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Awestruck in autumn: giant tuna, sea herring

“What the @#$%! was that?” I shout, half to myself and half to the bridge behind me, where Capt. Andy Dangelo’s head whips around, probably praying it’s me — his mate — and not a customer who’s buried a jig hook past the barb in my neck.

A bird blitz means there's sea herring, and that means big fish further up the food chain.

“What’s what?!” he snaps.

“That,” I tell him, pointing at what now looks like a 6-foot hole in the water 40 or so yards off our port stern, “About 8 o’clock — something big just crashed. You see that?”

“Probably a porp …”

“Nope,” I grumble. I know porpoises, dolphins, whales, seals. I may be a lowly deck ape, but I know what I saw, and it was no mammal.

These things always go the same way. One guy sees something he can’t quite believe — he’ll see it repeatedly — while the other guy, because he’s trying so hard to locate the source of all the excitement, misses it every single time and so eventually decides, even if he doesn’t actually make the accusation, that his deckmate needs glasses, has begun to hallucinate or needs to spend a couple of days in a less demanding, more arts-and-crafts, sedatives-oriented setting.

A few minutes pass, and the captain refocuses on steering our westward course while I continue to scan the horizon for further eruptions. I note several terns as they wheel and dip in spastic arcs, looking, I presume, for the same thing I am. After several minutes, I watch as something huge rolls, sending a shower of foot-long baitfish skittering across the surface. Before I can even force a sound from my constricted windpipe, a refrigerator-sized coppery-flanked shape rockets 5 feet into the air, hangs momentarily, then torpedoes back through the dark skin of water with a splash impossibly small for the size of what just caused it.

“You saw that one, right? Please tell me …” As a clot of disjointed words tries to get clear of my mouth, I note the bow coming around toward the target.

“Giants,” announces the skipper. “Looks like a few of them, probably chasing herring. Better get those lines up for a minute.”

As we close the distance to the location of the last splash, great boils appear across a hundred or so square feet as bluefins that look to be in the 400- to 600-pound range roll gracefully across the calm surface. There are sea herring topside, too, and within a minute we note that we’re not the only ones who’ve noticed the activity. First a few, then a veritable cloud of herring and black-backed gulls swarm the agitated water, and soon a dozen or more gannets are climbing to altitude, drawing themselves up into missile configuration and then rocketing straight down into the water, picking off a full-grown herring on each kamikaze dive.

Our charter, meanwhile, has begun clamoring around the cockpit in a wild storm of loose rods, tackle boxes and plugs that would be perfect choices if the birds were pigeons and the tuna were medium-sized, hatchery-issue trout. I lay out the reality of our immediate situation, hoping to keep total chaos at bay but really more interested in getting them to take a deep breath and watch an event they’ll be lucky to see a second time if they fish for the next 50 years.

The fall herring run provides some of the last chances for stripers as they migrate for winter.

It’s a truism in tuna fishing generally, and an unshakable law of the universe when giants are involved, that “you never catch the ones you see.” The likelihood of an exception this brisk late-November morning is all the more remote, given our present location in roughly 30 feet of water about a cast and a half outside the cove on the east side of Watch Hill (R.I.) Light — prime striper water, fair tautog bottom and a good spot to load up on some of the blues that have been cooperative from Point Judith all the way down the line this morning. But it is not world-class giant water.

Soon four of us, each armed with a low-end digital point-and-shoot, are making a concerted effort to capture the majesty of 600-pound tuna in midair. By the time the event has ended some 10 minutes later, we’ve generated about 310 shots of 4-foot circles on the surface, along with several terns, gulls and gannets — not a single one in focus — and what might be a fin in one lousy shot.

Lucky for us, this is not the only shot of herring along the beach. Jogging east in search of something catchable, we spot a massive cloud of birds a short distance outside Fresh Pond Rocks in Charlestown, R.I. As we approach the melee, we note roughly a quarter-acre of slashing, tail-slapping predators — what looks to be a mix of bass and blues, including, by the look of things, some heavyweights in both categories. Several passes along the outskirts of the blitz, with umbrella rigs on short wires, yield a mix of blues into the midteens and a half-dozen bass — the largest pushing 30 pounds — before the tide fizzles out and the herring sound, scatter.

Call me a sissy boy, but one of my favorite aspects of the sea-herring-fueled action across southern New England and the south shore of Long Island is that you needn’t clear the harbor when there’s still sea smoke curling along the surface and you could swear the moisture on the surface of your eyeballs has frozen in 35 knots of apparent wind through 12-degree air. The herring bite — often a highly visual affair — runs on a diurnal schedule. In fact, there’s no advantage to beating the sun out to the grounds: Your odds of success relate to your ability to locate the bait schools, not all of which are lit up with a mushroom cloud of birds or a porpoise show reminiscent of Sea World, and then sample various shots of life until you find one with some good fish in tow.

Another nice bonus of this late-innings fishery is the simplicity of methods. Casting plugs that mimic the action and profile of fleeing Atlantic herring — various poppers or soft-plastic shads in blue/white or black/silver — will do the job, as will an array of larger-profile tins, such as Kastmasters or diamond jigs. The latter also can be effective fished vertically on the outskirts of the herring schools. Still a third method, this one most popular in the many rips from south of Block Island, R.I., to Montauk, N.Y., is to employ sabiki rigs to catch live herring, then live-line or three-way the “real McCoy” anywhere your sounder reveals signs of life.

Of course, if, like me, you’ve gotten a lot of the testosterone-fed need to fish h-a-r-d out of your system, you might approach the whole herring deal the way I do — less as a means to further dent the population of late-running bass than as a chance to observe, at close range, one of our planet’s great temperate-clime migrations in full swing, an awesome and necessary westward ebb of the fish we’ll appreciate all the more when they stream back the other way on the far side of the dark months.

November 2012 issue