PRO SECRETS FOR NORTHEAST AND MID- ATLANTIC BLUEFINS AND YELLOWFINS
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.
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.
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
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.