New England anglers wait with baited breath every season for the arrival of bluefin tuna. The waters off the coast of New England are right in the heart of north-south migration routes and provide the perfect summer home to these incredible fish. Beginning in late spring and early summer, the waters off the coast of Cape Cod see individuals from 50 to 1000 pounds beginning to show south of Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket, east of Chatham and on Stellwagen Bank.
Depending on your boat size and the tackle selection, there are a number of ways to chase these oceanic freight trains. The time of year also dictates the tactics used to catch the bluefin, as their feeding habits and locations alter as the season progresses.
TAKE UP THE SLACK
Regardless of location, one thing that must always be considered when targeting bluefin tuna is the timing of tides. Bluefin are caught throughout a day and even at night, but they feed most aggressively when the tide is slacking. Depending on where you fish in New England, there are generally two fishable slacks each day. Additionally, early morning and evening hours are prime, especially if they coincide with a slack tide.
SPRING INTO ACTION
The first good push of fish arrives off Cape Cod in June. These early-season fish can be quite thin from the trip up the coast from their winter spawning grounds in the Gulf of Mexico, but once here, copious amounts of mackerel, herring and sand eels provide forage for them to begin fattening themselves for the migration back south in the colder late autumn months.
Locations such as Crab Ledge and the BC Buoy are consistent hot spots for early-season anglers fishing the southern end of Cape Cod. The fleet here primarily trolls, but there is also a strong jigging/popping presence as well as some fishing live bait. For the boats that fish out of the north side of Cape Cod as well as ports further north to Boston and Cape Ann, their focus is primarily off Stellwagen Bank and Cape Cod Bay.
For light-tackle anglers, spring is prime time. Center consoles armed with beefed-up spinning and conventional outfits will be seen chasing surface feeds with poppers and furiously jigging on fish holding deeper in the water column. Both methods are fast paced and exciting ways to go after bluefin. Capt. Terry Nugent of Riptide Charters recommends that those looking to catch fish in this manner rig up properly because the size of the fish in a given school can greatly vary. He fishes Shimano Stella and SW Saragosa reels paired with custom rods for throwing at fish on the surface. Additionally, good radar is invaluable to finding fish in the distance. Nugent uses his radar to hone in on birds holding above fish.
Shell squid spreader bars are a go-to lure for anglers on the troll, with a spread of four to six bars common. Bars should be pulled from high in the rigger at a speed of 4 to 5 knots. The last bait on the middle line of the bar, the "stinger," should be a different color that those of the rest of the rig. Top producing colors include black, pink, green, and rainbow. For smaller boats lacking outriggers, splash bars are highly productive.
In recent years some boats have experimented with trolling large soft plastic baits such as HOGYs, Slug-Gos, and Shankas, especially around Stellwagen Bank. Soft baits are usually run way back off the long riggers and trolled at the same speed as the bars.
Live baiting for bluefin varies slightly from the grounds east of the Cape to those off the Stellwagen. Boats that choose to fish live bait east of Cape Cod tend to drift while using balloons, kites, or both. The boats off the north side ports tend to fish at anchor or "on the hook." These boats will fish baits from balloons, kites, or a combination of the two. Mackerel and menhaden are popular options for early-season fish.
The months of July and August can be a difficult time to target bluefin due to recreational boat traffic and warm water temperatures, and aboard Mulberry Canyon we alter our trolling methods to include natural bait such as mackerel or ballyhoo rigged for trolling to the spread. Additionally we employ #32 size planers to help get our baits down deep to fish holding in colder water. Often we dress up these baits with skirts from Canyon Gear and Joe Shute's Fish Finder Tackle. On greasy-calm days with the increased fleet size we will also downsize our fluorocarbon leaders to combat any leader-shy fish. With the increase in surface water temperature, the fish will push further offshore to find cooler water, creating longer runs to the fish.
Bluefish usually become abundant in July and August, and larger resident bluefin off Massachusetts will find it hard to pass up an easy bluefish meal. Fish live bluefish off kites and balloons by bridling them through the eye socket. When fishing large baits make sure your tackle matches, and anything less than 80W class is bringing a knife to a gunfight if a true giant takes the bait. Mackerel and menhaden are also commonly used live baits to target this larger demographic of fish.
Areas off Stellwagen Bank and the north side of Cape Cod are common areas for boats to fish live baits while anchored in the summer. It is not uncommon to see 50-100 boats all at anchor flying kites and drifting balloons. The fleets that fish off the east side of Cape Cod and Nantucket still tend to drift while live-baiting.
The vertical jigging crowd can also do quite well in summer. They are able to selectively target fish holding deep in the water column with butterfly-style jigs. This is a very specialized style of fishing and the best way to learn the ropes is to charter a trip with an expert.
FALL FOR GIANTS
Beginning in September, the bluefin start to make their way south or east to their winter spawning grounds. It is during this time of year that the largest specimens come through the Massachusetts waters in numbers, and can average anywhere from 200 to 1500 pounds. While the recreational fleets diminish, the commercial fleet descends on the same waters.
As the waters cool and the big fish move in the tactics alter again. Those of us who primarily troll ditch the squid bars and begin pulling more natural baits and also larger swimming plugs such as the MANN Stretch 40. On Mulberry Canyon we rig mackerel, ballyhoo, and mullet both naked and with skirts. Pulled from the riggers and on planers at speeds between 4 and 5 knots, the baits are sent further back into cleaner water. We primarily troll known locations such as the Regal Sword, Crab Ledge, and the Shipping Lanes off the coast of Chatham and Nantucket.
When targeting the giants that are migrating through Stellwagen Bank, Cape Cod Bay and waters East of Cape Cod, many boats switch gears and begin chunking dead bait. Herring and mackerel are commonly used both as chum and hook baits. In Cape Cod Bay, whiting are jigged up and used live in conjunction with chum. The key to chumming for bluefin is to watch the amount of chum you throw -- too much will attract dogfish or sharks; too little and you'll struggle to keep the bluefin in your slick. The high-lining boats are masters, through years of experience, at finding the sweet spot.
While it always important to watch the weather, the cold fall months in New England can be especially nasty and unpredictable. No fish is worth putting you or your crew's life in danger. Be sure to check the latest marine forecast before you head out to tangle with giants.