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August 16, 2013

Bluefin Tuna Tracker

A seasonal guide to catching these great game fish.

Few fish fight with the speed, strength and stamina of bluefin tuna. Hook one and ­fishing will never be the same for you. Considered by many as the ultimate big-game challenge, they’re a force of nature that puts angler and tackle to the test each time you set the hook. The Western Atlantic from Cape Hatteras north to the Gulf of St. Lawrence is their primary stomping ground, where anglers can follow their wanderings up and down the coast through the seasons, encountering specimens from 15 pounds to more than 1,000. From light-tackle delight to unlimited heavy-tackle brawl, if you want to earn your saltwater-fishing stripes, you have to throw down and hook up with a bluefin.

Carolina Opener
The first major concentrations of bluefin show up off the Outer Banks each winter. Capt. Billy Maxwell of Tuna Fever (tunafever.com) tells us about this incredible fishery.

“The bluefin have been thick the past few years with schools stretching for miles along ocean color changes,” says Maxwell. “These fish range from 60 to 100 inches (130 to 600 pounds) and usually start arriving in late ­December. Early efforts are centered on filling the commercial quota. It’s important to the livelihoods of many of the ­captains here, so March is prime time for charters or fishing your own boat.”

When we spoke, Maxwell had completed a stretch of trips that tallied 43 bluefin from 250 to 450 pounds in a 13-day period. He starts each day trolling horse ballyhoo on 80-wides until he locates the fish. Then he switches to jigs, poppers or chunking.

“I’ve had four on at once trolling,” Maxwell says. “If I put out the green stick, we can get these massive tuna jumping out of the water at the plastic squids. How can anyone not be happy catching this caliber of fish?” Come April, the tuna schools dissipate — some headed north, others east. Such are the vagaries of bluefin tuna ­migration patterns.

Ocean City Blues
The area from Wachapreague, maryland to Cape May, new jersey sees an influx of bluefins that can take up summer residence or move through. Capt. Joey Drosey runs Osprey (rhondasosprey.com) out of Ocean City, Maryland, and has 30 years of ­experience tuna fishing in this area.

“We typically encounter school fish along offshore ­temperature breaks in late May,” Drosey reports. “These are 20- to 40-pound fish. The larger fish show inshore a little later, starting with spots like 21 and 26 Mile Hills off Wachapreague, then move north. These are typically 50- to 100-pound fish, but we get some larger too.”

Early fishing is trolling with lures and ballyhoo, but once the fish settle in along the 30-fathom spots, chunking and jigging come into play. “When the commercial scallop boats were working this area, bluefin would stay for months,” Drosey says. “They’re chunking machines, and the tuna are never far from them. More recently, they’ve been working farther north, so our fishery consists of a shot in spring and early summer. But if the lumps ­aren’t holding a lot of bait, they move north. Last year, I had some excellent catches of fish to 150 pounds in fall trolling the Hot Dog.” Each year is different, but the region has the potential to produce great bluefin fishing, and anglers from Virginia to Cape May benefit when that happens.