Break the Canyon Code


Saltwater Sportsman - - Front Page - BY R IC BURN­LEY

Now those Ice Age river cour­ses lie sub­merged as sub­aquatic canyons and seamounts. Where gi­ant sloths and beavers once played, mar­lin, tuna, wa­hoo and dol­phin have taken over. Off­shore canyons bring pe­lagic species closer to shore, where an­glers with the right strat­egy stand to score big.

Bot­tom Up

Lurk­ing in the cold, dark wa­ter at the bot­tom of the con­ti­nen­tal shelf, huge grouper and tile­fish, strange-look­ing bar­rel fish, and black­belly rose­fish haunt the steep cliffs and seamounts.

Capt. Joe Del­campo has made a study of tar­get­ing deep­wa­ter bottomfish. In his years fish­ing Nor­folk Canyon off Vir­ginia Beach, he has cov­ered ev­ery inch of the bot­tom. “I have a map of the whole place in my head,” he says.

Del­campo looks for blue­line tile­fish and sea bass in 50 to 100 fath­oms. Over the 100-fathom line, on the steep canyon walls, he tar­gets snowy grouper. In the deep, muddy flats, he finds golden tiles. Del­campo fishes as deep as 1,000 feet, where he catches his fa­vorite fish, the black­belly rose­fish. Deep­wa­ter bottomfish are present year-round, but Del­campo fa­vors spring and fall, when there are fewer an­noy­ing dog sharks.

“I rarely fish the same area twice,” Del­campo says. In­stead, he looks for fresh grounds to find the best bite. “Bottomfish are eat­ing ma­chines; when they graze through one area, they move off to find more food,” he ex­plains. Del­campo be­lieves grouper and golden tiles are res­i­dent fish; when he pulls one or two out of a drop or hole, he leaves the area to pre­vent over­fish­ing. “I’ve got a mil­lion marks out there,” he ex­plains.

To find the fish, Del­campo switches on his fish fin­der’s bot­tom-lock fea­ture and RE­LEASE READY: Tem­per­a­ture breaks and ed­dies of­fer op­por­tu­nity for billfish.

turns the gain up. He sets the ma­chine to 200 khz in wa­ter less than 400 feet deep, then switches to 50 khz to go over the edge. “I look for clouds of bait on the bot­tom,” he says.

Del­campo waits for calm days with a half-knot drift. “Bottomfish won’t chase a bait,” he says, so he kicks the boat into re­verse to slow his drift. To keep his an­glers from snag­ging the bot­tom, he drifts from shal­low wa­ter to deep. He drifts up to a quar­ter-mile be­fore mov­ing to a new area. “Some­times the fish are only 100 yards away,” he says. Other times he changes depth or lo­ca­tion to avoid nui­sance trash fish, like dog sharks.

Bills and Ed­dies

Each sum­mer, gi­ant whirlpools of warm wa­ter swirl along the con­ti­nen­tal shelf like an es­ca­la­tor car­ry­ing schools of bait fol­lowed by vo­ra­cious preda­tors. On a

satel­lite wa­ter-tem­per­a­ture im­age, th­ese ed­dies look like dervishes of warm wa­ter that take on a life of their own. The wa­ter in the eddy could be sev­eral de­grees warmer and no­tice­ably clearer than the sur­round­ing wa­ter. When an eddy sweeps over the canyon, the

cur­rent is dis­rupted, giv­ing the preda­tors a chance to score an easy meal.

Fish­ing out of Ocean City, Mary­land, Capt. Frank Pet­tolina in­ter­cepts th­ese warmwa­ter ed­dies as they pass Nor­folk, Bal­ti­more and Washington canyons. “We can fol­low a body of wa­ter for days as it moves down the coast,” he says. The chal­lenge is pre­dict­ing where the bait and mar­lin will con­gre­gate.

Pet­tolina says mar­lin sea­son starts as early as June but re­ally fires late in the sum­mer. To start his day, he looks for a tem­per­a­ture break that crosses the canyon walls. Th­ese un­du­lat­ing bod­ies of wa­ter are in con­stant mo­tion, trav­el­ing thou­sands of miles like a wa­ter-borne hur­ri­cane. As Pet­tolina fishes along the change, he pays close at­ten­tion to how the body of wa­ter is mov­ing. Dur­ing the day, the break could move sev­eral miles in­shore or push off. “I try to an­tic­i­pate where the wa­ter is go­ing and how that will af­fect the fish.”

Many times the fish will move with the edge, other times he finds them over struc­ture or around bait.

To tri­an­gu­late the best fish­ing grounds, Pet­tolina notes where he scores each mar­lin bite. “Any time I get ac­tion, I make a few cir­cles,” he says. Then he con­tin­ues along the break, mark­ing hot spots on his chart plot­ter. “If I can get three spots that make a tri­an­gle, I’ll beat the hell out of that area.” He crosses the tri­an­gle from shal­low to deep and north to south un­til he is cer­tain that he has ex­ploited its full po­ten­tial.

Even when he’s not on the wa­ter, Pet­tolina is look­ing for mar­lin. Study­ing satel­lite wa­ter-tem­per­a­ture images and net­work­ing with an­glers along the coast, the cap­tain can track the move­ment of wa­ter, bait and billfish.

Trench War­fare

Deep be­low the ocean sur­face, yel­lowfin, bluefin and big­eye tuna en­gage in a rag­ing war over the off­shore canyons and the con­ti­nen­tal shelf.

Each species claims a sea­son and a sec­tion of the feed­ing grounds. Bluefins at­tack first in early May, then re­turn in Novem­ber. Yel­lowfins fol­low warm wa­ter through the sum­mer. Big­eye tuna are an enigma, hid­ing around deep­wa­ter struc­ture and sur­pris­ing an­glers at any mo­ment.

Capt. Deane Lam­bros is in the mid­dle of the fight. Fish­ing on Canyon Run­ner out of Point Pleas­ant, New Jer­sey, Lam­bros tar­gets canyons from the Hud­son to the Wilm­ing­ton.

With hun­dreds of miles of wa­ter to cover, Lam­bros says wa­ter tem­per­a­ture and color are most im­por­tant.

Bluefin tuna, he ex­plains, seem to be more struc­ture­de­pen­dent. “We catch them in the tra­di­tional spots,” Lam­bros says. When the ideal wa­ter moves over the top of bluefin hot spots, the bite turns on. “Bluefins tend to be on the flats out­side the canyon,” he says.

Lam­bros often finds bigeyes at reg­u­lar hang­outs. Find a drop, plateau or seamount host­ing bait and whales, and big­eye tuna are sure to be around. The fish often at­tack as a pack, knock­ing down sev­eral lines at once, caus­ing chaos in the cock­pit. He looks for bigeyes over steep drops in­side the canyon.

Yel­lowfins are also around struc­ture, but Lam­bros says they are more de­pen­dent on wa­ter tem­per­a­ture. He points out, “Most of the ac­tion comes around a tem­per­a­ture break.” But he

FITS THE BILL: Mon­i­tor­ing sea-sur­face tem­per­a­ture pays off in big game.

ad­mits that’s not al­ways the case. Find a tem­per­a­ture break over struc­ture and the tuna will usu­ally be close by. He looks for blue or blue­and-green blended wa­ter. “I’ll fish the cooler side of the break if the wa­ter is clearer,” he adds.

Tuna don’t stop bit­ing when the sun goes down, so Lam­bros spe­cial­izes in overnight trips. “Sun­rise and sun­set can be the best fish­ing,” he says. Af­ter dark, the crew switches to drift­ing across the canyon while chunk­ing but­ter­fish. “I set up the drift to move through the best wa­ter and struc­ture,” he says. “As long as I’m mark­ing bait and fish, I’ll con­tinue to fish an area.” If the area is de­void of life, he moves deeper or shal­lower de­pend­ing on how the body of wa­ter is mov­ing. If the warm wa­ter is push­ing in­shore, he might make a shal­lower drift.

“Canyon fish­ing is all about wa­ter and struc­ture,”

GOLD ON THE BOT­TOM: Tile­fish haunt the muddy flats in deep wa­ter. he says. As bait and preda­tors ride the warmwa­ter cur­rents rush­ing along the con­ti­nen­tal shelf, they con­gre­gate in the deep canyons cut­ting into the coastal plain.

Lo­cal cap­tains carry a map of the canyons in their mind.

“I don’t even need the chart plot­ter,” Del­campo jokes. He car­ries a men­tal pic­ture of the bot­tom to­pog­ra­phy. For Pet­tolina, canyon fish­ing is a way of life. “I’m fish­ing to­mor­row,” he says. “Can’t wait.”

SCORE: Tuna pro­vide the main­stay for any canyon ven­ture.

The first fish hits along the tem­per­a­ture break.The sec­ond fish also hits at the tem­per­a­ture break.The third strike off to the side es­tab­lishes the pro­duc­tive tri­an­gle.

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