Casting to Bluefins
July 10, 2019
Here’s how to sample the challenging, high-speed and highly addictive sport of casting lures to bluefin tuna.By Tom Richardson | Photos above and below left by Eric Kulin
Most anglers would argue that there is no greater thrill in New England saltwater fishing than casting a lure into a school of surface-feeding bluefin tuna and watching one of them chase down your offering. And if you succeed in hooking the fish, well, that’s pretty fun, too—even if your back, arms and shoulders might feel otherwise.
One man who has been on the forefront of this challenging, exciting and sometimes maddening form of fishing since its development in the 1990s is Captain Terry Nugent of Riptide Charters. Nugent is all about the run-and-gun style of chasing tuna, which takes him from Cape Cod Bay to the waters south of Block Island. In other words, he’s not shy about burning some fuel to locate fish, and the approach usually pays off.
When casting to tuna took off in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Cape Cod Bay and Stellwagen Bank were the major hot spots. These areas held big schools of juvenile bluefins in the 50- to 150-pound range that could be taken on relatively light spin and fly gear. However, more recent years have seen a shift in the Cape Cod and Stellwagen fisheries, with the majority of “castable” tuna weighing from 150 to 300 pounds and being found off the Outer Cape, from Monomoy to Provincetown.
At some 40 miles, that’s a long stretch of water to cover, but there are ways to narrow the search. For example, Nugent usually concentrates on a “ribbon of water” some one to five miles off the beach, using the 120-foot contour line as a rough guide. That line swings in closer to shore off the Golf Balls (the giant, dimpled radome towers off Truro) and Peaked Hill Bar, so the tuna often feed closer to shore in these spots.
For anglers launching from Pamet, Wellfleet, Brewster, Barnstable, and Sandwich, a good general game plan is to check out the waters off Wood End and Race Point before rounding the corner and heading south toward Peaked Hill Bar and the Golf Balls. Those launching from South Shore spots such as Plymouth and Green Harbor can investigate the southwest and southeast corners of Stellwagen Bank before rounding Race Point and heading south. Anglers starting at the opposite end of the Outer Cape can launch in Chatham, Harwich or West Dennis and work their way north after rounding Monomoy Point.
When searching for fish along the Outer Cape, Nugent establishes what he calls a “stitching” pattern, running out five miles then back to within one mile of shore and back to deeper water again. “Stay within five miles of shore,” he says. “Head offshore until the bait concentrations thin out then run inshore to that 120-foot line. However, don’t be afraid to check out 60 to 80 feet of water if you see a lot of activity; I’ve sometimes found the tuna mixed in with bass and bluefish closer to shore.”
Nugent points out that his boat makes this type of search approach a lot more effective. After all, when you’re cruising at 30 to 40 knots, you can cover a lot of water in a short time.
Signs of Life
A good way to pinpoint the tuna is to look for bait balls, bird activity and feeding whales (as opposed to cruising whales). Nugent also relies heavily on radar when searching for fish. His radar can mark birds on either side of the boat, allowing him to pick up surface feeds in foggy or low-light conditions. “With my radar dialed in, I can pick up bird activity in a six-mile radius around the boat. In fact, I use my radar more than I do my depthsounder.”
That’s not to say a good sounder isn’t important. Nugent uses his electronics to find concentrations of subsurface bait when nothing is showing on top. In this case, it sometimes pays to drop a diamond jig, a big RonZ, a Point Jude jig, a heavy Daddy Mac jig or a Hogy soft-plastic rigged on a Barbarian jighead down to the level of the bait. These lures should be jigged vertically with big sweeps of the rod near the bait balls, at the same depth of fish marks or near the bottom.
While jigging can be effective, it often requires patience. “Some guides will sit on top of the bait balls for hours and jig. They catch fish, but that’s not the way I’m wired,” Nugent admits. Instead, he tries to gauge the activity and determine if the action is waxing or waning. “If I start seeing the birds and whales getting more active, I’ll stick around. On the other hand, if the birds settle down and start sitting on the water, I’m usually outta there!”
The lures you throw can make a big difference in scoring with bluefins. For topwater action, Nugent prefers slider-type plugs and stickbaits, such as the Sebile Stick Shad and large Zara Spook-type plugs equipped with heavy-duty hardware and hooks. He adds that the large Hogy epoxy jigs and Daddy Mac jigs are also highly effective, and can be cast very long distances.
On a typical trip, Nugent will start out by rigging three or four rods with different lures. When a school of feeding tuna is encountered, he will have everyone onboard cast a different lure to determine which pattern the fish prefer.
Over his many years of fishing, Nugent has found that current can have a big influence on the action. “I rely on current charts more than tide charts,” he says. “The bite often happens around periods of slower current, but a lot of fishermen don’t realize that this doesn’t always coincide with slack tide. In other words, the current can still be pushing hard when the tide reaches its highest or lowest point. A current chart tells you exactly when the current will slow and change direction. Also, there’s a period during the middle of the tide when the current slows considerably, and that can be a good time to find surface feeds, too.” Knowing when the current is slowest allows Nugent to plan his trips so that he can set up in a productive area at the prime time.
Wait for It
When Nugent encounters that Holy Grail of fishing—a school of tuna feeding on top—he is careful in his approach. “I try to figure out a pattern, the direction in which the fish are moving and how often they are driving bait to the surface,” he says. “You never want to approach a moving school from behind. Get ahead of the school and let it come to you. Once you’ve determined the pattern, you can often stop the boat 150 yards ahead of the school and the fish will pop up right next to the boat.”
While a surface blitz of 200-pound tuna will test the nerves of even the most seasoned angler, cooler heads always prevail. If the fish are feeding on the move, try to cast the lure ahead of the school. “Never retrieve toward the fish or throw from behind the school,” Nugent advises. “Always retrieve the lure away from the fish, like a real baitfish would behave. And never, ever, stop the lure if a fish is following it. If anything, pick up the pace.”
All of this sounds good on paper, but in reality tuna have a way of ruining even the best-laid plans—and tackle. Make sure your gear is up to the task, and that all potential weak links have been ruled out. Check your knots twice, sharpen your hooks before each trip, examine your rod guides for cracks, and make sure the reel drag is properly adjusted. If it all checks out, you’ll have a much better chance of success. Of course, a little luck never hurts either.
Things You’ll Need
If you want to chase (and keep) bluefin, you will need a Federal Pelagic Fishing license, available at hmspermits.noaa.gov for a cost of $20. Keep in mind that this license belongs to the boat, not the license holder. If you intend to keep a tuna, make sure you have a large cooler or insulated fish bag, and plenty of ice to keep your catch in good shape. Bleed and gut the fish immediately after it has been landed then pack the stomach cavity with ice to cool the fish internally.
Eyes to the South
While most topwater bluefin activity in recent years has been focused on the Outer Cape Cod area, where fish in excess of 150 pounds have been the norm, Nugent is encouraged by the numbers of smaller fish he has found south of Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket and Block Island, especially in July. “Last year we found lots of fish in the 15- to 50-pound range,” he reveals. “It has me cautiously optimistic about this season’s prospects.”
By “south” Nugent is referring to a large area along the 30-fathom curve that includes such well-known spots as the Claw, the Fingers, Gordon’s Gully, the Owl and the Dump. The techniques and lures are largely the same as those used for tuna off Cape Cod and points north, although it helps to be prepared for both trolling and casting, depending on the fish’s mood. Some days the tuna will be blasting bait all over the surface, while on others they will only hit trolled splash bars. Of course, you first need to locate the fish.
“A lot of guys don’t bother to fish this area because it’s so vast. It can be intimidating,” Nugent says. “To narrow my search, I try to set certain boundaries. For example, I know that the cold water on Nantucket Shoals will form a boundary for smaller tuna. Then I look for other water-temperature breaks using satellite temperature charts. I know these breaks will hold bait. Once I establish my boundary, I run to different areas looking for signs of life, such as whales, birds and sharks.”
That’s one more reason that having a fast center console helps. As long as you don’t mind burning some fuel.
For casting to bluefins of 150 to 300 pounds, Nugent recommends a Shimano Stella 18000 or 20000 (pictured at right) spinning model, paired with a seven-foot Shimano Terez extra-heavy popping rod rated for 65- to 200-pound test.
He fills the reel with 80-pound-test braid, followed by a premade wind-on leader, such as those made by Suffix or BHP Tackle. The leader should be longer than the length of the fish, but Nugent tries to go shorter whenever possible, as shorter leaders are easier to cast.
For smaller fish—less than 100 pounds—Nugent downsizes to a Shimano Stella 14000 spooled with 50-pound-test braid. The rod is a seven-foot Terez model rated for 40- to 80-pound test.