New Jersey Bluefin Tactics

Learn how to capitalize on New Jersey's hot bluefin tuna bite.
Capt. Jim Freda

The bluefin tuna is truly a fish for all seasons off New Jersey. Here in the Garden State you can regularly catch bluefin ranging from 30 to 125 pounds from late May right on through December. One of the beauties of this fishery lies in the biology of the bluefin, which can tolerate the late-season cool New Jersey waters by a process of body temperature thermoregulation.

Bluefin are targeted with a variety of methods, including trolling, jigging, chunking, or sightcasting. Choosing your technique depends on the time of year, and here is a chronological look at how to approach targeting and catching bluefin throughout the long New Jersey season.


It's always exciting when the first bluefin show up in late May. These fish are usually in the 40- to 60-pound class and can be anywhere from 20 to 60 miles out from Manasquan Inlet. In May, bluefin are moving up from the south in search of bait including anchovies, butterfish, herring, tinker mackerel, squid, and sandeels. For this reason, it has traditionally been a trolling game to track the tuna down.

Having good local intel can be a key to success, but if that's not available a little science will help. Bluefin will be attracted to structures such as ledges, drop-offs, ridges and wrecks, along with temperature breaks and boundaries of clear and dirty water. These last two features trap plankton, the beginning of any marine food chain, which in turn will attract the bait. Then come the bluefin. Once you spot other forms of sea life in a promising area such as whales, porpoises, rays, and tuna chicks, then you have a dead giveaway that a productive food chain has been established.

If you know where temperature breaks of only a few degrees or turbidity edges that go from dirty to clear water are located before you go, it means you've done your homework. By using satellite imagery you'll have the GPS coordinates of prime areas and then be able to plug them into your chart plotter. If a temperature or turbidity break occurs along a bottom contour, I will hug this line tightly as I troll.

If a lot of smaller baits like anchovies or sandeels are present, then rig trolling rods with small feathers or Reel Seat spreader bars, daisy chains, or Clark spoons. If much bigger baits are present such as large squid, mackerel, or herring than I will drag large zuckers, jets, and cedar plugs along with 9-inch Sterling Tackle or Canyon Runner squid spreader bars and green machines.

Two trolling methods that usually produce some of the biggest tuna are trolling ballyhoo on Joe Shutes way back in the spread or on trolling planers. The way-back method involves setting two or three rods staggered way back behind the boat between 150 and 300 yards. Trolling speeds are between 4 and 5 knots. While these baits are being pulled, 24 to 32-ounce planers can be dropped off the outrodders, bringing baits or artificials down to about 40 feet. Deep diving plugs will also work if you do not have planers, but change out the standard trebles to the heavy-duty variety.


Commercial scallop draggers work the offshore grounds for a period of time in the spring, and trolling around these vessels while they drag the bottom can be a gold mine as the bluefin will get in behind these boats and eat the scraps that dislodge as they rake the bottom. The real magic happens, however, when the scallopers stop and begin to shuck their catch.

As discards flow out of the dragger's chute, a tantalizing chum slick pulls the bluefin in. When this happens, getting in as tight as you can to the scalloper and baiting a hook with fresh scallop guts will result in an instant hook-up. To score bait you can often trade with a cooperative scalloper, or purchase five-gallon buckets of guts at some marinas. We have also discovered that unsalted, shucked clams put on a hook and drifted back into a slick work equally as well. Flats of these clams are available in local tackle shops.

Scallop guts or shucked clams should be fished on a 60-pound fluorocarbon leader with a 7/0 Gamakatsu circle hook. I use 60-pound Fins braid and conventional gear when the tuna are up to 80 pounds. If bigger bluefin in the 80- to 125-pound class move in, I switch to an 80-pound fluorocarbon leader and 80-pound Fins braid.


Around the time the scallopers disappear, jigging and chunking become the go-to techniques for bluefin. Surface waters warm into the upper 70s to low 80s during the heat of the summer months, and this will push the bluefin down below the thermocline into the cooler, deeper waters, making trolling less effective.  

Summer bluefin in central New Jersey can range from footballs of about 30 pounds up to 80-pounders, with the much larger bluefin usually absent.  I will always use a combination of chunking and jigging together when I set up on the tuna grounds. When chunking I usually use 40 to 60-pound wind-on fluorocarbon leaders and increase to 70 pounds if the bluefin just happen to be on the larger size over 80 lbs. The leader is tied to a 6/0 or 7/0 Gamakatsu Octopus inline circle hook that's hidden in the bait. I prefer a whole sardine, and it's important to use some light copper rigging wire to close the mouth of the bait. This will prevent the sardine from spinning and instead cause it to flutter in a more natural manner as it sits in the current.


New Jersey's prime winter bluefin action comes from casting stickbaits or poppers at surface-feeding fish. Prime time for topwater bluefin is usually the middle of November right through the end of December. During this time we see a southerly migration of big 100 to 200-pound bluefin moving south only a few miles off the beach.

Casting topwaters to big tuna requires specialized spinning rods and reels. I use heavy-action St. Croix, Spinal, Shimano Terez or Van Staal rods. Match them with high-end spinning reel like a Shimano Stella or Van Staal that can exert the necessary drag you'll need to put tuna in the boat.

Most anglers know how to fish a popper but fishing a stickbait is different. These artificials are lipless and are made to dart and slash just below and across the water when the angler imparts a low sweep with the rod followed by a quick turn of the reel to take up the slack. This motion is then repeated while varying your speed.

New Jersey offers dependable action for bluefin tuna from the end of May through December, but you'll want to vary your tactics depending on the season. Photos by Jim Freda
When water temps hit the high 70s during the New Jersey summer, the bluefin will often move down deep below the thermocline. In these conditions, you can target the bluefin tuna using a combination of chunking and jigging.
Local pros deploy an array of vertical jigs on high-speed reels to horse in bluefin tuna up to the 80-pound class.
This FishTrack Chlorophyll image shows clean, blue water moving in over the offshore canyons and ledges. Using satellite imagery to find color and temperature breaks over structure will help you pinpoint potential hot spots.
Action can get hot and heavy in New Jersey's nearshore waters when tuna season fires up. Here, a bluefin comes aboard while others bust bait in the background.
Bluefin tuna are one of the most targeted commercial species in the ocean because of the fish's high grade of sushi. Many local anglers are involved with bluefin tuna conservation. Capt. Jim Freda is a tagging partner with the Atlantic Tuna Project.

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