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Cusk Fishing Is at Its Peak

Participants raised more than $158,000 during the  11th annual 100K Vertical Challenge at Wildcat for the Make-A-Wish Foundation of New Hampshire. (Wildcat photograph)

Participants raised more than $158,000 during the 11th annual 100K Vertical Challenge at Wildcat for the Make-A-Wish Foundation of New Hampshire. (Wildcat photograph)

The cusk bears the distinction of being the only member of the codfish family to inhabit freshwater. Cusks are eelish looking creatures that live on the bottom of more than 20 deep water lakes in New Hampshire. Though they can be caught in summer, winter is the optimal time to pursue them through the ice.

The ice is holding so far in March, which should extend a season that’s already paid off for the Titus brothers who fish for cusk on Lake Sunapee.

David Titus, 25, started the ice fishing season jigging for cooperative brookies on Tewksbury Pond. With the onset of the frigid weather, Titus shifted his focus to Lake Sunapee, which is a little closer to home.

Fishing with his brother, Robbie, 22, Titus had good luck going after lake trout using live smelt to land a trophy macinaw that weighed in at around four pounds and measured out at 25 inches.

But even with all his success, Titus couldn’t be satisfied until he faced another challenge — putting out the cusk “traps”.

“The rules are different for cusk,” he says. “You can put out six traps per person so we set 12. It sounds easy but cusk can be difficult to catch.”

Cusk lines must be rigged with a one-ounce, non-lead sinker, a six-inch leader, and the bait must sit on the bottom. Live minnows are most effective. The Titus brothers prefer smelt when they are available.

Cusk fishing is a 24-hour operation. Anglers are allowed to leave their baited lines in the water overnight. All traps must be checked at least once every 24 hours.

Titus fishes in 60 feet of water, but he also sets lines in shallower areas where there are ledges adjacent to the murky depths.

“Cusk will come up in the winter,” he says. “I’ve even had luck at 20 feet where the bottom is rocky.”

Like the smallmouth bass, the cusk seeks rocky areas for spawning and foraging. Working their lines, the brothers were getting fish up to two pounds.

But then Robbie tied into a monster. (David insists he set the line.) Robbie hauled in a 7.5-pound cusk that measured 34 inches. The state record, 11 pounds 2.2 ounces, also came out of Lake Sunapee.

I was surprised that there is no bag limit on cusk. An angler can keep as many as he or she catches. Apparently, the species is not threatened in New Hampshire. The deep water habitat is ideal, and they are sought after by a relatively small number of anglers.

David Titus figures they took home 25 cusk for the dinner table. “Cusk swallow the hook, so there’s really no way to release them,” he says.

When word got out about the 7 1/2-pounder, more cusk traps appeared on the ice. But rather than fish in a crowd, the brothers called it quits.

If you bought minnows this season, chances are they came from Jeff Stebbins of Enfield who runs a wholesale bait operation. He provides live bait to many outlets in the Upper Valley, including UVO in Lebanon.

Stebbins sets traps for suckers and shiners in local streams, but he also chases smelt with a 42 inch “drop net.” The net employs light weights. It has to be lowered to at least 40 feet, which can be chancy during a rough day on a winter lake.

Stebbins operates his bait business only in the winter since large hauls of minnows are too hard to keep alive in warmer weather.

During the summer, anyone can catch minnows in an inexpensive wire trap using chunks of bread to lure them in. An angler has to get back to the trap before the minnows eat all the bread, otherwise they’ll swim out. Bait buck aerators provide oxygen to keep the bait alive.

However, I just make sure I get them to the lake in cool water. Once you’re fishing, you can keep adding fresh liquid to the bucket to keep the minnows wiggling.

Ice anglers still have some time to hit the lake or pond. Just keep in mind that bob houses must be off the ice no later than April 1.