The Midnight Rambler….Remembering Frost Fish

 The Midnight Rambler
John Papciak

Remembering Frost Fish
(updated 2013)


You know you must be getting old when the fishing you did as a kid sounds far-fetched by today’s standards.

I sit here today with an interesting challenge – trying to convince SJ readers that there was a time when surf fishing didn’t stop in November or December – we simply changed gear for winter fish.

As strange as this might sound, winter used to mean some of the best local fishing of the year – whiting!

I was introduced to whiting fishing at an early age. I remember my father coming home from work early on Saturday afternoons. I remember him trying to squeeze in a few hours of sleep before loading the car for a night whiting trip. My brother and I, so excited about the prospect of going fishing, never let the poor man get a wink. I remember putting on two pairs of long johns and three pairs of socks, maybe four if I could still squeeze my foot into the boots.

We did most of our winter fishing on party boats out of Atlantic Highlands, Belmar and Point Pleasant New Jersey. But the boats from Sheepshead Bay New York were most certainly in on it too.

There was a very active surf fishery along the NY Bight, but some of the Montauk old timers recall catching whiting on darters under the light.

One of the earliest accounts of winter surfcasting can be found in the 1909 book “FISHING AROUND NEW YORK: WHERE TO FIND THEM” by JW MULLER and ARTHUR KNOWLSON:   “…Schools of whiting run close along the surf of Long Island and New Jersey in the winter especially at night. At such times the fish are generally in mad pursuit of the little silver sand launt and they crowd so closely to shore that the surf often throws them on the beach. Fishermen take the whiting in cold weather at night by wading along shore with torches and spearing or scooping them with nets as they dash through the surf…”

I wouldn’t call it the hey day, but my fondest memories of winter surfcasting took place in the 1970s, along North Jersey beaches, especially in the vicinity of the Long Branch Fishing Pier.

One of the most memorable nights was around 1976, on a Point Pleasant party boat. We anchored close to the beach. We were well within casting distance from the sand and I remember seeing people fishing from the beach. On this night, the whiting pushed bait into the wash, the result was a full-on February blitz as the sun went down.long_branch_pier_aerial_1960s

Other nights, while surf fishing was still viable, the better fishing took place closer to New York Harbor, just inside of the Ambrose Tower. Ambrose_Lighthouse

Many nights we were closer to Sandy Hook, about 3 miles off, in an area known as Scotland Grounds. This was a shoal and the former site of a lightship that marked a 1866 shipwreck involving a vessel of the same name. (My father was kind of a maritime history buff, and he fed us with plenty of old salty sea stories whenever there was any fishing down time).

We used cut herring as bait, and on some cold nights we had to hold the bait in our hands in order to keep it from freezing. I remember the rig, it was four hooks. The top three were for herring strips, the bottom hook for clam. The top hooks caught the whiting, the bottom hook took the ling and the stray cod (yes, cod at night). It was not unusual to have a double, maybe even a triple header.

On the coldest nights my younger brother used to drop his bait to the bottom, then put the rod in the rod holder and go inside the heated cabin by the window to watch for a strike. Sometimes he would not come back out until he had warmed up, regardless of how the rod tip was bouncing. It didn’t matter, there were plenty of fish. I remember the term baseball bat whiting, and I remember that some fish did indeed approach that size.

Then I remember shoveling snow off the picnic table in the back yard, so that I could clean all those fish the following morning. Some would be baked, others pan fried. With that white flaky meat, they were even good as a cold left-over, as a TV snack. We didn’t have a smoker, but I’ve had more than my share of smoked whiting.

Now, with another winter upon us, I continue to wonder if it will ever be possible to experience anything like again in our lifetimes.

I have been involved in Striped Bass conservation efforts, but I still feel that many of our problems actually began with the loss of fisheries like whiting. With no winter bottom fishery, effort shifted, and today it remains concentrated on what remains.

And as time passes, we experience the phenomenon of “shifting baseline syndrome,” where today’s fishermen have no concept of just how things used to be.

Today whiting still ranks as one of the top fish in terms of volume in NY commercial markets. While LI east end commercial operators have been able to maintain a foothold in this shadow of a fishery, recreational fishermen, particularly those in the New York Bight, have been completely removed from the equation.

The last whiting I caught from the surf was in 1991.

26 comments on “The Midnight Rambler….Remembering Frost Fish

  1. crscott2

    Interesting article. I think winter flounder are not far behind the whiting.

    SJ should include a “Shifting Baseline” section in the magazine for stories like these. Doing so will help reverse the shifting baseline which is a major problem with our fisheries and habitat management.

  2. mark d

    thks for sharing

    I might be wrong but I believe your whiting were exterminated by foreign factory trawlers, mostly Russian. we were one of the last countries to implement the 200 mile economic zone.

    side note: I was attending a xmas party at my parents house in the early 80’s. a beauracrat from the nmfs (national marine fisheries service) was there. ( I am from the d.c. area). I was a commercial fisherman in alaska at the time so my mom introduced us. I complained to him about the problem with foreign factory trawlers and the lack of support from our own government. he said and I quote ” bottom fish are not important in America. ….my mother had to separate us ….. this guy was involved with American fishing policy…..I am not making this up

  3. unkaharry

    Yes I DO!!! When I was 6 years old my Pop had a brand new 56 pontiac.I remember the night he came home with the trunk filled with frost fish that he and my Uncle picked up off the beach. They spent hours cleaning fish and wrapping them for the freezer while Mom cooked some as they worked. I’ll never forget that site,and when I tell some of the yonger guys the story they look at me like I have two heads. 57 years later the memories live on but the fish are long gone! What a shame!!!!

  4. Michael Pacinda

    Haha…..i used to fish for them off of coney island pier….a can of squid an spearing over a candle so it didnt freeze caught alot….big ones were called baseball bats….wow i waited all year for that…..i miss it real bad

  5. karl

    I night fished from the end of the Jetties in Seabright through the 80’s with my dog and a coleman lantern and many times half filled a 5 gallon bucket in a few hours – not any more but it was fun

  6. Brian K

    Early to mid to late 70’s – Fished with my father almost all year long
    Jan/Feb- good whiting and ling from piers, beach and boat (NNJ), sunnies/panfish in rivers even in ice
    Feb/Mar/April- mackerel, St Patricks day winter flounder trips North Jersey -freshwater- trout, early razor bluefish (SJ) end of April into early May (Del Bay)-weakfish, blues, start summer flounder south Jersey
    Then onto regular summer fishing for fluke, blues smaller weakfish, croakers, ect.
    Fall back up to NJ for Black sea bass, ling,cod, porgies, Macs again in Nov/DEC.
    Very few striper trips back then for me. Not a whole lot of people targeted them that we fished with.
    Seams to just be less and less fish available for the amount of anglers now going after them. Also seams to be a LOT less fish from the beaches. Can remember seeing fish being pushed up on the beach quite often but that sight is now not very often seen. Maybe the NE region is in a downward cycle of some sort. Hope it is close to bottom and may come back like the “good old days” and they do not become a memory were we all say “I remember when……..”

  7. rclapp

    Wow. The picture of the LB pier really brought back some memories. We (teenagers) used to buy bait at Giglio’s then drive to the pier. They had a net available if you hooked a large fish. I hooked a big fluke and all of a sudden guys appeared to help with this landing net. This was fortuitous as neither my friend nor I had any idea how to raise what turned out to be a ten pound fish. Thanks for the recall.

  8. fishdaddy1

    Maybe this is just my ignorance but the term “shifting baseline” to me, would suggest that one species or fishery may be disappearing from one particular area and another species or fishery would be moving into that area. This would also suggest that the species isn’t necessarily declining, just moving to a different area.
    I don’t really think we are seeing a “shifting baseline” with these fisheries of the hay day, this includes striped bass. Maybe “damn near non existent baseline” would better suit the current situation.

  9. Johnp

    Unfortunately no fish have filled in to replace the whiting and related bottom fish from the NY Bight in the winter. It is fairly well documented that the culprit was overfishing, and this included foreign factory boats. Ive heard people try to blame rising ocean temperatures. Some fish have returned but the few fish I do see in the market are juveniles. There are just not enough of them to justify making a trip

    Shifting baseline in this context is a shift in historical perception. Not shifting migration patterns

  10. spero pools

    When I was a kid, I remember filling baskets with frost fish picked up off the beach, on the East End of Long Island

  11. Ryan Dewitt

    My father would tell me stories of epic catches as a kid that my grandfather experienced. He would tell me about piles of fish as tall as him and he even contributes his dislike of fish on the amounts of fish they would eat as kids. As a kid I would often day dream about coming across fishing like that and sometimes find my self today doing the same thing. Although my father isn’t a fisherman because he prefers to golf he still taught me the importance of catch and release. He would take me to the beach and soak bait. I would stand by the rods with my eyes locked on the tips thinking any second now I’m gonna catch a fish all the while he’s paying no attention and working on his sand shot with different degree wedges. Every once in awhile we would catch a fish and no matter how much I begged he would just take a picture and get it back in the water. I’m 31 now and every once in a while I keep a legal fish and feel guilty about it because of my father “the golfer”. My generation has a big problem with ego and in my eyes it’s gonna destroy the sport. The fish I catch are for me and I could only wish that others could look at it that way. I have enough of that ego stuff at work so I don’t bring that to my hobbie. I’m the guy in the shadows that talks to the fish I catch. That’s respect for something that will give you all it’s got to fight to the death to get away. Until younger people my generation finds “respect” we will continue to see a drop in our beloved fish. The funny thing about this whole thing is a “golfer” has a better grip on fish conservation then most of the “fisherman” that take fish every time they go then have the balls to complain about falling numbers.

  12. Susan

    As a kid, I went “frost fishing” with my Dad – late 50’s, early 60’s. It was in November when there was a full moon. We went with our buckets, flashlights and our dog, and would simply pick up the Whiting as they would get stranded as the waves receded. There they were, flapping in the wet sand, ready to be tossed into our buckets. When we had gathered enough, we walked along, picked them up, and tossed them back into the water. This was on the North Shore of Long Island, around Stony Brook.

  13. Mike weiner

    Let’s not forget that whiting being gone killed the tuna fishing. Reading what you wrote about striper fishing gives us some hope. I remember the excitement of catching striper’s/Blackfish with regularity in the Hudson and the in the late 80’s.
    There are always changes to fisheries some climate some environmental. We need to put a total moratorium on whiting. They will come back.

  14. john vieira

    im 69 now and remember waiting for the first heavy frost came. we would put on boots and carry buket and a four or five prong spear and flash light. we fished clarks cove new bedford and dartmouth ma. sometimes lighting a fire on beach until fish came in close to shore. loads of fish. i came back from viet nam and the frost fish were very few. my father blamed it on the russan factory ships. maybe so. we cant keep taking and not give back. all fishing is suffering. its been awhile since i checked for any frost fish. any body seen any?


  15. John Vieira

    im 70 years old started frost fishing with a spear at the end of solemar road in south Dartmouth. we would light a fire on the shore and wait for in coming tide. you could see flash light beams across clarks cove on new bedfords side. we would wait until a heavy frost and then start checking at night for fish. lots of fish. great fun and good eating. on my return from Vietnam they were gone. my father like others blamed it on russan factory ships. im going to check this year around old saybrook ct see if maybe theres some around.

  16. P.D. Plotnick

    Stamford, CT here. Back around 1950, we had whiting one winter and ling (red hake) the next. Fished at night with worms. Whiting would sometimes run up on the beach at low tide as stated. Also caught lots of blowfish and weakfish. Today? Mostly striped sea robins. Biodiversity is dead.

  17. Howard Menkes

    I remember whiting and ling fishing out of Sheepshead Bay on the Eagle in 1976. The ads read, “Fill the freezer now,” and that was no lie. They weren’t fished out. Whiting have moved north and offshore because of warmer local coastal waters.

  18. John D Palmer

    Howard Menkes, Whiting disappeared in less than 3 years in the NY Bight. They were here and they were gone just like that. The spring of 1991 was the last time I caught whiting in the Bight and never saw them again. Flounder, whiting, ling, cod , blackfish all disappeared around the same time . Fluke were decimated in the late 80’s and commercials targeted everything else. The warm ocean argument are commercials trying to confuse everybody, Ocean temps don’t change overnight.

  19. Frank Gall Jr.

    What a wonderful article and enjoyable comments. I’m 81 and remember frost fishing in the early 60s, in Seaside Park where my folks lived. There was usually someone on the beach surfcasting and when the Whiting started beaching word spread quickly among the locals. A sight and experience I’ll never forget,
    certainly worth the walk and effort in the bitter winter cold, no flashlight needed with the full moon.
    Like someone once said, thanks for the memories.

  20. Jim Kozik

    I grew up in the South end of New Bedford, late 50’s early 60’s. When Nov came my uncles would take me frost fishing. Hip boots, a trident spear, a 6V light – a great adventure. It was not unusual for the whiting to beach themselves. Then you’d just pick them up and toss them in the bucket. It was also usual for a wave to overtop your boots and soak your jeans and socks. We’d give our catch away to some old timer who looked like he could really use the fish. Back then everyone thought they were so plentiful that it’d never end.

  21. Mike Cabral

    Thank you for the memory. I was telling my wife how back in the 60’s we would go frost-fishing in Rhode Island. We would dress up in waders, grab a flashlight and a three pronged spear. We would fill a bushel basket full of fish and a fee lobsters. I had to look it up, I did not remember what a Frost Fish was, Everyone I have asked has looked at me like I was crazy, I was starting to think it was my imagination, good to know it was real


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