Bluefin have been arriving on nearshore waters sooner, and staying a lot longer, than in years past.
The bluefin tuna, also known by its Latin moniker thunnus thynnus, is the largest member of the scombridae family and is the ultimate warrior for many of us near offshore and bluewater anglers. The need to pursue these drag-scorching game fish is so strong with the devoted tuna hunting faithful, this relentless passion can cause captains and crews to lose their focus on anything that detracts from their next trip or the next hookup. What’s changed over the past three seasons is that bluefin are now arriving in northeast coastal waters sooner than expected and much closer to shore than usual.
The 2021 season saw some crazy bluefin tuna action in relatively shallow NY Bight waters, with many New Jersey, Brooklyn and western Long Island based anglers having the a season of a lifetime hooking large mediums and giants in 45 to 60 feet of water just a few miles off the beach; but it didn’t start or stop there. Anglers from the Jersey Shore to Cape Cod have also been quietly enjoying their own unique versions of this bluefin renaissance the past few seasons.
And one of the primary reasons for this nuanced shift in tuna migration habits? Food and plenty of it!
Follow The Food
State-by-state legislation implemented over the few decades has resulted in a gradual resurgence in bunker schools in NY Bight coastal waters. Relentlessly pursued by commercial boats in the past for their oil and meat for everything from vitamins, to fertilizer and cat food, numerous protective measures were put into place by federal and state agencies to protect this valuable resource from over-exploitation. The results can be clearly seen in the seismic shift in predatory gamefish migration habits over the past few seasons, from stripers to bluefin and everything in between, including coastal sharks. These fish must hunt and eat to survive and will follow their food supply across vast open oceans and costal routes to stay connected in this chain of life synergy. The massive increase in bunker schools returning to coastal waters has drawn the predators that feed on them into our area for extended stays versus the usual “just passing through” mode.
To many coastal anglers’ delight, this has opened up a world of new possibilities; with new fisheries springing up virtually overnight to enjoy this big game opportunity close to home port. The saying used to be, you needed a large boat that could handle unpredictable seas and travel a long way to battle big bluefins 30 to 50 miles or more offshore. These shallow water bluefin that are now shadowing massive inshore bunker schools have opened up this fishery to just about everyone in the coastal food chain.
If you had a boat that was seaworthy enough to make it to your local nearshore artificial reef, you had a boat that could hook up to a big bluefin tuna and be out there with the multi-million dollar sportfishers playing with one of the toughest fish on the planet. Years from now, these will be the “good old days” yet again.
Back to the Future
If you’ve been around long enough, inshore bluefin are not exactly a military secret. Although many new-wave captains and anglers are all claiming credit for “discovering” this fishery on the usual internet chat rooms and websites, legacy fishing clubs like the Freeport Tuna Club, Bay Shore Tuna Club, Manasquan River Marlin and Tuna Club, Shinnecock Marlin and Tuna Club, etc. were all formed in the heyday of what was the first iteration of the “modern sport fishing era”, and were chasing inshore bluefin tuna before most of us were born.
According to the history section of the Manasquan River Marlin and Tuna Club website, “The 1930s were exciting times for big-game anglers along the Jersey Coast. Bluefin tuna were plentiful, white marlin could be caught within a few miles of the beach and swordfish were caught on hook and line and harpooned in the nearby Mud Hole. It was a time when early big-game pioneers such as Ernest Hemingway, Kip Farrington, Van Campen Heilner, Michael Lerner and Zane Grey were writing stories and publishing books about the relatively new sport of big-game fishing. Local rod and gun columnists in New Jersey and metropolitan New York newspapers recorded the feats of local anglers.”
“On September 13th, 1915, Jacob Wertheim boated a 286-pound bluefin. Christian W. Feigenspan of Newark took a new world record bluefin of 407 pounds in 1923. Only 10 years later, Francis Low captured a gigantic (for that time) bluefin tuna weighing in at 705 pounds! Considering the tackle available at the time, with nothing more than a leather thumb stall to apply drag, and linen lines that rotted unless removed from the fishing reel each day, these catches were amazing feats of angling prowess and endurance. The fishing was so good at the Sea Bright Grounds that many legendary anglers visited these waters in hopes of catching a huge bluefin. Anglers from the Avalon Tuna Club in California, founded in 1898, and the Atlantic Tuna Club of Rhode Island, frequently made trips to New Jersey in hopes of catching a giant tuna.”
As a young saltwater rookie in my early 20s, I would marvel at some of the stories that the old timers from the Freeport and Bay Shore Tuna Clubs would tell me about catching big bluefin less than 10 miles offshore, seeing swordfish swimming in the Mud Hole and hooking white marlin only a few miles off the beach. When I landed and released a few shallow water white marlin of my own in the early 80s, I realized that those inshore tuna stories were not just old seafarers’ yarns, but were true.
Brooklyn Tuna? Fuggedaboutit!
The New York Post published an intriguing article in October of 2021 about large bluefin tuna being “discovered” off the Rockaways over last summer and fall. Ditto a local NBC TV news piece that also gave it some quality coverage. These editorial pieces sensationalized this fishery with a historical flavor of the original Jaws movie from the mid-70s, where everyone and their brother flocked down to Amity Island to try to catch the big shark in basically any boat that would float.
My good buddy and professional charter boat captain Nick Savene of the Oceanside-based boat No Time, who has fished the waters off the Rockaways in his backyard for four decades, may have said it best, in his own unique style. “John, there were people bluefin fishing near me that had no business being out there, I’m amazed that more people didn’t hurt themselves or get into serious trouble.”
Fact is, numerous VHF transmissions about folks getting their boats towed around the fleet by large hooked tuna were not uncommon. I saw it with my own eyes on Long Island’s East End out of Shinnecock Inlet, where numerous 17-foot Whalers and 20-foot Mako center consoles were snagging and dragging live bunker in or near the massive menhaden schools that dominated the South Shore of the Island, sporting 50W and bent butt 80s in their undersized gunwale rodholders, waiting for a bite; simply amazing! Some enterprising folks published drone videos on social media of big sharks and giant tuna that were literally ravaging these massive bunker schools just outside of the surf line, which added to the fishing frenzy.
The Brooklyn Fishing Club was eager to get in on the tuna action right on their doorstep and many of their members enjoyed this fishery, publishing various photos and videos of the unprecedented shallow water action. On one late August trip aboard the Brooklyn-based charter boat Rockfish, club members hooked up with YouTube blogger Josh Jorgensen of BlacktipH to bring five big bluefin boatside, catching them on live bunker flown from kites.
Up and Down the Coast
Although the Brooklyn tuna fishery was the ostensible epicenter of the inshore bluefin tuna bite for 2021, that wasn’t the only show in the big city. North Jersey coast anglers also cashed in on the bunker school action, but also were able to jig smaller 50- to 100-pound school tuna on the 15-fathom lumps east of Manasquan, Shark River and Barnegat inlets among the dense pods of sand eels that regularly frequent these locations.
Fishermen to the east of Brooklyn along the South Shore of Long Island sailing from Debs, Jones and Fire Island inlets were also treated to a taste of the bluefin action on the edge of the bunker schools, but with more sharks in the mix. It wasn’t uncommon to have a 300-pound plus thresher, big hammerhead or wolf pack of brown sharks engulf a live bunker and take off for a long run down the beach before mangling the monofilament or fluorocarbon leaders and breaking off. Some anglers got wise to this and started trolling horse ballyhoo rigs to cover more ground and troll the edges south of the massive bunker pods in 40 to 60 feet of water and some nice tuna were duped employing this method.
Other boats sought out the bunker swarms in 80 to 90 feet of water and set up shop there, hoping to avoid the mad traffic of boats further inshore and to get away from the sharks. Capt. Nick Savene of the No Time told me that he had booked a total of eight dedicated trips that targeted the inshore bluefin last season, but that it wasn’t a guarantee, with sharks crashing the party more often than not. His charter crews were able to land two nice tuna on live bunker, with one going 70 inches and the other hitting the 72-inch mark on the tape measure.
Cape Cod has had a good run of inshore tuna for the past decade, as frequently shown on the cable TV show Wicked Tuna. Pro captains in Cape Cod Bay like Bobby Rice, Dom Petrarca and Jack Sprengle have been banging them up north on a regular basis, using heavy duty spinning tackle to land some truly impressive tuna. My son Marc’s college roomy, Capt. Brendan Murphy and his dad aboard their Stray Cat have put many of their charter clients onto some nice bluefin using the lighter gear.
Methods for Mayhem
Snagging and dragging bunker in the vicinity of the massive menhaden schools was the obvious basic play to get in the game for this inshore bluefin fishery, but it didn’t always guarantee success. With millions of bunker swimming around, the likelihood of that one tuna finding your bait at that moment was statistically infinitesimal, but you had a “puncher’s chance” to make it happen.
As previously mentioned, inventive anglers used atypical methods to make their bunker baits stand out from the crowd to elicit a response and one of these was flying them on the surface from a kite. This method has been proven countless times down in Florida for sails, kingfish and wahoo and also on the west coast with the San Diego boats for their big Pacific bluefin, so why not here? Trolling squid bars, Nomad Design DXT Minnows and ballyhoo on the edges of the menhaden schools also fooled a bunch of bluefin the past few seasons. But as many of us have historically experienced with the horse mackerel, when they are zoned in on one bait, it’s tough to convince them to take something else—it’s best to match the hatch!
If you opt for drifting and dreaming with live bunker, it’s best to have at least a 30W or 50W outfit spooled with a minimum of 80-pound braid, with a fluorocarbon leader ranging from 100 to 150 pounds, depending on water clarity and the finicky nature of the tuna. If you can see the huge inverted “V” marks on your echo sounder but are not getting any bites, gradually lighten your leader until you start getting some action.
There are numerous ways to hook a live bunker, from pinning it aft of the dorsal fin, up through the roof of the mouth, on a bridle rig with a free-swinging hook, etc. Be sure to use the appropriate sized hook that will allow the bunker to swim freely, but that’s also strong enough to stand up to a runaway freight train pulling 30 to 40 pounds of drag.
When the bluefin are seen porpoising on the surface crashing schools of terrified baitfish, tuna-tough casting plugs like a Shimano Orca, Yo-Zuri popper, Hogy Slider, or a Tsunami Chugger all can have their moments. If the tuna are down deep on the bottom, sand eel jigs like the Ron Z, Hogy Tuna Harness or Protail Eels, or the Okuma Savage Gear Sandeels have brought a bunch of bluefin to boatside.
You’ll need to be geared up with the appropriate tools to play this casting and jigging game and heavy duty spinners like the Shimano Stella, Daiwa Saltiga, PENN Torque II, Okuma Makaira and the Van Staal VSB250 will allow you to cast into the mayhem from a safe distance without spooking the fish and keep you buttoned up with a big bluefin for the long fight. Match this up to a beefy 6-1/2- to 7-1/2-foot rod that can stand the strain of a long, drawn out argument and has the beef to pump them up from the bottom and you are in it to win it. A good starting point for a new tuna stick is the new Tsunami Carbon Shield series tuna jigging rods out this season in local shops for around $150.
I prefer conventional tackle for playing the deep game and my current choices are either an Ocean Max #10 single speed-jigging reel mated to a 5-foot, 9-inch XXH Shimano Trevala trigger grip rod, or my new favorite, a relatively light (31-ounce) PENN VISX 12 two-speed/PENN Ally 6-foot jigging outfit spooled with 500 yards of 65-pound hi-vis yellow Western Filament TUF-Line, with an 80-pound fluorocarbon top shot.
Like many fall striped bass trollers, I have had more than one of my wire line bunker spoon outfits receive a massive strike from an unknown denizen of the deep that totally spooled my rig in 30 seconds or less. And who may that be? My best guess was a foraging bluefin tuna, hitting the beach in late November or early December, cashing in on the fall baitfish and the juvenile striper migration along the beach, once again following the most predictable food supply for an easy meal.
The bluefin tuna season can stretch out over the course of eight or nine months, with fish swimming up from the Gulf of Mexico along the Gulfstream and into our area in mid-April, with the last stragglers disappearing sometime in mid-December. Historically, most of the larger fish were in “drive by” mode, following their time-proven migration routes and just stopping over in the NY Metro area for a quick bite while shadowing the fleeing mackerel and bunker schools. Their ultimate destination was to continue the northeast journey to Massachusetts and the Canadian Maritimes, to chow down for the summer and fall months.
With more food now residing off the New Jersey and New York coasts due to increased presence of bunker schools, those migration habits might be changing a bit. I know that there are thousands of NY Metro anglers in particular who are hoping to get a repeat performance of the summer of 2021 and we’ll find out soon enough how that plays out for this season.
Be ready, gear up and get out there, it’s a total blast; just remember, these just might be the “good old days” so don’t miss out!