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May 05, 2011

Boston Bluefin

Two pros share their bluefin tuna fishing strategies on Stellwagen Bank.

bluefin tuna in water

Lots of Drag
But 80-pound-test puts heavy demands on spinning tackle. "We use Shimano Stellas, usually set with 20 to 25 pounds of drag," he says. "Even the Saragosas are phenomenal. They hold up with 15 to 20 pounds of drag."

Spingler favors 7-foot rods, in his case custom 30- to 80-pound-class models built on Calstar graphite blanks.

Big tackle and maximum drags dictate stand-up-style fishing for bluefin.

"We fight them out of a harness," says Spingler. The setup is a standard harness and belt, with the addition of a spinning-rod adapter, a strap that wraps around the rod above the reel seat and provides lugs for the harness. Adapters are available from Braid and AFTCO, among others. With this setup, Spingler says, "We typically have a rod rigged with a 2 1/2- to 3 1/2-ounce popper, to push some water. We use a lot of custom lures, as well as Yo-Zuri Hydro poppers and Ocean Lure poppers, from a company in Newburyport."

Spingler pays particular attention to the hooks on his lures and, in most cases, swaps out the stock hooks with 4X replacements and steps up any swivels to 120- to 150-pound-class. Another favored setup is a flutter-style jig, a 224-gram 6- to 8-inch vertical jig. "When we are marking fish deep on the sonar," says Spingler, "I have my anglers open the bail and drop the jig and count until it hits the bottom. Then they can gauge their drop to put the jig in front of the fish."

Soft-Plastics Work
The 7 1/2- to 9-inch Slug-Go or Hogy soft-plastic lures rigged with a jig head are especially effective. RonZ lead-heads, built with tuna-strength hooks attached with a swivel, have become the fast favorite on these grounds. The swivel between the hook and the head prevents the tuna from gaining leverage against the hook and coming unfastened.

"We've also done well trolling unweighted Slug-Go-type lures, especially when the fish are crashing or are hitting more sporadically, or when I am marking them on the fish finder but not seeing them on the surface," says Spingler.

Built for Comfort
On the Karen Lynn, Collin MacKenzie takes a different approach to fishing Stellwagen. "Out on the bank it is a matter of searching until you find the bait and the fish," he says. "The advantage of trolling like we do is you cover a lot of ground and study what is going on throughout the day, and you have time to stick in one area rather than constantly thinking in the back of your mind that you can go 20 miles to the next spot. So you work an area thoroughly and let the fish come to you."

Part of finding the area that holds promise is locating the whales or, in lieu of that, finding attractive bottom. For MacKenzie, the fish finder is the first tool of choice in picking a fishing spot. "The fish will eventually show up," he says. "That's the thing with tuna around here. Everything can change in five minutes. It can be a dead zone, and before you know it, it's erupting."

When he finds whales and birds, even when they are not active, he hangs with them. "When the birds are sitting down and the whales are hanging out breathing, they are there for a reason," he says. "I am going to troll around the whales until something happens."

As tidal current moves in and out, the best time is an hour before slack tide and an hour after. That's when you want to be in position and on your game. "The northwest corner of Stellwagen is the nice steep drop-off where the bait tends to collect," he says. MacKenzie puts his fish finder on basic split-screen 50 and 200 kHz and follows an edge. "If you have an autopilot, it is great to set up on the drop-off, add a couple of marks and continue to troll the edge."
 
On the Troll
When trolling, both deep-diving plugs and soft-plastics pay off, and MacKenzie uses, for the most part, the same selection of lures that have proven so successful for Spingler. But because MacKenzie is trolling so much of the time, natural and live baits play a big part in his strategy too.

"We'll pull a Rapala deep-diver - the big X-Rap - or a ballyhoo," says MacKenzie. He recommends varying the color of the diving plugs. Gold Green Mackerel is a good starting point, but there are days when the least likely color pays off and nothing else will. He trolls at 312 knots. Rigged ballyhoo, with a chin weight when it is choppy and without when conditions are calm, are standard fare. Mackerel also produce well when they are available.

"There are a few live-bait suppliers to buy from," says MacKenzie, "but for the most part you have to acquire them yourself. For mackerel, seek out the inshore rock structures they tend to gather on, and get them with sabikis." Mackerel show up in mid-June, while the pogies (menhaden) follow later in the summer.

The big, wide cockpit on the Karen Lynn is well-suited to trolling. MacKenzie pulls four lines and deploys both 50- and 80-pound conventional stand-up gear. He loads reels with 130-pound hollow-core Spectra and adds 150 yards of 130-pound mono top shot.

"People neglect to bump up the size of their gear to match the fish," he says. "But you need to commit to a short fight. Get right over the fish. Get them straight below you and break their spirit. Long fights always end in heartache." It's equally important to prepare the gear so it's in 100 percent shape. "These fish have shown up here to feed. When you find them, they are going to be aggressive. Make sure you are prepared. Double-check your gear. Then when you think you are ready, get ready some more."