One Cap­tain’s Tips for Trolling Up Bigeye Tuna Af­ter Dark

Sport Fishing - - CONTENTS - By Capt. Larry Back­man

9:30 P.M., LATE AU­GUST: At­lantis Canyon, 100 miles south of New Eng­land. The night was pitch-black as I mo­tored my North­ern Bay 36 among a dozen other boats trolling the dark­ness. We’d seen a nice tuna bite at dusk, but we had missed our one op­por­tu­nity. I was push­ing my com­fort level, trolling in close quar­ters us­ing radar and a deck watch, hop­ing for an­other knock­down. Bam! Long rig­ger down hard. An hour later, with much sweat and ef­fort, we boated a nice 160-pound bigeye tuna. Af­ter we cleaned and iced our fish, we set up for our nor­mal night­time sword­fish drift.

At 2 a.m., I awoke from my mid­night nap to take the helm in de­te­ri­o­rat­ing con­di­tions. Three more hours un­til dawn, and the build­ing 15-knot wind was al­ready kick­ing up white­caps. We had drifted out of the sword­fish zone, and I needed to move the boat. Four or five boats still fished the canyon depths; the re­main­ing half dozen boats scat­tered with the wind.

Ef­fec­tively drift­ing for sword­fish in these con­di­tions might be tough, I thought. Why not troll, and see if we can find more tuna?

Our crew quickly set up a four-rod spread, and I rolled into the wagon train in the cen­ter of the canyon. I quickly re­al­ized this was a safety-first game, and avoid­ing col­li­sions with boats and lob­ster traps was para­mount.

I picked my own 1-mile course and started cir­cling, my en­tire crew doz­ing or fully asleep.

3:30 a.m.: The deck erupted — a dou­ble knock­down and one still on!

The full crew bounded to their feet within 30 sec­onds. We fought that fish in tough con­di­tions, seas break­ing 3- to 5-foot­ers. Even­tu­ally we spot­ted the tuna — an­other 160-pound, very stub­born bigeye.

As with most bigeyes, the end game proved bru­tal, and light was show­ing in the east when we fi­nally got a dart and gaff in the fish. Con­di­tions wors­ened at dawn.

We fi­nally headed home about 7 a.m., a good bit wiser to this new night­time bigeye op­por­tu­nity and ec­static to have two big tuna on board with us.

Sea­sonal Strat­egy

Bigeye tuna have al­ways been the prize of the North­east canyons. They swim deep in the wa­ter col­umn in cooler zones dur­ing the day and only pe­ri­od­i­cally come up to the sur­face to feed at dusk or dur­ing the night. In the sum­mer, they range from Mary­land to Canada, mov­ing

up the coast from the Caroli­nas in late June, when the wa­ter warms to 70 de­grees.

The fish take up res­i­dence from the Hud­son Canyon, off New York and New Jer­sey, to the Hague Line, at the United StatesCanada bor­der, by late July. They stay un­til the wa­ter cools be­low 65 de­grees in late fall.

Plen­ti­ful in the 1990s, canyon bigeye num­bers de­clined for a decade, through the early 2000s. An ex­tremely lucky few recre­ational boats would get a bigeye bite ev­ery other trip. Wolf packs were al­most nonex­is­tent.

In 2012, the tuna sud­denly re­turned to the North­east with a vengeance; they were ev­ery­where. Boats that se­ri­ously and ag­gres­sively tar­geted bigeyes re­ported mul­ti­ple bites per trip. By 2014, lucky cap­tains who pin­pointed them would re­turn home with one or more bigeyes per trip. Over the past three years, a few cap­tains have even filled the boat and left them bit­ing.

Pre-Game Plan­ning

A night troll is typ­i­cally planned days ahead of a trip. An ex­pe­ri­enced crew cre­ates time seg­ments fo­cus­ing on evening, night and dawn. Our team trolls for bigeyes sev­eral hours af­ter dark, and then makes at least two sword­fish drifts be­fore trolling an­other hour for bigeyes be­fore dawn.

I usu­ally have three or four ar­eas cir­cled on the chart be­fore we leave the dock. I start by head­ing for a canyon cor­ner, where I see a notch or a turn in the wall. We look for bait and struc­ture in 800- to 1,500-foot depths, us­ing our charts and the fish finder. If we troll over a sharp edge or a plateau in the deep, we mark it on the plot­ter to ex­plore

fur­ther. Once you start look­ing, you’ll see a lot of deep struc­ture just off the edge.

Struc­ture holds bait and af­fects cur­rents, forc­ing deeper wa­ter to the sur­face. Bigeye tuna prowl these edges and notches 400 to 800 feet down, com­ing up high pe­ri­od­i­cally.

If you mark a cloud of deep bait or see a bait­ball high in the wa­ter col­umn, look care­fully for red fish marks be­low the bait. I can’t think of any­thing more ex­cit­ing while trolling than to mark them down in the deep, see the streaks on the fish finder as they come up and then turn back in time to see erup­tions of white wa­ter in the spread.

If a crowd de­vel­ops at dusk near a canyon tip, I’ll slide off a mile or so and find my own fish. If the fleet is on the west side of the tip in 1,000 feet, we’ll ex­plore the same con­tour a mile down the wall or check out the east side of the tip.

We’re also never shy about mov­ing out of a known canyon and ham­mer­ing un­named notches a few miles away all by our­selves.

Keep It Sim­ple

I can’t of­fer any magic tech­niques for trolling at night or any sure­fire se­crets. But as with any fish­ing en­deavor, the more thought and at­ten­tion to de­tail you put into it, the bet­ter your re­sults.

I troll a sim­ple bal­ly­hoo spread. At night, you can’t see your baits, and when you get bit, you don’t want a maze of lines to un­weave. We use four rods, typ­i­cally Penn In­ter­na­tional 50VSW or Shi­mano TLD 50 LRS reels and 50- to 100-pound-class Star trolling rods.

I over­line my rods with 600 yards of Jerry Brown 130-pound-class braid back­ing and 150 yards of 100-pound Mo­moi Di­a­mond mono top shot. All lead­ers on our gear are 200-pound Mo­moi leader ma­te­rial, ter­mi­nated with an 8/0 hook.

I run two tra­di­tion­ally rigged (un­der the gill plate and out the belly) bal­ly­hoo be­hind 9-ounce Joe Shute heads on the long rig­gers. I put them back out of sight — two lonely sol­diers swim­ming alone in a dark sea. I flat-line one bal­ly­hoo be­hind a 3- to 5-ounce head off the tran­som.

I also run a lu­mi­nes­cent, straight-run­ning lure off the tran­som cor­ner. (I like an old lumo Mold Craft Wide Range, but we have also caught fish on heavy Green Ma­chines and Braid Bigeye Rock­ets.)

Safety First

Trolling in close quar­ters at night wracks the nerves. I do my best to stay at least a half mile away from other boats at all times, and I post a crew mem­ber on deck to make sure I’m work­ing the same di­rec­tion as other mov­ing boats.

We troll lights-out: no deck or un­der­wa­ter lights. Ev­ery­one trolls cir­cles or fig­ure eights, try­ing to pound a spe­cific area. I find it far bet­ter to match those cir­cles in the same di­rec­tion than cross over and over. I con­cen­trate on hit­ting the same three to four spots in a 1-square-mile area, mak­ing a clas­sic Etch A Sketch de­sign on my chart, us­ing sim­ple slow turns planned well ahead.

At the same time, I stay aware of my sur­round­ings, look­ing for lob­ster gear in 500 to 800 feet, right on the edge. I stay deeper to avoid po­ten­tial trou­ble.

Radar also plays a key role. If you’re not com­pletely com­fort­able with op­er­at­ing and in­ter­pret­ing your dis­play, you prob­a­bly shouldn’t try this night­time trolling.

I open radar on both of my Fu­runo NavNet 3D mul­ti­func­tion dis­plays — one shows radar only; the other over­lays radar onto a chart. I mark a cou­ple of fly­ers (buoys) on the chart to help me vi­su­al­ize the lob­ster-trap line so I can keep well away.

I flip on and off the radar trails so I can vi­su­al­ize the di­rec­tion and pat­tern of other boats. That helps me re­con­firm the deck watch.

Bring­ing It Home

We plan for one bite; we’re not in­ter­ested in all rods go­ing down in the dark. We’ve had three bigeyes on at night, and it’s a mess.

Once we’re tight, ev­ery­thing comes in quickly. That gives me free rein to ma­neu­ver the boat to best help the an­gler.

I im­me­di­ately pick up the ra­dio mic and tell any­one around us that we have a fish on and need space. The se­cond we hook up, I turn on ev­ery light I have on the boat — deck lights, spread­ers, un­der­wa­ter and even my search­light. I want to be seen by any­one else near me.

Bigeyes take mul­ti­ple long runs and deep dives fol­lowed by a bru­tal tuna cir­cle the last 100 feet, putting wear on any an­gler. On my boat, ev­ery­one knows his job: an­gler, har­pooner, leader man, gaff man. We work as a team, and we com­mu­ni­cate.

I keep it sim­ple and safe, gen­tly mov­ing the boat to help the an­gler. I don’t charge all over the ocean or back down hard at night.

I also try to con­vince my crew “no wraps at leader.” As cap­tain, I’m ter­ri­fied of a per­son slip­ping over­board, es­pe­cially at night. Safety gear — a life jacket with a strobe or light stick — on the leader man is a good idea.

Per­fect Night

A North­east canyon trip means a ma­jor ex­cur­sion in time and dis­tance — 100 miles out for 24 to 48 hours. Make the most of your hours of dark­ness, and don’t waste that valu­able fish­ing time idly drift­ing and sleep­ing.

Put a plan to­gether to troll a few hours into the dark be­fore set­ting up to drift, and get some crew rest. But don’t rest too much; get back on the troll be­fore dawn, ex­plor­ing bait and deep struc­ture to tar­get bigeye tuna.

Fi­nally, ex­pect the un­ex­pected. Just as the boat has droned to sleep ev­ery­one but the cap­tain and he is pulling his hair out with bore­dom and frus­tra­tion — bang! — bigeye on!

The end game on bigeye tuna is a bru­tal up-and­down bat­tle for a keenly soughtafter North­east canyons species through fall.

A row of heavy ar­tillery lined up for bat­tle. Typ­i­cally, the au­thor uses four 50- to 100-pound-class rods, with Penn In­ter­na­tional 50VSW or Shi­mano TLD 50 LRS reels and a mono top shot.

Land­ing a dou­ble of bigeye tuna at night makes the cock­pit erupt with ex­cite­ment. Si­mul­ta­ne­ously hook­ing more than one of these brutes re­quires skill and co­or­di­na­tion.

Top: Look for el­bows and nooks in canyon walls along the 800- to 1,200foot con­tour lines to find prime bigeye habi­tat. Right: Straight-run­ning lures such as the Bigeye Rocket work well.

Above: This crew pre­pares to off­load a mixed bag of yel­lowfin and bigeye tuna af­ter a suc­cess­ful night­time troll in the North­east canyons. Be­low: When the sky turns or­ange on a late-sum­mer af­ter­noon, your thoughts should turn to bigeye tuna fish­ing.

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