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To Fish for a Giant


By Mike Christy


Have you ever wondered what it takes to pursue the giant bluefin tuna that inhabit our coastal New England waters during summer? If so, this article may be able to shed some light on the subject. It is not intended to be a tutorial, or a how to article, but more of a general overview of tackle, techniques and where to look for these huge game fish.

First of all, let me begin with the statement that I profess to be no expert. It seems to me that  fishing for giant bluefin tuna is not for everyone, no matter how hardcore of a fisherman you may consider yourself. My rough calculations show the sport consists of 90% preparation, 9% disappointment and 1% success. My success percentage may be optimistic depending on which anglers you ask. Investing in tackle, gear, tracking down bait, maintaining and outfitting the boat, buying fuel, ice, having dogfish eat all your precious live herring baits, then eventually fooling a tuna to take your offering and having the line part, not once, but several times in the season before even seeing a fish at the boat, well, that just scratches the surface. Let's not forget about the unpredictable New England marine weather either. So it’s not a rosy picture. Hard work, many hours of preparation and spending lots of money on just the potential of hooking up is pretty much what it is all about, with no guarantee of anything except being  made a failure by a fish. Some guys fish for years without a hookup. It is work.

Consider also that you’ll need patience and tolerance. Patience is for sitting anchored hour after hour, trip after trip and not hooking up, or even worse, not even seeing a mark on the sounder. You'll need tolerance for when all your buddies and family members  keep asking you if you've caught a fish, week after week, and having to say no over and over, politely.

But when you do hookup, and you do land one of these behemoths, there is little that compares to it in the world of angling.  From the first  simple congratulations from strangers on the dock,  to the retelling years later of how you caught your first giant bluefin tuna to your grandkids, these fish never loose their ability to captivate and seduce the big game angler.

When

Bluefin tuna begin showing up in New England waters in June and July.  Initially they are found down south off the cape and further east about 40 miles out on Platts Bank. Harpoon or stick boats are the first to target fish, as tuna migrate in schools near the surface. At this time of year they tend to have "lock jaw" and can be difficult to catch on hook and line. Not until they settle into their summertime feeding patterns do they become the target of rod and reel anglers. A tuna will not begin to feed in an area until a week after it arrives from migrating. Some anglers will troll spreader bars and mackerel daisy chains early to try to entice these migrating fish. Serious rod and reel fishing in our area doesn’t begin until July and ends in October, or earlier if  the quota is filled. I understand that there is usually a hot bite off of Chattam near the BB buoy when things quiet down in the Gulf of Maine.

Where

Being pelagic fish, bluefin tuna travel long distances. The fish in the Atlantic ocean range from the Gulf of Mexico to Labrador to the Mediterranean sea. They never stop swimming, eating or growing. They search out water temperatures in the mid sixties but the larger fish can be found in much colder waters. They simply swim where the food and temperature are optimal. In the Gulf of Maine, most bait fish is located on offshore humps and ledges. Since the tuna frequent those humps in search of  food, northern tuna anglers use a technique on those humps called chunking. Chunking is simply anchoring on an offshore hump or edge and chumming with chunks of herring, whiting and other baitfish. The baits presented in the chum slick are made to look exactly like the chunks of chum, except with a hook embedded.

In our region we know that tuna frequent Jeffrey's Ledge, Stellwagen Bank, and all of the inshore humps in the vicinity of the two. At times, they are found in numbers over flat bottom, with no structure at all. But the best spots are the shallowest humps with steep edges into deeper water of 300 feet or more.  Sometimes tuna are found inside the Isles of Shoals, outside the Isles of Shoals, on Old Scantam, New Scantum, the Fingers, the Curl, the Prong, Pigeon Hill, Boon Island... the list goes on. You can look at a chart of the area and see many potential tuna humps. One way to help locate them is to network with other bluefin anglers and learn where the latest bite has been then fish and experiment in those areas.

But you’ll find that tuna guys can be very secretive about their numbers (Loran/GPS coordinates) and their techniques. Sometimes you will be hard pressed to get a straight and detailed answer to any question about where or how a fish was caught unless you're good friends. This evasiveness relates back to the large amount of time, effort and money that guys invest just to catch one fish; add to it the potential income from the sale of a tuna and you'll understand the competitive nature of the sport.. 

What

The list of gear required seems to be endless, and the refinement of it and your technique can span years, always improving. Lets begin with the rods and reels. I can simply say you need a Penn 130ST double speed reel with an eight foot 130 class bent butt rod with large roller guides and be done with it. But there are very specific reasons you need this equipment.

The Reel

All quality big game reels have large surface drags with a lever control. They have the capability to adjust your strike drag, and have lever stops for strike and free spool. (the reel is set on STRIKE while actively fishing) Strike drag is usually set to 1/3 the breaking strength of your line. These are130 class reels, designed for 130 pound test line. Your strike drag should be set to a max of 42 pounds, although many anglers back off that number to about 25 pounds or so. Imagine hanging a 5 gallon plastic bucket of water from the end of your rod. At that drag setting a giant bluefin tuna will strip line off the reel like its in free spool.

These reels also have a double speed feature. In high gear (2.2:1), it allows you to quickly take up line on other rods when you hook up - this is during the so-called Chinese fire drill. Also when the fish is running towards the boat the high gear allows you to keep up with him and keep the slack out of the line. High gear is used while there is still danger of the fish taking a long run and line may need to be taken up quickly. In low gear (1.2:1) the reel will give you the power and leverage to bully him up when he bulldogs you directly under the boat.

These reels have the line capacity required for tuna fishing. 800 or 1000 yards of line is typically spooled on them, and many times anglers are glad it is there.

The Penns, Shimanos, Duels, Everols and Fin-Nors 12/0 and larger big game reels all have these features and are designed specifically for the task. The reel doesn’t have to be new either. I have a vintage 1964 Fin-Nor reel that is still so smooth it feels like it is brand new. I still fish with it on every trip. I recommend having any used reel overhauled prior to fishing with it, its well worth the investment and piece of mind. A reel of this caliber can cost between $800 and $1200.

Although you can fish for giant bluefin tuna with smaller outfits, like the Penn Senator series in size 12/0 or even 10/0, it will be at the expense of the angler and the fish. You'll have to chase a large fish with the boat. It may take hours, instead of minutes to land a fish. The longer the fish is in the water, the higher the odds for his escape. Replacement of drag washers in such a small reel would surely be in order after such a fight. It takes so much effort to hook up, why take the chance of loosing him with inferior tackle?

Personally I would not recommend standup gear for giant bluefin tuna fishing. The power of these fish is unparalleled, and I would not want something to go terribly wrong while strapped into a harness with a fish on the other end. Although I understand the winter fishery off of North Carolina is primarily done with standup tackle.

The Rod

An eight foot 130 pound or unlimited class rod is required for giants. Besides the reel seat and rod being of the highest quality, there are two other prerequisites for a tuna rod. One is it has a bent butt. The reason being that it will be used in a 90 degree (vertical) swivel rod holder which allows the rod to turn to the fish at all times. The second prerequisite is it must have large quality roller guides. These guides have a large foot print and disperse the pressure evenly on the rod blank. They also have clearance for a simple rubber band. This may sound petty but it can become tedious and time consuming resetting your bait depth when a simple rubber band will not pass through the guides. All new 130 class rods have these attributes. Most local big game tackle shops offer their own custom brand tuna rods as well as major brands like Penn and Fin-Nor. Expect to spend around $400 or more for a new quality rod.

The Line

As a cost savings, big game tuna reels are first partially spooled with braided Dacron line, typically 130 to 200 pound test. The line is wet packed, usually by a tackle shop. By wet packing (running the line through a wet sponge while spooling) the line is compacted onto the reel spool so it will not cut into itself. The remaining space on the spool can be filled with 200 pound test monofilament - this is called a top shot. By doing this only the mono need to be replaced when required, not the more expensive braided line. The connection between the braided line and monofilament is made with a special splice. The mono is threaded inside the braided line for a length of 10 to 20 feet. Then at two-foot intervals one-inch length of half hitches are tied with waxed rigging floss. When the splice is completed you have a version of Chinese finger handcuffs, the braided line cinches down on the mono and stays attached, the more it is pulled (by the tuna) the tighter it gets.

Terminal Gear

This subject is probably the most personal and unique when it comes to tuna anglers. I can only suggest my current preferences which I'm sure can be improved upon. Flourocarbon leader. Flourocarbon has the magical properties of having a refractive index nearly identical to that of the water, therefore it is almost invisible to the fish. It is unlike clear monofiliment which can turn a bright white at certain depths (I understand that gray mono is the most neutral color at certain depths).  Anglers use anywhere from 8 to 15 feet of flourocarbon leader at 180 to 220 pound test strength. Between the leader and 200 pound test mono running line is a 250 pound (minimum) swivel. One company makes a very small profile wind on swivel that is very nice, although I would not wind any swivel through my guides.  Then you have your hook. I like larger hooks (11/0), some guys like smaller (7/0).  Don’t cheap out on hooks. $4 for one hook is worth it. Use 2X or extra strong.

All this terminal gear is crimped, with chafe tube, depending on the size of line, Jinkai G or F size crimps are about right for the line sizes I have mentioned.

Funny thing about crimps, they are aluminum, and bright and shiny. And we have 3 of them floating around in the clear offshore water right in front of the tuna's face. Not good. Some guys paint, color or simply put black electrical tape over the crimps to help make them invisible.

Depending on your preferences and current speed, a 16 to 20 oz lead bank sinker is placed on the running line, from between 20 to 30 feet from the swivel. It can be either taped on the line with black electrical tape, or secured with a heavy-duty rubber band. Lead sinkers are nice and shiny too, so think about that. You can also run a "fly-line" which has no weight and is allowed to drift naturally in the chum slick.

Last but not least is the balloon. You'll find most tackle shops sell small sliding clips for attaching a balloon to your line. The balloon is used to set the depth of your bait.  By measuring out line, then tying a rubber band to the line after the slider (reel side, not bait side), the depth of your bait can be set. This is one reason for large roller guides on the rod - to allow this depth setting rubber band to slide through easily.

The Bait

Fresh is best. It's all down hill from there. A live herring or whiting jigged up and set out on a line will out-fish anything else in the water, most times. Someone on board should always be jigging a sabaki rig while tuna fishing.  For chum there are several options. If you don’t have your own dragger or bait net, de-scaled netted herring and whiting are available at most fishing coops and lobster bait outlets. You'll need a full tote of unsalted herring for a day's fishing. That’s over 100 pounds of bait, and by the end of the day you may wish you had more. Many guys have 128 quart marine coolers and will have a couple filled with bait and ice for a weekend's worth of tuna fishing. Finding good fresh bait can sometimes be harder than finding tuna. A tote of herring typically costs about $25.

Setting Lines

So now we have bait, our rods and reels are filled with line, drags are preset and we have anchored on a fishy offshore hump. There are Shearwaters and Wilson Storm Petrels - tuna birds - flying about indicating life under the surface - it's time to start fishing.  If you have live bait, hooking him through the back or nose are two ways to fish him, I prefer the nose. If your fishing herring chunks, you can use a herring mid section or a tail. How you hook and present your bait is critical.  Many guys will add a small piece of Styrofoam inside the bait to offset the weight of the hook - that's how critical presentation can be. Typical depths for placing baits are 120, 100, 90, all the way up to 20 feet if you prefer. Set out the shallowest line first and the deepest line last. That way the lines will not become tangled and a tuna will not shy away from your set. It's important to determine how the chunks are drifting in the current and how far out from the boat to place your baits. You want to have your hook baits in the chum slick. After measuring out the desired depth, place the rubber band on the line to stop the balloon and let the bait drift away from the boat. Watch your sounder and if your marking fish you may wish to adjust your depths accordingly. There is no mistaking a tuna on a fish finder; the mark can span anywhere from 20 to 30 feet in length and is the characteristic hump in the shape of an upside-down V.

Chumming

While you were initially setting the lines, your buddy should have begun cutting up and chunking herring. Chumming for tuna is simply the process of simply cutting each herring in 3 or 4 pieces and dispersing the chunks off the transom to form a chum slick. Rates vary, but you can throw a few chunks over once a minute, or more, or less. It can be more of an art than a science, if that’s possible. Who'd think of chumming as an art? But it can be, especially when it brings a giant bluefin tuna to the transom of your boat.  It is important to keep the chum slick constant. Do not use fish oil or ground up chum, that will only bring in the sharks.

The Hookup

It can happen at anytime, and it will be in an instant, and it will be surreal. Tuna hook themselves; you don’t have to worry about setting the hook. 

Here is a typical 45 second scenario (yes, things happen fast):

- All is quiet, it's high noon, everyone’s bored, your daydreaming about…. suddenly a balloon pops, a rod is bent over and line is being stripped off the reel at amazing speed. Someone yells "we're on!"

- The angler jumps on the rod and reels to keeps the line tight - no slack allowed!  Line will be leaving the reel in a hurry. Angler knows if he thinks the fish is off he reels fast because it might just be swimming towards the boat. He keeps the rod tip pointed at the fish.

- Mate and captain wind up the other lines and sets each in holders in the opposite gunwale from the hooked up rod, or they store rods in cabin.

- Mate releases anchor ball, captain start engines, mate clears deck of everything else.

- Angler and mate move hooked up rod to fighting swivel holder.

- The captain determines the direction of the fish and positions the boat so the line is aft at a 45 degree angle off the gunwale.

- The battle is on.

The Battle

Once the fish is settled down it can become a long grueling battle. It could take just tens of minutes for a small 300 pound fish, or hours for an 800 pound giant. Each fish is different. The reel should still be in high gear at this point. Boat maneuvering is critical while fighting a fish. One wrong move with the location and direction of the boat relative to the fish and line can cost you. This is especially true in close quarters in the last moments of the battle. Here's a helpful hint that you may use someday: if the fish is headed under the boat and the line is about to touch the hull, have someone grab on to and push the rod away from the boat and hold it there, it just may save you a fish.

A technique used for gaining line is to grab the line with your left (gloved) hand and pull while at the same time reeling. Do this in one smooth motion and do not twist the line. Evenly pull and wind the line back on to the reel. Watch the rod tip and keep it bent - no slack. This shoveling of line onto the reel is required since the rod can not be pumped from the fixed rod holder. When the fish bulldogs you under the boat, guys will inch the drag up and switch to low gear. Bulldogging is when the fish gets his head down and his pectoral fins out and just wont move vertically - he's swimming in circles at this point.  Sometimes the only option is to slowly plane him up with the boat.

Once the fish is near the boat and he is spent, ready the harpoon; make sure all lines are clear. When he is within range bury the dart in one motion while hanging on to the harpoon. Do not throw it. Aim for behind the shoulder, but in the heat of the moment just getting the dart anywhere in the fish is an accomplishment. Next, gaff him in the head, pull him in and tail rope him. He's yours. Bleed him, tow him backwards, hoist him in the boat then head for the barn. There’s much more detail about cleaning and preparing the fish onboard but I wont cover it in this article.

The Boat

There are some special items required to outfit a boat for tuna fishing, here is a short list:

  •  Heavy Duty 90 degree swivel rod holders with backing plates

  • Anchor with mooring ball and retrieval ring, min 75'' mooring line (painter) 

  • Top of the line color fish finder, Raytheon ,Garmin, SiTec, Furuno (with temp)

  • GPS (plotter), Radar, Loran, VHF, side band

  •  Live well

  • Chunking station ( rod holder mounted cutting board )

  •  Harpoon, 2 recommended

  • Offshore gaff (2), flying gaff (I don't use one - too dangerous)

  •  Tail rope, tow rope

  •  Gin pole/block and tackle

  •  Large 128+ quart coolers, cooler for crushed ice.

  •  Rubber palmed gloves

  •  NMFS Tuna Permit (recreational or com fishing)

  •  Safety Items – eprib, flares, immersion suits, life raft
     

 The Anchor

You’ll need 400 feet of anchor rode, a mooring (poly) ball, and 75 feet of mooring line. The reason for this is to have the anchor line away from the boat, and to be able to release from the anchor quickly, whether you or your neighbor have a fish on. You don't want a hooked up fish to swim across the anchor line and cut itself off. I also personally believe that having a long white line going from the water's surface to the bottom can not be good for skittish or shy fish. I want the anchor line far from the boat. Here’s my reasoning: If I think like a tuna, and I’m swimming and I see this object in front of me, which is the anchor line, will I swim into it, or swim around it and veer off away from my baits? Possibly around it; so that’s not good. I’m not going to take the chance. If I could get black anchor rode (cheap) I would use it.

Courtesy

Anchoring within the fleet calls for manners, especially if you arrive late in the morning after the other guys already have their chum slicks established. You must also remember that depending on the length of your anchor rope, your boat and others may swing large amounts depending on wind and tide. Each captain has different tolerances for anchoring distances, some 200 yards, some 1/4 mile. You have to think and put yourself in the other person 's boat - would you want them doing to you what you are doing to them? Check the drift of the boats,  check where the balloons are drifting and anchor accordingly and quietly. Obviously you don't want to come charging into an anchorage at 20 knots and disturb the whole area. I suppose common sense and courtesy is all that's required. You'll definitely hear about it on the VHF, or up close and personal if you don't act properly.

Regulations

The National Marine Fisheries Service has an informative website which details each type of permit. Please refer to their site, the FAQ section under Info Center is very good.

The Investment

Here's a list of the gear typically found on a tuna boat and the cost of investment.

Rod and Reel (3) @ $1200 each $4800
Lees Swivel Rod Holders (4) $500
128 Quart Bait Cooler $100
Harpoon/darts $100
Gaff (tuna size - 6"+) $100
Anchor Rode (400'), Mooring Ball,Clips $200
Eprib Safety Beacon $800
Survial Suits (3) $750
Life Raft (required past 12 miles) $1800
Flare kit $160
Flourocarbon leader (30m roll) $65
Hooks, Swivels, misc tackle, tools $150
Bait/Ice each Trip $30
Fuel each Trip $100

 

Recommended Reading

  • The Trail of The Sharp Cup - S. Kip Farrington Jr.

  • Fish the Chair if you Dare - Captain Greg Beacher 

The giant bluefin tuna you see in these pictures was caught in  September of 2002.  Fishing in 180' of water with the bait set at a depth of 75', this tuna took a live pollock hooked through the back on Old Scantum. The fish struck at 12 noon sharp with the bait 10 yards off the transom. The fight lasted 1 hour and 20 minutes.  The fish weighted 628 pounds and measured 109 inches long. Mark Robertson, Chris Dimmerling and Mike Christy were on board the Agitator out of Portsmouth NH. It was Chris's first giant bluefin trip, and first time fishing this year as a new dad. They didn't believe me when I quietly said -"guys, we are on".... - mikec

I would like to thank both Capt. (Spike) Mark Fitzpatrick of the Miss Fitz and Tim McLaren of the First Catch for graciously having me aboard their boats to fish for tuna during the summer of 2002.

This page is dedicated to Gigi Notargiacomo (bottom right) who taught me to fish and has caught more giant bluefin tuna than anyone I know.

 

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