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 3�-ounce rod will find his hands full. Pollock fishing...is 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."