by Capt. Damon Sacco
BIG GAME JOURNAL MAY 2002
The sun was still far beneathe the horizon, and though the ocean was a mere shadow in the dark, we were frequently reminded of it's mysterious presence each time the bow of the Castafari suddenly shifted. My mate CJ and I quietly sipped our frost bitten coffees, mesmorized by the unbroken hum of the twin Cattapillar diesel's ³one long song". I tried desperately not to think about time, something that is all one really has when running 60 miles offshore in the dark. Giant bluefin tuna like an early breakfast, and like always, we wanted to be there in time to help serve up the buffet. Ask any Cape Cod salter and he'll reassure you that runs like these are simply part of the game.Today was no exception, and as we approached within a few miles of our waypoint, I began to witness a September Sunday morning inevitable...a vast city-like array of lights crowding the horizon in front of us. It looked like offshore Manhatten.
CJ climbed up onto the tower with a pair of binoculars dangling from his neck, and we approached the massive fleet at around ten knots. The eastern sky steadily began to come alive, and as the first glimpse of sunlight streaked it's way out of the brassy horizon, I gazed out off the bow and into the dawn looking for signs of life. Suddenly I heard banging from up on the tower. "Fish on top! Fish on top!" C.J. screamed. In an instant my right hand dropped down the throttles, and my left hand frantically pawed at the man overboard button on my GPS. "Big fish!" C.J. continued. Before I had time to yell up a request to let down the outriggers, the port rigger bounced into sight with a loud thud. Then out of the corner of my eye I saw an enormous splash off the port bow. Hordes of small baitfish began dancing across the dusky surface, their silouhettes literally bouncing through the twilight like lateral rain. They looked like flocks of small birds, spending more time in the air than they did water. Massive gloomy swirls appeared beneathe them, most the size of Volkswagons. Kaboom!!! The water suddenly exploded, and out soared a 9 foot fish! It Œs shadowy contour ripped through the dawn with a stealth like grace and then sliced back into the ocean. More scattering baitfish ricocheted off the flickering waves. The air jolted, and out shot two more 500 plus pound missles, both rocketing practically straight up! I forgot to breathe as the two huge fish vaulted across the golden horizon like gymnists in a circus before pounding back into the ocean. Whitewater began to fly in all directions as the silohouettes of more greyhounding tuna collided with the sea. A group big arcs drifted across the screen of my finder. The action was all around us!
What the hell do you do now?!!! The first thing you want to do is get a bait in the water...fast! Actually, the first thing you want to do if you're interested in giant bluefin fishing is to make the necessary preperations to outfit your vessel and tackle to accomodate these mighty fish. You don't want to run across a scenerio like this and not be ready for it. Giant tuna will absolutely wreek serious havoc on you and your crew if you're ill prepared. So be prepared! The game starts long before you leave the dock. Here's how you can get started.
Safety should always come first when you're fishing offshore, epecially if you plan to bring a 500 pound beast into the mix. The United States Coast Guard requires all offshore commercial tuna vessels to be equipped with a variety of safety features. First you'll need an inflatable emergency life raft installed some place where it won't be restricted if inflated. You will be required to send out the raft to be inspected by the Coast Guard annually. Second, you need an automatically triggered offshore E-PIRB, a sattelite beacon transmitter, to be installed, again some place where it won't be restricted if deployed. Finally, the coast guard will require you to carry a survival suit for every passenger on board. These requirements are mandatory for ALL giant bluefin fishermen who are fishing commercially. If you plan to sell a fish, this means you. The coast guard vessels are frequently out at the tuna grounds, and will board your vessel eventually. I have been boarded twice, once with a fish on board! It pays to comply, despite the cost. Who knows, this costly gear might save your life someday.
You'll need a federal tuna permit which costs $18.00 and can be purchased over the phone with a credit card. The number to call is 1-888-872-8862. You will also need a state commercial fishing license which varies in cost state to state. Be sure to attain both of these long before the season get's started. You cannot sell a fish legally without them.
You will need some tough and not so cheap rods and reels to do battle with giant bluefin. I recommend Penn 130 reels and custom unlimitted class bent butt rods. You can't by a better reel for the money. Any good offshore tackle store should be able to hook you up with a deal. A lot of shops make their own rods which is a big advantage. If you have a problem, simply bring'em back. John White at the Fishermen's Outfitter makes a hell of a good rod, and is where I spend each Spring. His catelog has everything you need and more. You'll want to spool your reels with 200 to 300 pound test dacron or spectra spliced into a top shot of mono. I like Momoi line because it doesen't stretch nearly as much as other monophilament brands do.
For terminal tackle you will need a good set of heavy duty crimpers, crimps( a variety of sizes), bullet swivels, and bulbearing snap swivels. You'll also want to purchase some black tubes of chafing gear to accomodate the line and leader size that you're using. (This hardware is shown in picture # 1) Crimping is a very safe and secure method used in connecting tackle, but only when it is done correctly. So remember to take your time, and don't crush the mono! You'll also want to get yourself some rigging needles, rigging floss, flexible copper wire, and # 17-19 single strand wire. Get yourself a wide variey of egg sinkers( 1/2 oz. and up). Grab a big bag of heavy duty black elastics, and another big bag of balloons. Also be sure and pick up a bunch of Sabiki rig packets. For leader material, I like to use flourocarbon(180 lbs to 220lbs). Any brand will do. Just make sure to have comparable crimps and chafing gear. I usually make my leader legnths around 12 to 15 feet. As far as hooks are concerned, just make sure they're strong and sharp. I use Mustads for trolling and Owners and Gamagatzus for drifting. The size depends upon the bait. A Gamagatzu Live Bait series size 9 works well for a live herring and an Owner Gorilla or Motu size 12 works nicely when bridling a live bluefish. Choosing the right brand of hook is simply a matter of preference. You will aslo need wieght to get your baits down to those hungry tuna. I suggest using 20 ounce bank sinkers attached to fishfinder rigs. (shown in picture # 2) You may need more than one depending on the tide. Just slide them up the line to where you want them, and secure them from sliding back down by looping the line and fastening the loop with a rubber band. Try and keep the wieght at least 30 or 40 feet from the hook. When a fish hits, the band will break and the wieght will slide freely. Again, the amount of wieght to use will simply depend on the amount of tide present. So it is important to keep a close eye on the scope of your line at all times.
CHAIR, LEANING POST, OR SWIVABLE ROD HOLDERS
To accomodate your 130 class tuna rods you will either need a 130 pound class fishing chair, a heavy duty 130 pound class leaning post, or some backplated swivable rod holders installed in your gunnel. Most contests with giant tuna in the Northeast are fought right from the rod holder. I do still use the chair, especially on charters, but to do so, I need at least four people on board; one on the boat controls, one in the chair fighting the fish, one behind the chair directing it, and one to man the cockpit. Though fighting fish from a rod holder is not nearly as fun, sporty, nor physically demanding as it is when using a fighting chair, it is a very effective and practical way to catch a giant tuna. For instance when fighting a fish from the holder, you can leave the rod if you need to, anglers can switch off taking turns fighting the fish, it's a lot less strenious on your body , you don't need to move the rod, which can be a dangerous nightmare if you've never done it before, and most importantly, you can catch a fish by yourself! Also, not all vessels have the room for a fighting chair or leaning post, and not all captain's wallets have the room for one niether! Just remember, if you plan to fish for giants from the holder, make sure to install the swivable backplated units in your gunnel. The regular ones will NOT cut it. Any offshore tackle outlet will have access to the correct types you need. Giant tuna can swim in speeds in excess of fifty knots, and will easily turn your gunnel into sugar if you're not careful.
WHERE ARE THE FISH?
Like clockwork, hordes of bluefin tuna inundate the shipping lanes Southeast of Nantucket each Summer and Fall in hot pursuit of ocean herring, mackeral, and occasional short beeked ballyhoo. This area, also known as the Great South Channel, is a strong flowing funnel of ocean that pulls water from bait enriched shallows on either side of it, namely Georges Bank and Nantucket Shoals.The tuna usually hang smack dab in the middle of the the channel in depths of 200 to 400 feet moving diagonally along a northwest and southeast track between the shipping markers. ³BB" bouy( 41' 16'00 and 69'18'00), and just southeast of it, are always good places to start looking for fish. The waters around Stellwagon Bank, Ipswich Bay, and Jefferey's Ledge hold fish as well, and are better spots to try earlier in the season in July and August. These three areas are also the home to a wide variety of baitfish. Stellwagon Bank is loaded with sandeels. It's Northwest and Southwest corners are good places kick off the season. Just be sure to get a mighty early start if you're planning to fish here, as there's sure to be a competitive and sometimes not so friendly circus of a fleet. If you do decide to fish inside the fleet, practice common courtesy. When the bite is on, things can get kind of hectic, and what goes around most definitely comes around. Jefferey's Ledge is a lot more spread out, and much easier area to fish than Stellwagon, and was red hot last season. The Rockpile in Ipswich bay has always been a consistent producer of fish all season long. Basically anywhere there is food, they'll more than likely be tuna. Last year there were fish right inside Cape Cod Bay picking bluefish off fishermen's umbrella rigs in 30 feet of water! An 1100 pound fish was caught in the bay just two miles from shore. These bay fish are bluefish feeders and are all usually very big fish. The bay is a great spot for a smaller boat to get in on the action close to shore. Try fishing a mile or two off Provincetown's Wood End Light. Just beware if you're fishing in the bay, these fish are usually tougher than nails, twice the size of an average Northeast giant. . If you don't mind burning the fuel, early in the season there are many fish out at Wild Cat Knoll, but these fish can usually only be caught on the troll since they are transcient fish on the move. As the season progresses, most fish settle in closer to shore, and can be caught more readily on live and cut bait at Stellwagon, Jefferey's, the Rockpile, and the Great South Channel.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR
Every fisherman knows that diving birds mean fish. The same rule applies in offshore waters when looking for tuna. However it is whales that bluefin fishermen really keep an eye out for. Whales and bluefin tuna are often coexisting creatures. When whales feed, they create an intense circular bubble trap that forces bait to ball up in the middle, and giant tuna love to jump right into the party for an easy snack. So if you spot whales surfacing with clusters of birds over them get your lines in...fast! Be sure to keep a close eye on your finder as well. Chances are if you find clusters of bait, there will be tuna around.
HOW DO YOU CATCH GIANTS?
The temperment of a giant bluefin changes constantly and drastically. One day the fish are feeding on top and will only eat top water trolled or drifted baits. Other days the'yre down deep hanging just above the thermoclyne eating only live bait. For those of you who are unaware, the thermoclyne is a substantial underwater temperature change that runs along a fixed depth, usually at around 80 to 150 feet. I've even witnessed days when we had to fish whole dead mackeral right off the bottom targeting lazy giant scavengers. As boring and uneventful as it seems, this tactic proved to be one of the more productive methods last season when all else failed. It's anything but rocket science! I've witnessed countless days when the entire fleet was hooked up to a fish, and the VHF sounded like a bombing raid. Last season my mate CJ and I caught two 600 plus pound fish in just over two hours! I've seen many more days when the entire fleet is dormant without a bent rod in sight...except for a few lucky anglers that kept the rest of us guessing and cursing and guessing again. I've employed some truly bizarre and borderline ridiculous tactics to try and coerce a giant to eat. A common tuna fishing superstition is that bluefin tuna cannot see the color black. I really don't know who the marine biologists are who invented this theory, where they come from, or if they even truly exist. What I do know however is that every piece of hardware in my tuna tackle, right down to the crimp, is colored black before it hits the water. A black indelidgable marker works the magic just fine. Sunscreen lotion is prohibited for anyone remotely associated with the baits on my vessel. If your mate greases up and then rigs a beautifully looking trolling bait, you might as well be fishing with a banana. According to the ³marine biologists", tuna have an impeccable sense of smell. The bottom line is you need to learn, experiment with, and employ many different tactics of fishing when persuing giant bluefin tuna. Don't be afraid to try different things. Giant fishing is most definitely an art, and artists need to be creative! These fish eat a wide variety of prey, but once they become fixated on something, they usually stay on it. Hence you must match the hatch as best as you can. No captain, nor mate for that matter, enjoys turning the cockpit upsidedown to change over his or her rigging strategy, but sometimes it has to be done to get the action. If you can pull this off, you'll be one step ahead of the game and that much closer to squaring off with one of the worlds biggest and most exciting gamefish.
I'd like to fill you in on some trolling tactics that I have found work well when fishing in topwater conditions. For starters you need to get an idea of what the tuna are feeding on. More times than not, surface feeding giants will be munching on green mackeral, ocean herring, and / or short-beeked ballyhoo. I prefer rigging naked deadbaits with a chin wieght attatched, and trolling them at around three to four knots. I also frequently run a squid bar or two in front of a swimming bait as a teaser. I've found that squid rigs do work by themselves, but mostly in the early season. I like to fish four baits, two long baits from each of the outriggers back about 100 to 150 yards and two more from my two center riggers, one back about 50 and the other back around 75 yards. If I don't see much surface activity or I'm marking fish down deep, I'll usually employ one or two planers to bring down the baits. I'll also bring the boat to a stop for a couple of minutes, and let the baits sink down a bit. Then I'll make a hard turn and get back up to speed. This maneuver will cause the outside baits to dart up to the surface which can sometimes help to elicit a strike. Watch your baits as you're letting them out. You want the speed that makes them swim the most naturally. If you notice them turning or swimming sideways, slow it down a bit. Remember, it is your baits that connect you to fish. If they don't look right, you might as well start chunking or call it a day and go get a nice big breakfast on shore. The more limp and flexible they are, the better they'll swim So be sure that they're completely defrosted before you decide to drop them back. Don't be afraid to re-rig or even replace a bait that won't swim right. Always leave yor reel's drag in the strike position.
LIVE BAIT AND CHUNKING
For most offshore fishermen on the prowl, a sportfishing fleet is a sight for sore eyes. As much as I treasure finding fish on my own, discovering an offshore angling convention usually brings me a positive sense of reassurance and familiarity... which don't always come easy when you're a three hour jaunt from land. Keep in mind there is usually a reason why several boats, sometimes hundreds, are working the same area, and more times than not, the reason is fish. The fleet is a huge aid for captains that are new to the game. Usually, vessels inside the fleet are dropping baits down deep and may even be chumming. I'm not a huge fan of chumming for giants, simply because of the numbers of dogfish it attracts which will without a doubt ruin a day of fishing. So if you see the guy next to you shoveling bait into the water, pick up and move shop. When fishing deep, I prefer using live bait, preferably a 5 pound bluefish bridled to a size 12 Owner Gorilla hook. A live ocean herring is my second choice ,and a size 9 Gamagatzu Live Bait hook run through the eye sockets seems to work best in this application. These critters can be caught on Sabiki rigs jigged right off of the bottom. If you don't have live bait, try a whole dead mackeral.
When I am employing deep bait fishing, I find it is advantageous to stagger the placement of the baits, and to seperate them by attatching inflated balloons. The balloons will act like bobbers, and will allow your baits to drift with the tide away from the boat. Simply drop down your bait to the desired depth, and then attatch an inflated balloon to your line by employing a double overhand knot around the line with the balloon tie. Be sure to make the knot tight enough to prevent the line from slipping through the knot once the balloon is in the water. Otherwise your baits will end up as cod bait on the bottom. I like to start my spread by running an unwieghted live bluefish 50 feet from an attatched balloon 100 yards or so away from the boat. I then usually put a second bait down somewhere in the thermoclyne, running that off of a balloon as well. It is very important to place at least one of your baits somewhere in the thermoclyne area. The thermoclyne is usually filled with plankton and other forms of small sea life, and will show up on your finder as a faint fuzz of scatterred dots. It is here where you will mark most of your fish. I will then usually place a third dead bait right off the bottom in case there are scavenger feeders around. If you decide to give this a try, you may be shocked by how much wieght is required to pull it off. If there is a moon tide present, you might have to use four pounds of lead! This line I'll run directly from the rod tip with no balloon attatched so that I can monitor the line's scope and tension, making sure that the bait is not dragging across the bottom. Once your baits are in, be sure and check them regularly. Dogfish and striped bass like herring and mackeral just as much as tuna do. Also keep a close eye on the balloons and your rod tips at all times. Sometimes a giant will grab a bait and swim toward the boat. I've seen hookups where the rod tip barely moved or a balloon quietly drifted out of sequnce with the others. If you think a fish is on your line, reel like mad. Always reel hard when you can when fighting a fish. The last thing you want is any slack in the line enabling the hook to become dislodged. Always leave your reel's drag in the strike position.
CJ began dropping back the second bait behind the wash. BABANG!!! The boat shook and the starboard outrigger snapped back violently. My heart catapolted, and before I had time to think, one of the rods was doubled over and a Penn 130 screamed out like a chainsaw. I stared in a bewildered stupor at the monstrous boil off of the starboard quarter. This was a huge fish! CJ frantickly cranked in the 2nd bait, and tossed it back into the brine box. ³We're clear!" The reel continued it's submissive wail, dumping line at an alarming rate, now well into the dacron. I slammed the gears into a hard reverse, and prayed. The twin diesels let out a thunderous roar, and theCastafari lurched backwards into the ocean. Every inch of the cockpit rattled violently as we pounded the transom toward the direction of the fish. The reel still bellowed, and the rod remained severely arched. In a panicked anxt I layed down even harder on the throttles, and soon whitewater began pouncing over the stern from all directions. The boat shook as if it was about to burst into pieces, slamming into the stubborn waves that now began to overtake and pour in over the transom. Within a matter of seconds the cockpit became a tub of floating debris. CJ, despite being pelted and soaked by the assailing sea, remained by the reel, and just when we thought we would be spooled, the reels whining suddenly haulted. The rod tip began to lift. ³He's coming at us!" CJ screamed. ³Go go go!" And as CJ reeled for life, I slammed the gears into foward, and layed down on the throttles. The Castafari lunged foward, and I wondered about where the furious fish was headed. This is a prime example of what happens when your and a giant's world collide.
Despite the need for a couple of heavy duty gaffs, you will also need a cockpit harpoon with a dart attatched to 300 feet of 1/4" line, a laundry basket to hold the line, and an inflated mooring ball to attatch to it. Tangling with a giant at the boat is a mindblowing experience for all fishermen, and believe me, you will need all the help you can get. For those of you who have brought a 100 pound plus yellowfin on board, multiply that madness by ten.Those daring enough to sink a gaff into a green 800 pound tuna should quit fishing and join our armed forces! I've seen guys get knocked down, slammed into and even over the transom messing with the wrong fish. Just last season a 600 pound plus fish threw me ten feet across my cockpit after I layed into it with a gaff, even though it was harpooned! A lot of fish are lost right at the boat. In fact the easy part of the battle is reeling them in. Subduing them is another story. Harpooning is a huge help in this respect. It adds one more connection between you and the fish, and believe me, even the most seasoned veterans in this business use a harpoon .Think about the strain the tackle has to endure when a huge fish is straight down beneath the boat, pulling and thrashing. The line can break. A crimp can give. A hook can pull free. The line can hit the boat. The trick is to throw the harpoon into the shoulder of the fish just behind the gill plate as soon as the fish is in range, and do it as hard as you can. If you don't get a solid shot, there's a chance that the dart might pull out of the fish, and in some cases,you won't get a second shot. Also be sure to avoid touching the line with the harpoon, or the excitement will come to an immediate hault. Once you hit the fish, make sure that there's nothing between the line basket and the harpoon. You don't want to end up pinned against the transom like Richard Dreyfus in Jaws, or even worse, go for an involantary underwater sliegh ride. Your harpoon should be attatched to a retreiveing line so that you can get it back after the dart is placed into the fish. Most fish , once harpooned, will stop in their tracks, especially if they're worn out. Some fish however, don't get worn out by the angler and instead swim right to the boat with a very bad attitude. Don't harpoon these green fish right away. If you do, you better have a lot of line, more legnth than the ocean's depth , attatched to a full sized mooring ball, and be ready to go after the fish. If you're inside a fleet of boats, this can become a nightmare. I stuck a green fish last season, and then watched 200 feet of line vaporize, the orange ball bounce off the transom, and disappear beneathe the surface and into the fog never to be seen again. One more thing that's very important to remember is to back way off the drag once a fish is stuck. If the fishing line is too tight it will act as a saw, and possibly sever your harpoon line if the fish makes a final run.
If you want to purchase a harpoon set up all ready to go, talk to your local offshore tackle store. I know The Fishermen's Outfitter has some nice rigs all made up, basket and all. Most good marine stores will have mooring balls in stock and should be able to splice a line into a dart for you. I like to keep a few set ups on board. I could write a novel on the do's and don'ts of harpooning a fish. The bottom line is to be careful, and to educate your crew on who's in charge of the harpoon BEFORE the mayhem begins.
Another thing you or your mate will need is a good pair of wiring gloves. Don't even think about touching the line connected to a big fish without them. Wiring a giant is a scary proposition for anybody, even with a pair of gloves. The only thing I can say not to do is to wrap the line around your hand more than once. If you do, and the fish decides to leave the premises, so will you...glove or no glove. I had a mate get pulled over the gunnel three years ago, and luckily, the leader broke before he was dragged beneathe the surface. He had made a bunch of wraps, and couldn't release the fish when it went bezerk after feeling the harpoon. You should be ready and able to release the leader at all times while wiring a giant. If you horse the fish, there's a solid chance that you'll break it off anyway. Do not try and hold a fish that is consistently trying to go the other way. You may have to let go of the leader a few times before a fish is truly ready. I spent 20 minutes wiring a fish in the dark two years ago; while my charter clients impatiently cursed and moaned. Eventually the fish was harpooned and the cursing stopped. It is also extremely important to remember for the angler to back off the drag at least half way once the wireman has ahold of the leader. If you forget, and the fish makes a run...snap,bye bye, and watch out! Also a good wireman should never touch or coil the line until the leader swivel is in reach. Noone will appreciate a handful of line turning into a tangled mess just before a nice fish breaks off.
A giant tuna fisherman who's fishing commercially really doesn't truly close the deal on a fish until he or she has the beast dragging by the tail behind the boat. That's when I can take a sigh of relief anyway. Once a fish is tailroped and being dragged, it is, for the most part, subdued. Just be careful not to run the fish over while your putting a line around it's tail.. You can use a dock line for a tailrope if you don't have a real one. John White makes them up out of heavy duty cable attatched by a shackle spliced into braided rope, and sells them in his stores and catelog for a very reasonable price.(Fishermen's Outfitter) I use his set up, and it works great. One thing to remember when tail roping a giant is to loosen up the harpoon line and the fishing line before you start to drag the fish to avoid scraping up the body. Once the fish is dragging you will want to bleed it as soon as possible by severing the gills with a gaff or harpoon. I usually drag the fish once it starts bleeding for around twenty minutes. The trick is to get rid of as much of the blood as you can since the blood is hot from lactic acid build up and cooks the meat of the fish, especially after a long fight. This cooking process can drive down the quality of the meat drastically, and more importantly, the overall sale price of the fish. Once a fish is bled, haul it on board with a block and tackle, remove all it's entrails, and pack the stomach cavity full of ice. Then get you and your fish to the dock...pronto.
Well I hope after reading this article you have developed an appreciation for the sport of giant bluefin tuna fishing, and maybe you're planning to give it a try! One thing to keep in mind is that a typical day of giant fishing usually involves a whole lot of waiting, and in many cases, a whole lot of nothing. To catch these fish you need to spend time out on the water. I've experienced instances where we fished a week straight without a single bite the entire time out there! I'm not trying to discourage you, but instead educate you on a little reality. I have also experienced plenty of days similar to the opening scenerio in this article. The bottom line is you never know what nature has in store. There are a lot of variables in this sport, some contolable some not. The trick is to take control of as much as you can. Get the right bait, even if it means spending an afternoon prior to your trip catching it. Install a good livewell in your boat. Make friends with a seafood distributer that can get you fresh bait. Stock your tackle supply with what you need and then some. Get yourself a good mate or friend who doesn't get green at the drop of a dime on board. Sharpen and change your hooks frequently. Check your leaders and line for knicks and abrasions. Try different things! Who knows, you might surprise yourself. The bottom line is this type of fishing is work...hard work, and not all fishermen are cut out for it. There is a reward for the work though, a very big and unforgettable high that keeps us giant fishermen going back for more. You have to experience it for yourself to understand. I have introduced friends to this sport that are now hooked for life. My livingroom becomes a tackle station...in January. All I can say is that it won't be long before we do it again in 2002. If you're an offshore fishing enthusiast without a boat, give me a call, and my mate and I will try our best to put you on a fish. Best of luck, and hopefully, we'll see you out on the water!