Pictured above: Captain Bobby Rice with a summer bluefin jigged up around big schools of sand eels.
As the sun rose over Stellwagen Bank, dozens (if not hundreds) of bluefin rose with it. Everywhere I looked, tuna vaulted out of the water, seeming almost gleeful as they sucked in mouthfuls of sand eels. The fishfinder showed a similar scene below, with clouds of yellow-green scratches (the sand eels) parting for the deep-red boomerangs (the bluefin).
I was surprised to see Captain Bobby Rice pull back the throttles well short of the heart of the action. While my impulse would have been to roar right within casting distance of the biggest school, Bobby stopped the boat, dropped a RonZ, and before resetting his drift, he had released two tuna between himself and his two anglers on board.
Another season and another day on the tuna grounds and, once again, the breaking dawn brought breaking tuna. But instead of scattered, widespread feeds, these tuna formed tight knots of white water as they converged on schools of Atlantic sauries. Instead of long drifts through the scattered bait schools, we played leapfrog with the feeds, doing our best to anticipate where they’d pop up and which direction they were moving.
Swimming just below the top rung of the Atlantic Ocean food ladder, a bluefin tuna eats whatever it wants. On any given day on the tuna grounds, you might find bluefin chowing down on mackerel, herring, butterfish, bluefish, codfish, or even krill. But, quite often, the “football” bluefin recreational anglers search for make their living on two baits—sand eels and Atlantic sauries.
Captains have mixed feelings about tuna on sand eels. On one hand, sand eels typically stay put, setting up over a structure and remaining there, making it a bit easier to predict where the tuna will show. On the other hand, bluefin feeding on sand eels can be picky.
Captain Adam Sherer of Waterman Charters said that while sand eels are the most prevalent bait on the tuna grounds, they can be difficult to match, which makes tuna feeding on sand eels sometimes difficult to hook.
Sherer, who trailers his boat between Cape Cod and North Carolina, operates his charter business out of Barnegat, New Jersey. When the bluefin move south past his home waters in the early winter, it can be tough to get a bite when they are feeding on sand eels. Part of that challenge comes from getting a lure or trolled bait in front of an active fish.
A school of sand eels may span acres, and tuna don’t need to ball up the baits in order to eat their fill. In areas with no structure to hold the sand eels, feeding tuna can be frustratingly spread out. But, in areas like the wrecks off Long Island, or the lumps off Cape May, New Jersey, or Stellwagen Bank off Massachusetts, sand eels often make it easy to locate tuna.
Captain Bob Cope of Full Ahead Sportfishing targets bluefin on the lumps southeast of Cape May. He begins by looking for high concentrations of sand eels to determine which structures to focus on. Once he finds them, he sets up shop, either trolling or chunking and jigging, letting the concentration of sand eels draw the tuna to him.
Captain Bobby Rice of Reel Deal Fishing Charters employs similar tactics when the tuna are wallowing in shoals of sand eels off Cape Cod. He’ll set a drift through the areas with the highest concentration of bait, and jig with RonZs. Bobby’s also not opposed to sending out a live mackerel, jigged up on his way to the tuna grounds, as added insurance for fooling the selective sand-eel-eating tuna.
Tuna on sand eels will strike a stickbait worked along the surface, but it can be tough to beat a 10-inch RonZ jigged slowly through the water column, especially if the fish aren’t showing on top. Whether trolling or casting and retrieving lures, remember that sand eels aren’t very fast, so adjust your speed accordingly.
Most of the baitfish that bluefin eat are slow—with one exception. More commonly called “halfbeaks” among Northeast captains, the Atlantic saury provides some of the most visually exciting tuna feeds. This slender, fast-moving baitfish leaves the water by the hundreds while under attack from bluefin, “showering out” as Sherer put it, and the tuna turn the water white as they smash the surface in pursuit. “You put a stickbait near halfbeaks,” said Sherer, “and you almost know it’s going to get bit.”
Halfbeaks are also the favorite baitfish of Captain Bobby Rice. Tuna are more aggressive on halfbeaks than on other baitfish, probably because they must react more quickly to catch them.
Because halfbeaks spend most of their lives within a few feet of the surface, you can count on tuna eating halfbeaks to be visible on top. These feeds are fast-moving, and occasionally short lived, forcing fishermen to move quickly to get into position to cast into a halfbeak feed. Long-casting stickbaits, like those made by Siren Lures, are the top choices for both Sherer and Rice.
When halfbeaks are around, it’s even beneficial for captains to pick up their trolling speed a knot or two. While slow and steady is generally the rule for trolling bluefin, especially north of the Cape, when the halfbeaks move in, it’s time to scrap the rulebook.
The only constant in tuna fishing is that it’s constantly changing. But, if you break the inlet with the gear and the game plans to cover the slow-moving sand eel and the bat-out-of-hell halfbeak, you’re bound to come back with a bluefin more often than not.