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June 09, 2010

New Jersey Bluefins

Northeast anglers are finding a resurgence of a former favorite

Back to the Future
This was the pattern we were fishing as we headed farther offshore that morning. As we bore down on the 30-fathom line, we started seeing birds again, and Kosztyu, homing in on a freighter drifting dead in the water, cut the engines. The birds were wheeling, and tuna occasionally busted the surface. The sonar showed what we were looking for: clouds of sand eels and larger red marks that indicated the tuna that were working them.

Gatley and Marsh dropped a pair of butterfly jigs, a natural brown and a hot pink, over the side, let them slide to the bottom and then settled in for the retrieve: regular, brisk jigging motions that set up a rhythm that essentially swam a jig toward the surface with a side-to-side action, like a vertical walk-the-dog. Marsh, on the brown jig, got hit first, and the tuna bent him over the gunwale and took him on a couple of strained laps around the boat before he brought it under control. Almost as soon as Kosztyu had tailed and released that one, Gahm hooked up: The second of roughly a dozen fish we'd take that day before heading back to the dock.

The fish we were catching all hovered around the 47-inch mark. Regulations in '09 allowed keeping one fish over 27 and below 47 inches and one fish over 47 and under 73 inches; thus, the chatter that season had a lot to do with the 47-inch mark and who had taken their "over" and their "under." From June through the summer, more tuna fishermen than not returned to the dock with an over and an under in the fish box. That day, we got our over pretty quickly but never did land our under.

Between the freighter and the birds, we managed to stay on those tuna for several long drifts, but even 60 miles offshore over trackless bottom like what we were fishing, we didn't have the fish all to ourselves for long. More and more anglers are catching on to how to locate these bluefins.

Off the Beaten Track
Finding the fish is a new hunt every day. "Anglers get too fishing-report dependent," says Kosztyu, "but that is all information you are getting after the fact. You have to go outside your usual routes and look for new spots to find these tuna." The school bluefins move constantly with the bait, he explains, and even the lat/longs you get one day may serve as only starting points for the next day's search.

Most anglers take the same route from their home inlets to the canyons and back. That leaves a lot of territory between those travel lanes, territory that may well be where the bluefins are feeding. "Pay attention when you are traveling, and look for birds," says Kosztyu. "Birds are the tip-off. Don't pass anything unusual up without taking a good look at the bottom with your sonar. A small difference in depth can hold bait."

The feeding grounds for the bluefins, the places where the sand eels congregate, may be over nondescript bottom, what Gatley refers to as feeding flats. Fifty miles off the coast, on the featureless plain south of the Mud Hole, any bottom feature can be an important one. "Sometimes the humps may be only two or three feet higher than the surrounding bottom," says Gatley. "Any depression or hill on a feeding flat can be a baitfish holding spot. That's where we were finding big, long clouds of sand eels, 10 to 15 feet thick, covering a third of the fish-finder screen.

Both captains agree that you have to put in the effort to find the fish and be willing to check out new areas. Swap information with other anglers, but don't let it limit your search. The way the bluefins act and the places they prefer after so many years of absence remain to be rediscovered. "I got lucky last year: I found a lot of fish in places that most guys were riding right by," says Kosztyu. As with most endeavors, it seems the harder you work, the luckier you get. After three years of school bluefins making a reliable appearance, both Gatley and Kosztyu are banking on that luck holding for Jersey anglers for another season.