Tuna time: trolling the edge of the Earth

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Editor’s note: Last month’s column focused on initial preparations for a canyon run. In this installment, we look at the best ways to gather current offshore intel and the gear you’ll need, and run through some of the finer points of high-summer trolling action.

Part of tuna success involves suppressing the doubt about your immediate position and not dwelling on all the other places you ought to be fishing.
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As you prepare for your maiden run to the edge, keep in mind that you can run up a whopping tab on fuel alone. You’ll also need seven or more 30- to 50-class stand-up rods, trolling gear, hooks, sinkers, leader material, gaffs, gimbal belts and a couple of kidney harnesses. You’ll need hook baits, a minimum of a half-dozen flats of butterfish for chum, spinning setups and squid jigs to make live bait at night, a dip net …

All told, the final tally for your provisioning can quickly eclipse what you paid for your last car. Fortunately, tuna fishing has long served as a prime outlet for midlife crises as otherwise sane, sober men at or around age 40 run themselves into the poorhouse in an Ahab-inspired mania for big-game fishing. However, odds are good someone in your town has a garage full of shark or tuna gear he’d be more than happy to let you borrow.

It probably goes without saying, but here it is in case the early stages of tuna fever are clouding your normal brain function: Suspend judgment about your future as a legend in big-game fishing until you’ve made a few honest 200-mile attempts to put tuna in the boat. You can always build your arsenal if you join the ranks of the bluewater-afflicted, but don’t go all-in until you’ve cleared the 40-fathom curve at least once.

Along the same lines, consider making a half-measure trip — perhaps trying to scratch a mako or thresher around the 30-fathom curve, or trolling around the midrange humps and bumps for a school bluefin — before you make a committed shot to the edge of the Earth. This will serve as a scaled-back shakedown to see how your boat’s systems and crewmembers perform when there’s water stretching to every horizon. It should also show you whether you’re up for the considerable strain that ensues when you pick a fight with a fish that outweighs you. All macho B.S. aside, tethering yourself to a 200-pound mako or 80-pound yellowfin gets alarmingly close to chain-gang labor. It’s not for everyone.

Assuming you’re up for the task, you’ll need to prepare for two fishing scenarios: trolling and chunking, either of which, depending on how the season develops, might be the primary game plan. (Because of space restraints, I’ll cover chunking in a future column.) Traditionally, the daytime trolling bite tends to dominate the high-summer action. Most serious canyon fishermen will venture off into the deep water around sundown, set up a drift and at least go through the motions of chumming, chunking, jigging or live-lining whatever squid or other livies show up beneath the spreader lights after dark.

Last year’s bite — a protracted and geographically concentrated one, underwritten by a massive body of yellowfins — yielded some fish on the troll early. But with a significant fleet working the area, chumming night after night for more than a month as the days turned into weeks, the fish became programmed, taking dead bait and/or vertical jigs around-the-clock, more or less.

The search for life

Almost as tricky as predicting tuna behavior is attempting to glean useful details out of fishing reports. If inshore reports lose value quickly, a canyon report’s expiration date is measured in minutes or hours. Let’s face it: Fish that can swim at burst speeds north of 50 mph — pelagic species such as tuna, marlin or wahoo that are haunting one fairly contained piece of warm Gulf Stream water that is itself moving — are no picnic to pin down, especially when their last known position was 24 hours ago.

What is worth knowing is whether the fish are hanging on the cold side (or warm side) of a temperature break that you can spot on the latest satellite sea-surface temperature chart, and if that’s also where most of the bait is congregated. Did fish on the overnight chumming/chunking bite eat dead hook baits, either whole or cut, or did they only eat live squid jigged on the spot? Perhaps there were specific trolling lures that were lights-out effective for the last guys out. If so, did color seem to matter, or the lure’s size? Were there mahis or other fish gathered under the lobster-trawl highfliers and tide balls? Was there any “magic” water temp that all fish came out of last night? Were any areas that looked good on the SST chart notably foul-looking or devoid of life on closer inspection?

If you have access to someone who’s just come home with a load of fish, you have to ask the right questions. And keep it front-of-mind that ruling out lifeless swaths of barren water is often more helpful than pinpointing the precise site of last night’s big chew. Thankfully, most canyon sharpies recognize that having boats out to keep rough track of the water and its fish helps everyone in the fishery; you might be surprised how talkative a couple of normally tight-lipped guys in your marina are on the eve of your planned marathon steam.

The day troll

Let’s assume your first venture will involve at least some trolling — whether to preserve precious fuel while giving fish a chance to show themselves or as the main event in a full-day trip. As I noted last month, there’s a former rainforest worth of printed material on high-speed trolling for tuna or billfish, so the following will be, at best, a glancing blow. I’ll offer morsels of advice I suspect you’ll be less likely to find elsewhere, leaving the fundamentals of tuna trolling to some famed big-game guru or, better yet, a live human at a reputable offshore-oriented tackle shop.

If your plan is a day trip, you’ll want to be somewhere suitable for lines-in — ideally somewhere from 40 fathoms southward — by false dawn. This is one of an average day’s two high-percentage windows for trolling action. Allow yourself enough time to run southward at a civilized clip, being mindful of fixed-position navigational hazards such as lobster gear, gillnets, buoys and the like. For what it’s worth, much of the lobster gear will be concentrated around the 30- and 50-fathom curves, so pay extra attention to your watery fore and your radar in those zones.

For your first trips, keep lures and their configuration, or spread, simple. Start out with four to seven rods — making sure they’re free of weeds and positioned properly on the faces of their respective wakes will keep you plenty busy. Stick with simple single lures: Hex Heads, jetheads, Tuna Clones, cedar plugs, feathers, weighted and standard Green Machines (perhaps run way back behind birds) and maybe a Braid Marauder or Yo-Zuri bonito up the middle, right off the transom. Not only are singles less likely to weed up or create memorable snarl-ups, but they’re also cheaper, easier to rig correctly and are easily deployed and retrieved.

Outriggers are a major plus, but the lack of them is far from a deal-breaker. Much more important is to study your boat’s wake and find spots for at least a couple of “up-close” lures, fished off the rod tips or the outriggers on or about the first wake, in a position where the hull throws a semiconsistent bubble of clear, blue water. For lures farther back, finding a clean spot should be easier. Be sure, though, that all of your lures are swimming on the faces of your wakes, not on the backs.

As for lures, you’ll seldom go wrong by staying small, given that much of the available feed for pelagic life in a New England summer is tiny — juvenile squid and spike mackerel, for example. As for the array of rods and reels, follow common sense. For “way-back” lures such as bird/Green Machine combos, use the rods with the largest line capacity (50s and 50-wides) and run the first-wake “jumpers” on your 30s or 4/0s.

Fish on! Then what?

When one of the rods bends down hard, drag wailing as line dumps in a blur, keep the boat in gear a few seconds while you record the exact position of the hit. Whatever you do, don’t drop the boat completely out of gear until all other lines are clear, and even then, only if you absolutely must. After the first hook-up, other crew might draw additional fish by jigging other lures.

You can take strain off the angler on the first rod by putting him in one corner of the transom and beginning a very gradual turn toward his side. Be sure any crewmember with free hands stands by to clear other rods, should you need to run down a big fish.

We kept a 5-gallon bucket of precut chum handy and fired a few scoops astern immediately after a knockdown — one way to keep lit-up fish hanging around until you can make follow-up passes. You might also consider rigging a rod or two with diamond or butterfly-style jigs and sending these back beneath the spread after a hit — a proven way to nab an extra fish.

Also, any time you get hits, hook-ups or land fish, note the spot where the hits occurred and drill that area thoroughly. One of my friends, a very sharp tuna fisherman, jokes that after he hooks up he’ll drill in on his plotter and “play Etch A Sketch,” crisscrossing that site until he’s filled in the entire screen with his trolling track.

It’s hard to comprehend until you’ve logged real time offshore just how much dead water stretches between signs of life. It’s equally surprising how little life — one bird, a tiny shot of bait, a small mat of Sargasso weed — it takes to gather tuna or other game fish. Whales and porpoises are good reason to spend time in an area. Any life warrants close inspection, provided the water is warmish (over 67 degrees or so), clean and deep-blue. This is increasingly true the farther you venture past the edge. You’ll often fare better if you find life and stick with it, waiting out the fish rather than steaming all over hell’s half-acre in the void.

The name of the game in tuna trolling is making the most of every encounter with fish. Stealing an extra fish jigging or leaving the spread out for a few moments after the first hook-up are minor procedures you’ll only master through practice. Drilling an area where you hooked a fish can be tedious after the first 45 minutes, but you’ll be glad you did when two more rods go off at the 48-minute mark.

Of course, there’s the whole matter of chunking the overnight — if only as a means to kill time until you give the fish one last solid effort at dawn, day two. That piece of the canyon racket will have to wait for another day.

This article originally appeared in the August 2015 issue.