Offshore: Reading Whales - The Fisherman

Offshore: Reading Whales

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Seeing whales means a lot in offshore fishing, but knowing what they’re doing can mean the difference between a fishing adventure and a whale watch.

Identifying whale species and behavior can tell you a lot about the tuna bite.

In offshore fishing, with the vast distances of the open ocean, a key to success has always been to find the areas with the most life – birds (especially shearwaters and petrels), sharks, bait, porpoises and especially, whales.  Here in the northern reaches of the Atlantic, many different species of whales pass through our waters, but during the summer and fall fishing seasons, there are a few key species to look out for, as these whales are pursuing the same bait masses that attract tuna and marlin.  For this discussion, let’s focus on three of the most common species we see – pilot whales, minke whales and humpbacks – and take a closer look as to what the whales’ behavior can tell us about what’s happening below the waters’ surface.

Pilot whales are a canyon fisherman’s best friend; they congregate around and above the thickest concentrations of squid at the edge of the shelf, and they make impressive dives to deep water for their feed.  Pilot whales on the move indicate you should move too.  When the pilots are on bait, they will surface, blow a few times, arch their backs and dive again deeply (the tail going vertical will tell you this).  They’ll often do this in huge groups, hundreds sometimes, like at the epic Fishtails bite several years back.  Even if you’re not getting bites, stay in the area – the whales are telling you the thickest bait and likely tuna and marlin are feeding deep, right below you, and will eventually come up.  Stay with the pilots, be patient, and you will likely be rewarded.

Minke whales can easily be confused for large porpoises, as their dorsal fins look similar, and minkes often behave in porpoise-like ways.  These whales are sleek and fast, and are not baleen feeders, meaning they seek larger prey than sand eels.  Minkes love mackerel, and when they’re on the feed, they slash through the water, often only surfacing for a quick blow. I’ve heard minke behavior described as “aggressive” and even though they don’t reveal much at the surface, their very presence indicates a concentration of larger bait, and, more often than not, the presence of tuna.

Finally, there are no greater friends to a tuna fisherman than humpback whales.  Humpbacks have extensive migrations, and accordingly feed very heavily when they’re in northern waters.  They are baleen feeders, meaning they can consume huge quantities of tiny bait, and one of their absolute favorites are sand eels.  When humpbacks are feeding, you should be fishing.  Signs that indicate feeding behavior are deep dives, where the back is arched and the tail goes fully vertical, when the whales’ snouts are poking out of the water, and especially “bubble feeding”, where the whales dive down, surround the school of bait by blowing bubbles in a circle around the school, and rushing up through the middle for a giant gulp.  These are the behaviors that tuna fishermen dream about, as the noise, smell, chaos of feeding whales is a huge draw for tunas, and they will stay with the mammals as long as the feed is on.  However, when humpbacks are done feeding, their behavior totally changes:  they begin to act “socially”, slapping their fins on the surface, clapping their tails repeatedly on top, and most eye-popping of all, breaching.  Seeing a massive humpback come almost fully out of the water and crashing back down in an explosion of white water is one of the most spectacular sights on Earth, but it means the feeding period is over, so from a whale-watching standpoint, enjoy the show; from a fishing perspective, it’s time to move and find a pod that’s still feeding.

One of the first rules for offshore fishing is, “find the whales,” but if you can read their behavior and determine that they’re on the feed, your odds of success jump dramatically.  Please remember to not crowd the whales or put a boat in a dangerous situation, as just being in the vicinity of feeding mammals is usually enough.  Watch what the whales are doing, and you’ll have invaluable insight into what’s happening below, and you can use that knowledge to put more fish in the boat.

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