Chunking is an effective way to selectively attract pelagics like bigeye, bluefin and yellowfin tuna, swordfish and mahi, and can be especially effective during September and October. By selecting specific locations and baits you increase your odds of catching your desired species. Chunking works both day and night and is best suited for areas where bait and fish are concentrated like reefs, wrecks, ledges, bait balls and temperature breaks. Wrecks like the Bacardi, Coimbra and Virginia all have the potential to produce good tuna action during the fall months.
If chunking is part of your plan during an overnight trip, make sure everyone knows their job well ahead of time and plan accordingly. The crew members assigned to night duty should be well rested. Let other guys deal with the trolling tasks like clearing weeds, running the boat and working the cockpit. A minimum of two well rested crew members should be up for night chunking – one monitoring the chunking process, and the other monitoring the drift. You must pay attention to your direction and any changes to the wind and current that may affect it. Adjustments may be needed if your drift takes the boat off your desired path. If you intended to drift along an edge, but the wind changed, and you drifted up on the flats you have to make a decision. The first concern is safety. Expand your radar to look 6 miles forward of your drift. Are there any potential targets that may be anchored up and a collision risk? Sometimes the easiest course of action is to move your vessel so you will drift clear of all targets instead of through them. The second consideration is how fishy the new drift looks. Are you marking? Do you have bait following the boat in the lights? If you had squid in deeper water and they didn’t follow your new course go back and find them. Go past them and try to adjust your drift so you stay with the bait and ultimately the fish.
When you finish trolling for the day, clean up the cockpit and store all unnecessary gear out of the way. Keep the boat clean, safe and organized. Have a 5-gallon bucket of chunks defrosted and ready to go. Cutting the chunks while trolling is a great way to pass time and have you prepared when you make the switch. There’s nothing worse than having the fish show up just after dark and your butterfish are whole and still frozen. Knives, cutting boards and gloves should be out and ready to go. Using a knife-proof glove on your hand holding the bait is a great way to get a grip and not get cut, especially as the night drags on and weariness sets in. Depending on how your boat is set up you might have several lighting options. Underwater lights work great to attract and keep bait at your boat. Spreader lights also work, but they may cast shadows that spook fish. It’s wise to shut off the spreader lights when using underwater lights. Use under gunnel cockpit lights, preferably in red, to light the cockpit. Dim down cabin lights and the screens on your electronics. Every time you look at a bright screen it will take your eyes several minutes to recover from what’s referred to as temporary night blindness.
The Right Gear
Match your gear to your quarry. Large bent butt rods with 70- to 80-class reels are perfect for deep swordfish and bigeyes. Stand up 30- to 50-pound outfits are perfectly matched for tuna and mahi mahi. Bent butts in swivel rodholders make adjusting rod angles easy. Simply turn each rod to point in the direction of the drifting bait. It is important to have a good variety of hook and leader sizes. The hook strength should be adequate to handle larger fish. The hook size is governed by the bait size. Large 16/0 to 20/0 circle hooks can easily be hidden in a large squid, but are definitely not suitable for butterfish chunks. Smaller chunk baits require smaller hooks. If 100-pound class tuna have been reported, a good starting leader size is 80-pound test. If you are marking fish, but are not hooking up it’s time to downsize the leader. You can try dropping the heavier leadered bait lower in the water column, but the higher baits should be switched to lighter, less visible line. This often helps entice leader shy fish. It’s more fun to hook up and break off a few fish than never hook up at all.
Your goal is to call tuna and other pelagics to your chunk baits without attracting sharks. That’s why you are chunking and not chumming. Do not use oily bunker and mackerel unless you want to target sharks. The preferred baits for chunking are butterfish, squid, sardines, sand eels, spearing and peanut bunker. Cutting them into the size of a quarter and tossing them a handful at a time is all it takes. It is important to keep a steady cadence. Throw a handful of chunks out and as they are just out of sight toss another handful. When the fish show up, keep them there. Chunk extra heavily to get them honed in and then go back to a steady flow to hold them. Once hooked up many crews abandon chunking and concentrate on landing the fish—huge mistake. If done correctly you can have hours of fishing throughout the night. Give a crew member the assignment to keep on chunking no matter what.
A swordfish bait goes on your largest rod, set the deepest and furthest away from the boat. Setting a flat line clip to a forward cleat is a great way to move this line out of the way. Adding a strobe or light stick just above the bait helps large fish find your offering in the low light environment down deep. Adding a different color light stick to the balloon helps you monitor its position. Swordfish will inhale your offering and lazily mill around. If you see the balloon light coming close to the boat, start reeling in the slack. You’ve been picked up. If you see the strobe or bait light stick go by, the fish grabbed your bait and surfaced. Clear the lines, start the boat, reel in the slack, and use the boat to put a little distance between you and the fish. Set the hook and it’s off to the races.
The lines targeting tuna should be placed below, in and above the thermocline. Using balloons, suspend the deepest one first and drift it out long, but way short of the sword bait. Place the next one higher in the water column and closer to the boat. The third line is called the working line. Throw a handful of chunks out and drop this bait smack in the middle of them. Free spool it back keeping the same pace as the chunks. After a hundred feet or so, reel it in (check the bait) and repeat. The best feeling in the world is having this line torn out of your hands. Let the fish run a little and engage the drag with the rod remaining in the rodholder. The rod will double over, and the circle hook will burry itself in the corner of the fish’s mouth. Any one of these baits can be changed out with live squid or whatever bait you may catch in the lights.
Drift, Anchor, or Tie Up
Drifting is the preferred method when you are deeper than 300 feet. The amount of chain and rope required to anchor in deep water is massive. If you decide to drift, there are a few items to consider. Plan ahead. Know and test drift direction and speed while the sun is out. Use your chartplotter to decide where you want to drift and what the best starting point is. Set it up so the day troll ends where you want to start your chunking drift. When picking a spot, stay deep and away from lobster pots. You don’t want to chance colliding with a pot or boat tied off to one. Deeper water is usually where you will find swordfish and bigeye tuna. If you are on the flats, ask on the radio if anyone is anchoring near your position and plan accordingly.
Anchoring is utilized when you find concentrated bait and fish. It’s a great deal of work, especially when retrieving the gear. If you anchor, set it up so you can disconnect from the gear easily. When you get into a good fish, it’s nice to have the option of getting “off the ball” and chasing it down. Another advantage of this set up is you can leave your gear to go troll. One of the best times to fish is first light. Don’t waste time pulling anchor as the sun is peaking over the horizon. Do it later. Troll to mid-morning and retrieve your gear when the sun is higher, and the fishing is normally slower. To easily identify your gear use well marked white poly balls—white because everyone else uses orange. The boat name needs to be clearly written on the balls.
Tying up to someone else’s gear is a bad idea; don’t mess with someone else’s livelihood. Lobstermen carve out a tough living. It is very easy to destroy or make their gear not function properly by tying to them. Running hundreds of miles to find that your gear has been compromised is enough to infuriate a captain. You don’t want to be on the receiving end of that anger. Have a little respect and stay clear of what’s not yours. If you don’t, Karma will come back and haunt you.
If you watch “Wicked Tuna” you may have noticed the dockside buyer trimming bluefin tuna with a reciprocating saw (sawzall). Genius, it makes those large cuts like collaring a fish a breeze. In the past I used a butcher’s hack saw and would have to order food grade replacement blades from a meat tool supplier in Iowa. The Filletzall Company has come up with a serrated food quality “Dex steel” blade that has the uniform configuration to allow it to work with standard sawzalls. The blades are made of stain free, high carbon steel that is high quality and made for food prep. A little thicker than a standard knife blade, they make short work of dressing the largest fish. This is an amazing enhancement that cuts bone, cartilage, and thick skin with ease. Steaking wahoo, mako or any fish where you may leave the backbone in is greatly simplified. You can view this product at www.filletzall.com.
Another new product is the Chum Cutter. This is a high quality guide box that allows you to easily cut flats of baitfish into chunks. Simply put the desired amount of bait in the box. Pass the knife through each guide slot cutting the bait into chunks. The Canyon box has eleven slots in the front and one on each side. The front ones are spaced an inch and a quarter apart, making perfect size chunks. There are thick rubber handles that allow the user to easily transfer the chunks to a bucket. The box comes with a cover to help push the bait down. It has a wide base to keep it sturdy when cutting. It comes in several sizes to suit various chunking styles. Feel free to visit their web site at www.chumcutter.com.
You can use both products together to cut multiple flats of semi frozen bait at the dock. Having buckets of frozen chunks on board to use on demand is your reward. Use the stainless steel Filletzall blade and partner it with the chunk box and you have a safe easy way to prepare for a chunking trip at the dock. It’s much safer than doing this task in the ocean on a moving boat, with your eyes half closed in the middle of the night. These products are made locally and can be shipped anywhere. And, they are affordable.