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NOAA Fisheries has officially adjusted the Atlantic bluefin tuna daily retention limits for vessels permitted in the Highly Migratory Species Angling category and HMS Charter/Headboat category effective April 26.
By Jim Hutchinson, Jr.
While the troll and jig bite on bluefin is still a ways away for midrange hunters, offshore anglers are already studying temperature charts in search of those early eddies entering Northeast canyons.

NOAA Fisheries has officially adjusted the Atlantic bluefin tuna daily retention limits for vessels permitted in the Highly Migratory Species (HMS) Angling category and the HMS Charter/Headboat category (when fishing recreationally for BFT) effective April 26.

For private HMS Angling category-permitted vessels, the adjusted retention limit is two school bluefin tuna (27 to less than 47 inches) and one large school/small medium bluefin (47 to less than 73 inches).

Those fishing with an HMS Charter/Headboat category permit when fishing recreationally, the adjusted retention limit is three school bluefin tuna (27 to less than 47 inches) and one large school/small medium bluefin (47 to less than 73 inches).

NOAA Fisheries will continue to monitor bluefin closely. HMS Charter/Headboat and Angling category vessel owners are required to report the catch of all BFT retained or discarded dead, within 24 hours of the landing(s) or end of each trip, by accessing the HMS Permit Shop (hmspermits.noaa.gov) using the HMS Catch Reporting App, or calling 888-872-8862 (Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. until 4:30 p.m.).

While the adjusted retention limit will carry through the end of 2018, depending on fishing effort and catch rates, additional retention limit adjustments or fishery closures may be necessary to ensure available quota is not exceeded or to enhance scientific data collection from, and fishing opportunities in, all geographic areas.

The latest HMS update for anglers is good news as it’s an improvement over the previous regulations; the new rules also come at a good time as offshore fishermen prepare to meet the run of early season spring bluefin heading up from southern waters.

“The fish seem to show up moving along the 20 and 30 fathom line to the north sometime in June depending on where you are located,” noted Capt. Steve Bent in a an earlier piece for The Fisherman’s New Jersey, Delaware Bay edition. Capt. Bent who has been chartering (Free Spirit Charters) out of Cape May County, NJ since 1978 said his experience shows the bite usually starts as a trolling bite.

“These fish are generally found around structure along the 20 and 30 line although I have caught many tuna well inshore of these areas so be alert for signs as you run off,” Bent said, adding “Some of the best days ever happen when you find the fish away from the maddening crowds.

Perennial South Jersey hot spots include Massey’s, 19 Fathom Lump, the Hotdog, the Sausages, the Cigar, and the Lobster Claw.

Moving farther North and East, a couple of early bluefin can be found around the Texas Tower, but Jake Gray at White Water Outfitters in Hampton Bays, NY said the Coimbra Wreck seems to be a pretty good starting point for his anglers who generally begin the bluefin hunt around the Father’s Day weekend for a more consistent bite. “Guys are starting to watch the water temperatures now,” Gray said, explaining that if an eddy pushes into the canyon during the spring there’s a good shot at an early start to the bluefin action. “The bluefin do run into the canyon a little earlier, but not a lot of people do that,” Gray said.

Like those along the Jersey Coast, Gray said about 75% of the Long Island fleet is on the troll to start the bluefin run, though a few will try their hand at early chunking and jigging. “There’s a very good jig bite when sand eels are around,” Gray noted, saying the presence of that particular bait turns many folks over to jigs and soft plastics like the Hogy’s and RonZ lures.

Capt. Kerry Douton from J&B Tackle in Niantic, CT said guys should keep the surface fishing gear ready to go if that bite turns on, but reinforced the idea that trolling is the most effective way to hit bluefin in the early part of the season. “Late June, early July is when we’re first starting to see some things happening, you may see it offshore a little earlier than that, but it’s really from about the second week of July on when they’ll stay around,” he said, explaining that it’s all about the bait.

Douton said the bluefin tend to come up along 30 to 35 fathoms and work to the northwest corner of the Dump, but the presence of sand eels and other prime bluefin foodstuff will dictate what those tuna will do. “Last year we had fish pretty much all summer, but it’s a year to year thing,” he said.

As reports begin to materialize, Douton said a lot of his guys will start trolling south/southwest of Montauk and begin working their way to the east.

In this week’s edition of The Fisherman (May 3, 2018), available online and in print exclusively for subscribers, Capt. Jim Freda has detailed his preferred way of hitting those spring bluefin in this week’s Offshore column.

“A highly effective method to catch some of the biggest bluefin that are in an area is to employ the waaay back method,” Capt. Freda writes, explaining how he trolls ballyhoo rigged on 1-, 3-, 5-, or 8-ounce Joe Shutes. “My spread on my 28 Parker Sport Cabin consists of three rigged Shutes set at 600, 450, and 300 feet behind my boat.”

Before hitting the bluefin grounds this spring, be sure to check out Capt. Freda’s article in The Fisherman; and don’t forget to visit the HMS Permit Shop first. All owners/operators of vessels in the U.S. Atlantic Ocean, Gulf of Mexico, and Caribbean must obtain a federal permit to recreationally for regulated Atlantic highly migratory species (HMS) including bluefin, bigeye, albacore, yellowfin, and skipjack (as well as sharks, swordfish and billfishes).

The Atlantic HMS Angling Permit is available for $20 and authorizes vessels to recreationally fish for or retain any Atlantic HMS with rod & reel; tunas, sharks, and swordfish with handline; and free-swimming tunas (excluding bluefin) with a speargun.