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.”
**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.
Jigging is the main tactic for these school bluefins. The type of jigging depends on how the bait is holding. Plastics up to 10 and 12 inches, such as Hogy, RonZ and Slug-Go, on jig heads up to 5 ounces or Sting-o Fish jigs work best when the tuna have the bait pinned to the bottom, says Gatley. When the bait is higher in the water column, butterfly jigs prove more effective, with 112-, 140- and 168-gram jigs in blue mackerel, natural brown and pink good starting points for prospecting. Tuna preference can change daily.
Gatley prefers 60-pound braid, not for the strength but because the larger diameter resists digging into itself on the reel spool. Jigging can be tiring in 180 feet of water, and outfits designed for the task, like the Shimano Trevala rod and Torsa reel combo or similar rigs, are recommended.
Rods: Short, soft-tip parabolic jigging rods to handle lead-heads to 5 ounces.
Reels: High-speed, powerful drags to handle heavy fish to 150 pounds.
Lines: 60-pound braid with 8 to 10 feet of 40- to 60-pound fluoro leader.
Lures: 10-inch Hogy with X-Strong jig head; and RonZ and Slug-Go lead-head jigs to 5 ounces and 10 inches in assorted colors; Butterfly jigs to 168 grams in assorted colors; Sting-o Fish jigs.