The Karen Lynn loped along, trolling over Stellwagen Bank, in Massachusetts. It had been a slow morning. The young James Andrew, about out of patience, stepped to the rod pulling a 10-inch Hogy across the light chop and jigged, reeled, jigged, reeled. Wham! He had the magic touch, and when his bluefin tuna came in over the transom, the skunk was off the boat.
The next one came as the same lure was zipping over the surface as James' father, Jim, retrieved it to change baits. There are days when you wonder why so many pains are taken to do things just so, since the fish come at the dumbest times. But the appearance of these bluefin tuna in the spring has proven reliable, as they stop to feed on the abundant bait that gathers over Stellwagen Bank.
The Karen Lynn, a Lowell 43, is a solid, roomy Down East-style lobster boat converted to a tuna boat, says her skipper, Capt. Collin MacKenzie of Essex, Massachusetts. We pulled out of Gloucester at dawn and chugged, all 18 knots worth of chugging, to the northwest corner of Stellwagen, then to the Double L's, where we tagged the first 50-pounder of the day.
Meanwhile, on a companion boat with which MacKenzie often works, Capt. Derek Spingler of First Light Anglers was scouring the bank in a 24-foot Silverhawk, a fast twin-outboard, on a report of fish to the south. Interestingly, that morning Spingler drew a blank, while the Karen Lynn chugged comfortably from fish to fish. On another day, however, moving around could well be the winning strategy.
Both First Light's and Karen Lynn's captain have well-earned reputations for putting fish in the cockpit, though their strategies and tactics are vastly different. There's something to be learned from each of them.
Float Like a Butterfly
Spingler is straightforward about his proactive approach to fishing the roughly 850 square miles of Stellwagen Bank. "I will not spend more than 30 minutes in one area," he says. "If nothing is happening, I move. You need to find the bait and whales, even if you have to run to Prov-incetown or north off Gloucester."
Spingler's plan includes traveling far and finding the fish, which means locating the predominant bait, sand eels, or if those aren't around, the mackerel or halfbeaks that make up the bluefin diet this time of the year. "We move around on the bank and look for the sand eels, which we find by locating the whales - the humpbacks, minke whales and finbacks," he says. "The humps key in on the sand eels. And we watch for birds: shearwaters, terns and gannets - those are the indicators."
Once he finds bait, Spingler brings the fish finder into play to pinpoint the tuna. "We drive around the sand eels until we mark fish, which may be 50 or 60 feet down mopping up the stunned and crippled sand eels the whales have been feeding on," he says. "Then we go to work on them with spinning tackle."
Ninety percent of the time, the tuna and the bait will be moving into the wind, which is an ideal setup for drifting down on them. "Drifting to the tuna is effective when fishing a popper," he says. "It's quieter, as the boat isn't slapping, and you let them come to you."
Despite the basic run-and-gun strategy, Spingler says it's critical to lie low once you locate fish. Running through them breaks up the bait and puts the tuna on alert. "Let the fish come to you," he advises. "Stop the boat and watch. Pay attention to how they are acting; see what their personality is that day."
Spingler prefers spinning tackle in this situation. "We are fishing at the upper limits of spinning tackle," he says.
"Braided lines - Jerry Brown Line One, PowerPro, Momoi Diamond Braid - have revolutionized what we do. You can't cast 80-pound mono with a spinning rod, but with braid, we can load the reel with 80-pound and cast with it."