The sun was a dusty red smudge on the horizon when Capt. Rich Kosztyu pulled the throttles back on his 28 ProKat, Michele Ann, and we settled into a bumpy sea 25 miles off Shark River in northern New Jersey. Small, dark storm petrels, "tuna chicks" in local parlance, pattered on the surface, and shearwaters sliced the tops of the waves, both species hoping to pick up the scraps scattered by school-size bluefin tuna. Occasionally a tuna busted, but there was no pattern to their feeding or, it seemed, to their movement. Anyone who has chased tuna even a few times knows the inevitable frustration when they are around but just won't cooperate.
We left the dock at Neptune just after 4 a.m. to get where we were, an area loosely referred to as the Mud Hole. That name covers the ancient riverbed scars that run across the continental shelf from the mouth of the Hudson River to where the shelf drops into the abyss as the Hudson Canyon. Kosztyu and captains Chris Gatley and Jimmy Gahm were on an extended busman's holiday this week, precipitated by the appearance of bluefin tuna. They had been tracking the fish for several days, and so far they'd brought 45 to the boat, all just above and below the 47-inch mark.
They were trying to figure out this new bluefin fishery. Warminster, Pennsylvania, angler Bill Marsh came along to pull on tuna. But that didn't seem like it was going to happen here. Kosztyu reckoned it wasn't worth chasing fish that weren't settling down to feed, so he pointed the bow offshore and powered toward the sunrise.
This strategy, the willingness to run and gun, look for birds and stay on the move, is how Kosztyu and Gatley had been finding fish over the past week. It wasn't as if this were a fishery with a well-established routine.
School bluefin tuna had not been regular visitors to this portion of the Jersey coast for nearly 20 years. First hints of their return came three years ago when Al Ristori, of the Newark Star-Ledger, reported that anglers working the Mud Hole were catching bluefins in the 25-inch range. The past two years have seen the same run of bluefins in July, with the fish each year averaging a little larger.
"There has been a 20-year lull in the Mud Hole," says Gatley. "Ten years ago it was dead. Now for the past two years, there has been consistently good fishing for bluefins. The sand eels have rebounded, and that is a major reason the fish stick around."
"To see bluefins again is great," says Kosztyu. The first year they started showing up, they appeared along the 30-fathom line. Then the second season he fished them, in '09, he found productive jigging on both the 20- and the 30-fathom lines. "That's when the jigging got hot," he says. "We had sand eels like we haven't seen in years, since the 1980s and '90s. I don't know why they left, but they started showing up again, and we were marking acres of them on the bottom."