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August 29, 2011

Fishing the Jersey Shelf

More than just the canyons await New Jersey's offshore anglers.

It was an early start for a trip to the canyons out of Avalon, New Jersey. But this was to be a variation on the time-honored overnighter. I met Capt. Joe Trainor and Over Under Charters president Trey Rhyne just before 10 in the morning. The plan was to head east, but instead of dead-heading to the canyons to set up for the night, we’d spend a good part of the day trolling for pelagics, with a special eye toward locating the summer run of white marlin, which were beginning to make a showing in the eddies and whorls spinning off the Gulf Stream along the continental shelf.

Starting Early
Anglers Chuck Dougherty and sons Michael, 11, Patrick, 15, and Tommy, 10, arrived right behind me, and by 10:30 the Low Profile, Over Under’s 55-foot Gwaltney, pointed its bow east. Three hours later, about 60 miles offshore, we settled into trolling speed just inside the 40-fathom line. We were covered up with tuna chicks, padding on the surface and poking through the sargassum mats, looking for lunch. These little black storm petrels spell food chain in action and are always good indicators that it is time to look for tuna.

Trainor had steered us into 220 feet of water just inshore of Lindenkohl Canyon, where he had been finding schools of sand eels holding for the past several weeks over the uneven bottom that provided enough structure to attract the bait. “We found a lot of life in this same area for several weeks last year,” Rhyne explains. “So much that we referred to it last summer as ‘Sea World.’ Over the course of a month we found fish at that depth, and up to seven miles in either direction.”

While that narrows it down, it’s still a pretty big piece of ocean compared to a 55-foot boat. In our case, and it’s a common one, the birds were the clue to stop and fish.

Filling the Box
Sixty miles from shore is relatively close in for yellowfin tuna; over the past decade bluefins have been the inshore tunas, with the yellowfins inhabiting the warmer-water gyres spinning off the Gulf Stream. That’s meant a considerable run, at least to the edge of the continental shelf, at roughly 80 miles out. But, Rhyne explains, the past couple of years have seen the tuna appearing closer, in the 30- to 40-fathom depths.

Given the area had been producing yellowfins over the past few weeks, Trainor set out his customary tuna spread: skirted ballyhoo arranged in a V pattern with a spreader bar as the centerpiece, just behind the flat lines and daisy-chain teasers. We had the spread set by 2:15 p.m., and 10 minutes later Tommy chased the skunk off the boat before it even had time to get comfortable, when he wrestled a little skipjack tuna over the transom.

Ten minutes later, Michael upped the ante with a 40-pound-class yellowfin tuna, which he dispatched in short order and filed on ice. Patrick and Chuck doubled down not much later and trumped Michael’s skipjack with a pair of them. Then just a few minutes later, still less than an hour since the lines went out, Tommy entered the fray and caught the first of what would be a steady stream of dolphin over the next few hours.

White Strategies

Not to be outdone, by 3:30 Patrick had iced another 40-pound yellowfin. We were off to a good start, so Trainor eased the Low Profile out toward 55 fathoms and changed out the spread to try to raise the white marlin we were looking for.

“We usually start looking for white marlin at the 100-fathom line,” says Rhyne. “We concentrate on 100 to 500 fathoms and sometimes fish on out to 1,000 fathoms, toward the warmer Gulf Stream water, where they feed on sardines and squid.” Late August through September is the preferred time to find them, depending on the water conditions. “It’s about water temperatures and the eddies off the Gulf Stream,” he says. “Using a satellite report like ROFFS is really critical.”

Despite the carefully tailored spread and trolling pattern off the deep side of the 100-fathom line, we raised only a single white in the spread that afternoon. Looking back on the season we’d understand why. A few weeks later an epic bite hit the mid-Atlantic fleet, with charter and tournament boats reporting dozens of whites in a single day. We were a little early and a little too far north. But that’s the nature of the game.

As evening came on we eased onto the edge of the shelf in 600 feet at the Lindenkohl and assumed the traditional canyon position. With lines out and the crew steadily chunking, another flurry of dolphin moved in on us, but that was the end of the action as the seas settled and darkness rolled in. The upside is we all got plenty of sleep.