TUNA DNESS

PRO SE­CRETS FOR NORTH­EAST AND MID- AT­LANTIC BLUEFINS AND YELLOWFINS

Saltwater Sportsman - - Top Shot - BY NICK HONACHEF­SKY

As we ap­proached the out­skirts of the school, a se­ries of sud­den sur­face ex­plo­sions and big swirls sent the bait­fish into a com­plete panic. And soon we con­firmed what we sus­pected: Dozens of hun­gry bluefin and yel­lowfin tuna in the 30- to 80-pound range had joined forces in a re­lent­less at­tack on the sar­dines.

I launched a Wil­liamson Pop­per Pro and was walk­ing the dog back to me with sharp, me­thod­i­cal twitches when a tuna grabbed the lure and spit it out be­fore I could set the hook. On the next cast, how­ever, my hook found pur­chase, and let’s just say I later had enough sushi to feed a fam­ily for a while.

Off New Jersey, New York and Mary­land, an­glers find tuna on the mid­shore grounds from 40 to 60 miles out through­out the sum­mer months, then find them hug­ging the coast­line only a mile or two off the Jersey shore dur­ing the early win­ter months, pro­vid­ing an­glers am­ple op­por­tu­nity to bat­tle bluefins of 30 to 300 pounds and yellowfins of 40 to 100 pounds rel­a­tively close to port.

DRAG­GING AROUND

Trolling draws strikes from both bluefin and yel­lowfin tuna, so it makes sense to try that first. Spreads dif­fer be­tween cap­tains, but most have the po­ten­tial to pro­duce mul­ti­ple hookups. Capt. Dave Chi­effo of Long Run Char­ters works New Jersey tuna spots such as Chicken Canyon, Texas Tower, At­lantic Princess and Triple Wrecks, which lie in 180 to 280 feet of wa­ter, 45 to 65 miles off­shore. “Its all about wa­ter clar­ity, con-

tour struc­ture and wa­ter tem­per­a­ture,” says Chi­effo. “Match all three and you’ve got a winning for­mula. Early and late in the sea­son, when the wa­ter hov­ers in the 70- to 75-de­gree range, bluefins feed on the sur­face more of­ten. But when the wa­ter temp rises to 77 degrees or higher, they go down and we change tac­tics.”

For tuna feed­ing on or near the sur­face, the trolling spread gen­er­ally in­cludes a va­ri­ety of Tuna Birds, squid spreader bars, daisy chains, cedar plugs, and bal­ly­hoo rigged on blue-and-white Ilan­ders or black-and-pur­ple Joe Shute skirts. The pre­ferred speed is 6½ to 8 knots, but it’s best to throt­tle down to 5½ to 6½ knots when re­sort­ing to spreads in­tended for deeper trolling. Be sure to zigzag and make fre­quent turns when trolling over con­tour lines to en­able the baits to dip lower in the wa­ter col­umn and ap­pear crip­pled, a pre­sen­ta­tion tuna find ir­re­sistible.

TROLLING SPREADS

Bluefins tend to get picky when the wa­ter is warm, the clar­ity mud­dled, or when boat traf­fic is heavy, so that’s when Chi­effo switches tac­tics. “We still run a big Tuna Bird up top, along with a spreader or two to cre­ate some sur­face com­mo­tion. Then we drop bal­ly­hoo baits down to the depth where the tuna are feed­ing, pay­ing strict at­ten­tion to the ther­mo­cline. Once we de­ter­mine where the tem­per­a­ture break is, we de­ploy the down­rig­gers and run one bal­ly­hoo right above it and one be­low it. We also put the baits way, way, way back (known col­lo­qui­ally as WWWB) in the spread, about 50 to 60 yards from the tran­som. Bluefins seem to like those strag­gler baits that ap­pear to trail well be­hind the pack.”

As a rule, the bite dur­ing sum­mer predawn and early morn­ing hours usu­ally oc­curs up top, but the fish feed deeper af­ter 10 a.m. If you don’t have down­rig­gers to get baits down, troll with plan­ers off the flat lines and set the bal­ly­hoo baits WWWB. Lo­cal crews have a say­ing: If you think your bal­ly­hoo is too far back, drop it an­other 20 to 30 yards.

DUNK THE CHUNK

Most tuna hounds in the re­gion make the 25- to 40-mile run to the Mid-at­lantic

Bight off Cape May, New Jersey, and Ocean City, Mary­land, to one of sev­eral pop­u­lar in­shore lumps, like the Hot Dog, Ham­bone, 19th Fathom or Massey’s Canyon area, where depths fluc­tu­ate from 150 to 180 feet along the 20-fathom line.

And ac­cord­ing to Capt. Dave DeGen­naro of Hi-flier, the game here is chunk­ing. “We start in 100 feet of wa­ter, and our drift plan takes us over a set of val­leys and high spots. If we find a nice piece of real es­tate, we set an­chor and start our chum slick.” Degen­naro doles out but­ter­fish and sar­dine chunks while

set­ting out a four-rod spread, with baits at depths of 30, 60 and 80 feet, and one a few cranks off the bot­tom and clos­est to the boat.

“We bait with but­ter­fish, whole sar­dines and squid, but if we can get live spot, that’s the best,” says Degen­naro, who spools his reels with 40-pound mono, ties it to a 150-pound ball-bear­ing swivel, then at­taches a 7-foot sec­tion of 30- to 40-pound fluoro­car­bon leader and a 3/0 to 6/0 (de­pend­ing on the size of the baits) live-bait tuna J hook. “The key is to hide the hook well, in­sert­ing the hook into the mouth of the bait, pulling it three-quar­ters of the way out the gills, then turn­ing it 180 degrees to re-enter the bait and push the point just enough to barely pierce the other side. If you do it right, the gill plate hides the hook en­tirely.” If you want the baits to go deeper, slide a 4- to 8-ounce egg sinker above the swivel, or loop a rub­ber band on the line to at­tach a bank sinker. Runoffs when chunk­ing bluefins are no joke, but the fish run out in­stead of down. The shal­lower wa­ter pre­vents them from sound­ing.

POP OR JIG

Tuna re­ac­tion strikes on pop­pers are sim­ply knee-buck­ling. In the sum­mer months, bluefins and yellowfins can be any­where from 40 to 65 miles off New Jersey, where bait is plen­ti­ful and wa­ter tem­per­a­ture is op­ti­mal. But come Novem­ber and De­cem­ber, the ac­tion can be as close as a mile off the beach where bluefins chase down sand eel schools. “When de­cid­ing to pop for tuna, we first look for signs of life, like skip­jacks, al­bies, whales and dol­phin,” says Capt. John Luchka of Long Run Char­ters. “We cast in front of por­poises, as there’s usu­ally a race to the bait be­tween the dol­phin and tuna. If we like an area or are mark­ing lots of sand eels, we drift and seed the sur­round­ings with her­ring and sar­dine chunks to get any nearby tuna on the feed.”

Luchka warns that spin­ning rods for tuna duty need se­ri­ous back­bone, and the reels must have a drag sys­tem with 35 to 60 pounds of stop­ping power to han­dle fish push­ing 300 pounds, which in Novem­ber of­ten crash pop­pers and stick­baits barely a half-mile off the beach. He spools his reels with 65-pound Spi­der­wire Camo Blue braid, then ties a 6-foot sec­tion of 80-pound fluoro­car­bon leader via a Slim Beauty knot, and fi­nally at­taches a 2½- to 5-ounce Yo-zuri Bull Pop­per to the leader with an uni-knot or 300-pound TA clip. “Pop­pers need to be wiredthrough with 3X tre­ble hooks and 3X split rings. Tuna will ex­pose any­thing of lesser qual­ity,” says the cap­tain. “Cast as far as you can, then let the pop­per splash down and set­tle on the sur­face. You want to work a slow, de­lib­er­ate pace to mimic an in­jured bait­fish. Re­trieve the lure with a pop-and-pause tech­nique, chug­ging up wa­ter, then set­tling down.” When us­ing stick­baits, use the same slow method but with a dart-and-dive ac­tion.

“Pop­ping for tuna is de­pen­dent on wa­ter tem­per­a­ture and clar­ity,” says Luchka. “If the wa­ter is in that 77- to 80-de­gree range or higher, or if it’s tur­bid, the tuna will go down to where wa­ter is a bit cooler and clearer. That’s when we jig,” ex­plains Luchka, “with thin-pro­filed jigs like Ava or But­ter­fly jigs on the same leader setup used when pop­ping, but drop­ping the jig to the seafloor and then jig­ging with long, sweep­ing strokes, reel­ing up 20 feet af­ter a few swings and re­peat­ing that process all the way to the sur­face.”

Ter­rific bluefin and yel­lowfin fish­eries have blos­somed closer to shore off New Jersey, New York and Mary­land in the past few years, and a game plan that in­cludes trolling, chunk­ing and pop­ping is bound to de­liver ac­tion-filled days and fish boxes chock full of tuna.

Spin­drift, a twin-screw 38-foot Stolper, backs down; wa­ter floods the tran­som. The mate col­lects leader with a back­hand wrap. Chaos. Re­lease. Fist bumps. More ex­ple­tives.

Fif­teen min­utes ear­lier, the an­glers and crew had been po­litely eat­ing tuna sand­wiches. (The fil­lets were at­tached to a 25-pound yel­lowfin a mere half-hour be­fore.) Mark Macken­zie, a soft-spo­ken but sea­soned fish­er­man, looks up from his plate and sees a beak by the left bridge teaser. He points a crooked fin­ger, mouth still full of pelagic cui­sine. “Mar­lin,” he says, loud but not pan­icked. Capt. Ni­cho Al­varenga shouts in Span­ish as mate Alexis Mon­tene­gro grabs the Shi­mano from the rod holder. The Tyrnos reel goes into free-spool. Rod down, thumb on the line. Wait for it. Wait for it. Mon­tene­gro sets the hook and hands it off to Matt Hick­man, who’s about to catch his first bill­fish. (Please see open­ing para­graph.)

If one wants to feel like a fish­ing leg­end, one should go to Casa Vieja Lodge. While the Salt Wa­ter Sports­man team I trav­eled with to Puerto San Jose, Gu­atemala, has lost count of its tro­phy catches, a few of us are rel­a­tively off­shore newbs: Matt Hick­man, pro-wake­boarder-turned-cor­ner-of­fice-ex­ec­u­tive with a few speck­led trout to his name; Me­gan Wil­liams, raised on small­mouth bass and soft plas­tics in Cleve­land, Ohio; me, an avid in­doors­man who found his ad­ven­tur­ous side later in life. Thank­fully, there’s Gu­atemala, a strange but beau­ti­ful mix of Colorado and the trop­ics, a vol­canic jun­gle na­tion on moun­tain time. The fish­ing knowl­edge one gains in this liv­ing class­room sur­passes any life­time mag­a­zine sub­scrip­tion or in­ter­net deep dive. One thousand read­ings is not as great as one do­ing.

The cof­fee is darker than the sky when the first cup ar­rives at your door at 6 a.m. It’s June, and my ho­tel win­dows are sweat­ing (you know how it goes with in­doors­men and their air con­di­tion­ing). Casa Vieja is cozy and low-key, save for the re­sort’s cen­ter­piece: a grand, three-story palapa. Be­yond the front gate, Puerto San Jose is wak­ing up. The gates on the tien­das are still down. A mother rides sidesad­dle on the back of a scooter, a baby cra­dled in one arm.

Af­ter a short ride to Ma­rina Pez Vela, the Salt Wa­ter Sports­man team splits in two: half on Spin­drift and half on A-fin-ity, a 39-foot all-wood Billy Knowles. Capt. Chico Al­varenga (Ni­cho’s brother) sits on a padded diner stool at the helm. Upon leav­ing the ma­rina, some­one points out an in­com­ing Chiq­uita ba­nana freighter, a boat­load of bad luck.

THE FISH — AND THE EX­PLE­TIVES — ARE FLY­ING. THE 200-POUND BLUE MAR­LIN VAULTS 4 FEET INTO THE AIR, PER­FORM­ING WHAT A GYM­NAST MIGHT CALL A HANDSPRING FRONT SALTO WITH A HALF-TWIST, BE­FORE CRASH­ING BACK INTO THE WA­TER ONLY TO LEAP AGAIN, ITS BILL POINT­ING EAST, THEN NORTH, THEN EAST AGAIN AS IT TRIES TO THROW THE CIR­CLE HOOK.

Eye­less bal­ly­hoo are lined up per­fectly, like the stripes on a Yan­kees uni­form, atop an ice-blue Yeti 65. They are wait­ing to be rigged, chin-weighted and tossed over the tran­som, the foot sol­diers in to­day’s bat­tle.

Af­ter 30 min­utes of trolling, the sails strike. Across the VHF comes word that Spin­drift has a triple on. Wil­liams and her two com­pa­tri­ots make short work of it. With the lead­ers in sight, the fish thrash, their bril­liant blue dor­sals clearly vis­i­ble, even against the match­ing Pa­cific wa­ters. In the first half-hour, they earn three re­lease flags.

There is ner­vous wa­ter off the star­board bow. It’s a pod of spin­ner dol­phin, too many to count, the calves the size of Labrador re­triev­ers. They corkscrew out of the wa­ter, one af­ter the other af­ter the other — Planet Earth live. The cap­tain switches up the tackle; he knows the yel­lowfin tuna are close by. Spin­ners and yellowfins part­ner up, cre­at­ing large groups as they search for for­age. The first hookup is un­suc­cess­ful and un­con­ven­tional: a 100-pound tuna that got itself tan­gled on a teaser rod. Macken­zie cranks on it, the bent butt in a rod holder. He barely eeks out a quar­ter turn of the han­dle with each push. The fish breaks off shortly there­after, but there’s an­other dozen in the 20- and 30-pound range to come. The tuna put up a solid fight — muscling their way down deep, then swim­ming in cir­cles — but even­tu­ally wear out, then the gaff sweeps in.

The cap­tains are happy to in­dulge the yel­lowfin frenzy, but those stats mean lit­tle to them. Even sails don’t jack their heart rate. Mar­lin is the true prize, and rightly so. It’s a knees-against-the-tran­som (no fight­ing chairs here), stand-in-an­kledeep-wa­ter, en­gine-ring­ing-in-your-ears kind of fight. Line peels away as it dives

GARY CAPUTI

SQUID PRO QUO: A spent bluefin that fell for a plas­tic squid comes boat­side.

AL­MOST: Des­ig­nated gaffer reaches for a tuna to bring the fight to an end.

Cedar Plug: This no-frills clas­sic still catches plenty of tuna

Shi­mano But­ter­fly Jig: Works well from just be­low the sur­face to con­sid­er­able depths

IN­COM­ING: A tired bluefin suc­cumbs to drag pres­sure and comes to gaff, top. TOP LINEUP: A crew mem­ber se­lects the best can­di­dates for the tuna trolling spread.

School Time: A schoolie yel­lowfin tuna comes over the gun­wale, above. Lux­ury Digs: Casa Vieja Lodge is ground zero for bill­fish ac­tion, far right. Last Rush: A sail­fish takes a last chance at free­dom off the tran­som, far left. Wel­come Va­ri­ety: Big dol­phin hunt the same wa­ters as the bill­fish, left.

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