Fishing the Northeast Canyons

Temperature breaks over the Northeast canyons attract game fish in big numbers.
Capt. John Galvin

The Northeast canyons provide spectacular summer fishing for a number of pelagic favorites. As the tourist season approaches here in New England, so does the warm water of the Gulf Stream and "canyon season." Between late June and early July, warm-water species such as mahi, wahoo and tuna begin to invade the waters of the canyons, which are directly accessible from any southern-facing port in New England.

The canyons are sharp cuts in the continental shelf that were formed by prehistoric glacier melt, and are found along a line where the shelf drops off into the open ocean and deep-water abyssal plain. The most commonly fished canyons of New England stretch from Hudson Canyon in the west to Hydrographer Canyon in the east, and depending on your port of departure the run can range from 70 to over 130 nautical miles.


As the warm water eddies break away from the Gulf Stream and travel towards the edge of the canyons, they are met by the cold, nutrient-rich waters of the Labrador Current from the north. The convergence of these currents often creates upwellings that will draw baitfish and, in turn, big pleagics. The longer a temperature break is allowed to sit over the edge, the better chance it has of sustaining a ecosystem rich with marine life. When running to a break, it's imperative to keep on the lookout for signs of life, including birds like shearwaters and Wilson's storm petrels, along with dolphins, whales, sea turtles, manta rays and, of course, fish.

Many times these indications of life will show well before the actual temperature break so it often pays to get your lines in before you reach your actual waypoint. Aboard my boat the Mulberry Canyon, we generally begin trolling approximately 10 miles north of the canyon edge on average. Closer in on the "flats" there is also a good amount of fixed lobster gear that holds life, mahi in particular. Pay close attention to the water temperature on the sounder, both while running to the fishing grounds and trolling. This will help you deduce the actual shape and location of the temperature break as predicted by the sea surface temperature (SST) charts you studied before leaving the dock.

The use of a SST service is the key to success when fishing the canyons. There are a number of services on the market, and our favorite is Monitoring the movement of the warm water eddies can help you get a feel for the speed and direction in which the productive water is moving.

If conditions are right, many times the warm water found here at the canyons will get pushed up far onto the shelf into areas locally known as the Dump and the Shipping Lanes. These locations are within striking of distance of boats that lack the range to reach the canyons. During the last four years we have witnessed a nice trend of the water making its way into these nearshore grounds, and 2013 in particular saw a superb mahi, wahoo, and longfin albacore bite within 50 miles of Martha's Vineyard.


Preferred tackle for the canyons ranges from 30 to 80 class, and most crews these days run stand-up gear. Our preferred setups are 30 and 50 Shimano Tyrnos reels and 80-class Tiagras for trolling. For jigging we employ Shimano Stella and Talica setups with butterfly jigs. For light-tackle spinning gear, 20-pound outfits are great fun when targeting the mahi found around debris and offshore lobster pots.

Generally the bait found in the canyons of New England is small to mid-size, and your best bet is to match the hatch. Trolling lures and medium- to select-sized ballyhoo are very effective at putting fish on the decks. Bullet, cup, and plunger-style lures, such as those from Canyon Gear, Legend Lures, and Beamish Custom Tackle are perfect for the waters here in New England. Rigged on 200-pound leader, these offerings will generate bites from mahi to marlin. Old standby baits like cedar plugs, feathers, Green Machine spreader bars and daisy chains will also provide a steady supply of bent rods. A trolling speed of 6.5 to 8 knots is perfect for raising mahi, albacore, yellowfin, and white marlin.

When trolling ballyhoo, skirted baits are the preferred setup, and aboard Mulberry Canyon we use Canyon Gear "Hoo Machines," Mold Craft Chuggers and Hookers, and custom-tied Sea Witches. A leader of 130 to 200 pound test is perfect for these rigs. Blue and white, green and yellow, and purple and black are all very effective color combinations as they mimic local forage like flying fish, chub mackerel and skipjack. Larger ballyhoo are very effective baits for bigeye tuna during the dusk and dawn hours of the day.

In addition to trolled lures and baits, we pull a Mold Craft Squid teaser off each rigger and a dredge off the cockpit corner to further increase the appeal behind the boat. While those in southern waters are very familiar with the value of a dredge behind the boat, they are often overlooked by Northeast canyon fishermen. While predominantly seen in fisheries rich with billfish, dredges attract all species of blue-water fish.


Because of the long distances traveled, many boats fishing the canyons will run overnight to maximize fishing time. When fishing the canyons at night, the standard operating procedure is to drift baits for swordfish, tuna, or both simultaneously. While many anglers will set up a single drift for the entire night, it's more effective to employ short, targeted drifts over structure.

Sardines and butterfish are the most commonly used bait when chunking for tuna at night. Though mackerel and herring are great baits, they tend to attract more sharks due to their oily nature. Cut the sardines or butterfish in small chunks, while saving the prime pieces for hook baits. A frequently used trick in conjunction with chunking is to set out a butterfly jig or diamond jig on an outrigger and let the boat do the work for you. Many times this lazy man's jigging method can put an extra fish or two in the box.

Swordfishing is almost exclusively done on the drift. Squid and mackerel are the ideal baits for nighttime swordfish, though much like with chunking for the tuna, the mackerel can be a homing beacon for sharks. There are two option of procuring squid baits for swords: purchase pre-packed squid or gather local specimens. While the pre-packed Illex squid work well, there are of a different species than the local Loligo squid that seem to garner more bites.

Warm water invaded our area early this season, and so far has been continuing to push in which should mean great fishing on the edge and up on the shelf this summer. Don't miss out on experiencing the world-class blue-water fishing that we have here in the New England canyons, and if you're an out-of-towner or your boat isn't quite up to the run, a host of boats carrying seasoned crews are available for charter.

When warm-water eddies off the Gulf Stream push ideal water over the canyons in the Northeast, you can expect to catch everything from mahimahi to marlin. The 2014 season has kicked off with warmer than usual water. Monitor sea surface temperature (SST) charts to plan your next outing.
Using FishTrack SST charts captains can highlight a key temperature break, such as this one currently over Hydrographer Canyon.
Fishing an overnighter in the canyon puts you in the perfect place to take advantage of an early morning billfish bite.
Set out your baits well before you hit the break for a shot at landing a trophy game fish like this wahoo.
Tuna are thick over the canyons and can even make an appearance closer to shore when warm water moves in.

Save time and fuel with the FishTrack app.