Fishing the Jersey Shelf

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

August 29, 2011
New Jersey shelf

New Jersey shelf

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.

Add to the List
At first light we were back on the troll, and heading inshore toward the edges of the eddies again. We’d hardly set the lines out in the pre-dawn light when the first fish of the day, a wahoo, peeled line off the rod on the short rigger. Wahoo can be dicey customers in a tuna spread, but part of the Over Under approach is to prepare rigs for just such a welcome accident. Ballyhoo leaders are rigged with a short piece of wire that follows the leader loop, with each end tucked securely into the crimped sleeve used to form the loop.


Just such a rig prevented this wahoo from cutting himself free once hooked on the mono-rigged ballyhoo.

When wahoo are targeted, says Rhyne, they are typically found inshore around 30 fathoms, where they provide a short but dependable bite in September. Faster trolling speeds and purple-and-black, chrome-headed lures over ballyhoo target them successfully.

“When there are wahoo around, we’ll put a couple of chrome-headed rigs out with the tuna lures, and usually the wahoo hit the ones we set out for them,” says Rhyne. “Another thing we do is put out a Yo-Zuri deep diving plug or a Billy Bait, one of the C&H chrome-headed lures, and fish them on wire leaders.”

Shortly after the wahoo came aboard we had a close look from another white marlin, but no cigar this time either. In the remaining time we spent trolling, however, we managed to boost the species count when a longfin tuna, or true albacore, piled on a skirted ballyhoo before we wound up the lines for the run back home.

So while the white marlin were a miss, it’s hard to dismiss the fishing with the variety and abundance of action we found on the shelf. It was a satisfied crew that headed west toward the dock at midmorning with the multiple representatives of five species in the fish box.
Jersey Offshore**

Conventional trolling outfits in the 30-pound class spooled with 50-pound mono easily handle the yellowfins, yet are light enough to fish comfortably without a chair. If the fish are running larger, 50-pound-class tackle spooled with 80-pound mono may be substituted for the lighter outfits. Typical tuna baits are medium ballyhoo rigged on 8/0 or 9/0 Mustad 7691 DT hooks on 25 feet of 100- to 130-pound fluorocarbon leaders.

When targeting white marlin, Rhyne says tackle is downsized across the board. Lighter 30-pound outfits and even 20-pound spinning gear are better sized to white marlin. Smaller, naked ballyhoo are rigged to ride behind circle hooks on a wire loop. Leaders are scaled back to a lighter 60- or 80-pound-test and trolling speeds are pulled back to 5 knots from the usual 612-knot tuna trolling speed. The trolling spread is shortened and tightened up, so the ballyhoo run closer to the boat and the fish are easier to see when they come into the baits.

Rods: Conventional trolling rods, 30- and 50-pound class for tuna, 20-pound for white marlin.

Reels: Penn GLD 20 for white marlin; standard outfit is a Penn 50 Gold International with 80-pound mono main line. Spool 30-pound-class reels with 50-pound line and 50-pound tackle with 80-pound mono. 8500 and 9500 series spinning reels spooled with 20-pound work well for white marlin.

Lines: 20-to 30-pound test for white marlin, 30-and 50-pound for tuna trolling. 60-and 80-pound leaders with 6/0 Gamakatsu 208416 Octopus circle hooks or equivalent for white marlin. 100- to 130-pound fluorocarbon leaders for tuna with 8/0 or 9/0 Mustad 7691 DT Southern/Tuna.

Lures: Medium ballyhoo skirted with Seawitches or Ilanders, in pink, blue-and-white or purple-and-black. Chrome-headed lures, Billy Baits for wahoo; naked ballyhoo rigged behind circle hooks for white marlin.

What: Pelagics — tuna, marlin, dolphin, wahoo

When: High summer

Where: Bait concentrations that occur along the edges of the Gulf Stream

Who: You, in your own boat, or any number of charter operations that run out of Jersey ports

Over Under Adventures

Welcome Aboard: A variety of tunas — yellowfin, bluefin and albacore — prowl the continental shelf. Glenn Law
Joe Mahler /
Rounding out the Catch: Mahi are reliable around the offshore canyons. Glenn Law
Twist a loop in a piece of soft rigging wire, sizing it to clear the hook barb (1). Push the wire down through the upper and lower jaws so the loop is snug on top of the bait (2). Slip the wire through the center of a quarter-ounce egg sinker and tuck the sinker between the bottoms of the gill plates (3). Wrap the wire around the ballyhoo behind the gill plates (4), through the eye sockets and around the beak. Slip the hook through the wire loop on the ballyhoo’s head (5).
Prime Quarry: Yellowfin tuna hit both trolled lures and chunks of butterfish wherever the temperature is right. Glenn Law
Occasional Visitor: It pays to rig ballyhoo with a bit of wire, as wahoo insurance. Glenn Law

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