is found nearer the surface. Commercial fishermen at Rockport, Mass. swear that pollock over 50 pounds have come over their gunwales in years past. Not recently though, and the implications are ominous. These skippers probably never realized they were fishing over perhaps the world's greatest pollock spawning grounds. Most pollock in the western Atlantic spawn between November and February on a 60-mile stretch of ledges near the mouth of Massachusetts Bay. American commercial boats are already fishing on these grounds, and Russian trawlers have been seen there for years—fishing illegally. This may partly explain what is happening to the north.

As one moves into Maine, and then Nova Scotia, water temperatures plummet and large pollock have traditionally been found closer to shore. Vast shoals of 10-, 20-, even 30-pounders once disported within shouting distance of land. Suddenly, eight or 10 years ago, they disappeared from the regular spots, but there was hardly anyone to mourn their passing. Pollock had always gotten the same raw deal as Maine's wonderful smallmouth bass. Most Maine fishermen just could not forgive them for not being trout, and cousin codfish didn't help.

Pollock pioneers, such as Novelist Kenneth Roberts, won few converts. "When those beautiful big fish surge upward and out of water," Roberts wrote of an experience in 1912 off the Maine coast, "the whole ocean seems to turn into a mass of glaring eyes and distended jaws." Too plentiful and easy to catch for sport, trouters scoffed. "This may possibly be so," Roberts wrote, "but I'm sure that anyone who cares to handle a seven-pound pollock with a 3½-ounce rod will find his hands full. Pollock infinitely more sport than fishing for tuna and coming home with an empty boat."

Forty years later Bangor Daily News Outdoors Editor Bud Leavitt became a one-man pollock PR firm. He regularly fished the rips off Maine's Petit Manan Light, where acres of surfacing pollock spent each summer. "Not even an Atlantic salmon fly rod could stop one of those 25-pounders," he recalls. "They'd strip a fly line and 300 yards of 15-pound-test backing to the reel drum, and keep right on going."

A favorite sub-sport of Leavitt's was introducing nonbelievers. One purist came down from a weekend at Moose-head Lake with a few small landlocked salmon. "What the hell, I can fish pollock any time," he said. "I took him out," Leavitt recalls, "hooked into a 22-pounder on an 8½-foot fly rod, handed it to him and sat back with a six-pack of beer. Well, he couldn't move that fish for an hour and 45 minutes. We had him begging."

Besides Leavitt there are very few experts on big pollock. One is Captain Barna Norton of Jonesport, Maine, at the heart of big pollock territory. The runs were so dependable in the nearby Bay of Fundy that there was no need to explore. Now he misses the music of spinning reel bearings burning out. What happened? "The Russian fleets," says Norton. But did the pollock really disappear, or have their habits just changed? It is reassuring that Norton still knows one place where it's like old times, the Bulkhead Rips between Grand Manan Island and Nova Scotia, but it's a three-day trip.

Other fishermen make discoveries but just don't talk. Ten- and 12-pounders are taken on metal jigs from the deep rips at the east entrance to the Cape Cod Canal. A young teacher in Gloucester, Mass. gets up before dawn in June to cast surface plugs for 12- and 15-pound pollock that chase bait right into the rocky surf, and commercial men in that old fishing town and others are catching big ones—and talking. Their message: the pollock haven't all wound up in nets yet. They've moved from the old inshore rips though, and they are not necessarily on top. Some are about 15 miles northeast of Portland in July, some on the Bay of Fundy's Grand Manan Bank from May to October, and there are heavy concentrations in August on the Grand Banks southwest of Nova Scotia—too far for the small boats to run.

And then there is Nova Scotia itself. When the world-famous tuna fishing goes bad at Wedgeport, the big game men grab lighter rods and spend an afternoon with 20-pound pollock at the mouth of the Tusket River. And on up the east and west coasts Nova Scotia pollock fishing is like a new diamond mine. One could pass a lifetime exploring its possibilities, never fishing the same place twice and hardly ever seeing another fisherman.

Solitude, though, doesn't belong only to Nova Scotia pollock fishing. Down through Maine and Massachusetts too, the pollock's lack of great popularity is a boon to those who crave elbow room. As in Nova Scotia, "harbor" pollock predominate inshore, but with proper tackle even a two-pounder is a worthy adversary, and no fishing is more conducive to relaxation; the surroundings are a salve to both senses and soul. There are the tangy smells of rockweed and clean salt water. Fishing boats bob peacefully at anchor in the cool evenings. White steeples rise from the greenness in hundreds of quiet cameo towns, and in their harbors and off their rocky shores pollock fishing is still as dependable as the tides.