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September 21, 2007

Marathon Man

Top Maine party-boat skipper Tim Tower proves that catching and conservation can indeed go hand in hand.

Part One


Capt. Tim tower swings a nice cod over the rail of the Bunny Clark. This one's headed for the fishbox.

"Sixteen pounds even. Bright red gills, too!"

With that, Captain Tim Tower steps to the rail and drops the largest codfish I have caught in years tail-first over the side. I watch it turn and fin slowly down out of sight, mentally envisioning the two fat fillets that will never get a chance to bask in the orange glow of my oven's broiler.

Dom Bruno, fishing on the bow, sticks his head around the windshield and announces "I've got a double here!" Tower deftly lifts the duo into the boat, drops the smaller one back over, then twists the jig from the jaw of the 14-pounder.

"You want to tag him, Dom?" The reply being affirmative, Tower measures, tags and releases the fish in mere seconds, then pens an entry into a notebook. When he looks up, mate Ian Kenniston is standing there with another fine cod ready for a routine physical, a plastic tag and freedom. Moments later Fred Kunz of New Hampshire swings an 18-pounder into the boat.

And the fish just keep on coming. Sixteen anglers, most dressed in bright yellow or orange foul-weather gear, jig, joke and crank. Bent rods are everywhere. Many of the cod, pollock and undersized haddock go right back over the side, and a number of others find their way into totes beneath the fish-cleaning bench in the center of the cockpit, but nearly all the larger cod are recorded, tagged and released. Through it all Tower circulates among his charges, landing someone's fish here, unhooking one there, and offering words of encouragement and advice while absorbing more than a modicum of good-natured ribbing. Every so often he'll grab his own outfit and send a jig to the bottom 200 feet below, invariably hooking right up. But what he seems to enjoy most is his never-ending ritual of letting the big ones go.

Few people who know Tim Tower, or have fished with him, would deny that he's the premier party boat skipper in the state of Maine, and perhaps in all of New England. His 40-foot Bunny Clark has accounted for an astonishing 31 IGFA world records and 17 state records since 1984, and his many hundreds of loyal followers are so intent upon fishing with him that, when his phone reservation line opens at 12:01 a.m. each February 1st, many of his offshore trips scheduled for the coming season are booked solid within hours.

Tower built his reputation the old-fashioned way - he earned it. As a boy in Ogunquit's Perkins Cove, he often accompanied his father, Billy, on trips for cod, tuna and striped bass. He acquired a lobster license at the age of ten, and hauled traps by hand from a skiff. He moved on to become a helmsman on a tuna boat at 14, and harpooned his first giant bluefin at 16. After a stint at Alfred University in New York, graduating with a BA in biochemistry, he got into the tour-boat business, but soon bought a six-passenger charter boat in order to pursue cod and tuna. That lasted five years, and in 1983 he built the Bunny Clark, which he originally set up as a dragger, but changed his mind and tricked her out as a party boat instead.

This 15-pounder fell for a
This 15-pounder fell for a "snowshoe" jig armed with a hook dressed with a blue rubber skirt, and will be released.

"I had this idea that I wanted to treat my passengers as if they were my fishing compatriots," he says, a philosophy his customers will no doubt regard as somewhat of an understatement. "I started the half-day trips to initially attract people who might not have much deep-sea fishing experience, with the goal of getting them out on full-day trips, and ultimately on the marathons."

Mad About Marathons

And it's the marathons that have become Tower's signature trips. Hugely popular, these 12-hour-plus forays out to the most productive offshore grounds in the Gulf of Maine attract anglers from all over the U.S. and Canada, and only 50 or so are offered each season. "They fill up real fast," he admits, "but people will often book several dates, then cancel the ones they don't want, so slots do open up." These days his marathon customers are an eclectic mix of regulars and new anglers, yet all those I've spoken with agree on one thing: Tim Tower has an uncanny ability to find fish. But, even he admits that finding fish really boils down to mentally processing a whole lot information.

"Every part of the ocean bottom will hold fish at certain times," he explains. "Open bottom, edges, chutes, humps and wrecks are all productive at some point. The key, at least for me, is to try and pick up on trends and patterns early in the year, then capitalize on them."

What constitutes a trend? "Weather patterns, for instance, are critical," he says. "Sometimes the wind blows southwest all season, and the fish are in certain places and react a certain way. But a prevailing wind from a different direction changes the picture considerably. And if I find a lot of a particular fish such as haddock early on, I'll try and figure out how they're going to move around."

Tower uses a modified garment tagging gun to tag a ten-pound
Tower uses a modified garment tagging gun to tag a ten-pound "volunteer."

The color of the "flies" his customers use - 5/0 or 6/0 hooks dressed with synthetic fibers, attached to the jig or fastened to the leader 18 inches above - can make a difference too, and may vary from year to year in effectiveness, especially on haddock. "You need to pick up on color trends early," he says, "and sometimes I'm surprised. But in general I've found green to be best in the spring for pollock, with purple the most productive for haddock and blue taking the larger cod. Pink, though, is probably the best all-around color. The bottom line is that I try to internalize years and years worth of data." Towards that end, Tower keeps printouts of all his web site trip summaries and catch reports - and there are thousands of pages - in binders for future reference.

Top-Shelf Tackle

Tower's attention to tackle rivals that of any world-class marlin skipper, and he furnishes top-shelf outfits. He's tried a number of models of reels over the years, and has currently settled on the Pro Gear brand. These solid-frame reels are expensive at around $250 each, yet are favored for their smooth drags and ease in casting heavy jigs. He has them modified by Bob Nixon of New Hampshire, then loads them with 50- to 80-pound low-stretch Spectra for increased sensitivity and positive hook-setting at depths that can well exceed 300 feet.

Tower's boat rods, and most of those his regular customers purchase, are of his own design. He and Saco Bay Tackle build them of graphite or glass with standard lengths of either eight feet even or 8' 31/2". "How the blank is cut determines the action," he explains. "The longer rod has more butt section for tucking it under your arm, which is the right way to hold the rod when reeling in a cod or haddock. The rod is for jigging, not fish-fighting. The reel is for bringing the fish in." His rods have long, rubber-encapsulated foregrips, too, for those who like to rest the rod on the rail while carefully winding a fish to the surface. Indeed, this was the technique used by my rail-mate on the trip, regular Irwin Libeskind of Massachusetts, who landed and released the most good-sized cod of anyone and may have been overall high-hook for the day as well. By cranking slowly and steadily, Irwin didn't drop many fish.

Mate Ian Kenniston catches up on his filleting duties as anglers in the stern continue to winch fish to the surface.
Mate Ian Kenniston catches up on his filleting duties as anglers in the stern continue to winch fish to the surface. The majority of the Bunny Clark's customers release at least a few fish each trip, says Tower.

As for terminal gear, Tower favors a custom-designed, eight- to 16-ounce stainless "Norwegian snowshoe" jig manufactured expressly for his customers and him. "We use other styles on occasion as well," he says. "Pipe and diamond jigs, for instance, work better on resident (non-migratory) cod, which seem to prefer a straight up-and-down lure action."

It's the tagging and record-keeping, though, that Tower obviously finds most satisfying. "I first got interested in it when I was in college," he recalls. "I spent some time working with the late Frank Mather at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, and I actually harpoon-tagged the first free-swimming bluefin tuna ever - and got the tag returned two years later. I ended up doing my graduate thesis on bluefins and their migrations."

Tower started tagging cod in 1983, and put his own address on the tags. "I did it mostly for my own interest," he says, "and to give my customers something to do with their fish instead of wasting them. It was basically to promote conservation. Years ago we used to fillet out what people wanted, then dump the rest. I wanted to get away from that."