ON A cold winter night, a certain peace can be found by walking on a frozen body of water. It is often incredibly quiet with only the sound of crunching snow underfoot. Despite the late hour, it is very easy to see and the moon may be strong enough to cast shadows. Although I only get to do it once or twice a year, this late night adventure is the background for one of my favorite winter activities: cusk fishing.
Cusk may have more nicknames than any other fish in New Hampshire but they are impossible to misidentify. Sometimes called burbot or eelpout, these slender fish have a long, soft fin on the top and bottom of their bodies. Their serpentine appearance is accentuated by the way they swim in water or curl up in your hand. Cusk have very small scales, which adds to their smooth, snakelike feel. Their broad, flat head is adorned with a single barbell at the base of their lower jaw, giving them the curious look of a bottom-dwelling scavenger.
The evening begins in the same way that every successful angling adventure must — by finding the right location. Usually ice fishing has me sounding holes looking for a specific depth, but cusk fishing is a little different. In this approach, I am not looking for a depth as much as a specific substrate. These opportunistic feeders cruise the sand and rocks that provide them with food sources such as crayfish and injured baitfish. Cusk are very fast swimmers and they ambush their meals by trapping them against structure found on the bottom.
I employ two methods for this fishery in the same way that I do for lake trout. I set some stationary devices tipped with live bait, and then I will jig for them with a lure. The stationary devices are not-so-creatively-named “cusk lines” and are different from tip-ups in several ways. First, they are not equipped with a spool and, once hooked, a fish cannot take any line or swim away. Cusk lines have a very heavy weight attached to ensure that the bait stays on the bottom. The distance between the weight and hook is very short to further ensure that the bait settles among the rocks.
The specialized approach of these traps is designed to both catch cusk and avoid lake trout. Unlike tip-ups, cusk lines may be left unattended for 24 hours and would mean certain death for any laker who got hooked.
After the set-lines are in place, I will begin a more direct approach and try to catch a few on a jigging rod. Always aware of the feeding habits of my target fish, I tip a jig with some sucker meat and bounce it slowly off the bottom. I try to feel what my jig looks like among the sandy bottom and hope to mimic any food source that may be found there. Often, I will let everything lay still on the bottom in an approach known as “dead-sticking.”
If the bait and heavy jig aren’t working, I will try a different lure — maybe something with a rattle or other noise-maker hoping to attract these creatures of the night with an intriguing sound.
While I am jigging, I will pause every hour or so and check my set lines. They have no flag or indicator that a fish is on so I try to maintain a regular schedule to keep bait fresh and release small cusk unharmed. On a good night, I will have caught fish utilizing both methods. There is something very calming about ice fishing at night. When the right combination of weather conditions and angling success is found, it is a very exciting adventure.