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May 23, 2012

Fishing Signposts at Sea

Great captains know that reading the signs leads to more fish offshore

The Eyes Have It
Storm petrels, those tiny black birds that seem to appear out of nowhere when you start a chum slick, can be indicators of feeding taking place below the surface. On a spring foray for bluefin aboard Roger Lehman’s 32-foot center console, Toypedo, we spotted hundreds of petrels dipping their beaks along the edge of a rip line. When we took a closer look, we found tuna working baitfish just beneath the surface. Trolling a spread of large ballyhoo under blue-and-white Ilanders was all it took to get the rods bent and put a pair of hundred-pound tuna in the boat.

I was riding with Capt. Jon Duffie on the Billfisher last summer out of Ocean City, Maryland, when we spotted an area alive with petrels through the binoculars. “When you see a large concentration of tuna chicks working so actively, it’s a sure sign fish are feeding below,” Duffie said as we drew closer to the activity. “They pick up tiny pieces of the baitfish that float to the surface.” As we trolled into the pandemonium, a troop of white marlin rose behind the dredges and attacked the ballyhoo in the pattern. We had several multiple hookups in that area in short order. A word to the wise — keep high-quality binoculars on board, and use them.

Weed lines forming along rip lines created by currents and the wind, are obvious signposts, and excellent visual clues to the location of temperature breaks. But not all productive rips create weed lines, and any visually significant rip should be investigated. Over canyons from the mid-Atlantic and the Bahamas to the West Coast, offshore currents striking underwater structure create upwellings, and the visual clue to their whereabouts is frequently a surface rip. A lot of years ago, I was fishing with Fred Archer out of Dana Point, California, trolling for sharks. It wasn’t until we started working a rip line created by current striking the walls of the La Jolla Canyon that the threshers started knocking on our lures. Remember, upwellings bring nutrient-rich water to the surface, starting a cycle of life that begins with a plankton bloom that attracts baitfish like anchovies, sardines, halfbeaks and flying fish. Find the forage, and the game fish are rarely far away.

Modern Methods
Electronics reveal signposts you might otherwise miss. Radar can show you birds working at distances beyond the power of your eyes. It can also help you locate other boats that might be on a good bite, although staying in contact with a network of friends is a better idea. A VHF radio equipped with DSC lets you exchange information without being overheard on an open channel.

Sonar is of critical importance offshore. In water from 100 to 300 feet deep, sonar, combined with bathymetric charts, reveals subtle bottom features that hold bait and tuna. The last few seasons produced a consistent bluefin tuna bite around a wreck, the Atlantic Princess, 40 miles off central Jersey. The fish were never really on the wreck but were feeding on sand eels over the nearby sand lumps. It was a game of find the sand eels. With Capt. Dave Schunke, aboard his 39-foot center console Insufishent Funds, I watched an expert find the signs. He started at the last known lump where fish were caught and ran from lump to lump in an ever-widening circular search pattern until he marked bait or tuna on the depth finder. It rarely took more than an hour or two to find the bait, along with the tuna that followed along.

On a tuna trolling trip some years back, on a friend’s 38-foot sport-fisher, we marked a large pod of bait holding at 300 feet near a canyon edge and rip line late in the afternoon. We worked the area into the early evening without a bite, but with each pass, the bait seemed to be moving in a little shallower. Then, just before dusk, the bait and tuna marks were up to 50 feet, and on the next pass, all the rods in the spread went down and we were covered up by longfin! The bait on the sonar was the signpost, and all it took was a little per-sistence to fill the fish box in short order.

Some signposts may take years to figure out. Recently I ran into Capt. Tim Tanghare of Clean Sweep Sportfishing, in Cape May, New Jersey, someone with whom I fished for bluefin a few years back, when the action was taking place between Cape May and Ocean City, Maryland. We talked about how the tuna had been hard to find down his way the past couple of years but had been plentiful where I fish in the northern portion of the state. I suggested it was due to the concentrations of sand eels up my way the past few years, and he agreed that was part of the equation. But then he pointed out there were still plenty of sand eels to the south. So what had changed?

“It’s the scallop boats,” Tanghare said. “Bluefin are drawn to them like magnets, and when the fleet moved north, dictated by the fishery management plan, the bluefin shifted north with the boats.”

Think of bluefin tuna as Pavlov’s dogs, trained to take advantage of the free lunch provided when the crew shucks at sea. Some of the most amazing bluefin bites I’ve seen took place around scallop boats, but when the scallopers are not actively working, the tuna go looking for other forage — sand eels, sardines, whatever is in the area.

Signs of life, signposts to successful fishing, are there for you to take advantage of if you stay aware and make use of the information they provide. Look sharp, take time to interpret what you observe and act accordingly. And watch your catches soar.