Maybe you’ve painted yourself into a corner, promising your nephews a shot at a fish thrice their combined weight. Maybe after a couple of months of hard scratching inshore, you need a change of venue. Maybe it’s something more universal: the pull of the seaward horizon, a primal need to clear the inlet and instead of hooking right or left you just keep going straight — 50, 100, 300 miles past the last road sign.
Whatever the impetus, you’ve crossed a tipping point: There’s a canyon run in your near future. It’s exciting but a little nerve-wracking, especially once you’ve begun asking questions of experts, trying to average out the often conflicting opinions and/or advice. There’s the boat and its attendant systems, the crew and their experience (individual or collective) and expectations, the weather, the tides, the fishing reports, the sea surface temperature satellite shots, the bait, the trolling gear, the rods, reels, gaffs, harpoons …
And then there’s the theory. It won’t take long to discover that even your mother-in-law has a strong opinion about high-speed trolling lures and their proper configuration, the spread. It’s the massive surplus of tuna- and shark-fishing theory that leaves so many budding offshoremen second-guessing their lures right out of the churning water astern. My teachers — then my experience — emphasized one idea above all others in offshore canyon fishing: There’s a whole lot less going on than first meets the eye.
Make no mistake. You can get your butt kicked in any calendar month, from 30 fathoms all the way to the edge of the continental shelf, if you fail to heed warning signs about impending weather or the health of the mechanical systems that grant you your range. But, relatively speaking, July and early August offer a combination of warmish water, stable fronts and long daylight that best suits a fledgling big-game angler. More to the point, summer typically underwrites a Northeast fishing season’s best — and closest — tuna/shark/mystery meat fishing.
For your first trips, consider avoiding the moons, which can wreak havoc on your mission in countless ways. First, count on screaming tides. When you’re fishing the edge, you have multiple current influences beyond the root tides. You’ll have the circular (counterclockwise) currents along the edges of warm-core Gulf Stream eddies — the delivery systems that carry tuna and other pelagic life into striking distance. You’ll have the interplay between tidal current and the natural upwelling caused by the steep rise from 1,000 fathoms off the edge up to 200, 100 and suddenly 50 fathoms on top of the shelf. And naturally, there will be the interaction of wind, tide and sea conditions.
While you’re learning, gaining confidence, your best bet will be fishing the quarters of the moon. It’s not just the sea conditions that cause trouble. It’s standard practice to drift out in the deep water overnight. Drift fishing — staying where you set up, achieving the proper flow of chum, keeping baits at the desired depth and tangle-free — can be challenging at 1 knot. At 4 knots, it can set the stage for a military-grade snafu.
As for the weather, all the laws of gravity apply. Just as the scale of your target species and your gear increases outside, so do the effects of wind and weather, and so do the consequences of lapsed judgment. Avoid any wind carrying the stench of an easterly, and avoid any other forecasted breeze above 10 knots. Keep a sharp eye on the horizon to westward, from whence your next weather will come.
Somewhere in the back of your mind, always consider your destination relative to your homeward running angle. If you want to rob Purgatory of its future shock and awe, try running northwest toward home, a couple of compass points off the trough in a freshening southwest wind. Before departure, think hard about your running angles and your boat’s strengths and liabilities in the steerage/handling department. Lastly, be sure to verify NOAA’s current official story against the buoy reports/current observations.
You can drive yourself to distraction fretting over weather. The key is to avoid forecasts that threaten white-knuckle conditions. Do not let any form of macho BS cloud the well-concealed kernel of raw fear that is probably your best instinct in canyon fishing.
Protracted “bites” in specific areas, such as the month-long yellowfin massacre that unfolded last fall in and around the Fishtails/Block Canyon, make the fishing strategy simple. On average, you can expect to start off on the troll, putting lures out when you run across some life anywhere from 30 fathoms on down. Pulling throttles back will save precious fuel, but it also lets you pay closer attention to water temperature breaks (the location of bait, weed-lines, birds, slicks or other life); lets you steam around to rough out the piece of water that has carried life into range; and cover some ground toward your destination, but with all-important lines in the water — the only real way to let fish reveal themselves.
One of the foremost blunders in canyon fishing is getting so worked up over some theoretical temperature break or some piece of water or some canyon name that you end up missing signs of life because you haven’t reached the “hot numbers” someone gave you. The biggest adjustment in canyon fishing is that, unlike fishing for stripers, fluke, sea bass, cod or tautog, there’s seldom any magic to the precise over-ground position. Often it’s about the water — thermal structure, so to speak, such as an edge where 73-degree water meets 69-degree water — and the water (the fish concentrated in it) is forever on the move.
When you start to talk water with the legion of canyon experts, it’s easy to get so preoccupied with such-and-such shade of perfect blue or such-and-such 7-degree break that you forget all about the fish — the tuna that sometimes forget where they belong, show up in dirty, too-cold water way too far up on the flats, 25 miles short of the edge.
It’s about water, but really it’s about life. A small patch of bait on the surface, a wayward bucket or piece of plywood that has gathered a mini-ecosystem, a lone bird — these might be the difference between a 250-mile water-watch and a dozen big yellowfins on ice.
Summon as much expertise as you can while you plan your first 100-mile fishing venture. The diesel or gas for such a jaunt represents a big-ticket purchase long before you’ve wandered into the tackle shop to blanch at the cost of a butterfish flat, a 50-class stand-up rod, a custom spreader bar or a basic harness and begun to multiply these numbers against the number of such things you’ll need to make even a fainthearted attempt at bluewater angling.
Next month we’ll look at what to do once you’re ready to get down to fishing.
This article originally appeared in the July 2015 issue.