Year after year, more Northeast and Mid-Atlantic anglers are taking the ride to trophy town.
As we sat amongst the midday traffic in the shadow of the Big Apple, we had plenty of time for conversation. Like, “when would we get moving again,” or “what’s for dinner?” Being the summer of 2017, there was also a bit of banter about whether our Eagles had a chance that fall against the likes of the Giants in the NFC, or against the Patriots (should it ever get that far).
When the Tastykake wrappers and ice tea cans began piling up as high as the fish stories, the gridlock dissipated and we were once again steadily moving toward Hyannis, Massachusetts. There we’d leave in the predawn hours on our two-hour boat ride to the Nantucket Shoals where doormat dreams have more potential to come to fruition than anywhere on earth.
Bottom fishing specialist Capt. Jeff Viamari of Bad Influence Charters is dialed in on cod, haddock, sea bass, tautog, and yes, our beloved fluke. Having started his fishing career on the Cape Cod head boats at the ripe old age of 12, he continued employment in the party fleet up until starting his own guide service about five years ago, a six pack operation that was perfect for my band of South Jersey buddies.
It was foggy and dark when we left port that following morning, and there wasn’t much time for small talk. It’s safe to say it was far more interesting than the highway creep talk the prior day, especially as we learned about how to fish the famed Nantucket Shoals extending from Nantucket Island eastward for 23 miles and southward for 40.
“That first dropper loop is a little bit high,” Viamari pointed out as we asked for rig opinions on the stuff tied prior to the trip. “Tie it off about 6 inches from the sinker and then tie the other 12 inches higher,” Viamari advised, adding “make sure the dropper loops are more than 4 inches or there is more chance of the bait spinning.”
My buddy Robby and I made enough additional rigs on the two-hour steam out to meet the requirements of five trips considering snags are rare with practically no hard structure.
“My go to rig is a high/low rig with two small bucktails,” Viamari expressed, adding that he prefers using local lure makers because they can alter their products to his personal specifications. “I like the small bucktails with larger hooks, preferably 5/0 or 6/0, and with custom colors. Dante at Magictails and Dominic at Backwater Baits have been very responsive to feedback and created some great lures for here. We work to come up with color patterns that work in the northeast.”
The sun slowly melted the morning fog and cast a light on 1- to 2-foot seas, making for a comfortable cruise aboard the 35-footer. “The shoals can be no joke,” Viamari said. “The rips are ever-changing, which make for major hazards where deep waters can abruptly change to as little as 5 to 7 feet.” The Shoals didn’t show their ugly side on this day however, and the lack of any discernible fishing fleet on the grounds were a surprise to our Jersey crew accustomed to parking lot conditions back at home.
But aside from what can happen on the bad days, the Nantucket Shoals ranks at the top for containing offshore rips that are unparalleled in holding fluke – and huge ones at that. Those dramatic uprisings, drops, slopes and disturbed water spots gather the forage base that fluke wait to pounce upon. Only precise drifts over favored features produce. Sometimes skippers can even see forage in the form of sand eels, squid, mackerel and other small fish on their sounder.
Upon throttling down, the six of us fastened 6-inch Gulp! grubs tipped with spearing onto our variety of colorful rigs. We staggered about the boat and dropped lines into depths of about 85 feet. Tides were running at moderate speeds so we were able to begin the day with 8 ounces, and with the crew using mostly 30-pound test braid, the lines scoped equally. It’s important that anglers not waver too much on braid diameter or lines will pay out in a different manner, which makes tangles more likely. On this trip, two of us were dropping 20-pound braid and four were using 30-pound so the difference was not too dramatic.
About five minutes into the day, my PENN Battalion doubled over and the boat was hooked up for the first time. After a spirited fight, Capt. Jeff scooped up the 6-pound fluke and we were on our way. Every five minutes or so, someone would catch another fish, with fish averaging 4 to 6 pounds; everyone participated in the action, and when each drift was over, we’d head back and repeat drifts in the same vicinity of the previous action.
“Drift speeds can range from no drift to 3 knots so most of my customers come with four rod outfits each,” Viamari said. An Accurate Reels pro-staffer, Viamari said the strong or crawling currents make having rod options nice. Weights attached to rigs can similarly range in size. “We use 2 to 16 ounces,” the skipper said, adding “when the current is slow, guys bucktail more, but when it’s fast we use the rigs. I definitely prefer a tide that is moving.”
After boxing a bunch of fluke to 8-1/2 pounds, the tide began to sputter, and the bite tailed off.
Time for a Move
At the next spot, we were greeted with more favorable current and a variety of fish showed up. “Biscuit,” the captain exclaimed with a grin. “The sea bass run big here.” We all cranked up sea bass in the 3- to 4-pound range, and if there wasn’t a black sea bass, there was a mutilated or broken bait that needed replacing. I looked to my left and saw Robby’s father John cranking away and the headshake gave the fish’s identity up. This was not going to be another sea bass. Viamari, also recognizing a decent fluke on the line, was poised and ready when the 8-pound fluke showed up at the surface. Extension, scoop, summer flounder in net. The fluke bite rallied and half the boat had decent flatties on the line, the other half hammered by black sea bass, all the while Viamari hustled around the boat landing fish.
It also became evident that if anyone got the presentation too high off the bottom or reeled in too slowly, they were in peril of getting nailed by a blue. Bluefish events are unwelcome because they threaten rig integrity and make tangle more likely. We hooked up with about five on the trip. Furthermore, dogfish exist on the grounds and occasionally mimic a big fluke. Since the dogs spin and wrap in the leader and mainline, it’s best for anglers to inspect and change terminal tackle after one tampers with the fluking.
Once during the outing, I went through 25-minute lull and I believe that my leader had suffered a little bit of fatigue from reeling and dropping. My hesitation in changing out may have cost me hook-ups, and when you are fishing at Doormat Shoals, time lost is not acceptable. So if there are any inklings about rig integrity, baits spiraling improperly, or anything else, anglers must change out in order not to lose time.
Upon a slow down at spot number two, Capt. Viamari had us pull lines, and we were off to try some shallower shoals. On the way, we continued to learn about his experience with what works best. “Berkley Gulp! is the key to all my rigs,” Viamari said matter of fact. “I like pink shine, pink, chartreuse, white and nuclear chicken.” When asked about putting additional bait such as spearing on the Gulp! he said, “It works for many of my customers. In fact, some guys put two, three or four spearing on a hook. Then if one gets knocked off or eaten, there are more. Plus it shows additional size and scent.”
He’d get no argument on these choices because by then, we were in throw back mode on solid fluke often over 5 pounds. Each of the Gulp! colors worked, sometimes paired with spearing and sometimes not. And sometimes the guys dressed the Gulp! with squid strips for success. All presentations seemed to work.
While observing the action around the vessel, one thing became apparent. The anglers that jigged most effectively received the most strikes. The small rapid-fire, jigging motion with the wrist outdueled the longer sweeping jig strokes. And strikes they were! The hits were ferocious, no-doubt-about it inhalations most of the time. We apparently left the taste-and-see fluke back home at the Jersey Shore. Even though most takes were by large and in-charge fish, occasionally when a guy swung and missed, they’d feed it back and recommence jigging to draw a second strike from the same fluke.
Drop Number Three
The action was strong at spot three as our party caught fluke from 3 to 8 pounds with biscuits aplenty. At one point Robby broke from the top and bottom rig and used a three-way swivel rig and 36-inch leader that ran down to the a Gulp! Nemesis behind a B-2 plastic squid. Earlier in the day, Viamari said that the long “dragger” rig was probably his second choice in rigs that it “always has its moments.”
It certainly did for our guy as he landed an 8-pounder five minutes into drift number one. “That rig with the long leader usually works even better when the current picks up,” Viamari said. Our current wasn’t flying by any means at about 1.5 mph, but the old-school presentation produced as it has for generations.
We continued to catch plenty of fluke of all sizes at our last stop for the day before setting sail for Hyannis. The ride in didn’t include the sweatshirts and layers the morning fog and chill required, but rather, T-shirts and shorts. As we rounded the island of Nantucket we saw boats fishing for stripers while sailboats cruised by. Small waves crashed on the bars and shoals surrounding the oasis in the Atlantic.
The distance from the mainland and potential hazards make “do-it-yourself” trips to these shoals more difficult than the average fluke fiesta, hence the tiny amount of boats fluking the shoals. And Nantucket, while having a super-cool vibe for a vacationer, is also super expensive.
There are party and charter boats ready for those leaving from the mainland, or even those staying on Nantucket. It’s important to come prepared on whatever boat you hire. Captain Viamari suggests at least two conventional rods and reels. He prefers the Accurate Valiant 300 paired with a custom Rod Geeks 733 rod. Our crew did well with Maxel, Avet and PENN Squall reels joined to a variety of rod choices from PENN, Black Hole and Tsunami.
I’m pretty sure I’m the only one who used a spinner when I was able to bag an 8-pounder using a PENN Clash reel. Anglers shouldn’t go offshore without a healthy stash of Gulp! offerings in the previously mentioned colors. Since fog can hang around, foul weather bibs and jackets must be packed just in case.
Obviously we were tired on the ride home, taking turns at the wheel and sharing some of our new experiences. And interestingly enough, our Philadelphia Eagles beat the New England Patriots thus answering one of our big drive-time topics of last summer. But it would only be right to show adequate sportsmanship in mentioning that the Boston Celtics just took down the Philadelphia 76ers in five as I put the finishing touches on this piece.
Sports rivalry fun, regional fishing talk and great times happen when fishing up and down the coast. Nantucket Shoals fluke fishing should definitely be a trip on your bucket list. You can reach Capt. Jeff at Bad Influence Charters by calling 413-478-2300.