Tuned In to Bluefins

Bluefin chasing halfbeaks on Coxes Ledge. Photo Tom Richardson

A professional Cape Cod captain reveals his tactics for targeting bluefin tuna on trolling gear.

By Tom Richardson | Photography by Matt Rissell

Of the many species of game fish available to New England sportsmen, none create more excitement than bluefin tuna. Chasing these powerful and unpredictable creatures gets in one’s blood, to the point where it becomes an addiction, or an affliction. Or more than likely, a bit of both.

Professional captain Eric Stewart has been battling a lingering case of tuna fever for the better part of 18 years. His symptoms might wane during the winter months, only to come roaring back in the spring, most notably the first week of June—a date that usually marks the start of the trolling season east of Chatham.

Splash bars mimic a variety of tuna food.

Big Fish, Little Fish

“East” of course is a broad term, and could mean anywhere from four miles off the inlet out to 30 miles. Or the fish might show north of Chatham, in perennial hot spots like the Golf Balls, Peaked Hill Bar, Wood End or Stellwagen Bank. Or, as in recent years, there could be an early push of smaller fish south of Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard in July. It all depends on the presence of the bait. As Stewart says, “With bluefins, every year is different.”

He points out that tuna off the Outer Cape and points north tend to be larger fish (over 150 pounds) that can tolerate the cooler 56- to 64-degree water. Juvenile bluefins, on the other hand, usually gather in the waters south of the islands in 68- to 70-degree water. Last year, Stewart found good numbers of 38- to 41-inch fish in well-known spots south of the Vineyard such as the Dump, the Claw, Gordon’s Gully and the Fingers.

Trolling off the Outer Cape often takes place remarkably close to the beach.

Signs of life

Given that the fish can range far and wide, what’s the average angler to do? After gathering as much recent intel as possible and combing the internet and social media for tidbits of tuna gossip, the first order of business is locating some tuna food. “Look for bait, birds, whales,” says Stewart. “Find the life and you’ll find the fish.”

Before launching, come up with an efficient search route that takes you to several likely spots, based on your pre-trip intel, boat range and the forecast conditions. Drop a waypoint on areas that feature concentrations of bait or other forms of life, so you can return to them later if the other spots don’t pan out. Naturally, it helps if you have a buddy in another boat who will alert you if he finds some fish. Having a network of fellow anglers can be key.

Areas south of Martha’s Vineyard such as the Dump, the Fingers and Gordon’s Gully, typically hold smaller bluefins early in the season.

Setting the Table

Once Stewart reaches a productive-looking area, he sets his lure spread and goes to work, trolling in a systematic pattern and watching for signs of feeding tuna or individual fish marks on his depthsounder. He also tries to determine if the activity is increasing or decreasing. If it’s the latter, he’s more apt to check out a different spot.

“If I get a blind strike, it means I’ve found some fish, so I’ll drop a waypoint and give the area some time to turn on,” Stewart explains. “Much depends on the amount of life I’m seeing. If I’m marking bait and seeing whales feeding—not just moving—I’m more likely to stick around. I’ll start by trolling the immediate area then gradually expand my range from that point. However, unless I find a bunch of fish somewhere else, you can bet that I’ll be back at the spot where I got that first strike when slack tide rolls around.”

Feeding Time

Stewart explains that bluefins tend to feed best at first light and around the slack-tide period, so he wants to be in a productive area at these times. If the fish start to feed, the action can last 30 minutes or several hours—or not at all.

The exception is the smaller, juvenile bluefins. “They’re like small children that need to feed constantly, whereas the larger fish are much more conservative when it comes to expending energy,” he says.

Watch the New England Fishing TV episode on trolling for bluefins south of the Vineyard by clicking here!

Weather or Not

When it comes to weather conditions, Stewart likes stability, which creates predicable feeding patterns and feeding areas. “If the weather remains stable for several days, I can stay consistently on the fish. I know which tide stage they will bite on,” he says. “However, if a strong front blows through, it can stir things up and mess up the fishing until things settle down. Then I have to figure out the pattern all over again.”

Although Stewart doesn’t worry too much about wind direction, the exception is a northeast wind. “East is least, west is best,” he states. He also holds that greasy, flat-calm days make it harder to fool the fish. He much prefers a two- to three-foot chop when trolling.

Confidence is Key

Weather, location and hard-earned knowledge aside, Stewart says that the true key to his success is a supreme faith in his trolling spread. “I know my spread will catch fish, so I’m not messing around with changing colors and bars and baits all the time. I know that I’ll hook fish if they are in the area and willing to eat.

“I liken it to a professional football team: Each splash bar has its role, and I know that each one will contribute at some point during the season. I might have one bar that doesn’t do anything for a while, but when I least expect it, that’s the bar that gets hit!”

A typical bluefin trolling spread consists of five splash bars staggered at different lengths behind the boat. Illustration Paul Mirto

Winning Spread

So, what about that confidence-inspiring spread? Stewart’s happy to share. His standard bluefin spread consists primarily of three-foot squid bars fished behind bird teasers. These so-called “splash bars” are rigged with plastic shell squid, but are not intended to imitate real squid. “They actually represent a bait ball of mackerel, halfbeaks or herring,” explains Stewart. “I’ve never seen a pod of squid leaping clear of the surface, but I have seen mackerel and halfbeaks do it.”

Stewart fishes a basic spread comprising splash bars in black, Chameleon (green/brown), Mad Macks (green/orange) and Red Iguana (pink). He recommends setting one bar 300 feet behind the boat, one 250 feet back, one 200 feet back and one 150 feet back. All four bars are fished off outriggers. A fifth line pulling a smaller bar rigged with Green Machines can be fished off a corner rod some 75 feet behind the boat.

According to Stewart, the best trolling speed for the larger fish off Chatham and areas north of Cape Cod is 4 to 4 ½ knots, while a speedier 6 to 7 knots is best in the warmer waters south of the islands.

The rewards of a successful day of trolling.

The Right Stuff

When it comes to rods and reels, Stewart primarily relies on 50-pound-class stand-up gear. He particularly likes the Okuma Makaira reels, which have a super-smooth, super-durable drag system, not to mention a five-year factory warranty. The reels are filled with 80-pound-test Hi-Seas Quattro mono and are set at a strike drag of 22 to 24 pounds.

Rods are six-foot, fast-action custom “BFT” models featuring Seeker blanks and rated for 50- to 130-pound line. These rods are sold exclusively through Goose Hummock and can handle fish from 50 pounds all the way up to 600 pounds.

Terminal rigging is straightforward. Stewart ties a 200-pound-test snap swivel to the end of the main line then clips it to the premade leader on the splash bar. “My philosophy is: let’s keep it simple,” he says.

That’s a mindset that will benefit every angler, no matter what species he pursues.