By Mike Bartlett
Six miles northeast of Provincetown, Massachusetts, stretching some 18.5 miles in
length to end just seven miles southeast of Gloucester, Massachusetts, lies Stellwagen
Named after U.S. Navy hydrographer for its Coastal Survey, Captain Henry S.
Stellwagen, the bank rises sharply from over 300 ft on the western and the inshore edge to
a depth of roughly 80 ft on the upper plateau, then gradually drops off, over some six
miles, to the eastern or offshore edge. Formed of glacial till from the Laurentide
ice sheet in the last ice age, this terminal moraine, composed of mostly sand and gravel,
was once above sea-level and connected to Provincetown. The banks shape can best be
describes as sickle-shaped over its length from north to south and wedge-shaped in width.
The western edge being the thick part of the wedge.
Stellwagens cod fishery was already well established, when Capt. Stellwagen first
charted the region in 1854. From colonial times, the banks groundfish have provided
a source of food and wealth for the developing nation. To quote Molly Benjamin, Cod
have been so important to the Massachusetts economy that the cod has been designated the
official state fish. A wooden codfish , the sacred cod, hangs proudly in the
State House, a symbol of the fortunes that have been built in this state from abundant sea
Stellwagens riches are the result of its geology and water dynamics. Because of
its relative inshore location, 14.7 miles from the mainland, the bank is influenced more
by the cold water from the Labrador current than the Gulf Stream. Further, the twice daily
tidal fluctuations moving east and west buffet the banks edges with currents which
drive the nutrient-rich bottom water to the surface in a process called upwelling. These
nutrients are the fertilizers for the grass of the sea, phytoplankton, which
provide the basis of the food chain, thus the attraction for the abundant sand-eels and
herring which in are, in turn, food for cod, haddock, bluefin tuna, striped bass,
sea-birds, and whales. In an effort to protect Stellwagen Bank from development and
exploitation of natural resources, 638 square miles of the Gulf of Maine were designated
as a National Marine Sanctuary in 1992.
only is there an east and west movement of water across the the bank, there is also an
east and west migration of codfish across the Bank. The primary spawning grounds are on
the 120 ft edge along the coast north of Cape Ann near Gloucester and Hull to Plymouth on
the Massachusetts South Shore (Bigelow and Schroeder, 1953). That places Stellwagen right
in the middle of westward spawning migration from the deep-water to the east taking place
from November to April (Bigelow and Schroeder, 1953), and the eastward migration to the
deep-water again, May through July.
With the technological revolution of the 20th century and myopic groundfish management,
the Gulf of Maine cod fishery was on the brink of collapse. Today it is on the road to
recovery. Management programs are now targeting the resource, i.e. the fish, and not the
fisherman. A number of indicators point to this recovery fostered by the rebuilding plan.
First, for the past few seasons we have once again been catching haddock on the bank with
regularity, for the first time in ten years. Second, the size and numbers of the fish have
been increasing. As a result, charter skippers up and down the bank proclaimed 1998 the
best season in twenty years. Further,draggers working the bank this year were able to
reach the TAC, total allowable catch, so quickly, that the fisheries management council
imposed an immediate commercial fishing shut-down from February 1 to May 1, 1999.
When the herring and sand-eels are abundant, as they have been the past two seasons,
drifting jigs and teasers are the best producers. Most of Stellwagens cod are
between 8 and 15 pounds. Pool-winners typically top the scales in the 20 pound class
and up. 40 to 50 pounders are the exception rather than the rule. However, this fall one
charter boat returned to port with three whale cod over 50 pounds, with one tipping the
scales at 67 pounds. When the tide is slack or when the eels arent in evidence,
skimmer clams work great, especially for wolffish. The famous Jersey Clams,
with a special glow all their own, seem to out-fish our indigenous New England
sea-clam. It easy to tell when the cod are grubbing on the bottom, just check the
stomach contents. If you find brittle stars and echinoderms, switch to clams. If you find
sand-eels or herring, use jigs and teasers. The new high-tech fiber lines are
especially good at keeping contact with your bait, allowing you to feel every bite.
However, tangles can be a nightmare.
Stellwagen can be accessed from a number of ports on the east coast of Massachusetts.
Provincetown to the south, Plymouth, Green Harbor in Marshfield and Scituate to the east
and Boston and Gloucester to the north all have vessels for charter and some have party
boats. The run to the bank is usually an hour to an hour and a half. The relatively short
run to the fishing grounds means more fishing time. Six-person charter trips to Stellwagen
are for about 10-11 hours dock to dock and cost between $800 and $1000 per day. All
tackle and bait are usually provided on charter vessels.
Quality saltwater sportfishing on the Massachusetts coast
specializing in cod fishing on Stellwagen Bank and beyond, giant bluefin tuna, and fly and
light- tackle fishing for striped bass and bluefish - Orvis, OMC / Hydra - Sports
and Ritchie Navigation endorsed flyfishing guide.
Owner and operator
New England News Editor
Eastern Sportsman magazine
Fishing & Hunting Guide Services
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