Popping tuna became the late-season craze in New Jersey about six years ago when a large concentration of bluefin tuna settled into the waters 3 to 15 miles offshore. They showed up somewhat unexpectedly at the end of November, when many offshore fishermen were wrapping it up for the season, leaving captains scrambling to get out to cast lures at them.
Fishermen armed themselves with specialized rods, high-end spinning reels, and realistic stickbaits, bringing West Coast and Cape Cod tactics to our local waters. Still, it was a frustrating fishery, to say the least. Many anglers reported spotting the fish briefly, only to have them totally disappear when their boats approached casting range—before long, disappointed captains began calling the pursuit, “chasing ghosts.”
The tuna passing through New Jersey in late November and December are migrating south from New England to their spawning grounds in the Gulf of Mexico. Bluefin tuna can tolerate cold water by transferring heat from their arterial to venous blood vessels, which prevents the heat from escaping into its surroundings. If bait is present close to shore at the end of November into December and ocean temperatures are holding between 50-54 degrees, the stage is set for inshore topwater tuna action.
Bluefin were going by the New Jersey coast long before fishermen began targeting them – commercial draggers and offshore party boat captains fishing the winter wrecks can attest to that. Some seasons, the bluefin migrate within 15 miles of the beach, and other seasons they stay much farther offshore, out of range of the recreational boater not interested in venturing far offshore in freezing cold temperatures.
Whether the bluefin show close to the coast depends entirely on the bait. There are four species of baitfish that have tuna-holding power—sand eels, Atlantic sea herring, Atlantic saury, and squid.
Most years, by late November, sand eels move in from offshore and take up residence on the 3- to 6-mile inshore lumps and ridges. Sea herring and squid can draw in tuna, but in my opinion, the Atlantic saury is the bait that lights this fishery on fire. If sauries appear inshore in numbers, the tuna will stick around to feed on them.
The late fall and early winter of 2016 was the best inshore, end-of-the-season run I have seen since 2011. For four weeks, the tuna sat 9 to 11 miles outside Manasquan Inlet in the shipping channel. Working around notoriously fickle late-season weather, I got out five times, and each time saw tuna and had several shots at them. But, it was my fifth and final trip that was one of my most memorable fishing trips ever.
It was December 28, and it was too rough for my 28-foot Parker Sport Cabin because the hard northwest wind was creating whitecaps. Instead, I took my gear on Captain Ken Hager’s Taylor Jean, a 50-foot Viking out of Hoffman’s Marina in Brielle. Ken was happy to oblige and give it a try. Also on board was my son Tommy, my good friend Captain Jay Monteverdi, who also runs the Taylor Jean, his sons JP and Big Al, Ken’s son Ryan, and his friend Brendan. I explained the game plan to everyone – what the approach needed to be and how we were going to cast at the fish. I even had Tommy show the guys how to cast the specialized spinning rods and had them make some practice casts so they could get a feel for the tackle before it was game time. I told them one cast might be all they’d get, so it needed to be perfect.
And, the hunt was on. The rough conditions made spotting fish difficult, and time passed without much activity. I was about to take a nap when Brendan spotted birds just ahead, so Ken maneuvered the boat into a good position, and we had our shot.
In Tommy’s words, “When we saw the pod of fish up top, the three of us, JP, Brendan, and I, lined up on the starboard side of the boat and all three of us cast at the same time. I had on a black/silver Tailwalk Gunz, JP had on a Dorado Slider, and Brendan had on a Souls Hibiki. I cast, took two cranks, and felt weight, so I set the hook hard twice, and I was in.
Line And Leader
So that you have enough to handle the first big run of a large tuna, 80- or 100-pound-test braided line is a must to achieve maximum line capacity on your reel spool. Another advantage of braided line is that its thinner diameter allows for long casts—an absolute necessity in this game.
For a leader, use a length of 100- or 130-pound-test fluorocarbon casting leader attached to the doubled braided line with a splice, an FG Knot, or loop-to-loop connection. BHP Tackle sells pre-made 12-foot leaders that are perfect for this application. For easier casting, cut them down to 8 feet so the loop-to-loop connection is just above the reel and below the first guide when you are casting.
“The fish immediately ran at us toward the stern, and the line went slack. I thought I’d lost it. I quickly reeled in the slack and came tight again. The tuna took off for a giant run that just kept going and going. At this point, I was shaking because I knew it was the biggest fish I had ever hooked on a spinning rod in my life, and I was ecstatic because I’d finally hooked a winter bluefin.”
Tommy put in a good 15 minutes on the fish and then passed the rod to me. When he gave me the rod, I immediately knew that the tuna was larger than 100 pounds. I thought I was going to get the fish, but I passed the rod off to JP after 20 minutes. He then passed it to Brendan, who then passed it to Jay. In colder water, bluefin don’t fatigue as quickly as they do in the warmer water, leading to prolonged fights that can wear out anglers.
Each time the beast came up and we had deep color, it would sound again, taking back all the line we had gained. This scenario repeated itself over and over. We went around 4 times, passing the rod as Ken maneuvered the boat, backing down on the fish to keep us in the game. Finally, on the fourth cycle, Jay got it close enough for JP and Brendan to stick it with two gaffs and haul it onto the deck. Cheers and high fives went all around the boat. We hit the scales at Hoffman’s Marina on our way in and the tuna measured 57.5 inches and weighed 120 pounds.
To chase the late-season ghosts off New Jersey, it’s important to understand and note any bird action. Gulls, shearwaters, and Wilson’s storm petrels spot tuna from above and hover over them as they move along. It’s not the Hitchcock-esque bird action that we see above end-of-the-season bass blitzes, but rather one or two birds. If you look closely, you will see the tuna surfacing, boiling, or glimmering just below the surface. At times, they will burst clear out of the water, making them easy to spot. Sometimes, however, boaters confuse a breaking pod of dolphin as tuna when viewing them from a distance.
Once the tuna are spotted, it’s the throttle man, most likely the captain, who is hugely responsible for the success of the trip. The captain must watch the tuna to see which way it is moving and then position the boat ahead of it within casting range.
Ghost Buster Rods
Rods must be limber enough to cast lures a long distance and stout enough to break the spirit of a big bluefin. Most captains prefer lengths of 71Ž2 to 8 feet. Here’s a few suggested rods for chasing ghosts:
• Saltywater Tackle El Maestro EM 710MH
• Shimano Terez TZS78HA
• Shimano Ocean Plugger OPFLSLTD83MH
• Jigging World Ghost Hunter JW-GHP-76-200
The anglers must be able to make long casts with the specialized spinning rods and reels used for tuna. The lures must be cast in front of the moving tuna and then pulled away to mimic a fleeing baitfish. Pulling the artificial toward the fish or across its path doesn’t look natural—no baitfish is going to charge right at a bluefin tuna.
End-of-the-season tuna fishing is serious business—cold weather and hardcore fish. My best catch to date was on December 4, 2011, when I had Bob Marsiglia and Captain Jimmy Gahm on board. We found the tuna only 3.5 miles out on the Alex Carlson Reef off Point Pleasant and we were chasing the schools. I got us into position and the school headed right at us. All three of us cast and Bob came tight with a sardine-colored Smith Baby Runboh. An hour and a half later, after all three of us took turns fighting the fish, we had a 74-inch giant in the boat that we estimated to be 225 pounds. It was a fight and a day each of us will never forget.