Spring fever is running high along the Mid-Atlantic and NE coastlines. That being said, one thing that is guaranteed to excite a core group of fishermen is the anticipation of small/medium class Atlantic Bluefin (with the occasional larger fish) that roll up the 30 fathom line all the way to New England by mid summer. So we decided to put together a crew of 4 successful Captains – one proven charter guy and three highly respected recreational sport fishermen. They know the grounds well and how to fish them in an open bow boat. Much of what you will read you have likely read or heard before. Our goal is to provide a comprehensive list of gear and tactics for anyone to reference, in particular, people looking to learn more. You will see many common themes throughout which reinforces the point that these basic tactics/skills are essential for success. To that end – we remind ALL anglers to be up to date with required HMS Permits and do your part in catch reporting. The Atlantic Bluefin Tuna is a special fish, please keep ONLY what you and your family will eat and release the rest healthy back to sea to grow old. Also, if you are fishing for inshore small/medium bluefin regularly we encourage you to contact Large Pelagics and enroll in the “Tag a Tiny” program so you can do your part aiding the science of monitoring what currently is healthiest bluefin tuna fishery in the world.
#1 When packing out for early season inshore bluefin tuna what do you carry on board in the following categories:
a. Trolling Rods/Reels (how many, what class rigs – feel free to share exact setups you carry and why, what line setup – backing, shots, type of connections)
b. Spinning Gear (how many, what class rigs – feel free to share exact setups you carry and why, what line setup – backing and connections)
c. Favorite Spreader bars, chains, lures to carry
d. Favorite way to rig ballyhoo – do you pre-rig or rig at sea (if you pre-rig how many do you usually pre-rig). Please include your preferred hook – brand/class.
e. What plugs/stickbaits are tied to your topwater rods when you leave the dock for an early season inshore trip if you have ZERO intel on feeding trends – meaning what are your trusted, standby plugs. Also include hook pattern – trebles, j’s, etc…
f. How many lines are your outriggers rigged with? What is your preferred release clip? Do you use a center rigger on your CC?
#2 You are on the hunt and find a really fishy area with some marks, slicks and good bird action but nothing suggesting a topwater type feed is occurring. Based on this you decide to set the trolling spread. At this point what is your “go to” spread – # of rods, baits, colors, etc.. that you put out to start the early season bluefin fishery. Please be as specific as possible – you can include diagrams if you are tech savvy. Include rod position in rod holders, etc…
#3 You have a solid knockdown on the troll with a stud fish taking some serious drag – walk through the protocol on your deck to prepare to successfully land this fish – how do you like to clear lines, do you always favor one side of the boat, do you prefer to fish off the aft quarter, beam, or fish the front, etc….?
#4 You are on the hunt and find some serious bird activity. Upon approach you immediately see some nervous surface water and are confident of a surface school. Walk us through your evaluation – how you approach the school, how you like to line up your anglers off the front, preferred boat position and angle to the school and any other protocols you find important.
#5 Walk through your preferred endgame tactics. Include boat maneuvering, preferred landing locations, angler and leader man/gaff man positioning. Also include whether or not you “prefer” to hand lead fish or use boat speed and why. Be sure to stipulate trolling vs spinning (freestyle) scenarios. What sort of guideline do you use to determine whether or not you will harpoon the fish or stick with gaffs – is it based on class of fish only or are you more likely to use the poon freestyle spinning, etc… As captain, this is a critical call – how do you make it?
#6 What is the protocol for dressing and bedding a bluefin on your vessel?
#7 You have your limit of bft and are on a hot bite so it’s all catch and release at this point. How important is it to you to safely release young bft and what are the techniques you use to ensure fish are released as healthy as possible.
Craig Falicon – 30 Line Productions
Craig runs his 27 Onslow Bay “Old Reliable” out of Sandy Hook, NJ. He is a fourth generation fisherman who began targeting bluefin in high school. Craig is known for running the original “Old Reliable” – a single engine 23 Regulator – which for the better part of a decade was one of the smallest and most productive boats in the midshore fleet. When he isn’t offshore or in a duck blind you can find Craig working on video editing under his 30 Line Productions label. (Check out his YouTube Channel “CFalicon”)
Captain Corey Evans – 3 Amigos Sportfishing
Capt. Corey runs 3 Amigos Sportfishing and his 31 Pro Sports out of Indian River, DE. He has spent each summer since a young child in Bethany Beach, DE fishing out of Indian River just 5 miles up the road from the family home. One day Corey ventured offshore with two new friends in search of some mid season bluefin action and little did he know what would manifest from that trip. From then on that trio fished offshore together as much as possible on a friends 23’ single screw center console. In the fall of 2016 the “3 Amigos” was conceived and the group of 3 friends, who started out recreationally fishing as much as possible, together decided to take their passion to a different level. Since officially starting in 2017 Capt. Corey has developed a well known charter business.
Jim Kuhl – 31 Cape Horn “Tuna Junkie”
Jim runs his 31 Cape Horn “Tuna Junkie” out of Barnegat Inlet, NJ. Fishing since the age of 8 the name of his boat makes it obvious what he loves to do. He’s targeted and caught all sizes of tuna in the Northeast from Cape Cod to NJ and the Outer Banks. Some of his earliest memories of tuna fishing date back to the glory days of the Mud Hole off NJ. When he isn’t fishing you can look for Jim out surfing, traveling and living the waterman lifestyle.
Captain Eric Remig – 35 Contender “Riptide”
Captain Eric runs his 35 Contender “Riptide” out of Manasquan Inlet, NJ. Eric and the crew of Riptide Sportfishing are top notch and very experienced. They run an organized team operation and the boat is arguably a pro class machine. Eric is a USCG licensed Master Captain.
Above: The tuna fishing end game is both exciting and dangerous. Having everyone on the same page will lead to more success. (photo: C. Evans)
Craig Falicon – 27 Onslow Bay “Old Reliable”
a. When targeting bluefin in the early trolling season I bring the following setups: Seven trolling setups. Penn International 30 VSW spooled with 100 lb JB hollowcore and 150 yard 80 lb momoi diamond topshots. Spooling with hollowcore spectra and topshots allows me to have around 800 yards of line on a 30 wide sized reel. I have custom calstar boomer junior 30-80 stand up rods with aftco wind on guides. It is critical to have rods that can accommodate wind on swivels (I use 230 lb spro power swivels) as we are fishing longer leaders on our ballyhoo rigs. Everything is loop to loop with the spectra connections to allow maximum flexibility if a topshot needs to be changed out. I keep at least two spare topshots on the boat in case one gets damaged (especially critical when you might hook a mako early in the season). I like to troll seven rods in my bluefin spread, sometimes fewer with five if the bite is very good or I am short on crew.
b. For spinning gear I bring three popping rods. A Saltywater Tackle El Maestro 77H paired with a Shimano twin power 14000, an El Maestro 710MH paired with a Shimano Saragosa 10000 SW and a custom Spinal paired with a Penn Slammer 3. All of my popping rods are spooled with 60 lb JB hollowcore and matched up with either BHP or my own popping wind on leaders. For my jigging setups I have one spinning jig rod, a custom 350 gram rod with a Twin Power 10000 and a black hole cape cod special 250 gram conventional setup with a jigging master PE5. Both jigging rods are spooled with 65 lb metered solid braid. You never know when you will encounter the fish on top, especially on the ride out or ride in, so it is critical to have a few popping rods setup and ready to go. We had an early canyon trip last year and ran over acres of bluefin on the ride home on the 30 line. We had our bluefin limit in short order strictly throwing stickbaits on the popping setups.
c. I only run Sterling Tackle spreader bars. I have been running them forever and they continue to innovate and put out great products year in and year out. Their wide trackers have a permanent spot in my spread and we often run four wide trackers in the spread. The most productive colors I have found for wide trackers are purple and black with a zucchini stinger and all white. I also have had great success running their 9” ultimate squid bars in blue with a white stinger. I had Steve from Sterling make up a custom bar in that color a few years back and it got bit before I could put the line in the rigger clip the first time in the water. I always have a few chains in the boat and often run them on my flat lines. Small ultimate squid chains and the old standby feather chains seem to produce, especially on school fish. You also need to have a few cedar plugs on the boat as many a trip has been made by running the timeless natural cedar plug tight to the boat in the wash. I like to run my ballyhoo behind 6oz joe shute heads, primarily in crystal and blue/white. All of my largest bluefin off NJ have come on 6 or 8 oz crystal joe shutes paired with a select ballyhoo.
d. I like to rig at least three to four ballyhoo the night before and put them on ice, so I have a few baits ready to go at grey light. I run 9/0 jobus or mustad southern tuna hooks. All of my ballyhoo rigs are made with 150 lb fluorocarbon leaders that are usually 10 ft long and crimped to the topshot using a 230 lb spro power swivel. Wind on guides are critical. Don’t forget to black out your crimps with a sharpie.
e. My top plugs to throw at fish anytime are as follows: 6.5” Madd Mantis Atasi popper in white, Shimano Orca floating stickbait in silver, 9” RonZ in silver or herring, Siren deep seductress in black or sandeel. I like to rig the poppers with Owner ST-76 trebles, 3/0 size. Some of the smaller plugs require ST-66 in 2/0.
f. My outriggers are 20ft marsh tacky carbon fibers and I have them double rigged with aftco roller troller release clips. On trips where I am going to be trolling a lot I use a removable center rigger.
Seven rods to start. I like to start with my long riggers both running crystal and blue/white 6 oz joe shutes with ballyhoo or RonZ tails. My short riggers are wide trackers in purple/black with zucchini stingers. Flat lines are 8 oz or 6 oz shutes with ballyhoo. Again crystal or blue/white. Shotgun center rigger is either a 6 or 8 oz shute with a ballyhoo set way, way back (100-150 yards) or a 36” Sterling bar, green machine or white set just behind my short riggers.
I keep the boat in gear but usually take one motor out of gear once we are solidly hooked up and not trying for any more bites. I put the boat in autopilot to keep us straight, so long as I am not in a crowd. We then go to work clearing the lines and moving rods to my bow rod holders to get them out of the way. I like to put the angler in the port corner of the cockpit as it gives me the best angle to see the line and line angle from the helm. We try to keep everything calm and methodical on my boat, not much shouting if we can control ourselves, so that communication is clear and concise between the angler, gaff man and captain. For most sized fish in NJ a harpoon isn’t necessary so we typically use a 6 ft gaff with a 4” hook, with a second gaff nearby if needed. If I have any inexperienced crew members on the boat I talk them through everything so we know what is expected of everyone when it is time to land the fish.
I like to get a feel for which direction the school is heading in and try to get ahead of them. I want to get in position ahead of the school, NEVER through it, so we can cast back into their feeding pattern. Ideally the fish are feeding into the wind and you can set up ahead of them with the wind at your back to aid your casting. We have a rotation of anglers to cast. We form a line on the starboard side of the boat for right handed anglers. The first angler has his position at the bow ready to cast as soon as the throttles are pulled back. They cast and slide to the left working down the port side of the boat as the next angler follows them, working in a circle so everyone has a clear casting lane. Long rods, large plugs and extremely sharp hooks can lead to a bad situation so more than anything else I like to have a conversation with my anglers so they know the routine before they see busting fish and adrenaline takes over.
I like to have the angler on the port side of the boat so I can see them and the line angle best from the helm during the endgame. I take one engine out of gear and just bump the other to keep the fish going in the direction I want. The biggest difference between fighting a fish on topwater vs. troll for me is I like to have the angler in the bow for as long as possible on topwater gear. Once we have hooked up I start backing the boat down out of the school of tuna with the angler in the bow. By keeping the angler in the bow it keeps the line away from any running gear while fighting with the popping gear. Also by keeping the boat idling in reverse it helps to plane the fish up and reduce the fight time. I stick to gaffing fish (pun intended) when they are typically under 150 lbs, once they get larger than that I like to go to the harpoon, but will still just gaff the fish if they are relatively behaved.
Bluefin are tail roped and cut behind the pectoral fin and in the gills and left to bleed outside of the boat. After they have sufficiently bled we bring them inside the boat. For a school fish we leave the head on but remove the gills and guts before immersing in an ice bath of ice and salt water. For a larger class of fish we cut the heads off and remove the guts and do the same.
I fish with tags from the Tag a Tiny program through Large Pelagics Research. We try to tag and release as many fish as we can. When catch and release fishing we try not to bring the fish inside the boat at all. I like to use a smaller hook gaff and lip gaff the fish to gain control to remove the hooks. If it has been prolonged fight we put the boat in gear and swim the fish on the lip gaff until it starts kicking and then release it. When fishing topwater and we have our limit I try to switch to lures rigged with single hooks to minimize stress on released fish.
Captain Corey Evans – 31 Pro Sports “3Amigos”
a. During early season bluefin fishing we generally load out with 9 trolling combos. These combos consist of (4) Penn International 30 VISWS 2-Speed and 5 Penn International 50 VISWS 2-Speed reels. The reels are paired with a set of custom Calstar sticks from JPR rods. The blank we choose to use is the Calstar 6455H which provides a heavy class of power but an extremely light feel in the tip due to the extra fast action which seems like a great compromise to the traditional back breaking stand up gear. The rods are finished off with blacked out Winthrop guides and Alps butts. JPR was excellent in working with myself and my crew to find the right blank for us that allows us to have a light feel but plenty of power and action in the rod to control the fish and enjoy the fight. Our 30 class reels are spooled with approx. 400 yards of 65lb Diamond Braid and 200+ yards of 100lb Hi-Seas Quattro top-shot material and the 50 class reels have approx. 600 yards of 80lb Diamond Braid along with 200+ yards of 100lb Quattro as well. When spooling our reels we use 15lbs of pressure to ensure the braid is packed on tightly and use a Yucatan knot to join the braid and monofilament. Some may think it’s odd for us to top our reels with 100lb top shot as it does take up quite a bit of room on the spool however we have found that the 100lb Quattro provides great chafe protection when you have multiple fish on at once and gives you some peace of mind when trying to untangle a massive cover up.
b. While bluefin fishing in the early season I tend to at least have one spinning rod onboard if not two; I choose to not bring more than 2 spinners in the early season as I try to keep my cockpit and vessel as organized as possible and free of unnecessary clutter. Being in the charter business I have to select rods and reels that serve multiple purposes such as throwing plugs for tunas and dolphins, pitching baits to the fired up white marlin in the spread and bailing dolphin on poly-balls on the canyon walls. Currently we are fishing 4 outfits from Shimano; (2) Shimano Baitrunner D 8000s which are spooled with 40lb Diamond Braid and (2) Shimano Baitrunner D 12000’s spooled with 50lb Diamond Braid. The reels are paired with Shimano Tallus Blue Water Spinning rods. The 12000’s are accompanied by the Tallus TLS69HBBL 6’9 Heavy Power, Fast action rods with gimble butts for the larger class of fish 50-100lb and the 8000’s are paired with the Tallus TLS69MBBL which is 6’9 Medium power, Fast Action 20-50 class. Aside from my anal antics of having all the gear match I will bring along my personal rod built by JPR rods which consists of a NS Black Hole Cape Cod Special Popping Blank 7’6 Graphite paired with a Shimano Stella SW10000 loaded with 50lb Diamond braid. Generally when popping or throwing plugs I recommend a 6’ Fluorocarbon leader. Generally, I use 60lb as it casts better and limiting my length to 6’ allows me to gain a little distance without having to worry about my knot passing through my guides.
c. Spreader bars are always the first place I start especially due to being an outboard boat that lacks the harmonious hum of diesels. Spreader bars in general while fishing for pelagic species can most definitely buy you some bites due to the commotion they cause which raises fish as the bars appear to be schools of bait raining on the surface. While packing out for a bluefin trip we always make sure to have at least (2) sets of Sterling Tackle Wide Trackers. Colors of choice while bluefin fishing is pearl white squid/machine bar with a pink machine stinger, purple/black combo with a zucchini stinger or the staple green machine bar. In combination with the Wide Tracker bars we love the standard 18” and 36” bars in all assortments of colors offered by Sterling; you can never have enough options. Other favorites from Sterling tackle are the Crazy 8 chain, Triple Bird Chain, Machine Chain, Heavy Tuna Hunter Chain, Deep Runner 48 and Heavy Sterling / Joe Shute Chain in either Blue/Crystal or Candy Apple Red. Another productive chain we have pulled while bluefin fishing is a small white squid chain rigged with a redhead cedar plug as the stinger. In my opinion in the early season when you have a shot at a stud bluefin tuna ballyhoo are an absolute staple in your spread. We choose to skirt our ballyhoo while bluefin fishing with as assortment of Joe Shutes ranging from 3oz, 5 ¾ oz and 8oz for the way, way, way back bait. Blue/Crystal and Candy Apple Red/Crystal have been our biggest producers with bluefin tuna. In addition to our trolled baits I do like to keep a stick bait handy in case we encounter a top water feeding school….More on that later!
d. Generally I prefer to prep ballyhoo the evening prior to the trip when my crew goes to the boat to load out with ice and other provisions. I like giving the ballyhoo enough time to thaw, be properly cleaned and brined prior to being rigged. While tuna fishing in general I keep things simple and we pin rig our baits using a Mustad 7691DT Southern Tuna style hook in 8/0 or 9/0 size. In the spring when we make our pin rigs for the season we make an assortment of rigs; some containing chin weights and some only a pin and a hook. We rig on 130-150lb fluorocarbon and the majority of the pin rigs that go on Joe Shute style lures 3oz and up do not contain a chin weight as this allows for the ballyhoo to tuck up inside the head of the lure and produce a streamline hydrodynamic bait that swims very well.
e. My go to stickbait is the Shimano Orca Topwater Lure 6 ¼” 2oz in clear silver or the black/silver combo as it looks natural and provides some flash. Pink/Silver has also proved to be an excellent alternative as that lure has been just about pitched on every single dolphin found on a small piece of structure free floating and has caused them all to have the same reaction; aggression. I have not had the chance to throw the pink at a tuna in the Mid Atlantic canyons however have had success with it while popping for blackfins off of Playa Del Carmen, MX. I do recommend switching out the factory treble hooks and split rings with Owner Zo-Wire 3x Inline Hooks as well as upgraded Owner split rings as a larger class fish with bend the shank of the small treble with ease.
f. As of the start of the 2018 season the 3 Amigos vessel was outfitted with the Gemlux outrigger system containing bases the size of dinner plates and 22’ carbon fiber poles that are as fat as a baseball bat at the base. These outriggers are outfitted with an integrated triple pulley system so to utilize these riggers to their full potential we triple rigged them with the long ringer containing 2 clips; one on the very end for our wide trackers and another release clip just a foot and half inside. Our far end clip typically holds our wide tracker is a Black’s Trip-ese Double Action clip and all of the other clips are off brand clips from Catch All Tackle. Very rarely will we utilize all 4 clips at once but it is nice to have options to space things out or run them tight if conditions allow. Currently we do not utilize a center rigger as we generally will just put a rod in the center rocket launcher from the T-top and this has served us just as well, however; getting that rod down as its screaming isn’t the easiest task! Photo Credits: Sterling Tackle
Go To Bluefin Spread: 9 Rods
Outside Long #1 & #2: Sterling Tackle Wide Tracker 18” Pearl White with Pink Tiger stinger or Black/Silver/Purple combo with Zuchinni stinger. Our goal with these baits is to put them in the cleanest water possible away from the boat. Generally in favorable conditions these are the first baits to get hit by any species of tuna.
Inside Long #3 & #4: Joe Shute Standard Series: 3oz, 5 ¾ oz or 8 oz conditions dependent. Standard go to colors are Blue and Crystal, Pink and Crystal, Crystal, Red Head with Crystal hair. These baits are deployed way back in the spread away from any turbulence caused by the boat.
Mid Rigger #5 & #6: These baits may change based upon how the bite has been or the fishes location in the column if I am marking fish but they fail to raise. Regardless this location we pull chains. Go to meat chain would be the Heavy Sterling/ Joe Shute chain in our standard colors listed above in which we would try to match the inside long rigger on each side. Each side may be different until we are able to key in on what the fish want that day. An alternate option would be Sterling Tackles Crazy 8 chain, Triple Bird or Machine Chain I like these chains for nearly all pelagic species as they seem to have no problem raising fish and getting bites. As my mate would say sometimes we just go a bit old school and he will put out a homemade cedar plug chain that consist of small 4” shell squids with a cedar plug trailer. These baits are pretty far back as it seems that bluefin prefer to feed a little further away from the boat compared to yellowfins.
Flat Lines #7 & #8: Typically in this position while bluefin fishing we will run 8oz Joe Shutes as they stay down in the column and have a nice presentation. Other baits we run is a larger single machine style lure or a cedar plug. While bluefin fishing our flat lines are pretty far back and just inside of our mid rigger baits.
Shotgun #9: The only time I will run a way way back shot gun bait is while bluefin fishing as I am generally looking for that one solid bite from a large class early season fish. For this bait we always pull the same two offerings which are the 8oz Red Head & Crystal Joe Shute Lantern series with a silver squid skirt with a large ballyhoo or a Blue and Crystal 8oz Joe Shute Lantern with a blue sparkle squid skirt.
When we have a solid knock down on the troll the first thing I like to do is take a quick survey of my surroundings and try to identify any possible obstructions such as other boats or pot gear that may be set and will be in our way and adjust course if needed. Once we are all clear and I have communicated with my crew and we want to commit to this fish I will back down the speed of the boat to around 4 knots and help clear lines starting with the furthest baits and working back towards the boat; I NEVER stop the boat from moving as than the fish is able to gain some control I always maintain forward momentum and keep the line tight and tow the fish. The number one key in all of this action is organization I like to have an unobstructed cockpit as well as view of my angler and mate. Any unnecessary crew that are not part of the immediate action I generally ask to stay clear for the time being. You can never have enough rod holders as they are key to keeping the cockpit clean and your gear undamaged laying a rod on the ground is never a good idea. Once all lines are cleared and angler is in control we ensure all rods are in holders and the back half of the cockpit is free from obstruction so the angler can move with the fish from port to starboard free across the transom. As the captain my next move to is watch the angler closely and slowly start to cut that fish off so we can gain some line back on the reel it is extremely important to make sure that you keep the line tight the entire time if you decide you are going to start to move toward the fish; I like to run at them on a 45 so I can turn off and tighten up if needed but this is generally done at very low speeds with the boat just in gear. As we near the end of the fight we always have two gaffs ready and if I have decided this is a large class fish I will have the Skurge of the Sea dart ready to go with a polyball set up just incase. I prefer with my boats set up to keep the fish off to my port side so I can look over my shoulder and still control the wheel and throttles with my right hand. I keep my angler off the port rear corner and try to keep the boat fairly straight making small incremental turns on the fish as we inch closer and closer. Note I never stop the vessel as I feel much more control with the vessel making way than I do having a fish free swimming under the boat side to side. At this point in the game I coach anglers to try to be as smooth as possible and try to limit any jerking or instinct to try to lift the fish with the rod as I want to have my leader wind onto the rod and reel as we than have additional break strength with the fish boat side. As time has progressed and I have had more and more opportunities with fish boat side I have learned to be patient and wait for the right shot instead of swinging at a fishing that just isn’t ready yet. My ideal gaff or harpoon shot which happens 90% of the time consist of the fish gassing out they will pop up to the surface you are able to guide them towards the side of the boat with the gaff man having one hand on the leader and the angler continues to slowly reel and you slide them to the gaff or if further away and time is of the essence throw the dart. I prefer to always have the angler above the mate as than the mate is closer to the fish and if the fish makes any sudden directional changes my mate can guide the line or I can pop away from the helm and be the helping hand on the top side of the angler. Attached is a photo of a larger yellowfin popping to the surface; in this picture we were fishing on a friends vessel and I did not want to step on the toes of his normal mate and let him do his thing but as he reached out to stick this fish one handed 7+ feet away I couldn’t help myself from yelling NO as that could have been a disaster and a lost fish and gaff instead of waiting an additional 2-3 seconds having him within reach and using two hands to stick the fish and remain in control.
Upon approaching a surface school I like to watch the school from a distance at first and try to determine what way they appear to be pushing the bait and try to maintain a 45 degree angle to the school so I can have one angler casting from the bow and one from the cockpit. I always try to stay within casting distance but not run directly into the school as it may disperse them and ruin the bite.
As mentioned above in my end game tactics I prefer to always keep the boat moving no matter how many fish we have on I always keep making way and tow the fish behind the boat as the angler fights the fish. Last year I was able to test this theory as there was a pretty hot yellowfin bite and we were fishing 9 rods and all 9 rods went down at once as I made my pass over the school and with the combination of keeping the boat straight and making way we were able to land all 9 fish which were 60lb class. I personally think some captains get themselves in trouble when trying to turn on the fish too soon which can cause several issues as the orientation of the fish/hook changes and if the line becomes slack the hook may simply fall out. In most applications if fish are fought properly a gaff will suffice however there is always an exception to that rule and having a fish of a lifetime boat side just outside of reach warrants a harpoon.
In my opinion in order release these fish with minimal harm we try to limit our amount of contact with the fish and try to release them without boating them so they can keep any slime etc they may have developed. Aftco makes a great fish tailer which allows you to gain control by removing the fishes tail from the water while you remove the hook and release the tension when you are ready for the release.
Above: Capt. Corey Evans rod positioning aboard 3Amigos. Having a specific pattern that the crew is familiar with allows for quicker line clearing and setting back out during a hot bite. (Photo: C. Evans)
Jim Kuhl – 31 Cape Horn “Tuna Junkie”
a. Typical early season bluefin tuna fishing is a tough one. You can have fish as small as 30lbs, and some well up over 100lb +, even giants – so you need to make sure you’re rigged and ready for whatever you may come across. “Why so many rods?” is something I hear all the time… Unfortunately, there’s no guarantee knowing before you go on what class fish you may encounter when you’re 15-65 miles offshore so I’d rather be loaded up just in case. When we head out in search of early season bf tuna my boat will have (7) 6’ 30-80 calstar Kevin Bogan trolling rods paired with Okuma Makaira 50w loaded with jb hollow core backing and 100lb Momoi smoke topshot. I also have (4) Shimano Talica 16’s mounted on custom “Jersey Jigger” 6’6” rods. The Talicas are spooled with 65lb braid with 60lb Momoi smoke topshots.
b. My spinning setups include (2) 250g 7’6” Bushido’s with Stella 18k & 20k reels packed with 100lb JB hollow core. In the springtime I typically have 100lb wind-on leaders on both of these. (1) 200g Ghost Hunter with Stella 14k with 80lb power pro. I use the power pro on this setup so I can quickly change out the leader depending on how leader shy the fish seem to be. I use the FG knot for this connection as it is quick, easy, and incredibly strong.
c. When it comes to trolling tackle I keep it local and, in my opinion, the best in the game is Sterling Tackle. Their bars and chains are of great quality and catch fish!!! For the spring purple and greens are a must with the 18” machine bar being my favorite. For springtime bluefin you definitely want to have an array of trolling tackle. Depending on what the fish are chasing and feeding on (squid, anchovies, mackerel ,sandeels) you want to make sure you have things that will match the size/color etc of the bait. We will always have different color and sizes of squid bars & chains. Small feathers can work very well on bluefin when the fish are chasing smaller baits. And of course the old reliable, cedar plug…. These plugs trolled in the wash have been catching tuna for decades. They’re inexpensive, and timeless when it comes to their simple, yet effective design. Many times the fish are feeding down deep and won’t come to the surface. A decent set of downriggers is a must have to get those baits down to those depths. We also troll with Joe Shute 3oz & 5oz. lures rigged with J hooks and either Ballyhoo or RonZ.
d. I normally rig (12) ballyhoos the night prior, lightly sprinkle kosher salt on them to keep them fresh and lay them in a stainless tray in the fridge. I always like having them pre-rigged so when you find a “fishy” spot they are ready to go immediately. The last couple of seasons I’ve been rigging some of the Joe Shute heads with Ron Z tails. These soft baits are great in that you can easily change them out for color and size. From 4” – 10” giving you a much greater chance on matching the size baits the tuna are chasing.
e. Topwater setups are always tough early season until you figure out what baits the fish are chasing/feeding on. Bluefin tuna will drive you crazy. All my casting rods are setup with a bb swivel and split ring. I use this because more times than not you are going to be changing lures multiple times throughout the day trying to figure out what the fish are dialed in to. I typically try to use single hooks on my stick baits and on my poppers will use trebles on the front with a single on the tail. With regulations being so strict on bluefin tuna I will always try to go out of my way to keep the fish healthy for a clean release and single hooks, in my opinion, make this much easier to do. Single Lone Diablo from BKK are perfect for all size tuna. For Treble BKK raptor z or Owner stingers are great too. My three topwater setups will each typically be setup with one having a stick bait, one with a popper, and one having a RonZ.
f. Trolling on my center console, my riggers are setup for two lines on each side, with standard Tigress release clips.
Weather (wind/seas) permitting – we will usually run a 8-10 rod spread. Waaaayyyyyyyyy out the back is our long which we put up in the center of our rocket launcher (no center rigger). This is always a Joe Shute with a ballyhoo – typically purple/black. Outside riggers – also Joe shutes (1 white, 1 green). Inside riggers are 18” Sterling machine bars (1 green, 1 purple). Transom corners – flat line squid chains just inside the bars deep in the wash. Down the center inside the long is usually a 36” spreader bar – again green or purple. In the wash 10’ behind boat are 2 cedar plugs or small feathers flat lined. We briefly used Sterling Tackle’s new wide trackers last season with decent results but I still use the description layout above as my go to spread.
Fish on….relax and stay calm. This is particularly important if there’s new guys with little experience on the boat. Luckily, I do this for the fun and sport of it. I do not charter and don’t take money to take people fishing so most of the time I have a solid crew of guys on the boat that all know what to do when the time comes. If there is someone on the boat that’s new I make them well aware what to touch, not touch, or to just stay the hell out of the way of! I think being calm and relaxed during big bites is the most important part of tuna fishing. Mistakes happen when people panic. When the bite happens I will keep the boat moving forward as many times there is more than one fish interested in the spread. If another rod doesn’t go down it’s time to get a rod man setup and comfortable then start clearing all the other lines. Typically, I want to get all the inside lines in first, but it really depends which rod gets hit and where the fish is going. We will clear the rods and move them to the front of the boat, keeping the back deck completely open for the angler to fight the fish.
Birds and nervous water are a center console’s dream scenario. Like any species you don’t want to spook them. I will typically pull back way before approaching disturbed water. Watch the water and the direction of movement. I will always try to be out in front of them having the fish coming towards me. Cast at the moving school allowing the lures to be pulled in the same direction as the bait the fish are chasing. Having good anglers at this point is key. You may get lucky with an aggressive feed but having people that know how to properly cast is key.
The end game is all about constant pressure. Whether it be trolling gear or spinning gear, constant pressure on that fish is imperative. On the troll my boat is kept in gear for the most part, sometimes causing the angler a longer fight time and a little more physical stress, but I want constant and steady pressure on that fish. Spinning gear is definitely more in the hands of the angler vs the captain in my opinion. Yes, I need to maneuver the boat, but once that fish is pretty much straight up and down on a spinning rod, the angler is more in control of the situation then me. For a trolling scenario I always have a leader man and a gaff man. Most of our leaders are 6’+ as well as large bars being extremely long so it’s very important to have guys that know how to guide that fish up to the surface and another that can close the deal. As stated earlier, my boat is always in gear moving forward while hooked up (when at all possible). Obviously, there are times when that fish doesn’t want to budge and you’re making donuts, but if we can have that fish coming forward alongside the boat, it makes for a much easier end game. Gaff vs harpoon it pretty much comes down to size and feel. Sometimes an 90lb bluefin has more gas left in the tank at boat side than a giant bf does after a long fight. We have multiple gaffs and 2 harpoons on the boat. Ultimately, to me, its fish size that makes the call for which one. Anything near 100lbs + is seeing the dart. I’ve had the gaff ripped out of my hands before with 80-90lb fish.
Tail rope, bleed it, and let it hang….a famous Veterinarian from Forked River taught me that years back.
If and when you’re lucky enough to catch your limit while the bite is still going strong it’s very important to be smart and safely release the fish healthy and unharmed. We will always try to get a clean in water release on a fish using a dehooker but, if it’s not an option, we will remove the fish from the water typically with a lip gaff and get it back in the water as soon as possible. If in the case of a deep buried lure/hook where the fish is out of the water for a couple minutes we will try to swim the fish boat side at a slow pace for a minute or so before sending it on it’s way.
Captain Eric Remig – 35 Contender “Riptide”
a. Depending on sea conditions, signs of life, and water temperature we will deploy six to eight rods. We fish shimano 5’9″ full roller rods paired up with shimano talica 25’s & 50’s spooled with approximately 600yds of 130lb power pro solid braid connected with a yucatan knot to a topshot of 100lb momoi diamond monofilament. This lineup of rods will confidently turn the head of any bluefin over 73″.
b. One popping rod per angler and one jigging rod per angler. An 8′ popping rod paired up with a Shimano Stella 20,000 spooled up with 65lb maxcuatro and a topshot of 80lb fluorocarbon. The jigging combo is an 5’9″ 400g rod paired with an Shimano Twin Power 14,000 spooled with 65lb power pro maxcuatro and a topshot of 80b fluorocarbon. Both connections from solid braid to topshot are tied with the yucatan knot.
c. All of our spreader bars, chains, and other rigged lures are custom made by the crew. The Side Tracker, made by Chatter Lures, is one of our favorite store bought rigs; as we know that Justin rigs with quality products and it is rigged professionally.
d. Our prefered way to rig a ballyhoo is split bill. We believe the split bill bait tracks much better while digging and creating an awesome, natural, sub-surface presentation. Our ballyhoo are ALWAYS rigged prior to the boats departure. We usually pre-rig 6-8 baits and leave the tag end of the bally rig open; which allows us to decide on the head weight based on sea conditions, signs of life/type of life, and presence of bait/size of bait. The ballyhoo are rigged on owner jobu hooks, 7/0 (medium ballyhoo), 9/0 (select/horse).
e. Go to artificials for topwater rods include: 3oz Ron-Z head w/ swivel line tie rigged w/ 8″ pearl Ron-Z. 3oz open mouth popper that is through wired, sub surface glide bait such as the Dorado slider in 100g. and a descending bait such as the Diawa s.p. bullet. All artificials are rigged with owner split ring/barrel swivel as a line tie. Hooks are replaced on surface baits w/diablo, or owner, in-line hooks. The hook size is dependant on the bait, we primarily use 7/0 and 9/0 hooks. Other baits are rigged with 5x Owner treble hooks, again hook size is dependant on the size of the bait, but we primarily run 3/0 hooks. All stock split rings are replaced with owner hyper-wire split rings. With this selection of baits we confidently know we can attack any situation/feed we may run into. Color selection will be based off of any ideas of bait that may be present. Our findings indicate that baits with dominant colors such as white, pink, green w/ silver underside are three top producing colors when running to the grounds without any intel on presence of bait/life.
f. Our 35′ Contender is rigged with three riggers lines per side plus a center rigger. We use 400lb L.P. monofilament rigged with Aftco roller trollers; the roller troller has the ability to pull a heavier bait in rough sea conditions.
The go to spread in this situation would be 6 rods, two rods are fished on short riggers fished about 100′ behind the boat with 36″ spreader bar in black/purple (zucchini stinger), two rods on middle rigger fished out 250′ with select ballyhoo rigged on 3oz blue/crystle Joe Shute, two rods fish on long rigger stretched out 450′ rigged with 5 3/4oz-8oz crystle/redhead Joe Shute.
The first step is to make sure your angler is ready with a harness that properly fits. Clear the spread to allow for angler positioning on the CC. This is where an experienced crew and good communication is key. Crew members must be vocal in the pit; rod clearance is dependant on where the bite is in the spread. We do not have a preference on a side of the boat, it is based off of which side of the boat is clear, which is another thing that must be made note of. Having clear gunwales will play a key part in landing a big early season bluefin. In the beginning of the battle we feel the fish out, if it wants to stay stretched out we bump the angler up towards the bow. This way we can get an angle on the fish and get it’s head turned, allowing for maximum leverage and control; therefore, the time of battle is drastically cut-down and your able to get baits back into the water, and get another bite. Photographs do not catch fish.
When we roll into a feed, we throw 3/4 of our anglers up to the bow with popping gear and the other 1/4 will stay positioned from helm-stern with jigs. A spotter will get a good idea of the direction the push of the feed is heading and we position the boat ahead of it. Distance is based on type of feed, usually on an early season bluefin feed you are able to slide in as close as 60 yards and fire out your offerings. There are other circumstances, for example, sometimes a feed is broken up and the fish are reluctant to hold a pattern and are dropping out. In this situation we stay back from the feed and try not to drive them down. In both circumstances we are vocal with any readings that we may have, this way jig anglers are well aware of positioning of life/fish and know where to place baits in the water column.
The endgame is the most critical part of our battle. If we are looking to kill a fish we try to eliminate a leader man; right off of the bat that eliminates one area for error. Always make sure the crew member handling a larger fish is vocal. All of this is taking place towards the stern of the boat to where we can have another crew member in a position for assistance without having gunwale obstruction. We use the same end game tactic whether we are on spinning or trolling gear. We harpoon any fish that is not going to be manageable. All manageable fish will be stuck with 1-2 gaffs, immediately tail roped, bled out, and dragged. This decision is based off of the size of the fish and number of crew members. The crew inspects the fish to try to get an indication of what they were feeding on.
If we are releasing a bft we make sure the fish is comfortably and cleanly gaffed in the mouth (lower lip) and handled in the water. We do this near the stern of the boat and make sure the crew member handling the hook is safe and away from any hazardous items. We use a heavy duty dehooker on an 4′ fiberglass pole for hook removal. Our crew is conscious of hook selection (we start to transition from treble hooks to in-line hooks).
Above: The reward for hard work and preparation is a tail roped tuna off the side of the boat. (Photo: C. Falicon)
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